By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht will go into next week’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16-second leg at the Aviva Stadium trailing Leinster 26-21 after a physically intense and entertaining affair at the Sportsground tonight. 

 

Despite tries from John Porch and Leva Fifita, it was Leinster who eked out the win and who hold the lead going into the second instalment of the tie. 

 

With the returning Bundee Aki, along with Fifita, Conor Oliver and Porch, instrumental next weekend’s fixture should be similarly enthralling. 

 

Connacht started in a rip-roaring fashion and they made it count after only two minutes. A huge break from Aki, which was facilitated by a Gavin Thornbury offload,  gave the host’s field position, before Tom Farrell – following suit – punctured the visitor’s defence again. Leinster managed to eke a turnover and thought they escaped the danger, but Leva Fifita blocked down their clearing kick. 

 

Regaining possession, the hosts launched another attack, and the ball was worked to Porch on the left wing and the Australian danced over the line to give the home team a 5-0 lead, much to the delight of the loud sell-out crowd. 

 

Leinster attempted to work their way back into the game in what was an open and entertaining opening fifteen minutes, but their attempts were met with staunch Connacht defence. Aki best personified this when he ended a dangerous attack with a textbook breakdown jackal that saw the hosts earn a penalty. 

 

The away team did manage to get on the board near the twenty-minute mark, however, when Sexton kicked a penalty to reduce Connacht’s lead to two points, at 5-3. 

 

And with their tails up, Leinster made it two scores in a profitable few minutes halfway through the first half. Despite an excellent tackle by Finlay Bealham on Josh van der Flier, the eastern province worked the ball to Lowe and the Ireland winger managed to cut through for the try. Sexton added the extras and the away lead 10-5 with fifteen minutes of the opening period remaining. 

 

Leinster’s first-half purple patch continued when Irish international Hugo Keenan found Lowe with a pass and the winger managed to work his way over the line for this second try of the half. Sexton missed the conversion and the visitors lead 15-5 near the half-hour mark. 

 

Connacht weren’t deterred, though, and stuck to the principles, looking to attack. Mack Hansen was key and, after a beautiful kick and field, he made significant yardage before being forced into attack. The home side pressured the resultant line out and were rewarded with a penalty that Carty slotted the bring the score back to 15-7. 

 

Both teams swapped penalties in the minutes before halftime, meaning the score at the interval read, Connacht 11-18 Leinster. 

 

Connacht began the first half in an electric manner, and they began the second period similarly. A searing break from Conor Oliver, with Aki also adding his considerable carrying ability, carved through the Leinster defence and the hosts, on the attack, earned a penalty which Carty nailed to take the score to 14-18 and bring the home team closer to overturning Leinster’s lead. 

 

The away team, however, grew their lead further when Keenan collected a pass from Jamison Gibson Park and touched down. The conversion was wide and Leinster lead 23-14. 

 

The home side’s attitude, despite being behind was exemplary, and they kept their attacking ambitions up, a style that lead to a yellow card for Gibson Park, who tackled Marmion high on a Connacht attack. 

 

Andy Friend’s men didn’t take long to make their man advantage count and, after a line out, Fifita muscled his way over the line from close range. Carty slotted the extras, the scoreline stood at 23-21 in favour with twenty minutes remaining in a pulsating affair. 

 

Connacht, with Porch, Dowling and replacement Abraham Papali’i prominent in the ball carrying stakes, continued to press for the winner but Leinster held firm in defence and when Ross Byrne slotted a late penalty they held on to win 26-21. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Mack Hansen

10: Jack Carty 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1) 

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Leva Fifita 

4: Gavin Thornbury 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Matthew Burke 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Heffernan 

17: Tietie Tuimauga for Burke 

18: Jack Aungier for Bealham 

19: Oisin Dowling for Thornbury 

20: Abraham Papali’i for Butler 

21: Caolin Blade for Marmion 

22: Conor Fitzgerald for O’Halloran 

23: Sammy Arnold for Farrell

The Connacht Rugby management team have named their matchday 23 for tomorrow’s historic Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 1st leg with Leinster at The Sportsground (k/o 8pm)
 
A capacity crowd is expected to be in attendance for Connacht’s first appearance in the Champions Cup knockout stages, and Head Coach Andy Friend is able to welcome back a number of key players just in time for the occasion.
 
British & Irish Lion Bundee Aki returns for his first appearance since before the Six Nations, while there’s also a first start of the season for Gavin Thornbury after an impressive cameo off the bench last weekend following an 11 month absence.
 
The third and final change is the inclusion of club captain Jarrad Butler after missing the win over Benetton through injury.
 
He forms a back row with flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver, while Leva Fifita partners Thornbury. The front row of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham is unchanged.
 
Match captain Jack Carty starts at 10 beside Kieran Marmion, while Aki will have Tom Farrell for company at outside centre. A back three of full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and wingers Mack Hansen and John Porch completes the side.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Andy Friend says:
 
“There’s a huge sense of excitement among all the players and management for tomorrow night. These are the type of games you want to be involved in, and with a capacity crowd behind us it’s going to be a great occasion and one we firmly believe we can win.
 
We have over 45 players training between our Pros and integrated Academy players so that’s a great place to be at this stage of the season, and it’s given the coaches some headaches for our squad selection as well.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Friday 8th April, 20:00 @ The Sportsground
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (203)
14. John Porch (54)
13. Tom Farrell (75)
12. Bundee Aki (115)
11. Mack Hansen (10)
10. Jack Carty (175) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (204)
1. Matthew Burke (36)
2. Dave Heffernan (160)
3. Finlay Bealham (170)
4. Gavin Thornbury (59)
5. Leva Fifita (11)
6. Cian Prendergast (26)
7. Conor Oliver (37)
8. Jarrad Butler (91)

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin (2)
17. Tietie Tuimauga (9)
18. Jack Aungier (27)
19. Oisín Dowling (21)
20. Abraham Papali’i (22)
21. Caolin Blade (146)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (48)
23. Sammy Arnold (35)

The Connacht Rugby side to face Gallagher Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Champions Cup on Sunday has been named (k/o 1pm).
 
In total there are six changes from the side that met Stade Francais last week, with every returning player an Irish international.
 
Bundee Aki starts his first game for Connacht in over 2 months, returning from injury to partner Sammy Arnold at centre. Tiernan O’Halloran is also included, starting at full-back with Alex Wootton and John Porch named on the wings.
 
After coming off the bench last week, Kieran Marmion comes in at scrum-half alongside captain Jack Carty.
 
Three further internationals – hooker Dave Heffernan, prop Finlay Bealham and lock Ultan Dillane – are also drafted into the pack. Matthew Burke and Niall Murray make up the rest of the tight five, while the back row is unchanged with flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver, and number 8 Jarrad Butler.
 
A powerful looking bench includes the likes of Tietie Tuimauga, who could make his debut if called upon, as well as Leva Fifita and Abraham Papali’i.
 
Commenting on the selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“We’re under no illusions we face one of the biggest challenges in European rugby on Sunday, but it’s also very exciting and exactly the kind of occasion you want to play in.
 
We’ve brought in a lot of experience which will stand to us for a game like this, and there’s some powerful options on the bench as well. Tietie Tuimauga has settled in very well so Sunday will be a great stage for him to make his debut if called upon.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEICESTER TIGERS
Sunday 19th December, 13:00 @ Mattioli Woods Welford Road
 
Number/Name/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (195)
14. John Porch (45)
13. Sammy Arnold (24)
12. Bundee Aki (112)
11. Alex Wootton (25)
10. Jack Carty (167) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (194)
1. Mattthew Burke (31)
2. Dave Heffernan (152)
3. Finlay Bealham (166)
4. Ultan Dillane (121)
5. Niall Murray (23)
6. Cian Prendergast (16)
7. Conor Oliver (28)
8. Jarrad Butler (81)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (108)
17. Tietie Tuimauga *
18. Jack Aungier (21)
19. Leva Fifita (3)
20. Abraham Papali’i (16)
21. Caolin Blade (138)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (42)
23. Diarmuid Kilgallen (4)

British & Irish Lion Bundee Aki will make his first appearance for Connacht Rugby since the summer tour of South Africa tomorrow night.
 
He comes straight into the starting XV for the URC interpro derby with Munster Rugby at Thomond Park (k/o 7.35pm), and his inclusion is one of five changes from last week’s side that faced the Dragons.
 
Aki forms a new-look partnership with Sammy Arnold at centre, while John Porch is drafted into the back three alongside fellow winger Mack Hansen and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran. Caolin Blade and Jack Carty are retained, with Carty named as captain for the game.
 
The front-row of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham is unchanged, while Niall Murray comes into the second row alongside Ultan Dillane. The final switch sees Conor Oliver start at openside flanker, with Cian Prendergast on the opposite flank and Paul Boyle at number 8.
 
The Connacht management team have opted for a 6:2 split on the bench, with back rowers Abraham Papali’i and Jarrad Butler both included as well as Kieran Marmion. Summer arrival Greg McGrath is also in line for his Connacht debut after he was named as replacement loosehead prop.
 
Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“There’s no getting away from the fact last week wasn’t good enough, so now it’s up to us all to put in the type of performance we know they’re capable of. Training this week has been good & Bundee’s return is a boost as he’ll give us his typical energy that is needed for an interpro.
 
Both games in Limerick last season ended with a single score between the two sides, so we know it’ll be a tight game. The team that is most consistent for the full 80 minutes and is clinical with the chances they create will be the team that wins it.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Saturday 16th October, Thomond Park @ 19:35

Number/Name/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (193)
14. John Porch (42)
13. Sammy Arnold (19)
12. Bundee Aki (111)
11. Mack Hansen (3)
10. Jack Carty (162) (C)
9. Caolin Blade (133)
1. Matthew Burke (26)
2. Dave Heffernan (147)
3. Finlay Bealham (162)
4. Niall Murray (19)
5. Ultan Dillane (117)
6. Cian Prendergast (13)
7. Conor Oliver (23)
8. Paul Boyle (60)

16. Shane Delahunt (103)
17. Greg McGrath *
18. Jack Aungier (16)
19. Eoghan Masterson (111)
20. Abraham Papali’i (15)
21. Kieran Marmion (189)
22. Jarrad Butler (76)
23. Tom Daly (52)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht finished their season with a 26-19 bonus point victory over the Ospreys in The GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup at the Sportsground tonight. 

 

Tries from Shane Delahunt — who marked his 100th appearance in style — Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, and Peter Sullivan, with Jack Carty tagging on six points from the kicking tee, sealed a deserved win for the Westerners.

 

The Ospreys, meanwhile, scored three tries of their own — via Morgan Morris, Tom Botha, and Sam Parry — in a game they needed to win to keep their Rainbow Cup hopes alive.

 

The victory also provided the ideal send-off to coaches Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy — two loyal servants to the province, both on and off the pitch — who will depart the province before the start of the season.

 

Both teams looked to feel each other out early with the opening five minutes seeing a lot of kicking. Connacht — with Ben O’Donnell and Alex Wootton especially impressive in the air — were safe under the high ball and they used this security to build their way into the game. 

 

After a searing break involving O’Donnell, who burst an initial tackle in his 22, Tom Daly and Caolin Blade, the home team went from their own 22 to the Ospreys’. From there, they won a penalty and, after kicking to the corner, a powerful maul rumbled towards the line. Delahunt then picked and dove over the line. Carty slotted the extras and the home team established a deserved lead. 

 

To their credit, the Welshmen — who needed a win to qualify for the latter stages of the competition — responded in kind. Flanker Morgan Morris dove over after picking off the back of a maul. The conversion was wide so the home team still help their lead after a high octane opening to the game.

 

Connacht dusted themselves off and, from the subsequent kick-off, they scored their second. With Carty hanging the kick in the air, O’Donnell expertly won the possession by tapping it back onto the home team’s side. 

 

After establishing field position, the Westerners went on the attack. Aki and Jordan Duggan carried powerfully, allowing Blade the room to grubber kick through to find Aki to touch down. Carty nailed a difficult conversion and the hosts stretched their lead to 14-5. 

 

With their tails up, the home team went in search for more scores and their ambitious approach yielded another score in a try sodden opening twenty minutes. A huge Cian Prendergast carry punctured through the Ospreys defence and gave Connacht front foot ball in their 22. From there, the forwards carried hard before Dillane eventually touched down from close range. Carty made no mistake once again the Westerners were 21-5 to the good. 

 

The scoring was tit for tat and Ospreys registered their second try when Botha went over from minimal distance to reduce the deficit to 21-12.

 

The Westerners wrapped up a first-half bonus point when Carty’s beautiful pass found Sullivan and the winger raced home for the try in the right corner. It was the away team who the final say of the half, though, when Sam Parry — taking advantage of the extra man after Dominic Robertson McCoy was sin-binned —  barged over from close distance for a converted try that left the half time score at 26-19.

If the first half was marked by so many tries, the second period proved to be entirely different. 

 

Defence was the name of the game and with the Ospreys needing the win, the Welsh team continued to turn the screw in search of scores. 

 

However, Connacht — with Aki particularly strong in his tackling — resisted all their attempts, both in the set-piece and in open play, held out to end their season with a win and provide the perfect going away present for coaches Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy.

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Alex Wootton 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Bundee Aki 

12: Tom Daly 

11: Ben O’Donnell 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Caolin Blade 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Eoghan Masterson 

7: Jarrad Butler 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Ultan Dillane 

4: Niall Murray 

3: Dominic Robertson McCoy 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Jordan Duggan 

 

Replacements: Jonny Murphy for Delahunt, Matthew Burke for Duggan, Jack Aungier for Robertson McCoy, Oisin Dowling for Murray, Sean Masterson for Masterson, Kieran Marmion for Blade, Sammy Arnold for Daly.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says it is important that Connacht finish their campaign off with a win against the Ospreys on Friday night in order to provide a positive springboard into next season. 

 

After a loss to Benetton Rugby last time out, the Westerners cannot qualify for the GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup final stages and the 6:00 pm kick-off against the Welshmen will be their final game of the season. 

 

Friend, however, believes that a victory will provide confidence going into the 2021/2022 campaign and the game itself — against an Ospreys team who are still in the running for a finals berth — will provide a platform for players to win Ireland selections ahead of the national team’s summer tests. 

 

“We’re all competitors in this game, and you never go into a contest where you don’t want to win it,” the Australian said. 

 

“100% we want to win this game on the weekend and use it as a springboard, that would be good. But even just to finish the season off, because otherwise it just sits in your guts. 

 

“If the last game we have is a loss, it doesn’t help you. You’re sitting there for the next two and a half, three months before you play your next game and you think ‘crikey, that last one wasn’t so flash’, so we all want to win it. 

 

“I certainly know I want to win it and I know, talking to the majority of the players here, there’s an energy and desire to win that.’

 

Ireland will host the United States and Japan in summer tests in July and Friend — who recently marked three years at the province — says that winning squad places for those games will provide extra motivation for his players. 

 

“The players are very aware that there’s an Irish squad that will hopefully be named in a week or two weeks time,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

 

“We’ve got a chunk of players who I believe are able to be named in that. You got to keep performing and you got to keep putting your hand up and there is a motivation in that. 

 

“There is also a motivation and pride in the jersey and what we’re about, so — as we’ve seen this year — we’ve had real highs and real lows, but normally every time we’ve had a low, we’ve bounced back with a real high. 

 

“I think our motivation will be fine. Ospreys beat us this season, so we’ll want to turn the tables on that too.”

 

Elsewhere, centre Bundee Aki said he is extremely proud to represent Connacht and the West of Ireland with the British and Irish Lions this summer. 

 

Aki was named in Warren Gatland’s 37 man squad for the tour to South Africa this summer, becoming the fourth Connacht player to represent the Lions after Ciaran Fitzgerald(1983), John O’Driscoll(1980 and 1983) and Ray O’Loughlin(1966 and 1971)

 

The Ireland international, 31, says that he is grateful for the role that Connacht and the local community have played in helping him achieve such an honour. 

 

“It’s a big honour to be able to be selected in the Lions squad,” Aki said. 

 

“I’m proud to be representing Connacht, as well as Ireland, as well as my family. I won’t be taking anything lightly about it. It’s obviously a huge honour and I will definitely take it with both hands.

 

“I wouldn’t have been where I am now if it wasn’t for the help of the community when I first arrived. They made me feel like I was at home. The support that we have had(his family) from the day we arrived here in Galway, the organisation here in Connacht have been so good to me until this day,” the 2016 PRO12 winner said. 

 

“I’m so grateful for having this kind of support here in Galway. I know the community has been so good. A lot of people have been sending me stuff here and there and it’s overwhelming to be able to have that effect on this community, this small community.”

 

Denis Buckley will become just the third Connacht player to reach 200 caps tomorrow after he was named in the starting XV to face Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup leaders Benetton in Italy (k/o 5.15pm Irish time).
 
The Roscommon prop made his debut for his home province in September 2011, which coincidentally came in the Stadio di Monigo where he will make appearance #200 tomorrow. He joins John Muldoon and Michael Swift as the only players to earn a double century of caps for Connacht.
 
The other notable inclusion is Bundee Aki’s return to the starting XV. Aki hasn’t featured for Connacht in nearly three months after serving a suspension following Ireland duty, and will now be keen to pick up some game-time before he travels with the British & Irish Lions to South Africa.
 
Aki partners Tom Daly in the centre who starts for the 15th consecutive game, while Alex Wootton, Peter Sullivan and John Porch form the back three. The backs are completed by scrum-half Kieran Marmion and out-half Conor Fitzgerald.
 
Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham partner Buckley in the front row, while Niall Murray and Cian Prendergast are retained after excelling away to Munster last time out. Murray partners Ultan Dillane in the second row, while Prendergast is joined in the back row by the returning Paul Boyle and captain Jarrad Butler.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Denis Buckley’s 200th appearance tomorrow is a huge achievement for him personally and those that helped him along the way. Denis is a consummate professional who has shown determination and loyalty in the 10 years since his debut, and to reach a milestone like this for your home province makes it even sweeter for him.
It’s also great to welcome Bundee back to our starting XV. We’re playing a Benetton side who will be hugely motivated to hold on to 1st place in the table, but we’ve still got a lot to play for as well so it should make for a great game”.

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Saturday 29th May, Stadio di Monigo, kick-off 5.15pm Irish time / 6.15pm local time
 
Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (39)
14. Peter Sullivan (15)
13. Bundee Aki (109)
12. Tom Daly (47)
11. Alex Wootton (20)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (35)
9. Kieran Marmion (185)
1. Denis Buckley (199)
2. Shane Delahunt (98)
3. Finlay Bealham (158)
4. Niall Murray (16)
5. Ultan Dillane (112)
6. Cian Prendergast (8)
7. Jarrad Butler (71) (C)
8. Paul Boyle (56)

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (143)
17. Paddy McAllister (17)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (66)
19. Oisin Dowling (5)
20. Abraham Papali’i (13)
21. Caolin Blade (130)
22. Jack Carty (157)
23. Sammy Arnold (14)

The Connacht management team have again drafted the three representatives in the Ireland Six Nations squad straight into the starting team for tomorrow’s crucial Guinness PRO14 interpro away to Munster (k/o 7.35pm).
 
Bundee Aki is retained at centre following his release from Ireland duty last weekend, while Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane both start at hooker and second row respectively.
 
In all there are 7 changes from the side that secured a last-minute win at Benetton. Denis Buckley comes into an experienced front row with Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, while Gavin Thornbury in in the the second row alongside Dillane.
 
Conor Oliver starts at openside flanker to face his former club, joining captain Jarrad Butler and Paul Boyle to complete the pack.
 
There’s a new look half-back pairing of Caolin Blade and Jack Carty, while there are also new faces on the wings with Matt Healy and John Porch coming into the starting line-up. 12, 13 and 15 are unchanged from the Benetton win with Aki, Tom Daly and Tiernan O’Halloran all retained.
 
In all 9 of the starting 15 are Connacht centurions as the side look to extend an all-time club record of 5 straight wins away from home.
 
Head Coach Andy Friend says the importance of the fixture is not lost on the squad.
 
“We know exactly what we need to do tomorrow night in Limerick. There has been barely any talk of securing Champions Cup qualification because our first objective has always been 1st place in the Conference B, so all our focus since last weekend has been on getting a win that gives us that fighting chance of a final spot.”
 
Regarding his team selection, Friend added:
 
“Thankfully we haven’t picked up any major injury worries in our last two games so we’ve a pretty healthy squad apart from our long-term absentees. We’ve named a very experienced starting XV but we’ve made sure to also reward those who showed good form in our last few games. Overall we’re in a positive place and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
 
Ahead of the game all Connacht players and management returned negative results in the latest round of PCR testing.
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Friday 5th March, Thomond Park, kick-off 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (189)
14. John Porch (33)
13. Tom Daly (40)
12. Bundee Aki (108)
11. Matt Healy (145)
10. Jack Carty (151)
9. Caolin Blade (124)
1. Denis Buckley (194)
2. Dave Heffernan (138)
3. Finlay Bealham (152)
4. Ultan Dillane (108)
5. Gavin Thornbury (52)
6. Jarrad Butler (68) (C)
7. Conor Oliver (14)
8. Paul Boyle (52)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (92)
17. Matthew Burke (19)
18. Jack Aungier (11)
19. Niall Murray (11)
20. Eoghan Masterson (104)
21. Kieran Marmion (178)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (4)
23. Alex Wootton (15)

Benetton Rugby: 17

Connacht: 19

 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

A last gasp Bundee Aki try saw Connacht defeat Benetton Treviso and set a club record for consecutive league away wins with five. 

 

Despite tries from props Finlay Bealham and Paddy McAllister, the away team trailed 17-14 with only a minute remaining against the resolute Italians. Reneging on the opportunity to kick a penalty at goal and claim a draw, Connacht were rewarded for their bravery when Aki touched down at the tail of a powerful rolling maul to seal the win. 

 

Conor Fitzgerald added four points to the tally, converting Bealham and McAllister’s tries, as the away team eked out a deserved win. 

 

Connacht began the game with an attacking mindset and they looked to play with pace and precision at every given opportunity. 

 

With a penalty advantage, Kieran Marmion’s clever grubber kick behind found Tom Daly and the centre powered into space and was stopped just short of the line by the hosts’ scramble defence. 

 

Connacht elected to take a scrum when the advantage didn’t yield an immediate score and the play was brought back. Paul Boyle picked from the back of the set-piece and was denied close to the line, but the visitors reloaded and applied more phases of pressure and Bealham eventually made it count when he surged over the line from close range. 

 

Fitzgerald made no mistake in adding the extras and the Westerners found themselves in a deserved 7-0 lead nearing the 20-minute mark. 

 

The visitors, with Marmion central to their attacking forays, poured forward in search of more tries but it was Benetton — who had a man advantage after Shane Delahunt’s yellow card — who struck next. After a series in the Westerners 22, Davide Ruggeri — the blindside flanker — bundled his way over the line for the Italians’ opening score, which was converted by Edoardo Padovani. 

 

With the wind in their sails, Benetton made it two tries when Leonardo Sarto’s searing run saw the Italian international winger speed up the flank and touch down for a score of individual brilliance which Padovani converted to put the hosts in the lead for the first time; 14-7.

 

The hosts held the lead for the final minutes of the half and the half time score read: Benetton Rugby 14-7 Connacht. 

 

The Westerners, still down a man, started the second half with attacking intent and they registered their second try barely seconds after the beginning of the half. After a number of strong carries close to the line after a break Boyle established Connacht field position, McAllister powered his way over for a try which Fitzgerald converted the level the sides at 14-14. 

 

With the Benetton defence strong, Connacht were unable to regularly establish territory in the hosts half and the home team grew stronger in attack as the half progressed. After applying pressure to the Westerners’ defence with five minutes remaining, the hosts were awarded a penalty. Stepping up, Padovani made no mistake in firing the Italians into a 17-14 lead with scarcely five minutes remaining at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo.

 

 Aki then won Connacht a penalty immediately after the game restarted the away team elected to kick to the corner for the line out. The line out was stolen, but the away team’s excellent breakdown work saw them awarded another penalty not long after. This time, the set-piece worked a treat and Aki put the finishing touches on a powerful rolling maul for the game-winning score. 

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Tom Daly 

12: Bundee Aki

11: Alex Wootton 

10: Conor Fitzgerald 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

8: Paul Boyle 

7: Jarrad Butler ©

6: Eoghan Masterson

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Paddy McAllister 

 

Replacements: Denis Buckley for McAllister, Jonny Murphy for Delahunt, Caolin Blade for Marmion, John Porch for Sullivan, Niall Murray for Thornbury, Sean Masterson for Masterson.

Bundee Aki has been released from Ireland duty to start for Connacht in Friday evening’s Guinness PRO14 clash away to Benetton Rugby (k/o 5.30pm Irish time).

Aki started in last week’s bonus point win over Cardiff Blues and will again play tomorrow in boost to Andy Friend’s side who look to make it three wins on the bounce in the PRO14.

Oisin Dowling has also been handed his first start for the province, having featured off the bench in the last two games.

Dowling is joined alongside Gavin Thornbury in the second row, with Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham completing the tight five. The back row is unchanged from the win over Cardiff Blues last time out, with Paul Boyle at number 8 alongside flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler.

There’s a new-look half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion alongside Conor Fitzgerald, while Tom Daly partners Aki in the centre. Finally Tiernan O’Halloran is handed his first start in nearly two months after recovering from injury, taking his place at full-back with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.

There’s an experienced look to the bench with centurions Denis Buckley, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty all included.

Head Coach Andy Friend says they are keen to give game-time to some players without disrupting the flow of a number of impressive team performances:

“This is a big day for Oisin getting his first start, and with Bundee released from Ireland duty and the likes of Tiernan and Kieran coming into the team also they bring a lot of experience with them. Overall we’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going.”

Friend also stressed the importance of treating each game like a cup final during this final run-in:

“I said at the start of this block of games that we realistically need 5 wins from 5 to have a chance of finishing top of the Conference, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before. Italy is always a tough place to get a win and we’ve seen from their last few performances that they’re getting closer to that first victory this season, so we have to be at our best to make sure that doesn’t come against us.”

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Friday 26th February, Stadio Monigo, kickoff 5.30pm Irish time / 6.30pm local

Name/Number/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (188)
14. Peter Sullivan (9)
13. Tom Daly (39)
12. Bundee Aki (107)
11. Alex Wootton (14)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (29)
9. Kieran Marmion (177)
1. Paddy McAllister (15)
2. Shane Delahunt (91)
3. Finlay Bealham (151)
4. Oisin Dowling (2)
5. Gavin Thornbury (51)
6. Eoghan Masterson (103)
7. Jarrad Butler (67) (C)
8. Paul Boyle (51)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (12)
17. Denis Buckley (193)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (60)
19. Niall Murray (10)
20. Sean Masterson (9)
21. Caolin Blade (123)
22. Jack Carty (151)
23. John Porch (32)

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