Connacht survive ‘bizarre’ game to go joint top
Sale spurn kickable penalty to win game in closing minutes
Connacht have given themselves a real chance of qualifying for the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals after a first win over English visitors Sale at the Sportsgound on Saturday.
Ahead by 17 points after the opening quarter, Connacht with minutes remaining were struggling to defend a two-point lead when they coughed up a penalty on the left 22m line. Yet Sale spurned the kick at goal, opted for touch, and were then penalised for crossing in the ensuing lineout.
Connacht, who survived the error-riddled fixture littered with 29 penalties, join the English outfit at the top of Pool Three, with a final trip to Bordeaux next Saturday.
A bizarre game of rugby, said Connacht coach Andy Friend, who, in his frustration at his players conceding that last penalty, had walked out of the coaches’ box only to discover Sale kicking for touch.
“Surprised, I really was. Because for me that’s last-chance saloon. You’ve got a crack at it, you’ve got international players there, probably all kicking at about 80 per cent. That’s a pretty good roll of the dice. But they went to the corner, and a similar penalty that went against us in the first half went against them.”
Minutes before the final drama Connacht looked in control, winning a penalty on half way. Instead they failed to control possession in the lineout. It was another big moment in Connacht’s litany of learnings.
“There were moments where I thought we could have controlled the ball better, and even right at the death. We’ve got to win that last lineout. We win that last lineout, we maul it and put the ball off the field, it’s a dead rubber,” said Friend.
Connacht enjoyed the better of the first-half action, with outhalf Jack Carty opening his side’s tally with a 12th minute penalty, before a superb kick from Matt Healy gave the home side territorial control. After forcing a turnover, Bundee Aki drew the defence before slipping the ball to midfield part- ner Kyle Godwin, who caught the cover with his angled burst, touching down after 20 minutes, with Carty adding the extras.
The home side’s energy reaped rewards two minutes later, flanker James Connolly forcing a turnover in midfield, and scrumhalf James Mitchell was able to hack the ball downfield, secure possession, and race over for try number two.
Carty’s conversion put the home side into a 17-0 lead, but right on the half-time whistle Sale snuck in for a soft try from Chris Ashton after Denny Solomona broke up the right wing.
Influential scrumhalf Faf De Klerk added the conversion, and although missing two kicks at goal in the second half, he put Sale into the lead with a try on 49 minutes, and two rapid-fire penalty kicks.
However, Connacht’s replacements added impetus – Shane Delahunt was dogged at the breakdown, Caolan Blade upped the tempo, and replacement outhalf David Horwitz landed the game winner. Replacing Carty who was hit hard with a late tackle, Horwitz struck the 72nd minute penalty that proved just enough to seal a deserved and dogged win.
CONNACHT: TO’Halloran, CKelleher, KGodwin, BAki, MHealy, JCarty, JMitchell, DBuckley, T McCartney, FBealham, UDillane, JCannon, E Masterson, JConnolly, JButler (c). Replacements: QRoux for Cannon (46), CFainga’a for Masterson and CBlade for Mitchell (both 53), CCarey for Bealham(58), SDelahunt for McCartney and DHoritz for Carty (61m), MBurkefor Buckley (66), D Leader forHealy (70),Cannon for Roux (HIA 76m).
SALESHARKS: C Ashton, DSolomona, SJames, JO’Connor, AReed, KWilkinson, FDe Klerk, R Harrison, RWebber, WJohn, BEvans, JPhillips, JRoss(c), TCurry, JStrauss. Replacements: L Jamesfor O’Connor (54), BCurry for Strauss (62), A Ostrikov (71).
Referee: PBrousset (Fra).