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.

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: Mack Hansen
14: John Porch
13: Tom Farrell
12: Tom Daly
11: Alex Wootton
10: Conor Fitzgerald
9: Caolin Blade

(8-1)

8: Jarrad Butler ©
7: Conor Oliver
6: Cian Prendergast
5: Leva Fifita
4: Gavin Thornbury
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley

Replacements:

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

The Connacht management team have named their matchday 23 for tomorrow’s URC fixture against the Cell C Sharks in Durban (k/o 3.05pm Irish time).
 
A win for Andy Friend’s side would cap a second win on their tour of South Africa, and would ensure they become the first team to beat all four South African sides, having already defeated the Vodacom Bulls, DHL Stormers and Emirates Lions.
 
There are six changes from the side that beat the Lions last week, with Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita, Conor Oliver, Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Farrell all brought into the starting XV.
 
Bealham forms an experienced front row with Denis Buckley and Dave Heffernan, while Jarrad Butler captains the side from number 8 with Cian Prendergast at blindside flanker.
 
It’s an historic game for Monivea scrum-half Caolin Blade who reaches 150 appearances for the club, while Tom Daly partners Farrell at centre. The back three is unchanged so Mack Hansen again starts at full-back with wingers Alex Wootton and John Porch for company.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Beating all four South African teams would be a tremendous achievement but we’re full aware we’ve a significant task ahead of us tomorrow. The Sharks have named a side full of Springbok internationals and will have a large and passionate fanbase behind them in Durban.
 
That said, the group has taken huge confidence from the win in Johannesburg and the atmosphere around the camp all week has been really positive.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS CELL C SHARKS
Saturday 30th April, 15:05 Irish time / 16:05 local time @ Hollywoodbets Kings Park
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Mack Hansen (13)
14. John Porch (57)
13. Tom Farrell (77)
12. Tom Daly (59)
11. Alex Wootton (32)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (51)
9. Caolin Blade (149)
1. Denis Buckley (206)
2. Dave Heffernan (163)
3. Finlay Bealham (172)
4. Gavin Thornbury (61)
5. Leva Fifita (14)
6. Cian Prendergast (29)
7. Conor Oliver (40)
8. Jarrad Butler (94) (C)

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin (4)
17. Jordan Duggan (27)
18. Jack Aungier (30)
19. Niall Murray (33)
20. Oisín Dowling (24)
21. Kieran Marmion (207)
22. Jack Carty (178)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (205)

The inclusion of Caolin Blade is the only change to the starting XV for Connacht’s Heineken Champions Cup R16 2nd leg with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (k/o 5.30pm).
 
The Monivea native is named at scrum-half with the remaining 14 players unchanged from the side that started the 1st leg at The Sportsground.
 
Kieran Marmion is named among the replacements while there’s two further changes on the bench, with the inclusion of Denis Buckley having returned from injury, and hooker Jonny Murphy. Conor Fitzgerald will make his 50th appearance for the province if called upon.
 
A win of 6 points or more would see Connacht qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in their history.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Andy Friend says:
 
“While our performance last week was good overall, there was a very real sense of disappointment that we didn’t get the win. Having said that, I know this group can bring their performance on another level, which is essential if we’re to reach the last eight.
 
We’ve a good record in the Aviva over the last two years or so and it’s a pitch that suits our style of rugby. Coupled with a strong travelling support behind us it’s set to be another great occasion.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Friday 15th April, 17:30 @ Aviva Stadium
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (204)
14. John Porch (55)
13. Tom Farrell (76)
12. Bundee Aki (116)
11. Mack Hansen (11)
10. Jack Carty (176) (C)
9. Caolin Blade (147)
1. Matthew Burke (37)
2. Dave Heffernan (161)
3. Finlay Bealham (171)
4. Gavin Thornbury (60)
5. Leva Fifita (12)
6. Cian Prendergast (27)
7. Conor Oliver (38)
8. Jarrad Butler (92)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (20)
17. Denis Buckley (204)
18. Jack Aungier (28)
19. Oisín Dowling (22)
20. Abraham Papali’i (23)
21. Kieran Marmion (205)
22. Sammy Arnold (36)
23. Conor Fitzgerald (49)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht were defeated 37-31 by Stade Francais in a hugely entertaining Heineken Champions Cup game in Paris today. 

 

Despite securing a try and losing bonus point, thanks to five pointers from Alex Wootton, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell and Jarrad Butler – with Jack Carty adding four conversions and a penalty – the Westerners, who had already qualified for the last sixteen prior to kick-off, lost out to the home team. 

 

The hosts, meanwhile, knew they needed a bonus-point win to potentially qualify for the next round and they kept their end of the bargain up.

 

Connacht looked to be aggressive from the very first whistle and they played with width and tempo. Their ambition was rewarded after six minutes when Sammy Arnold’s accurate cross-field kick – with an advantage accruing – found Wootton and the winger showed a great step to dart into the defensive gap and strength to dot down the ball. Carty added the extras and the away team were deservedly ahead, 7-0

 

Stade Francais knew that a bonus-point win – plus results going their way elsewhere – would give them a chance to qualify for the last 16 and they continued to pile on the pressure and it reaped rewards when Nicolas Sanchez added a penalty and then, only two minutes later, Adrien Lapegue crossed for a try. Sanchez converted and the home team lead for the first time at 10-7 in what was an entertaining opening twenty minutes in Paris. 

 

The away team were using their accurate line out as a launchpad for attacks and, after turning the screw for a few phases after the set-piece with Cian Prendergast carrying hard, they earned a penalty that Carty slotted to tie the score up at 10-10.

 

Stade Francais thought they had scored a second try when Leo Barre went over in the corner, but – upon a TMO check – the try was correctly disallowed when Tolu Latu was yellow-carded for a dangerous clear-out on Shane Delahunt in the build-up. 

 

With the man advantage, Connacht went for the jugular and their pressure yielded a score close to halftime. Once again, a safely secured line out gave the Westerners a platform, and, from the back of the maul, Blade showed bravery and strength to power over the line from close range. Carty kicked the extras and the away team went into the interval leading 17-10.

 

If Connacht ended the first half well, then Stade started the second period on the front foot and they had a try barely a minute in Laumape – the former All Black – went over in the corner. The conversion was wide, so the Westerners held onto their lead 17-15.

 

The Westerners’ dusted themselves off and looked to work their way back into the game and they had their third try of the afternoon not long into the second half. Latu had received a second yellow for the hosts for dissent and, sniffing blood, the away team looked to move the ball wide. Arnold’s beautiful offload found Farrell and the centre showed pace to canter over in the corner. Carty once again nailed the conversion and Connacht found themselves nine points ahead at 24-15.

 

To their credit, Stade kept fighting with fourteen men and they registered the next try when Kylan Hamdaoui crossed for an unconverted try that meant the Westerners still lead at 24-20.

 

Continuing the tit for tat nature of tries, it was Connacht’s turn next to go under the posts. A beautiful line from Butler saw him dart into space. The back row then combined with Conor Oliver and the openside unselfishly returned a pass to Butler to go in unopposed under the sticks. Carty made no mistake from the tee and the away team wrapped up their try bonus point and lead 31-20 after an hour. 

 

An enthralling fixture had its next big moment when Ryan Chapuis, the back row, went over for a try in the corner. Sanchez kicked the conversion and Connacht’s lead was reduced to four points. The Westerners’ also lost Oliver to a yellow card in what was set up to be a tense finishing ten minutes. 

 

With the numbers even, the Parisians added another try when Lapegue crossed for his second try and the hosts took the lead at 34-31.

 

With their wind in their sails and an even number of players on the field, the hosts slotted a late penalty through Sanchez to give them the bonus point win and six-point margin of victory they needed to potentially qualify for the latter rounds. 

 

Connacht team:

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran

14: Alex Wootton 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Sammy Arnold 

11: Mack Hansen 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Caolin Blade 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Niall Murray 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Greg McGrath 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Jordan Duggan 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dave Heffernan for Delahunt

17: Charlie Ward 

18: Sam Illo for Greg McGrath

19: Leva Fifita for Oisin Dowling

20: Paul Boyle for Prendergast

21: Colm Reilly for Blade

22: Conor Fitzgerald 

23: Diarmuid Kilgallen for Tiernan O’Halloran

Head coach Andy Friend is confident that his Connacht squad will show the depth of their character this coming Sunday when they face Stade Francais in Paris at 1 PM in the Heineken Champions Cup.

 

The Westerners know that a win against the French side will see them qualify for the knock-out rounds of the competition for the first time in the club’s history.

 

And, despite the disappointment of losing at home to the Leicester Tigers – 29-28– last weekend, Friend believes that his players will have the correct mentality in order to process the defeat and take the necessary lessons into Sunday’s game and use them to their advantage.

 

“All I do know is that we have learned from that,” the Australian said of the round three game with Leicester at the Sportsground.

 

“Listen, there’s so many learns we get this year in every game and we seem to get good learns out of it. What was really pleasing was we had Sunday and Monday off and there was a lot of conversations going on over the weekend, people owning things, people putting their hand up, so many good things happened.

 

“But, at the end of the day, we let an eighteen-point lead slip, so we bounced back in here on Tuesday and there was no hiding from that: it was put to bed and we’ve got an energized team now looking forward to Stade.”

 

Friend is sure that the route to any Connacht victory will be through the quick attacking game that the Sportsground men always look to operate with – one which he says will suit the Parisians 4G pitch – and takes confidence from how well that approach worked in the Leicester game, despite the result.

 

“All we know is that we need to turn up to Stade in Paris on Sunday and we need to play our best brand of rugby. And if we do that and we put out a really good performance, I truly think we can win over there in France. That’s what we’re going to focus on.

 

“We’re going to be picking a team, it’s a 4G pitch, that’s going to need to be fast. We’re going to need to be strong in our set-piece, so we want to be able to pick a team that will express that and show that and you may well see a few new faces in there(from the Leicester match).”

 

Meanwhile, scrum-half Caolin Blade says the Connacht squad are keen to make amends for last weekend’s defeat to the Leicester Tigers this coming Sunday.

 

A win over Stade Francais would qualify the Westerners for the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in their history and the Monivea man is eager for the opportunity to play in the later rounds of the tournament.

 

However, the Irish international insists his – and indeed the team’s – first priority is to ensure their performance is at a high level, and then the result, he is confident, will follow.

 

“Yeah, I suppose it’s one day longer to do it. We’d prefer if we were playing on Friday night because everyone is itching to get out there,” he said.

 

“As I said the longer little bit of time kind of gives us time to reflect and then we can start this week fresh.

 

“Look, we’re going over there to win, we’re going over there to, as you said, get higher in the table, but it’s all about the performance and the result will follow after that.”

 

Despite the reversal against the Tigers, Blade insists that Connacht can learn a lot from the 29-28 loss and from the mentality the English Premiership table-toppers showed.

 

The 27-year-old is confident that the lessons learned from the round three clash last Saturday afternoon can be applied successfully by the Westerners in Paris on Sunday.

 

“I think one thing they did really well when I look back at it, is they stuck to exactly what they were doing and their rugby DNA and they stuck to it and they ground out the win.

 

“I think we need to have confidence in ourselves, in our coaches and have confidence in our players and just be an eighty-minute team.”

Caolin Blade and Paul Boyle could make their senior international debuts on Saturday after they were named in the matchday 23 for Saturday’s Summer Series clash with USA at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 7.15pm).
 
The pair are among four Connacht players on the replacements bench for the game, alongside Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham.
 
James Ryan wears the captain’s armband and will is partnered in the second row by Ryan Baird. In the backrow Caelan Doris switches to the blindside flank to accommodate Gavin Coombes at No.8 with the uncapped Nick Timoney at openside.
 
In the front row Tom O’Toole is set to make his international debut alongside Ronan Kelleher
and Dave Kilcoyne.
 
At half-back Craig Casey will make his first start for Ireland and will partner his provincial colleague Joey Carbery. Stuart McCloskey retains the inside centre berth and is joined by fellow Ulsterman debutant James Hume. Hugo Keenan starts his 13th consecutive game at fullback with Andrew Conway and the uncapped Robert Baloucoune on the wings.
 
Vodafone Summer Series 2021
Ireland team to play USA – 10th July 2021, Aviva Stadium

15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 12 caps
14. Robert Baloucoune (Ulster/Enniskillen) uncapped
13. James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
12. Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor) 5 caps
11. Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen) 24 caps
10. Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 23 caps
9. Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 2 caps

1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 44 caps
2. Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 12 caps
3. Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) uncapped
4. Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 4 caps
5. James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 36 caps captain
6. Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 8 caps
7. Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
8. Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) 1 cap

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 5 caps
17. Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) 5 caps
18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 15 caps
19. Fineen Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped
20. Paul Boyle (Connacht/Buccaneers) uncapped
21. Caolin Blade (Connacht/Galwegians) uncapped
22. Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
23. Will Addison (Ulster/Enniskillen) 4 caps

Andy Farrell and the coaching team have named a 37 man squad for the Vodafone Summer Series which features two Tests in July against Japan and the USA at the Aviva Stadium.
 
The match against Japan on Saturday 3rd July will kick off at 1.00pm and the fixture against the USA on Saturday 10th July will kick off at 7.15pm. Both fixtures are part of the government’s outdoor pilot sport event programme which will see limited supporters back in the Aviva Stadium.
 
James Ryan will captain the squad during the Vodafone Summer Series and there are 11 uncapped players named – Robert Baloucoune, Tom O’Toole, Nick Timoney (Ulster), Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Paul Boyle, (Connacht), Harry Byrne, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony (Leinster), Gavin Coombes, Fineen Wycherley (Munster).
 
Andy Farrell, Ireland head coach, said, “We now have two games at home to focus on which will be a good challenge for the group. Japan played the Sunwolves at the weekend and will play the Lions the week before we play at the Aviva Stadium and we know the quality of their squad from the World Cup. We will assemble as a squad on the 22nd June and begin our preparations for the two games.
 
I know the players will come in eager to make the most of this opportunity to pull on the green jersey and play in front of supporters for at the Aviva Stadium for the first time in 18 months.
 
Johnny (Sexton), Cian (Healy) and Keith (Earls) will not be involved in this window as we grow the experience of other players. It will be a great opportunity to see can this group perform at this level.”
 
Both games will be broadcast live by RTE (ROI) and Channel 4 (NI).
 
Ireland Vodafone Summer Series Squad 2021
 
Backs (17)
Will Addison (Ulster/Enniskillen) 4 caps
Robert Baloucoune (Ulster/Enniskillen) uncapped
Caolin Blade (Connacht/Galwegians) uncapped
Billy Burns (Ulster) 6 caps
Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 22 caps
Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 1 cap
Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen) 24 caps
Shane Daly (Munster/Cork Constitution) 1 cap
Tom Daly (Connacht/Lansdowne) uncapped
Chris Farrell (Munster/Young Munster) 14 caps
Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 9 caps
Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 11 caps
Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 29 caps
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor) 4 caps
Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 34 caps
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan) 34 caps

Forwards (20)
Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 3 caps
Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 14 caps
Paul Boyle (Connacht/Lansdowne) uncapped
Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) 4 caps
Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped
Ultan Dillane (Connacht/Corinthians) 18 caps
Peter Dooley (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
Caelan Doris (Leinster/UCD) 7 caps
Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 5 caps
Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 21 caps
Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 11 caps
Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 43 caps
Ross Molony (Leinster/UCD) uncapped
Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 75 caps
Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) uncapped
James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 35 caps
John Ryan (Munster/Cork Constitution) 23 caps
Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 31 caps
Fineen Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped

Selected for British & Irish Lions Tour:
Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Andrew Porter (inj)

Ireland Summer Test Fixtures:

IRELAND v Japan
Saturday 3rd July, 2021
Aviva Stadium
KO: 13.00hrs
Broadcaster: RTE & Channel 4

IRELAND v USA
Saturday 10th July, 2021
Aviva Stadium
KO: 19.15hrs
Broadcaster: RTE & Channel 4

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht 21

Leinster 50

 

Connacht fell to a 21-50 defeat to Leinster in a GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup clash at The Sportsground.

 

Despite the hosts leading 16-0 early in the first half, the away team recovered to score eight tries in an impressive performance. Caolin Blade and Peter Sullivan touched down for tries for the home team and the boot of Conor Fitzgerald tacked on eleven points through three penalties and a conversion.

 

The home team began with a physical and attacking intent and their ambition yielded early points through two Fitzgerald penalties, both of which were slotted home with conviction. 

 

If Connacht’s beginning to the game was marked by aggression in attack, they were equally hungry to impose themselves on the other side of the ball. 

 

With their defensive line keen to blitz, the hosts forced an interception and Blade — showing an intelligent reading of the game — plucked a Leinster pass and ran in for the try. Fitzgerald once again showed composure with the boot and the Westerners lead 13-0.

 

With their tails up, Connacht continued to push and probe for more scores. A puncturing run from Sean O’Brien blasted through the visitor’s defence and established field position for the hosts in the 22. From there, they earned a penalty and Fitzgerald kept his 100% rate off the tee up with a kick that nudged the home team into a 16-0 lead. 

 

To their credit, though, Leinster recovered and began to exert themselves into the game after a powerful opening 15 minutes from Connacht. The Eastern province ran in five tries in a twenty-five-minute period with Irish international Hugo Keenan(2), and James Treacy touching down while Ross Molony and Cian Kelleher also crossed the whitewash. Ross Byrne was accurate with four of his five conversions and the away team went into the halftime break leading 33-16.

 

The away team began the second half in a similar manner and they had their sixth try when recently selected Lion Andrew Porter touched down at the tail of a rolling maul and — with Byrne adding the extras — Leinster broke the forty-point mark.

 

With all the momentum behind them, the away team added their seventh score of the evening when Scott Fardy touched down after a rolling maul surged towards the line. 

 

Connacht — with replacement Abraham Papali’i prominent in the ball carrying stakes — improved thereafter and they dotted down their second try after Fitzgerald’s looping pass found Sullivan and the winger showed both pace and strength to burst through the defence and touch down to take the score to 21-45.

 

Leinster had the last say when Keenan completed his hattrick and capped the win for the Eastern province at 21-50.

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: John Porch 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Sean O’Brien

12: Tom Daly 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Conor Fitzgerald

9: Caolin Blade

 

(8-1)

 

8: Jarrad Butler(C)

7: Conor Oliver

6: Eoghan Masterson

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Niall Murray

3: Finlay Bealham

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Denis Buckley 

 

Replacements: Jonny Murphy for Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke for Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Finlay Bealham, Cian Prendergast for Conor Oliver, Abraham Papali’i for Jarrad Butler, Kieran Marmion for Blade, Sammy Arnold for John Porch, Oran McNulty for Matt Healy.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Ulster 24

Connacht 26

 

Connacht began their Rainbow Cup campaign with a dramatic 26-24 win over Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

 

A brace of tries from Caolin Blade as well as tries from Paul Boyle and Peter Sullivan secured the away team both the win and the try bonus point in a gutsy attacking performance. 

 

Trailing 24-21 going into the final play of the game, the visitors turned down a shot at goal and the possibility of drawing the game. Instead, they bravely kicked to the corner and — after securing the line out — they worked a move with culminated in Sullivan diving in to win the game with the last play of the game.

 

With the ball quick and track dry, Connacht started the game with an attacking ambition and their efforts were rewarded eight minutes in. 

 

After securing clean line out ball, the visitors launched a patient, probing move. With Boyle, Eoghan Masterson and Ultan Dillane making big incisions into Ulster territory, the Westerners established field position in the 22. 

 

The ball was eventually worked to Boyle and the captain — who recognised a gap in the host’s defensive line — burst through a would be tackle to touch down for a try that Carty converted with aplomb. 

 

Ulster worked their way back into the contest thereafter, however, and — after a period of sustained pressure — Irish international Jacob Stockdale crossed for a try in the corner after a well-constructed move. The conversion went wide, though, and Connacht held onto their lead at 7-5.

 

The home team pressed for more scores, but they found the Connacht defence — with Ben O’Donnell particularly impressive — stubborn and well drilled. 

 

But the Northern province didn’t relent and their pressure did eventually tell, however, when Rob Herring, at the tail of a rolling maul, touched down for a try. John Cooney made no mistake adding the extras and Ulster found themselves in the lead at 12-7, a score they held going into the half time break. 

 

The home team began the second half in a similar manner to which they ended the first and they only had to wait four minutes to dot down their third try of the evening. Irish international Billy Burns was the benefactor of quick ball and he crossed for the score near the touchline. The conversion was wide, but Connacht found themselves 17-7 down. 

 

With the introduction of Abraham Papali’i, the Westerners wrestled back the momentum. With a huge carry from the base of a scrum, the number 8 punctured through the Ulster defence. Blade, sensing a break was on, then showed a brilliant burst of speed and step to cut through and score a try. Tom Daly — who took over kicking responsibilities after Carty was yellow-carded — slotted the extras and Connacht brought themselves back into an entertaining contest, only trailing by three points at 17-14.

 

With their tails up, Connacht were attacking with pace and power and Papali’i was especially prominent in ensuring go forward ball. Dillane — whose line out prowess and ball carrying was sublime all evening — thought he was over when he burst through the defence and almost touched down. 

 

Once again, Blade was alive to the opportunity and picked from the next phase and crossed for the try. Replacement Conor Fitzgerald converted and Westerners retook the lead at 21-17.

 

In a tit for tat contest, Ulster were the next to score when replacement scrum-half Dave Shananhan showed pace to run in a converted try and the lead swapped hands again with Ulster leading 24-21 with five minutes remaining.

 

But Connacht weren’t to be denied and they showed intelligence and bravery to win the game at the death. Firstly, a captain’s calls saw the Westerners awarded a penalty in the Ulster half for hands on the ground. 

 

Fitzgerald turned down the shot at goal and the draw and kicked the corner. The line out was accurate and the away team established themselves position in the Ulster 22. The ball was worked wide and Marmion stabbed a grubber kick in behind and Sullivan — showing acrobatic skills — touched down for the game-winning score in the last play. 

 

Connacht team:

 

(15-9)

15: John Porch 

14: Ben O’Donnell 

13: Sean O’Brien 

12: Tom Daly 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Jack Carty

9: Caolin Blade 

 

(8-1)

8: Paul Boyle © 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Eoghan Masterson 

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Ultan Dillane 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Jordan Duggan 

 

Replacements: Shane Delahunt for Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke for Duggan, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Finlay Bealham, Niall Murray for Gavin Thornbury, Abraham Papali’i for Boyle, Kieran Marmion for Blade, Conor Fitzgerald for Carty, Peter Sullivan for Matt Healy.

The Connacht management team have made three changes to their starting XV ahead of tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup interpro with Ulster at Kingspan Stadium (k/o 8.15pm).
 
Two changes come in the backs, where Caolin Blade is promoted to the number 9 shirt and Ben O’Donnell is named on the wing. The final change is in the front row where Jordan Duggan starts at loosehead.
 
Otherwise the team is as selected against Leicester in the Challenge Cup, with the experienced duo of Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham joining Duggan in the front row, a second row duo of Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury, and a back row consisting of flankers Eoghan Masterson and Conor Oliver, and captain Paul Boyle at number 8.
 
Jack Carty partners Blade at out-half, Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien continue their centre partnership, and winger Matt Healy and full-back John Porch form the back three with O’Donnell.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“There is still huge disappointment with our Challenge Cup exit and our last few performances, so this is a game where I’m fully expecting a reaction from the players. This is a new competition for us but as with competition we play in, we’re going out to win it. Our team selection reflects that and if we play the way I know we can, we’ll give ourselves a great chance of making a positive start to the Rainbow Cup.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
Friday 23rd April, Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 8.15pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (36)
14. Ben O’Donnell (4)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (7)
12. Tom Daly (44)
11. Matt Healy (148)
10. Jack Carty (155)
9. Caolin Blade (127)
1. Jordan Duggan (11)
2. Dave Heffernan (140)
3. Finlay Bealham (155)
4. Ultan Dillane (110)
5. Gavin Thornbury (56)
6. Eoghan Masterson (107)
7. Conor Oliver (17)
8. Paul Boyle (55) (C)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (96)
17. Matthew Burke (20)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (63)
19. Niall Murray (13)
20. Abraham Papali’i (10)
21. Kieran Marmion (182)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (32)
23. Peter Sullivan (12)

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