By John O’Sullivan

Connacht returned to winning ways in the Guinness PRO14 with a 37-26, bonus-point win away to Edinburgh. 

 

A brace of tries from Alex Wootton, as well as a touchdown apiece from Caolin Blade, Sammy Arnold, and Shane Delahunt —  with Conor Fitzgerald(3) and Tom Daly (9) both adding points from the tee — sealed the win for Andy Friends Westerners in a performance of brilliant attacking execution.

 

Without seven of their Irish contingent, the visitors — who made several changes to their team after the loss to Cardiff Blues two weekends ago — started with intent and they scored the first points of the night when Fitzgerald confidently slotted a penalty.

 

Edinburgh responded well, however, and scored the first try of the night when Nick Groom — the Scots’ captain — sniped over from short range after his pack put significant pressure on the Connacht line. Jaco van der Walt added the extras to make the score 7-3 in favour of the hosts.

 

Fitzgerald, making his first start of the campaign, was running the Westerners backline with authority and with a massive penalty kick for touch gave the visitors a line out in the Edinburgh 22.

 

Blade, after the line-out gave Connacht possession close to the hosts line, then scored the Irish teams first try of the game when he, in a move of sheer ingenuity,  — tight to the touchline on the blindside — cleverly grubber kicked ahead, before catching his own kick to touch down.  The conversion was wide, but the score was deserved for the Westerners after a strong start.

 

One try soon became two when Fitzgerald, who was given territory by the powerful carries of the pack — with Abraham Papali’i especially prominent in the carrying stakes — stabbed a grubber kick through that Arnold caught to give Connacht their second try.

 

The Westerners were playing with a huge degree of pace and confidence and they scored their third try of a highly entertaining half when Wootton — whose intelligent trail line saw him collect an offload  — touched down after brilliant run from John Porch down the left-hand touchline.  Daly, who had moved to out-half to replace the injured Fitzgerald, slotted the conversion and Connacht found themselves 20-7 to the good.

 

There were further scores in a highly engaging half when Daly accurately kicked a penalty at goal and Mike Willemse — touching down at the tail of a rolling maul — powered over for the hosts to take the half time score to 23-14 in favour of Connacht.

 

Chasing the victory, Edinburgh started the second period in strong fashion and had their third try when Willemse — once again the benefactor of a strong rolling maul — crossed the whitewash. The conversion was wide, but at 23-19 the game was delicately poised.

 

Blade was managing the game excellently for the Westerners — with his accurate box kicks a great source of territorial gains — and he applied this influence again when his grubber kick through in the Edinburgh 22 found Wootton to touch down for his second try. Daly slotted the extras to take the score to 30-19.

 

With confidence coursing through the team, Connacht completed the win with their fifth try. A sharp and incisive line from Delahunt gave the Irishmen territory in the home teams 22. Then, after some hard carries from the pack, the hooker smashed his way over for a try that Daly, whose kicking was peerless throughout, converted.

 

Edinburgh would have the final score when Andrew Davidson powered over from close range, but it was Connacht’s night and they held out to secure a brilliant win, 26-37.

 

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: John Porch

14: Sammy Arnold

13: Tom Farrell

12: Tom Daly

11: Alex Wootton

10: Conor Fitzgerald

9: Caolin Blade

(8-1)

8: Abraham Papali’i i

7: Jarrad Butler

6: Paul Boyle

5: Gavin Thornbury

4: Eoghan Masterson

3: Jack Aungier

2: Shane Delahunt

1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Paddy McAllister for  Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Aungier, Johnny Murphy for Delahunt, Tiernan O’Halloran for Arnold, Peter Robb for Fitzgerald, Colm Reilly for Blade, Cian Prendergast for Masterson, Oliver for Papali’ii

Irish International Bundee Aki will make his 100th appearance for Connacht on Sunday after he was named to start in the Guinness PRO14 clash with Ulster at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 4.30pm).
 
Aki joined Connacht in 2014 and has gone on to play a central role in the province’s fortunes since then. He was named Guinness PRO12 Player of the Season in 2015/16, the same year he helped the team to their first ever title.
 
His form was rewarded with a first call-up to the Ireland squad in the 2017 Autumn Internationals. He has been an ever-present member of the squad since then, making 26 appearances and starting every game in the Grand Slam victory of 2018.
 
Elsewhere at least two players will make their Connacht Rugby debuts on Sunday with Alex Wootton and Academy graduate Peter Sullivan both named on the wings. They form a back three with John Porch who slots in at full-back.
 
Tom Farrell will partner Aki in the centre with Irish international Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty forming a formidable half-back partnership.
 
In the forwards there’s a return to action for prop Finlay Bealham after sustaining a serious injury against Edinburgh in February, and he makes up an experienced front-row with Denis Buckley and hooker Dave Heffernan.
 
Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury have been named in the second row, and the starting XV is completed by flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler, with Paul Boyle named at number 8.
 
Three more players could make their Connacht debuts off the bench, with props Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier, and back row Conor Oliver all included.
 
The remainder of the replacements is made up of Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray, Stephen Kerins, Conor Dean and Tom Daly.
 
Connacht Rugby Head Coach Andy Friend says there’s huge excitement about returning to action:
 
“It has been almost 6 months since our last game and 2 months since we commenced pre-season training, so we are delighted our return has finally arrived. I have been really impressed with how the squad as a group have reacted to the uncertainty of the last few months, and it’s now our opportunity to show that hard work against an opposing team.”
 
Commenting on his team selection, Friend added:
 
“We have selected a squad of 23 that we believe can win this fixture. We have a neat blend of experience & youth, with the potential of five new debutants for Connacht, along with Bundee making his 100th appearance. It’s therefore a special occasion in many ways, and we intend to put out a performance that warrants that.”
 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
16:30, Sunday 23rd August @ Aviva Stadium

15. John Porch
14. Peter Sullivan
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Alex Wootton
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (c)
8. Paul Boyle

16. Jonny Murphy
17. Jordan Duggan
18. Jack Aungier
19. Niall Murray
20. Conor Oliver
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Conor Dean
23. Tom Daly

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.
 
Yesterday we kicked it off with Sammy Arnold, and now you can hear from another Munster arrival, Alex Wootton.
 

How have the first few weeks in Connacht Rugby been for you?

Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, from coming through the gates meeting Kenny and Dave the groundsmen through the squad up to Andy and the coaches. Everyone is easy to get on with even through these tricky times, they have all made it work and made the whole experience seamless. I think on my first day I was added to 100 Whatsapp groups which was great because it is where I got a lot of the information.

Are you slowly getting to know everyone despite the restrictions?

The first weeks we were in smaller groups so we were drip-fed into it, it would have been harder to have been pushed into the deep end and try to get to know everyone at the same time. It was easier for me to learn names in the smaller groups, it gets harder as the group gets bigger. It was a blessing as I wouldn’t be naturally gifted at remembering names. The academy players returned this week so I have been trying to learn off their names too. It is convenient having the Connacht website to flick through the names, I will get there in the end.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through lock-down and everything?

Talks started for me back in January and then COVID came. Everything was so uncertain, I tried to put it at the back of my mind, it was tricky trying to do that when you are boxed in a house. My partner returned to work around 2 months ago which was hard because I had a lot of time by myself where I thought “What am I going to be doing? Am I going to be staying at Munster or joining Connacht?” Luckily, it all worked out in the end.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

I have to say that they are very diligent in what they do and the emphasis they put on people’s roles and skills while also letting the players to suss things out themselves which I find is always the best way to do things. It is very player lead and very much an open forum when it comes to opinions and things like that. I think the coaches have a great balance there. Even though there are no physical meetings, we still have them over Zoom. Even with the Zoom calls, everything is still clear, cut, and precise and I think the messages are easily understood. There is going to be a quick turn around with the two games in the Aviva in August, hopefully, by then we will be hitting the ground running.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

It’s been so long since we all played rugby and we are all dying to get out there and play. There is a lot of competition especially in the back three and throughout the backline. The games are one thing, you obviously want to play well in a game that’s why we train but if we all put our best feet forward on a day to day basis we can all grow together. I can bring what I know to the table along with the younger and older lads, we can grow together and become better to make Connacht a better place and a better team. Whoever is in form or playing well at that time will get the nod but it is very much a team focus and not necessarily the individual.

Have you got to experience much of Connacht and the West of Ireland since you moved here?

I am living part-time in Galway with Conor Oliver and Sammie Arnold, the rest of the week is spent in my house in Limerick. I have not seen much of Galway before, my fiancée came up to visit me last weekend and we squashed into the box room in the house in Barna with the two dogs. We got to explore a few places and went out to see part of Connemara. I want to see a lot more of it as I am always hearing great things about the different places to see. It is great to be able to explore places that are right on our doorstep.

What do you think you would like to achieve with Connacht Rugby?

I have signed a one-year deal so come June/July next year, hopefully, I can contribute to putting the club in a position where we are in knockout rugby. I would also look to help players in Connacht whether it’s on-field or off-field and bring what I can to the table and vice versa. If I am speaking to you this time next year, I would like to look back and to say I helped a lot of people and the club is in a better place. That would be one of my goals and something I would feel happy about. I want to play rugby, enjoy it and see what the future holds. But at the end of the day, it is a team sport, you put the team first, work towards that goal and normally good things happen.

Lastly, what is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

This is where I tell people that I am quite a boring person! Up until the age of 13, I had to decide between football and rugby. Now I wouldn’t say I was as promising as Jack Caty getting trials but I guess I will never know where it could have gone.

Connacht Rugby are excited to confirm that Alex Wootton has joined the club on a loan deal from Munster until the end of the 2020-21 season.
 
Wootton first made his Munster debut in September 2016 and has gone on to make 39 appearances for the province, scoring 13 tries in the process.
 
The 25-year old can play anywhere across the back three and has been capped for Ireland at Sevens and U20 level.
 
Wootton has linked up with the Connacht squad this week during the first week of pre-season training at the Sportsground, as preparations begin for the planned Guinness PRO14 interpro derbies at the end of August.
 
Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says Wootton’s arrival will further strengthen Connacht’s back field options for the new season.
 
“I am really pleased to welcome Alex Wootton to the province. Alex is a very exciting back three player who has all the talent to take his game to the next level. His versatility across the back line will also help us as we look to compete on both fronts next season. As a Team, we’re looking forward to welcoming him to the Sportsground and integrating him into the playing squad.”
 
Alex Wootton says he is thrilled to sign for the club ahead of the new campaign.
 
“I am delighted to be joining Connacht Rugby for the upcoming season. After speaking to Andy and the rest of the coaching team it’s clear that this is a team full of ambition and belief, and I want to play my part in that. I can’t wait to meet the rest of the squad and begin preparations for what I’m sure will be a very exciting season.”

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