By John O'Sullivan
Connacht 31-14 Benetton Rugby
Connacht made it consecutive Guinness PRO14 wins after they defeated Benetton Rugby 31-14 at the Sportsground.
It was a special night for Paul Boyle, who not only lead the team out for the first time as captain but also scored a hat-trick of tries in a man of the match performance. Peter Sullivan and Alex Wootton also crossed for tries in a performance of equals parts physicality and attacking efficiency. Conor Fitzgerald also added three conversions to the scoreline.
Despite difficult weather conditions, it was apparent from the kick-off that the hosts intended on attacking. After the front row won three scrum penalties on the bounce, Connacht were dominant at the set-piece. They made it count when Boyle -- picking from the back of a powerful scrum -- powered through some would-be tacklers to open the try scoring account for the evening. Fitzgerald, showing composure in swirling wind, slotted the extras to give the home team a lead they fully merited.
The scrum was going well, but so was the line out and it was through that avenue that the Westerners scored their second try. A powerful rolling maul surged towards the line and winger Sullivan was the benefactor as he put the finishing touches on the well constructed forward effort. The conversion was wide from a difficult angle.
To their credit, the visitors reacted well to the concession of two tries and they scored one of their own when tight-head prop Filippo Alongi burrowed over from close range for the third try -- which former Connacht player Ian Keatley converted -- in an entertaining opening half an hour.
Benetton were reduced to 14 men in the aftermath of their try and the hosts took advantage of their man advantage almost straight away when Wootton showed a great turn of pace to touch down. Fitzgerald's arching pass found Sullivan on a looping line and one winger fed another when the former academy player passed to the number 11 to touch down. The conversion fell narrowly wide, but the move was an excellent exhibition of the class of Connacht's backs.
The Sportsground men closed out the half in style when Boyle intelligently exploited a virtually unmanned blindside by picking from the base of a solid scrum and stepping an attempted tackle to touch down. From a hugely difficult angle, Fitzgerald bisected the posts with the conversion and the home team went into the interval 24-7 to the good.
Connacht started the second half with a similar physical and ambitious mindset and they had their fifth try of the evening ten minutes after the restart. Boyle, once again showing a huge degree of physicality, burst over for this hattrick try from close range. Fitzgerald made no mistake in adding the extra points and the hosts found themselves 31-7 up.
After a host of changes, including centre Sean O'Brien making his debut after replacing Sammy Arnold, the Westerners pushed for more tries but Benetton's defence held firm as the weather conditions deteriorated. And it was the Italians who had the last score when their captain Dewaldt Otto Duvenage went over for a try -- which he converted from himself -- from short range.
8: Paul Boyle(C)
7: Conor Oliver
6: Jarrad Butler
5: Gavin Thornbury
4: Eoghan Masterson
3: Jack Aungier
2: Shane Delahunt
1: Denis Buckley
15: John Porch
14: Peter Sullivan
13: Sammy Arnold
12: Tom Daly
11: Alex Wootton
10: Conor Fitzgerald
9: Caolin Blade
Replacements; Jonny Murphy for Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Aungier, Paddy McAllister, Ultan Dillane for Gavin Thornbury, Cian Prendergast for Jarrad Butler, Matt Healy for Peter Sullivan, Sean O'Brien for Sammy Arnold, Colm Reilly for Caolin Blade.