By John O’Sullivan
Connacht became only the second northern hemisphere team to win in South Africa in the United Rugby Championship this season after a brilliant 33-30 win over the Emirates Lions.
The away team dotted down three tries via Cian Prendergast, a penalty try, and Tom Daly with Jack Carty showing great nerve to slot four penalties.
The hosts scored four tries – two of which were converted – of their own alongside two penalties, but it was Connacht – whose set-piece efficiency and attacking prowess made the difference – who deservedly held out for the win.
Connacht began the game at a rate of knots and they had a try only two minutes in. Carty elected to go to the line from a penalty in midfield and, from the resultant line out, the Irish team launched an attack deep in the Lion's 22. Hard carries from Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen drew them closer to the line before Caolin Blade’s cutting pass met the incisive line of Prendergast and the back row skipped in for the try. Carty converted and the away team were 7-0 ahead.
Not content with one score, Connacht were ambitious in search of tries and they were rewarded for their mentality with a second try in what was proving a bountiful opening ten minutes.
Carty turned down the shot at goal in the Lions’ 22 after the forwards powerfully won a scrum penalty and instead opted for a kick to the line for a line out. The away team pack powerfully drove their opponents backward and, when the maul collapsed, the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try and brandishing a yellow card to the hosts for Ruan Dreyer. With the guaranteed seven points, Andy Friend’s men were one man and 14 points to the good.
The Lions, back to their full allocation of players after Dreyer’s time in the sin bin elapsed, managed the wrestle back some momentum as the half neared its midway point and Jordan Hendrikse opened their account for the afternoon with a sweetly struck penalty, to take the score to 3-14 in Connacht’s favour.
The remainder of the half was an even affair, with both teams enjoying spells of pressure, only for the defences to come out on top until, on the stroke of halftime, Maxwane ran a clever support line to run in a try in the right-hand corner. The conversion was wide, so Connacht were 8-14 ahead going into the break.
Connacht began the second half in fine fettle and they were the first to add the scoreboard when Carty – from just inside the Lions' half – powerfully hit a penalty between the posts to stretch the away team's lead to 8-17.
The Lions joined in on the act soon after and Hendrickse’s penalty had them on the scoreboard for the first time in the half as we approached the 50th minute, cutting Connacht’s lead to six points at 11-17.
Carty, whose use of the boot – both from the tee and in open play – was superb through, added Connacht’s next score, by expertly dispatching a penalty that saw them break the twenty-point mark.
The Lions, though, began to turn on the pressure from that point and, after a penalty they chose to kick to the line, they launched an attack that ended with scrum-half van Den Berg opportunistically sniping in over the line. The conversion from Hendrickse was good and the lead Connacht had built was reduced to two points at 18-20.
The flow of the game was even and Connacht were the next side to trouble the scoreboard when Carty once again showed his prowess from the kicking tee with a beautifully hit penalty that stretched the Irish team even further ahead, leading by five points at 18-23 with the game an hour old.
With their bench bringing a fresh impetus and new energy, the visitors showed great fitness in the closing stages and they registered their third try of the afternoon with a beautifully worked seven-pointer. Using a line out as an attacking platform, the ball was worked to Aki, and – showing a great understanding with his fellow centre – the Irish international brilliantly found the cutting line of Daly, and the Carlow native powered over the line. Carty added the extras and Connacht found themselves 18-30 up with fifteen minutes remaining.
The Lions, to their credit, dusted themselves off quickly and they worked a neat move that saw winger Van Der Merwe collect a pass to touch down in the corner for an unconverted try that took the score to 23-30.
With their tails up, the hosts added a second try in quick succession when their captain, Odendaal, burst through to touch down. Hendrickse added the conversion and the score was level at 30-30 with ten minutes remaining.
Connacht, though, didn’t panic and they regained their lead with five minutes remaining when Carty accurately slotted a penalty to take the score to 33-30 to the away team. A brilliant counter ruck allowed Fifita to carry through and earn the penalty that the Roscommon man made no mistake with.
Despite the hosts throwing the kitchen sink at it, Connacht held out firm to record a brilliant win in South Africa.
15: Mack Hansen
14: John Porch
13: Bundee Aki
12: Tom Daly
11: Alex Wootton
10: Jack Carty
9: Caolin Blade
8: Paul Boyle
7: Jarrad Butler
6: Cian Prendergast
5: Niall Murray
4: Oisin Dowling
3: Jack Aungier
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley
16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Dave Heffernan
17: Jordan Duggan for Denis Buckley
18: Greg McGrath for Jack Aungier
19: Leva Fifita for Oisin Dowling
20: Conor Oliver for Paul Boyle
21: Kieran Marmion for Caolin Blade
22: Conor Fitzgerald for Alex Wootton
23: Shayne Bolton for Bundee Aki(temporarily for HIA)