By John O'Sullivan
Connacht were defeated 41-21 by the Cell C Sharks in an entertaining United Rugby Championship clash in Durban today.
Despite scoring two tries via Gavin Thornbury and Caolin Blade – one of which Conor Fitzgerald, who also added three penalties, converted – on his 150th appearance for the province and leading 21-10 at halftime, Connacht couldn’t hang on to make it two wins on their South African tour, after their win against the Lions last weekend.
The hosts added five tries of their own with an especially strong second half making it four league wins in a row for the South African side.
Connacht were intent to attack early and it paid dividends when Fitzgerald made no mistake from the penalty tee. With their line out an efficient attack launch pad, the Irish team went through phases from the set-piece – with Tom Daly and Jarrad Butler carrying hard – and they earned the penalty that brought them the lead.
The away team had the better of the opening ten minutes, but, from that point, the Sharks worked their way back into the contest and they opened their account for the afternoon when their fly-half, Curwin Bosch, kicked a penalty to level up the scores in what had been an open and entertaining opening fifteen minutes.
Connacht were making headway with big carries – where both centres, Daly and Tom Farrell – and threatening the Sharks’ defence and, with the first half at its halfway point, this is how they retook the lead. A big carry saw the Irish team establish field position in the opposition 22 and when the hosts attempted to stop that momentum with hands in the ruck, Fitzgerald punished them with his second penalty to take the score to 6-3 in favour of the visitors.
The opening half was an even affair and the Sharks were the next team to establish themselves in the ascendancy, especially after John Porch’s yellow card reduced Connacht to 14 men, and they scored the game's first try when Gerbrandt Grobler, formerly of Munster, squeezed over the line from close range. Bosch kicked the extras and the South Africans lead 10-6.
Connacht’s reaction was instantaneous. Thornbury, who had been threatening to block down several of the Sharks clearing kicks and coming close on a few occasions, using his huge frame to good effect, charged down an attempted box kick and showed the dexterity to catch the bouncing ball and the pace to run in the score. Despite being a man in arrears, Andy Friend’s men lead 11-10 and, on the balance of play, it wasn’t undeserved as the game reached the half-hour mark.
Defensively, Connacht were resolute, both in terms of tackling and at the breakdown, and it was through their excellent jackal threat over the ball – an area where Conor Oliver characteristically showed his class – that they extended their lead. This time, it was Cian Prendergast who applied the vice grip over the ball and earned the penalty that Fitzgerald slotted to put the away team 14-10 to the good, with the Porch’s sin bin soon to elapse.
With their allocation of players back, the visitors packed even more punch in attack and, only moments after Porch’s return from the naughty step, Connacht had their second try. On a momentous day on his 150th cap for the province, Blade made a searing break through the guts of the Sharks defence. The Monivea man then played a give and go with Finlay Bealham, with the tight-heads beautiful pass landing flush in the scrum half’s hands for him to run in the try. Fitzgerald added the extras and the Irish province were eleven points up at 21-10.
Blade showed his use on the other side of the ball only seconds later. Winning their own kickoff, the Sharks attacked, but the scrum-half showed brilliant breakdown acumen and strength to superbly position himself over the ball and World Cup-winning Springbok Makazole Mapimpi to win the penalty and see out the half 21-10 in front.
The Sharks began the second half with intensity and it yielded a try only five minutes in when centre Marius Louw burst over for a try. Connacht’s initial defence was very impressive, holding the home team at bay, but eventually, the pressure told and Louw was at hand to provide the finishing touch. Bosch converted and the Irish team's lead was cut to four points at 17-21.
Gaining confidence from their try, the Sharks pressed for more and their pressure told when Bongi Mbonambi, the South African international hooker, muscled over from minimal distance and Bosch kicked the conversion to give the hosts a 24-21 lead and crown a hugely profitable opening ten minutes to the half.
The momentum was with the home team and they added their third try in quick succession when second-row Grobler showed good strength and opportunism and pick and go over the line from close range. Bosch made no mistake from the tee and Connacht trailed by ten at 31-21.
The game became broken as the game ticked on, with neither team really managing to assert themselves. Nevertheless, Bosch stretched the Sharks’ lead further – 34-21 – with a penalty with roughly five minutes remaining.
Le Roux Roets then sealed the win by showing great strength to burst over the line for a try that Bosch converted to take the score to 41-21 in favour of the Sharks, the score they held until the final whistle.
15: Mack Hansen
14: John Porch
13: Tom Farrell
12: Tom Daly
11: Alex Wootton
10: Conor Fitzgerald
9: Caolin Blade
8: Jarrad Butler ©
7: Conor Oliver
6: Cian Prendergast
5: Leva Fifita
4: Gavin Thornbury
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley
16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Heffernan
17: Jordan Duggan for Buckley
18: Jack Aungier for Bealham
19: Niall Murray for Fifita
20: Oisin Dowling for Butler
21: Kieran Marmion for Blade
22: Jack Carty for Fitzgerald
23: Tiernan O’Halloran for Wootton