Caolin Blade scores second hat-trick of season as Connacht beat Edinburgh to push for strong URC finish

Connacht 41 Edinburgh 26

Caolin Blade of Connacht celebrates after scoring his third and his side's sixth try during the United Rugby Championship win over Edinburgh at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Brendan Fanning

As the campaign unfolded last autumn it was hard to see Connacht being very much in the hunt coming around the final bend.

Of course it's apposite, for their coach Andy Friend has the camper van serviced and juiced up ahead of his long route home in a matter of weeks.

The ideal end to what has been a happy relationship is for meaningful rugby up until he turns the sat nav on and pulls out of the driveway.

This was far from his most stressful day in the job, even when his team went down to 13 men for four minutes in the second half during which Edinburgh were unable to make any serious headway.

Instead he could reflect on six of 10 tries registered, in a game that held the interest of a full house to the end, going in favour of the home side.

This gives Connacht a fifth win in a row, not achieved since Friend's predecessor Pat Lam was at the wheel, steering them to a league title in 2016.

"Confidence gives you belied and yeah - it's good to be on a winning run," Friend said.

"That was our best performance of the season. Our maul defence was very good and we needed that in the first half especially. It's a good place to be and we'll enjoy this before having a crack at Benetton (in Europe) next week."

This won't dramatically change their odds on silverware, but they deserve their position in the sprint finish, and with Cardiff next up, in the penultimate round, they should still be contending going to the last round against Glasgow.

Most pleasing of all is the form of a few of their homegrowns: man of the match Caolin Blade, with a hat trick, centre Cathal Forde and, off the bench, former minor hurling star Shane Jennings.

To have three bonus points in the bag by the break is good on any day, but it wasn't that handy. When it's one where it's hard to use the stiff breeze because you don't have much ball makes it look the model of efficiency.

In the unlikely event of rugby's lawmakers changing the flow between penalties kicked to touch, giving that team the lineout throw, then those same penalties will remain the ultimate key to momentum.

Connacht conceded eight times before the break. By the end of the period the body language of referee Ben Whitehouse suggested exasperation. You felt the clock beat him to a card.

The Clan Stand were also running out of patience, more with the man in the middle than the men in green.

Whatever, that penalty bounty allowed the away team to whack it into touch and launch strike play after strike play. There was an aesthetic attraction to it all but a low return on the scoreboard.

Given their extraordinary territorial dominance Edinburgh must have been getting the hump themselves - perhaps with themselves.

So we had 35 minutes on the clock by the time tight head Lee-Roy Atalifo got over after a clatter of close-in charges.

The conversion by Emiliano Boffelli changed the picture from 15-0 to Connacht to 15-7, and Edinburgh looked alive.

How Connacht had banked 15 points by that stage was interesting, and, it seemed, a bit misleading. They had the wind but not much of the ball, yet they got around that, starting after just eight minutes.

Forde's quality is well established by this stage but his confidence in scoring from 45 metres through a crowded midfield was hugely impressive - he left open side Connor Boyle stranded and took off to score.

That was followed in short enough order by David Hawkshaw penalty and then, a few minutes later, the outhalf converted a try for Conor Oliver for that 15-0. So what would they be like if afforded the building blocks Edinburgh were getting via those penalties?

The first cards played in that second half looked game-ending. Starting with a 20-7 lead after Blade had sickened Edinburgh with a long range intercept try to close the first half, Hawkshaw banana-kicked for a 50-22 for the perfect position. The ease with which Jarad Butler scored was ominous for Edinburgh.

To be 27-7 down was almost curtains. Even when Connacht had Oliver and Oisín Dowling carded there was no panic – just the showmanship of Blade pulling the strings. All good then.

Connacht: O McNulty; D Kilgallen (S Jennings 48), T Farrell, C Forde, J Porch; D Hawkshaw (T Daly 61), C Blade (capt), P Dooley (J Duggan 55; P Dooley 75), D Tierney-Martin (D Heffernan 55), J Aungier D Robertson-McCoy 53), O Dowling (yc 55-65), N Murray (D Murray 53), C Prendergast, J Butler (S Hurley-Langton 60), C Oliver (yc 48-59).

Edinburgh: E Boffelli (yc 59-69); D Graham, M Bennett, J Lang, D Hoyland (N Sweeney 63); B Kinghorn, H Pyrgos; B Venter (L de Bruin 61), S McInally (D Cherry 55), LR Atalifo (WP Nel 48), S Skinner (C Dean 64), G Gilchrist, B Muncaster (G Young 48; M Sykes HIA)), V Mata, C Boyle.

Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).

Scorers - Connacht 41: (C Forde, C Oliver, J Butler try each; C Blade 3 tries; D Hawkshaw pen, 2 cons; T Daly 2 cons). Edinburgh 26: (LR Atalifo, V Mata, G Young, B Kinghorn try each; E Boffelli 3 cons).