Connacht 14-9 Newport Gwent Dragons
Connacht made it two wins over Welsh opposition in as many weeks tonight thanks to a nerve-jangling 14-9 victory in front of a vocal crowd at a packed out Sportsground.
While the first half saw Connacht produce an enterprising, energetic performance, Newport Gwent Dragons fought back very strongly in the second half to almost snatch the win.
Tries in the opening 14 minutes from Tiernan O’Halloran and Caolin Blade, both converted by Craig Ronaldson, proved the difference as replacement Angus O’Brien kicked three penalties for the visitors.
An entertaining opening to the game saw Connacht score a fifth minute try through O’Halloran, his fifth of the season. After a frantic, free-flowing start, Jack Carty floated a precise pass for Matt Healy on the left flank and the winger offloaded to in-form O’Halloran to touch down. Ronaldson converted and Connacht led 7-0.
The second try arrived for Blade on 14 minutes with Connacht rampant at this stage. A superbly delayed pass by Ronaldson initiated the move as he released O’Halloran, who picked a great line. The full-back then passed outside to Niyi Adeolokun but a super Pat Howard tackle stopped the winger outside the 22. The forwards then went through a few phases before Blade fooled the Dragons defence with a delightful little show-and-go and dart over the line. A second Ronaldson conversion made it 14-0 after 14 minutes.
Replacement O’Brien came in at out-half for the injured Dorian Jones shortly afterwards and the youngster got his team off the mark after a Connacht infringement at the breakdown to make it 14-3 on 18 minutes.
Not surprisingly, the game entered a lull following the action-packed opening but Connacht burst into life once more on the half-hour as Carty released the electric Healy once again for the initial break with the ball eventually worked up to the right corner after some incredible hands but the final pass to Sean O’Brien went forward.
Connacht were almost in again moments later as Ronaldson stepped in to intercept Angus O’Brien’s pass in midfield and break away but his pass back to centre partner Tom Farrell, who was excellent on his full debut, was knocked on.
Newport made the better start to the second half and an O’Brien penalty after a Connacht offside on 42 minutes made it 14-6.
The lead was down to five points on 52 minutes as the retreating Adeolokun gathered a dangerous chip in behind. The Dragons defence immediately swarmed on the winger with the penalty inevitable as O’Brien brought the visitors to within a score with 28 minutes to go, 14-9.
Connacht then required some last-ditch scramble defence on their own line after Harrison Keddie forced the turnover with a big tackle on replacement John Cooney after a lineout. The Dragons were camped on the Connacht line and a try looked inevitable when they swung the ball left but O’Halloran and company were quick on the scene and managed to prevent the try.
The excellent Connacht scrum then pushed their counterparts off the ball to earn a penalty and relieve the pressure as Connacht survived.
The next close call came at the other end as Healy raced onto a kick through but his offload to Cooney was too low and the chance was gone.
A brilliant Sean O’Brien turnover then saved Connacht’s bacon as the game neared the 70-minute mark as the Dragons went perilously close again.
There was further drama in the final 10 minutes as Conney’s try was ruled out for an infringement in the build-up but there was to be no late show from Newport as Connacht clung on for a precious win.
A trip to Italy to face Benetton Treviso awaits Connacht next Sunday with Zebre visiting the Sportsground in the next home game on Friday, March 3 at 7.35pm.
Tickets are now available online here.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Farrell, Craig Ronaldson (Rory Parata, 77), Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (John Cooney, 56); Denis Buckley (Ronan Loughney, 78), Dave Heffernan (Tom McCartney, 56), Finlay Bealham (JP Cooney, 78); Ultan Dillane (Nepia Fox-Matamua, 63), Quinn Roux (James Cannon, 69); Sean O’Brien, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (C).
Unused replacement: Steve Crosbie.
Newport Gwent Dragons: Tom Prydie; Adam Hughes, Tyler Morgan, Adam Warren, Pat Howard; Dorian Jones, Tavis Knoyle; Sam Hobbs, Elliot Dee, Brok Harris; Nick Crosswell, Rynard Landman; Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans (C).
Replacements; Darran Harris, Thomas Davies, Lloyd Fairbrother, Cory Hill, Harrison Keddie, Sarel Pretorius, Angus O’Brien, Sam Beard.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)