Sunday 18 February 2018

Evans defies elements to add to Connacht woe

Connacht 15 Cardiff Blues 17

Connacht’s Rory Scholes is tackled by Cardiff’s Josh Navadi yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Connacht’s Rory Scholes is tackled by Cardiff’s Josh Navadi yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Twice in the second half of a pulsating game in the Sportsground Connacht took the lead against the odds. The first time it lasted nearly four minutes. The second, barely three. Neither time did the crowd of 4,659 have the chance to enjoy what that advantage might bring.

And with that second loss of the lead - for man of the match Willis Halaholo's second try - replacement outhalf Jarrod Evans was presented with a tricky proposition, having to judge perfectly his strike to allow the wind to change its direction at precisely the right moment and deposit it over the bar. He got it just right. And, after three defeats, his team had their first win of the Guinness Pro14.

For Connacht, it was gut-wrenching. Again they have lost a close contest in front of their own fans. Cardiff would know what that's like, having been pipped by a point by Glasgow last weekend. But to have turned over at half-time 7-3 down, and then outworked Cardiff, dominating territory and possession into the wind, and still lose, was a killer.

"It was a similar set-up to the Glasgow game," a very downbeat coach Kieran Keane said afterwards. "We didn't learn the lessons. The attitude wasn't right."

Andrew Deegan of Connacht, supported by team-mates, Rory Scholes, left, and Ultan Dillane, right, in action against Josh Navadi of Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Deegan of Connacht, supported by team-mates, Rory Scholes, left, and Ultan Dillane, right, in action against Josh Navadi of Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile

From early in the day in Galway yesterday the wind coming in off the bay was enough to declare it would define that afternoon's business on the College Road. Hardly a unique occurrence in this part of the world, but while sometimes it destroys a game, this time is just raised the bar. And the effort of both sides to match the new height made for great entertainment.

It was more like occasional driving drizzle than driving rain, but enough nonetheless to make control of the ball a challenge for all concerned. A game of two halves then: it was diagonal, so Connacht had it more at their backs in the first half, knowing that a loose kick would carry over the dead ball line for a scrum back; Cardiff at the same time relied on the grunt and handling of their forwards to play the short game.

Trading on 50 per cent possession - indicative of their efficiency - they conceded just three turnovers in the first half, to Connacht's eight. True, Connacht were giving the ball more air so their climb was riskier, and it showed in the number of times a pass that could have paid off instead went to ground.

For the 16th man on the Clan Terrace, it was hugely frustrating. Their side conceded seven penalties in the first half and another six after the break. It killed their momentum, for otherwise there wasn't much between them. Aside from Halaholo that is. "Yeah, it was a lot of penalties," Keane said of that stat. "I need to look at that and see what it was all about."

Dave Heffernan of Connacht is tackled by Alex Cuthbert and Seb Davies of the Cardiff Blues. Photo: Sportsfile
Dave Heffernan of Connacht is tackled by Alex Cuthbert and Seb Davies of the Cardiff Blues. Photo: Sportsfile

We don't have to look and see what Halaholo is about. Bundee Aki is the hero around these parts - and he worked very hard here but the Cardiff centre was outstanding. For his first try, which gave Cardiff the lead just before the break, Connacht were well numbered up at the time but with a fair few of them looking inwards instead of scanning what was in front of them, Halaholo ran a great line, from wide out, to take a flat pass from Steve Shingler. The initial run took him inside Eoghan Masterson and lovely footwork took him past the last man, Rory Scholes. A good support line from Alex Cuthbert kept his centre safe from pursuers.

Connacht's work-rate in the second half was exemplary, but their head-space when it came to consolidating after scoring was clearly cluttered. Darragh Leader got a great try on the hour for an 8-7 lead only to concede a penalty soon after the restart for Shingler to plant it from distance. Tom Farrell - he did very well when he came on - had a try denied in a great finish but when Shane Delahunt got over with four minutes left they looked safe at 15-10. Not quite. They got horribly narrow in their defence with just a minute left for Halaholo to skate over, with Evans adding the extras with that sublime kick. Troubled times in these parts.

Scorers - Cardiff Blues: Halaholo 2 tries; Shingler pen, con, Evans con. Connacht: Leader try, con, Delahunt try; Ronaldson pen.

Connacht: D Leader; C Kelleher, B Aki, C Ronaldson (T Farrell 52), R Scholes (S Ili h-t); A Deegan, K Marmion (C Blade 68); D Buckley (D Coulson 73), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 68), F Bealham (C Carey 64), U Dillane, Q Roux (G Thornbury 66), E Masterson (E McKeon 66), J Muldoon (capt)(yc 33-43), J Butler.

Cardiff: R Williams (M Morgan 72); A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, T James; S Shingler (J Evans 72) (L Williams (capt); B Thyer (T Williams 66), K Dacey (E Lewis 52), T Filise (K Assiratti 46), S Davies, D Welch, J Turnbull, N Williams (O Robinson 50), J Navidi.

Referee: M Mitrea (Ita).

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