Saturday 17 March 2018

Evans kicks Connacht's Euro ambitions to touch

Connacht 9 Harlequins 15

John Fallon

Connacht's European dream is over for another year after they went down to Harlequins for the second time in six days at the Sportsground last night.

Their slim hopes of making it through to the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup never looked like materialising. The defeat means that last season's semi-finalists are out of the reckoning and will now face a couple of meaningless ties after Christmas against Bayonne in France and at home to Cavalieri Prato.

Conor O'Shea's Harlequins, however, remain firmly on course for the knockout stages -- they will face Bayonne at home in their final game in the deciding match in January.

Connacht failed to score a try for the second time in a week, but they battled away and were unlucky in the second half not to cross the visitors' line. But, with both defences well on top, there were few opportunities, although Harlequins always looked like they would emerge victorious and never trailed.

Neither side looked like scoring a try in the opening half, but Harlequins enjoyed the greater possession. They were unable to break down a resolute Connacht defence, but the concession of eight first-half penalties gave Nick Evans plenty of opportunity. He landed five from six kicks in that opening half as the visitors led 15-9 at the break.

His first effort after four minutes was cancelled by Miah Nikora 14 minutes later and the pair then exchanged penalties to leave it 6-6 at the end of the opening quarter. Connacht had been forced to make a late change, with Gavin Duffy crying off with a knee injury. Niva Ta'auso returned from injury in the centre. That allowed Ian Keatley switch to full-back and he produced a solid display, especially under the kicks.

Evans edged Harlequins back in front with a penalty straight in front of the posts after 28 minutes and the former All-Black landed another six minutes later. However, an off the ball incident saw Harlequins centre Jordan Turner-Hall yellow carded and a penalty decision reversed, which allowed Keatley land a fine kick from 45 metres to make it 12-9 before Evans responded with another for the visitors.

A superb break by Keith Matthews almost produced the opening try a minute after the restart, but Harlequins regrouped and averted the danger.

Connacht's hopes were not helped by the first of two yellow cards, with Bernie Upton being sent to the bin after 45 minutes as Welsh referee James Jones did not endear himself to the home following but Harlequins were not able to profit from the extra man.

Both sides played far too much lateral rugby but the crowd were finally given something to get excited about when Niva Ta'auso broke from deep to set up a wave of attacks close to the 'Quins' line. However, the visitors defended stoutly as Connacht went back and forth in the '22' before the chance was lost when Ronan Loughney knocked on.

Connacht continued to battle in a bid to save their Euro dream but could not carve open the Harlequins defence, with Evans relieving pressure with some massive touchline kicks. The home hopes took a further blow when they had to play the final 10 minutes minus tighthead Jamie Hagan, who was yellow carded. Harlequins used their extra man well, keeping the ball in tight and while Connacht defended well, they could not engineer a winning try.

Connacht -- I Keatley; D Fanning, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; M Nikora, F Murphy; R Loughney, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, J O'Connor, J Muldoon. Reps: B Upton for Swift, 38; C Willis for Murphy, 51; M McComish for O'Connor, 51; T Nathan for Matthews, 60; B Fa'amausili for Browne, 72; Browne for Muldoon, 75.

Harlequins -- M Brown; G Camacho, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, T Williams; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, J Gray, J Johnston; O Kohn, P Browne; T Guest, C Robshaw, N Easter. Reps: W Skinner for Guest, 13; J Marler for Jones, 48; M Lambert for Johnson, 48; M Cairns for Gray, 48; T Casson for Camacho, 52.

Ref -- J Jones (Wales).

Irish Independent

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