By John O’Sullivan

 

Connacht 14-15 Edinburgh.

 

An Edinburgh try in the last play of the game condemned Connacht to a 14-15 defeat at a rain-sodden Sportsground. 

 

Tries from Sean O’Brien — who marked his first start in style — and Shane Delahunt — both of which Jack Carty converted — saw the hosts establish a 14-5 half time lead, with Edinburgh’s score coming from lock Magnus Bradbury.

 

However, the Westerners were reduced to 14 men early in the second half when captain Jarrad Butler was red-carded for a high tackle and the visitors took advantage, scoring eight unanswered points — via a try, conversion and penalty from out-half Nathan Chamberlain — to seal the win with a touch down in the last play of the game.

 

It was a big night for O’Brien and Cian Prendergast, who both had positive performances in their first starts, as well as Oran McNulty, who made his professional debut as a second-half replacement.

 

With the pre-match rain subsiding, Connacht looked to attack early on and run the ball. Their efforts were rewarded when O’Brien — in his first senior start for the province — ran a powerful, cutting line to meet Kieran Marmion’s pass and power over the line after the Westerners quickly recycled the ball when Edinburgh tackled Alex Wootton close to the line. Carty made no mistake in adding the extras and the hosts had a deserved 7-0 lead.

 

Connacht were intent on adding to their early try and enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession and territory for the majority of the opening half. The Scots were resolute in defence, though, and held out before launching a rare attack and scoring. 

 

Eventually, after a series of hard carries in the 22, lock Magnus Bradbury stooped over the line to touch down for an unconverted try, which brought the score to 7-5 in favour of the hosts. 

 

The Westerners — with second-row Niall Murray particularly impressive —  reacted well to the concession of this try and closed out the half with a score of their own.

 

Turning down the opportunity to kick at goal on the brink of half time, Connacht instead kicked to the line. Their ambition paid dividends when Delahunt, at the tail of a powerful, marching maul, touched down and Carty, despite the difficult angle, accurately slotted the extras to make the half time score 14-5.

 

The second half began in a similar fashion with Connacht looking to add to their two tries. Edinburgh, however, were sturdy in defence and held firm. 

 

After a red card for Butler reduced the Westerners to 14, the Scotsmen seized the initiative in attack. 

 

Chamberlain brought the score back to 14-8 with a penalty and then, in the last play of the game — after Connacht, with replacements Jordan Duggan and Conor Kenny especially impressive in defence, had remained airtight in defence — the out half ran in a try under the posts, which he converted, to give the away team the win.

 

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15:Alex Wootton

14:Ben O’Donnell

13: Sean O’Brien

12: Tom Daly

11: Matt Healy

10: Jack Carty

9: Kieran Marmion

 

(1-8)

  1. Denis Buckley
  2. Shane Delahunt
  3. Jack Aungier
  4. Niall Murray
  5. Gavin Thornbury
  6. Cian Prendergast
  7. Jarrad Butler (C)
  8. Eoghan Masterson

 

Replacements: Jonny Murphy f0r Delahunt, Jordan Duggan for Buckley, Conor Kenny for Aungier, Abraham Papali’i for Prendergast, Caolin Blade for Marmion, Oran McNulty for O’Donnell.

 

With Heineken Champions Cup rugby already secured, the Connacht management have opted for a much-changed squad to face Edinburgh at The Sportsground tomorrow night (k/o 7.35pm).

Three Academy players will mark milestones in the game, with Cian Prendergast and centre Sean O’Brien handed their first starts and Oran McNulty in line for his first pro appearance off the bench.

Yesterday it was announced that Prendergast and McNulty have both signed Professional contracts for the 2021-22 season.

Hooker Shane Delahunt is joined by props Denis Buckley and Jack Aungier in the front row, while in the second row Niall Murray partners Gavin Thornbury fresh off the back of a brilliant Player of the Match performance against Munster last week.

Jarrad Butler will lead the team out from openside flanker with Prendergast on the opposite flank and Eoghan Masterson at number 8.

Jack Carty continues at out-half where he’s partnered by Kieran Marmion, while Tom Daly joins Sean O’Brien at centre. There’s an exciting back three line-up of Matt Healy, Ben O’Donnell and Alex Wootton to complete the side.

Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:

“Securing a top 3 finish with games to spare gives us a really good opportunity to give more minutes to players who have been knocking on the door all season. That said, we are still going out there as eager as ever to pick up another win. It would be another positive step for us to secure 2nd place in the Conference so that’s what we’ll look to do, and the task for this group of players is to build on last week’s performance against Munster.”

All Connacht pro players and management again returned negative results in the latest round of PCR testing.

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS EDINBURGH RUGBY
Saturday 13th March, The Sportsground, kick-off 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Alex Wootton (16)
14. Ben O’Donnell (2)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (4)
12. Tom Daly (41)
11. Matt Healy (146)
10. Jack Carty (152)
9. Kieran Marmion (179)
1. Denis Buckley (195)
2. Shane Delahunt (93)
3. Jack Aungier (12)
4. Niall Murray (11)
5. Gavin Thornbury (53)
6. Cian Prendergast (5)
7. Jarrad Butler (69) (C)
8. Eoghan Masterson (105)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (13)
17. Jordan Duggan (8)
18. Conor Kenny (10)
19. Abraham Papali’i (7)
20. Conor Oliver (15)
21. Caolin Blade (125)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (30)
23. Oran McNulty *

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend insists that Connacht can finish their season on a positive note, despite last weekend’s narrow defeat to Munster meaning the Westerners cannot win domestic silverware this term. 

 

After the 20-17 reversal at Thomond Park, Connacht now sit 12 points behind their Southern rivals in Conference B in the PRO14, which — with two games remaining — is an unassailable lead. 

 

However, with the Westerners drawn away to Leicester Tigers in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup and the remaining PRO14 fixtures providing the opportunity to nail down second place, Friend believes that the Sportsground team can still have a successful season, starting with Edinburgh at home on Saturday night.

 

“I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for us,” The Australian said of Connacht’s prospects in the Challenge Cup, which will restart on the weekend of April the second, third or fourth.

 

“We started out, at the front end of the year, in The Champions Cup and as the way the year has fallen we’ve moved back into the Challenge Cup. We also now know we won’t be competing for silverware in this initial period of the PRO14.

 

“Silverware and podium finishes is where we want to be, especially looking at this Challenge Cup as a real opportunity for us to go and win something. We have actually broken a few records this year — some good, some not so good — home losses and away wins. If we broke another one and that’s cracking a win in England; fantastic, I would be all for that.”

 

Connacht defeated Edinburgh 37-26 in the reverse fixture in October and Friend insists that the clash with the Scots is a match that the Westerners will look to win. But the game will also see the Sportsground team rotate players who have seen less game time recently given the opportunity to start. 

 

“We’re certainly going to be picking a team that we want to win in this contest, but I think it is a really good opportunity for us to provide a platform to certain individuals. That’s not taking anything away nor disrespecting Edinburgh at all,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

 

“We’ll wait to see what that side is when we put it out there, but I see these last two games as being a really good chance in a year where we haven’t had a lot of rugby for certain people to give people some game time and hopefully we can see a good performance from them as they have been waiting for an opportunity to deliver.”

 

Meanwhile, prop Denis Buckley says that Edinburgh will provide a stern test for the Connacht pack and they will have to be at their physical best to defeat the Scotsmen. 

 

The Roscommon native also highlighted the set-piece as an area where the Scots — who are coached by former England international hooker Richard Cockerill — are particularly strong and the Westerners, he says, will have to come out on top of that battle in order to win.

 

“I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say around rugby games, but they are a pretty, direct physical team, so to match that will be vital. It starts with the forwards.

 

“They have a good set-piece and they play a forward-oriented game. We have to meet fire with fire there and try to get on top in that part of the game will give us a pretty good foundation to get a victory”.

 

Reacting to Connacht’s Challenge Cup draw away to Leicester Tigers, Buckley acknowledged the size of the challenge in facing the Tigers, one of European Rugby’s most storied clubs. 

 

However, the loose-head believes that the Westerners can win the competition, especially with their strong away form this season. Should the Sportsground men progress they will face either Newcastle Falcons or Ospreys at home in the quarter-final.

 

“They’re obviously a really good side. It would have been nice to have a home draw, but this is the card we have been dealt. Look, we have two big games in the league first and we want to tie down that second place. 

 

“But then, it’s a really exciting game to start building towards. Our away form has been really good this year and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking to win that competition. It’ll start with a good performance against them, hopefully.”

Connacht are boosted by the return of Irish international Quinn Roux for their PRO14 clash with Edinburgh in the Sportsground on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm). Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane are all rested after their involvement with Ireland’s Grand Slam winning Six Nations squad.

Flanker Eoin McKeon has also returned to the starting XV having been unavailable through injury since November. McKeon joins a back row that includes openside Jarrad Butler and Sean O’Brien at number 8.

Out-half Jack Carty and scrum half Caolin Blade continue their partnership which has been a regular feature over the past few weeks in Marmion’s absence.

Winger Niyi Adeolokun joins a back three that includes fullback Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy. Healy became Connacht’s record try scorer after scoring twice against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

At the pre game Press Conference, Connacht backs coach Nigel Carolan told reporters that Edinburgh will bring a big challenge on Friday night. “They made life really difficult for Munster last Friday night. They turned them over several times at the breakdown and that’s uncharacteristic for Munster”, said Carolan.

“You can see that there’s a real bite to them, there’s a real high level of fitness and physicality. They’re a tough team to play against. They very direct and confrontational and they’re a tough team to break down. That’s where our biggest focus has been this week, particularly around the breakdown”, he added.

 

#CONvEDI

Kick-off 7.35pm:

(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Eoin Griffin, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (Capt), Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler, Sean O’Brien.

Replacements (16-23): Dave Heffernan, Denis Coulson, Dominic Robertson McCoy, James Cannon, Eoghan Masterson, James Mitchell, Craig Ronaldson, Darragh Leader.

 

 

 

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