Connacht Rugby got their European Challenge Cup campaign off to the best possible start this evening with a seven-try victory over La Rochelle at the Sportsground.

Pat Lam’s men had the try bonus point wrapped up before the break with Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw, and Ronan Loughney all crossing. The second half scores were taken by wingers Danie Poolman and Matt Healy while Ireland International Henshaw added a second to his own personal tally for the game.

Inside centre Craig Ronaldson had a fine evening from the kicking tee and contributed 11 points overall while replacement scrum half Ian Porter kicked a second half conversion.

It was the first meeting between the two sides and neither knew what exactly to expect but Connacht were focused throughout the game and backed up their desire to lay down a marker early on in this new Challenge Cup competition.

The home side were on the front foot almost immediately, pressing from an early lineout and scrum before the ball was moved across to outhalf Carty who spotted a gap to go over for his first Connacht try. Ronaldson added the conversion in difficult conditions.

A Connacht lineout on the half way line was thrown by returning hooker Jason Harris-Wright to Loughney at the front. The ball quickly moved back found Darragh Leader who made a fantastic break up the middle and offloaded just in time for the onrushing Marmion to crash over. Ronaldson missed his only kick off the night with this conversion attempt but Connacht were 12 – 0 clear before the 10th minute mark.

The only penalty kick for the posts this evening was converted by Ronaldson right in front of the sticks on 14 minutes.

Connacht’s dominance at scrum time led to La Rochelle tighthead Vincent Pelo, outscrummaged by Loughney, earning a yellow card. One man up, Connacht had a lineout in the visitors 22 which Aly Muldowney won and the platform was created for a solid maul. The ball was popped out for Henshaw to burst through for his first try of the evening, which Ronaldson converted.

Four minutes later, and another well-won lineout lead to Connacht’s fourth try for the bonus point. Ronaldson was brought down short of the line but Loughney was unstoppable from a couple of metres out on the right.

Half time: Connacht 29 – 0 La Rochelle

La Rochelle hit back early in the second half with a try in in the corner from their winger Damien Cler. Scrum half Jules Lebai’s failed with the conversion attempt.

Connacht responded immediately with great play from the backs that saw Leader break free again and draw the defence before releasing Henshaw to run in untouched behind the posts. Ronaldson added the simple conversion and the former Lansdowne outhalf was applauded off the pitch minutes later as Dave McSharry took his place and marked his 50th Connacht appearance.

It was a great night for the backs and wingers Healy and Poolman showed clever switching play to allow the South African Poolman to run over in the corner. Porter was tasked with the difficult touch line conversion into the wind which fell wide for the replacement scrum half.

The hard-working Healy deservedly got on the scoresheet himself in the 64th minute, finishing an attack that had started with his own lung-bursting run on the left. Porter nailed the conversion and Connacht led by 48 points to five with 15 minutes remaining.

La Rochelle refused to lie down until the end and their persistence paid off when they conjured up a 69th minute try, replacement outhalf Charles Bouldoire dotting down for scrum half Lebai to convert.

Both sides battled it out in the middle of the pitch before a break on 78 minutes from the visitors Number 8 Loanne Goujon up the right wing threatened a late score with his pass to winger Charles Lagard. But Henshaw scrambled back to save the day, dragging the winger into touch.

The final minute was played out in the Connacht 22 but the home side had the ball and went through the phases as the clock counted down allowing Porter to kick the ball out for the full time whistle.

Full time: Connacht 42 – 12 La Rochelle

Connacht Rugby: Darragh Leader; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris Wright, Nathan White, Quinn Roux, Ally Muldowney, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon

Replacements: David Heffernan (59” for Harris-Wright), Denis Buckley (46” for Loughney), Rodney Ah You (59” for White), Andrew Browne (59” for McKeon), George Naoupu (54” for Muldoon), Ian Porter (40” for Marmion), Dave McSharry (49” for Ronaldson), Niyi Adeolokun (61” for Leader).

La Rochelle: Arthur Cestaro; Lancelot Luteau, Kini Murimurivalu, Albert VuliVuli, Damien Cler; Hamish Gard, Jules Lebail; Mike Corbel, Benjamin Geledan, Vincent Pelo, Romana Graham, Jacobus Grobler, Nicolas Djebaili (capt), Benoit Guyot, Loann Goujon.

Replacements: Rassie Jansen van Vuuren, Jordan Seneca, Benoit Bourrust, Zeno Kieft, Leo Cedaro, Julien Berger, Charles Lagarde, Charles Bouldoire.

Referee: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)

Attendance: 4, 735

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