Friday 23 February 2018

Nikora the hero for Connacht

Connacht 23
Bourgoin 20

Johnny O'Connor is tackled by Benjamin Boyet during the Amlin Challenge Cup match at the Sportsground. RAY RYAN / SPORTSFILE
Johnny O'Connor is tackled by Benjamin Boyet during the Amlin Challenge Cup match at the Sportsground. RAY RYAN / SPORTSFILE

John Fallon

Connacht coach Michael Bradley's belief that his players are showing more character with every game was underlined as they came from behind in the last 20 minutes of a gripping clash to nail down a semi-final spot in the Amlin Challenge Cup.

"It could have gone either way in the end but we were going forward in the closing minutes when it mattered most and that enabled us to create the chances to win the game. A great day all round for Connacht rugby," said a delighted Bradley.

Connacht seemed poised for victory when they led 14-10 at the break, having played against the wind, but Bourgoin took over after the restart.

Indeed the French side seemed poised to advance as they led 20-14 going into the last quarter.

Connacht, however, responded in style. Miah Nikora was drafted in to out-half and he was the hero in the end, landing two penalties to tie the match and then a match-winning drop-goal 90 seconds from the end.

First-half tries from Michael Swift after 17 minutes and then a superb effort from skipper John Muldoon in response to a Bourgoin try from hooker Tone Alefa Kopelani left Connacht men in a very strong position.

Ian Keatley converted both tries but Benjamin Boyet, who had earlier missed two penalties, landed penalties either side of the break.

It got even better for the French after 58 minutes when scrum-half John Senio finished superbly after a typical scrum-half's break. Boyet again added the extras and suddenly Connacht looked very vulnerable.

But Connacht's response was awesome with man of the match No 8 George Naoupu leading the way as they clawed their way back.

Nikora converted from in front of the posts as Boyet was yellow carded for a cynical effort to kill the ball.

That left three between them with 15 minutes remaining and Sebastien Laloo was narrowly off target with a drop-goal effort for the French.

Connacht continued to work the ball through their forwards and their patience paid off seven minutes from time when Bourgoin again fouled and Nikora made no mistake after a superb break from Troy Nathan and Nikora.

Nikora snapped at a drop-goal four minutes from time which narrowly missed the post but their perseverance finally yielded the golden opportunity and the 24-year old made no mistake to send the crowd into raptures at the end of a great contest.

Bradley reckons that home advantage will be a huge asset to Connacht for their semi-final clash with cash-rich Toulon. "It will be another great day for Connacht rugby and we will be giving it everything we have to reach the final," said Bradley.

The arrival of Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi and their Toulon colleagues -- whose €16.5m budget is over six times that of Connacht -- will attract a bumper crowd to the Sportsground where temporary stands are likely to be installed as Bradley's troops bid to extend their unbeaten home record which stretches back to last September.

Connacht -- G Duffy; T Nathan, N Ta'auso (C o'Loughlin 78), K Matthews, F Carr (A Wynne 67); I Keatley (M Nikora 61), F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin (A Flavin 72), J Hagan (R Morris 65); M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon (capt), J O'Connor, G Naoupu

Bourgoin -- M Moinot; R Coetzee, W Van Zyl (N Viazzo h-t), A Demoulin (S Laloo h-t), JF Coux; B Boyet, J Senio; O Milloud (P Cardinale 71), A Kopelani (JP Genevois h-t), TA Tchougong (V Pelo 73); B Williams, C Basson; J Frier, T Cowley, C Levast (B Leoute h-t).

Ref -- A Small (England)

Irish Independent

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