Wednesday 16 January 2019

Connacht stay calm amid the storm as Friend issues favourable forecast

Connacht 22 Perpignan10

Quinn Roux tries to make his way through the Perpignan defence and the rain at The Sportsground. Photo: Sportsfile
Quinn Roux tries to make his way through the Perpignan defence and the rain at The Sportsground. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

You know it's a wild day out west when even the opposition subs are desperately trying to clamber for some shelter on the Clan Terrace.

Ask Quinn Roux what he thinks the rematch against Perpignan might have in store next week and he offers a glib reply: "I just hope it's sunny!"

Connacht's Colby Fainga’a of holds the ball in place for a conversion. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht's Colby Fainga’a of holds the ball in place for a conversion. Photo: Sportsfile

Andy Friend recalls pitching up here with Harlequins about a decade ago. Leaving the hotel, he turned to his head coach Conor O'Shea.

"They''ll never play this game." O'Shea simply smiled.

The game always gets played whatever conspiracies tossed up by the weather Gods.

Connacht, however, no longer aspire for stormy squalls for mitigation and, whatever about the Perpignan players, the home side's hearts would have sunk as low as the gloomy clouds once they espied the brooding skies approaching, as if on dastardly cue, to chime with the opening whistle.

Connacht's Bundee Aki gives the thumbs-up. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht's Bundee Aki gives the thumbs-up. Photo: Sportsfile

Given Sale's ongoing stroll in this pool later on Saturday evening, five points would have been the target here, but despite getting halfway there by the end of the first quarter with tries from Darragh Leader and Bundee Aki, the final quarter was an exercise in staving off an unlikely draw.

Perpignan's honesty of effort belied their nation's diffidence to away sorties in this competition, as well as their winless league form and the tragic death of their legendary former lock Barend Britz, in the town's famed rugby bar just two days earlier.

A try from replacement hooker Manu Leiataua with 15 minutes left opened the door for a quite improbable comeback, but the same player slammed it shut, binned for colourfully disagreeing with a scrum penalty as his side ramped up the pressure.

In an instant, their resurgence was stemmed, Kyle Godwin nabbing a third try three minutes from time to secure the victory, even if not all five points.

Connacht 's Colby Fainga’a is challenged by Perpignan's Johannes Van Heerden. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht 's Colby Fainga’a is challenged by Perpignan's Johannes Van Heerden. Photo: Sportsfile

Friend seemed just as relieved that his players had survived the afternoon without hypothermia rather than rueing the inability to garner an extra point.

"There were a couple of wingers I was worried about mate," he says.

"We got a few blokes down there still shivering. It's tough. They're standing out there not seeing much footie and not moving a lot. You do get a bit concerned.

"We sent out a message at one stage to keep those boys running. We had hot water bottles at half-time to warm them up a bit and they're there now. Yeah, there is a concern, but they're fine."

Perpignan's Jonathan Bousquet tackles Connacht's Eoghan Masterson. Photo: Sportsfile
Perpignan's Jonathan Bousquet tackles Connacht's Eoghan Masterson. Photo: Sportsfile

Connacht can only blame themselves, though, and not the weather, for their failure to maximise their haul. With the wind - and squally, horizontal rain - backing them towards the Lough Atalia end in the opening act, three costly lineout losses and numerous concessions in contact let their hosts off the hook.

"I thought we were probably one try shy at the end of the first 40 with that wind behind us," agreed Friend.

"It's a competition we definitely want to win. We can control what we can control next week and hopefully another win. We won't be looking at that as a trophy-style game. It's a tough game and another win and winning becomes a habit for you. So we're pleased with that.

"And I told the players don't underestimate the strength of that win given all the circumstances. We just came back from South Africa on Monday, we had 11 changes, a lot of blokes who had to step up. We had a bit of sickness in the camp this week too.

"So against a Perpignan side who, every match that goes by without them winning they get more desperate to win, I'm really proud of them."

Friend revealed he may have to acquire a short-term, Irish-qualified player at scrum-half as his options thin there, but there were more encouraging signs of the squad's emerging depth.

Young Academy centre Kieran Joyce, an Irish-qualified recruit from the Exiles programme, offered a fine audition, particularly in the opening stanza of the second-half when Connacht decided to put some much-needed width on the game despite the conditions.

Dogged

Ironically, another stormy outburst seemed to inhibit them thereafter and Perpignan, dogged until their late implosion, were invited back into the contest as the committed 5,011 punters were, perhaps literally, frozen into shock at the worrying turn of events.

"We probably got a little bit tight in the first-half, probably going left and right rather than stretching them," said Friend.

"What I was pleased with in the second half was we did actually back ourselves. When the second big storm came through we probably tightened up a bit more, but you can forgive the fellas for that."

Next week may be the calm.

Connacht - D Leader; C Kelleher, K Joyce, B Aki (K Godwin 68), M Healy; D Horowitz (C Fitzgerald 54), J Mitchell (C Blade 71); P McCabe (M Burke 48-60 temp), D Heffernan capt , F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 61), J Maksymiw (G Thornbury 61), Q Roux, E Masterson (P Boyle 68), C Fainga'a, J Connolly.

Perpignan - J Bousquet; T Fainga'anuku, P Lucas (A Taumoepeau 54), P Marty (J Farnoux 64), E Sau; E Selponi, S Degmache (T Ecochard 75); Q Walcker (K Tougne 58), R Carbou (M Leiataua HT), N Lemaire (S Charlet 61), Y Vivalda, B Botha (A Roussel 58), J van Heerden, P Reynaud, M Faleafa (E Iachizzi 61).

Ref - K Dickson (RFU)

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport