By John O'Sullivan
Racing 92 26-22 Connacht
Connacht fell to a narrow four-point defeat to Racing 92 in Paris La Défense Arena in the Heineken Champions Cup.
In a brilliant exhibition of attacking Rugby, the visitors scored three tries -- from Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and Conor Oliver -- and collected a losing bonus point while they threatened to inflict the French team’s first-ever European defeat in their new stadium.
Racing, last season’s finalists, scored four tries of their own -- from Georges Henri Colombe Kurtley Beale, Donovan Taofifénua, and Dominic Bird -- but had to see out a nervous last few minutes to complete the bonus-point win.
The Westerners started with authority and made an early impression in attack. Both Dave Heffernan and Ultane Dillane made piercing carries early on, but the defence of the three-time finalists held firm and they repelled Connacht’s advances.
Slowly, the Parisians grew into the game and they made it count on the scoreboard when Colombe, the tighthead prop, managed to burst over from close range. Racing’s rolling maul was defended stoutly by the visitors, but -- after a few phases of carries from close to the line -- the hosts pressure eventually told and they opened the scoring. The difficult conversion from Maxime Machenaud landed and the Top 14 side were 7-0 to the good.
Connacht reacted well to the concession of the try and they had their own points soon after. Another barrelling run from Heffernan brought the Westerners into the 22 and Racing were penalised at the breakdown. Jack Carty made no mistake from the kicking tee and the visitors deservedly found themselves on the scoreboard, 7-3.
With the PRO14 team’s pack carrying hard and winning territory, the home side weren’t having it all their own way but their defence was firm and they were efficient with all of their attacking opportunities, especially in the transition.
A typically classy move from last season’s finalists saw Vakatawa -- the France international centre -- make a burst and then feed Kurtley Beale, the former Australia full-back, to run in a try which Machenaud slotted to stretch the Parisians lead to 14-3.
Another try soon followed when winger Donovan Taofifénua acrobatically flew in for a try in the left-hand corner. The angle was difficult, and the conversion fell wide but the French team lead 19-3.
Connacht, though, never lost composure and kept their attacking intensity up. A series of line outs and hard carries -- with Dillane especially prominent -- brought the visitors close on several occasions and they had a deserved try on the stroke of half time.
With an advantage, Carty beautifully executed a cross-field kick that landed flush into the arms of the jumping Healy. The winger caught it perfectly in midair and held his balance to touch down. The conversion was wide, but the visitors went into the break 19-8 down but definitely in the game.
Racing started the second half in a strong fashion and had a try ten minutes in when Dominic Bird -- the former All Black -- was the benefactor of a rolling maul and he touched down at the base. The conversion landed and the hosts found themselves 26-8 to the good.
Connacht never relented the pressure and they were game both in defence and attack and they showed this when they turned defence into attack and got themselves back into the game with 20 minutes remaining. Showing a brilliant turn of pace and spatial awareness, Wootton intelligently intercepted a Racing pass in his own 22 and went the length of the pitch to touch down for a try which Carty converted to bring the Westerners to 26-15 and within touching distance of the Top14 men.
With the wind in their sails, Connacht -- where Paul Boyle and Dillane were both inspired in the ball carrying stakes -- kept probing and pushing for a score. With five minutes remaining, they had the score their pressure merited when Oliver powered his way over from close range. The conversion was good from Carty and Andy Friend’s men found themselves only four points behind with as many minutes remaining.
The Westerners almost snatched what would have been a famous win when Tiernan O’Halloran kicked through a ball in the dying moments, but the ball beat everyone and went dead. The hosts saw it out and claimed the win.
Ultimately, it was a defeat but Connacht can be happy with their losing bonus point and performance in Paris.
15: John Porch
14: Alex Wootton
13: Sammy Arnold
12: Tom Daly
11: Matt Healy
10: Jack Carty
9: Kieran Marmion
8: Paul Boyle
7: Jarrad Butler
6: Sean Masterson
5: Ultan Dillane
4: Eoghan Masterson
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley
Replacements: Jordan Duggan for Buckley, Shane Delahunt for Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier for Bealham, Cian Prendergast for Sean Masterson, Conor Oliver for Butler, Caolin Blade for Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki for Arnold, Tiernan O'Halloran for Porch.