Tuesday 14 August 2018

Connacht seeking to buck trend by reaching Bilbao final

Connacht 50 Oyonnax 14

Connacht’s Niyi Adeolokun is tackled by Daniel Ikpefan and Maxime Veau of Oyonnax Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht’s Niyi Adeolokun is tackled by Daniel Ikpefan and Maxime Veau of Oyonnax Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Connacht have failed to back up good form in the pool with ruthlessness in the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup many times in the past, but now the path has been laid out for Kieran Keane's men to reach their first European final.

The quality of the opposition will step up considerably from here but making it to the Challenge Cup in Bilbao is well within Connacht's reach, even if it will require them to buck a few trends.

Bundee Akiis tackled by Ulupano Seuteni Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Akiis tackled by Ulupano Seuteni Photo: Sportsfile

It's the 10th time they have made the quarter-finals, with three losing semi-finals the furthest they have progressed, but unlike those previous occasions this will be their first real tilt at European glory since winning the Pro12 title two seasons ago.

That victory will have dispelled a lot of inhibitions and while the coaching team and the squad have changed considerably since then, John Muldoon will lead them into the knockout stages with a bit more spring in their step this time round.

They will need it too. Gloucester, despite their loss at home to Pau at the weekend, have been in fine form this season and having won this crown twice in the past, David Humphreys's men will come to the Sportsground with confidence in two months.

They have beaten Connacht on all four previous European occasions and if Keane's men triumph then they will need to reverse their fortunes on English soil, with Newcastle Falcons the likely opposition in the last four.

Bundee Aki celebrates after scoring his side's third try Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Aki celebrates after scoring his side's third try Photo: Sportsfile

The main priority for Keane now, as far as Europe is concerned, will be dealing with Gloucester and securing home advantage on Saturday with the expected win over Oyonnax was the first step in that quest.

"We will be tough to beat here. We are looking forward to it. The season goes on. It is nice to be undefeated in this competition and we look forward to it," said Keane.

His men, slow starters in a lot of games this season, quickly put the French strugglers to the sword, with the bonus point in the bag by the end of the opening quarter.

"We broke their back in the first half and got a bit untidy in the second. The game was won in the first half," added Keane.

"It was a perfect start. We definitely put a lot of importance on trying to get our starts better and right. On this occasion it was good. It was a brilliant start," added Keane.

Finishing

Niyi Adeolokun sent out a timely reminder about his finishing power when racing in for a brace of tries in just over three minutes.

Scrum-half Kieran Marmion was outstanding and he helped set up tries for Bundee Aki and Tiernan O'Halloran.

Adeolokun completed his hat-trick by the half-hour and then Matt Healy, the 29th Connacht player to hit 100 appearances for the province, darted over in the left corner.

The only blips came in the form of an injury to out-half Craig Ronaldson, resulting in O'Halloran taking over his kicking duties, while Oyonnax also got in for two tries.

The French sent a side featuring seven of the team which drew with La Rochelle recently but with a lot of youth also in the squad, but Puma Alex Muller and winger Daniel Ikpefan managed to get in for tries to cut the gap to 36-14 at the interval.

The game became very disjointed after the restart as both sides emptied their benches.

However, a revival by Oyonnax was never on the cards and Connacht sealed the win with a try by Tom Farrell and a late penalty try.

A return to the knockout stages in Europe is a boost to the players, with a big encounter in front of a full house at the Sportsground giving them plenty to aim for in the next two months.

Hooker Dave Heffernan said the quarter-final against Gloucester will be a super occasion at the Sportsground. Heffernan said that showdown with Gloucester will be a great opportunity for Connacht as they continue their quest to reach a first European final.

"It's unbelievable. The last time here when we had Glasgow for the knockout stages of the Pro12 was unbelievable, the fans that day were something else, so it will be special to have a crowd here for a big European game.

"We have had a couple of runs against Gloucester in the past. We would love to get one over them, it would be brilliant. There are different squads there to that which played in the past, so it is not something we can think about," said Heffernan.

In between there will be a few key PRO14 games, including a trip to South Africa, but the buzz is coming back to the Sportsground as Keane begins to make an impact in his first season in charge.

 

Scorers - Connacht: N Adeolokun 3, B Aki, T O'Halloran, M Healy, T Farrell, Penalty tries; C Ronaldson 2, T O'Halloran 2, Penalty try cons. Oyonnax: A Muller, D Ikpefan tries; Fuertes, Hall cons.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun (C Gallagher 73), E Griffin, B Aki (T Farrell 48), M Healy; C Ronaldson (C Kelleher 33), K Marmion (C Blade 48); D Coulson (P McCabe 70), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 55), C Carey (D Robertson-McCoy 49); U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, N Dawai (J Connolly 55), J Muldoon.
Oyonnax - A Muller; D Ikpefan, U Seuteni, R Hansell-Pune, T Giresse (M Veau 66); A Fuertes (J Lima 35), J Hall (J Audy 57); K Vartanov (T Raynaud 51), Q MacDonald (B Geledan 51), T Laclayat (I Mirtskhulava 33-75); G Fabbri, S C Njewel (S Kerry 73); C Browning, B Taieb, T Tauleigne (L Barba 51).
Ref- Craig Maxwell-Keys (England).

Irish Independent

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