CONNACHT EAGLES 31  CROSS KEYS 16

 

Despite having a player sent off in the first quarter, Connacht Eagles came from behind to overcome last season’s runners-up Cross Keys 31-16 in their Pool 4 British & Irish Cup game played at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday.

 

This looked an unlikely scenario in the opening half-hour as the Welsh visitors profited from a series of mainly unforced penalties conceded by the hosts. In near perfect conditions on a lovely sunny afternoon, Steffan Jones tapped over a 2nd minute penalty for Cross Keys and added a second after 13 minutes. In between those scores, he missed another kickable placekick as Connacht struggled to find a rhythm.

Their early indiscipline woes were aggravated on 18 minutes when Rodney Ah You incurred a straight red card from referee Michael Black after the burly prop punched an opponent. Aaron Conneely was the unlucky forward to lose out because of this with Peter Reilly coming on in the front row. But Tadhg Leader opened the home side’s scoring with a penalty just three minutes later and then traded penalties with outhalf Jones to make it 6-9 after 33 minutes. A clever diagonal penalty by Jack Carty sent wing Matt Healy scampering down the left flank soon afterwards and this attack led to Cross Keys’ lock Sean Higgins being sin-binned. The impressive Leader levelled with the resultant 35th minute penalty to leave the teams 9-9 at halftime.

The Eagles were much more urgent and direct on the restart, helped by the introduction of Marcus Walsh at scrumhalf just before the interval. Mark McCrea made an incisive break before deftly off-loading to Leader for a try just three minutes into the second period. Leader’s conversion narrowly missed the target but the Eagles now surged forward with menace with the always prominent Eoghan Grace being stopped just short of the visitors’ line on 48 minutes while two other promising chances went abegging.

An intercept try by Dorian Jones for the Welsh outfit from his own 22 to the posts suggested that Cross Keys may have turned the tide, Steffan Jones conversion edging them back into the lead at 16-14 after 54 minutes. But it was short-lived and, after David Gannon disrupted the visitors on their own throw, the influential Grace pilfered possession and hared in for a 58th minute try which Leader converted.

The Eagles dominated thereafter as Cross Keys, despite the best endeavours of skipper Rob Nash and Ryan James, looked like the team short a player but it took Connacht until the 76th minute to add to their tally when the impressive Leader drilled over a penalty to put the visitors out of bonus point range. A third Eagles try had looked likely in the final quarter and it eventually arrived when Grace chased up to close down an attempted clearance with Finlay Bealham benefiting to get possession to Kevin O’Byrne and the substitute powered over for a 78th minute try which Leader converted. Connacht came tantalisingly close to snatching a bonus point try but had to settle for a richly merited 31-16 first victory in the B&I Cup.

CONNACHT EAGLES:- J.Loxton; M.McCrea, T.Leader, B.Murphy, M.Healy; J.Carty, D.Moore; F.Bealham, A.Flavin, R.Ah You; C.Kindregan, D.Gannon; T.J.Anderson, E.Grace (captain) and A.Conneely. Replacements:- P.Reilly (for Conneely, 20 mins), M.Walsh (for Moore, 34 mins), U.Dillane (for Kindregan, 56 mins), D.Heffernan (for Anderson, 56 mins), C.Finn (for McCrea, 61 mins), K.O’Byrne (for Flavin, 61 mins) and F.Gormley (for Carty, 61 mins).

CROSS KEYS:- G.David; D.Jones, L.Andrews, W.Owen, L.Williams; S.Jones, R.James; R.Cornock, G.Horigan, A.Lott; D.Hodge, S.Higgins; R.Nash (captain), S.Mathews and T.Lampard. Replacements:- J.Sollis (for Lampard,  45 mins), A.O’Brien (for David, 47 mins), J.Lewis (for Owen,  52 mins) and G.Price (for Horigan, 61 mins).

REFEREE:- Michael Black (Ulster). 

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