Con­nacht sur­vive ‘bizarre’ game to go joint top

Sale spurn kick­able penalty to win game in clos­ing min­utes

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby Heineken Champions Cup - LINLEY MacKEN­ZIE at the Sports­ground

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.

Su­perb kick

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).

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