A last gasp Leicester Tigers try gave them a 29-28 win over Connacht at the Sportsground in the Heineken Champions Cup today. 

 

Despite registering a try bonus point – thanks to tries from Tiernan O’Halloran(2), Cian Prendergast and Kieran Marmion, all of which were converted by Kieran Marmion – it was the English Premiership leaders, who trailed 28-10 midway through the second half, who took the victory in a pulsating clash. 

 

Joe Heyes, Kini Murimurivalu(2), Charlie Clare, and Hosea Saumaki all crossed for the visitors, with Freddie Burns also notching two conversions. 

 

Connacht looked to start the game with typical attacking intent, but it was the English Premiership table-toppers who took the lead after scarcely two minutes. 

 

A cleverly worked line-out routine saw Leicester crash over through Joe Heyes. 

 

After turning down two kickable penalties, the away team were rewarded for their ambition when the tight-head prop went over the line from a short distance. The conversion was wide, so the away team lead 5-0. 

 

The English team doubled their try count in what was proving to be a profitable opening ten minutes when Kini Murimurivalu – after a scrum just outside the Connacht 22 gave them field position – dove over in the corner. The conversion hit the upright but the away team doubled their lead to 10-0.

 

Connacht – with their line out an effective weapon –  began to grow into the game thereafter and this bore try-scoring fruit in an extremely entertaining opening seventeen minutes. 

 

A powerful rolling maul brought the hosts close to the line and they then elected to put the ball through the hands of the backs. Kieran Marmion found Carty and the Roscommon native passed to Matt Healy who – unselfishly – fed O’Halloran the try-scoring pass. Carty added the extras and the hosts trailed by three at 7-10. 

 

With their tails up, the driving maul was a tool the home team looked to use extensively and their confidence in the set-piece was justified when they used it as a source of crossing the whitewash for the second time in the half. 

 

Once again, Leicester did well to stop the initial surge but they had no answer to Connacht working it wide through the backs and Bundee Aki’s pass found Prendergast and – showing great strength – the blindside muscled his way over the line. Carty added the extras and the Westerners lead 14-10 at the half-hour mark. 

 

The Tigers tried to respond in kind in the remaining minutes of the first half, but all of their efforts were met with the same Connacht defensive resistance – where Conor Oliver and Niall Murray were particularly impressive – and the hosts went into the interval leading 14-10. 

 

Connacht started the second half in menacing, attacking fashion and they scored two tries – both from attacking lineouts – in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Such was the pressure and the spate of penalties awarded in the home team’s favour, the English team were also reduced to 14 after Tommy Reffell was yellow carded.

 

First, Marmion – showing great instincts – quickly nipped in for a score and then O’Halloran, with his second try of the afternoon, was the benefactor of a brilliant move, starting from the line out, that included offloads from John Porch and Mattew Burke, and pirouetted over in the corner. Carty converted both and the hosts lead 28-10.

 

The Tigers worked their way back into proceedings soon after, however, when Murimurivalu – their most impressive player all afternoon – showed great pace to touch down for a converted try which reduced the deficit to 28-17. 

 

The tide of momentum was with the away team as we reached the final ten minutes and they scored their fourth try when Charlie Clare was at hand to touch down at the base of a maul. The conversion was good and the Westerners lead stood at four points; 28-24.

 

The visitors would have the last say when replacement Hosea Saumaki dove over in the corner to give the Tigers the win – 29-28 – with the last play of the game. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Sammy Arnold 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Jack Carty ©

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Niall Murray 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Matthew Burke 

 

Replacements:

 

  1. Dave Heffernan for Delahunt
  2. Tietie Tuimauga for Burke
  3. Jack Aungier for Bealham
  4. Ultan Dillane for Dowling
  5. Paul Boyle for Butler 
  6. Caolin Blade for Marmion
  7. Conor Fitzgerald 
  8. Tom Farrell for Matt Healy 

Head coach Andy Friend says his Connacht side’s performance against Leicester Tigers in last month’s Heineken Champions Cup game at Welford Road has given them the confidence they can go one further and defeat the English Premiership table-toppers this coming Saturday at 3:15 PM at The Sportsground.

 

Despite coming out on the wrong end of a 29-23 scoreline in Leicester, the Westerners – who had a losing bonus point to show for their efforts – put in a solid performance throughout, against a team who only tasted their first defeat of the season in all competitions last weekend. 

 

Friend believes that his team can take the positive learnings from the first leg in England – where their attack caused the hosts headaches – and apply them this Saturday in Galway, where a win for the home team would boost their chances of qualifying for the second round of the Champions Cup for the first time in the club’s history.

 

Connacht’s win over Munster in their last outing in the United Rugby Championship will, the Australian said, have prepared the squad – given the Southern provinces and the English team’s similarities in the style of play – for the oncoming physical onslaught this weekend.

 

“We’re of the belief that we can win this game. That’s our intention: to go and win it,” he said.

 

“It will be very similar. They play a very similar game style, Leicester as do Munster. There’s a lot of contestable kicking, there’s a big pack coming at you from scrum and from maul. They like to win penalties and either kick three points or kick to the corner. They’re very similar on that front.”

 

The key to any victory, according to the former Australian Seven coach, is Connacht being true to their style of play and imposing it on the opposition, while also improving in their set-piece to provide their attack with the platform to thrive. 

 

“We need to play us. We need just to be us. We need to be better in our set-piece, in terms of our scrum. We got caught last time not chasing our weight after the hit, so we got to make sure we do that and not give them easy go-forward ball on the scrum. 

 

“But I do believe we have a pack that can do that for us. I think our bench is going to be really important this week. We just need to go back and play our brand of rugby and I think if we can do that we will cause some headaches.”

 

Conor Oliver, meanwhile, says he is loving his rugby at the moment. 

 

The 26-year-old former Munster former back-row joined Connacht in July 2020 and has since become a key figure in the forward pack. 

 

With his fitness, bravery in the tackle, and breakdown threat, Oliver has excelled this season and he attributes this to his enjoyment of the style of play the Westerners utilize and his familiarity with the game plan, which has grown over time. 

 

“I’m loving it at the moment, that’s why I’m performing as well,” the Dublin native said. 

 

“When anyone enjoys something, you’re going to perform better. I like the way we play, I feel it does suit me. 

 

“Last season I wasn’t performing to the level I knew I could or wanted to and I feel I have been long enough here that I understand the way we want to play Rugby and I think I’m fitting in well into that kind of brand.”

 

The openside, who started in the 29-23 reversal at Welford Road, expects the Leicester Tigers to bring a high degree of physicality when they visit the Sportsground on Saturday for the round three clash. 

 

However, Oliver – who says Connacht could have won the round two meeting in England – believes the Westerners’ squad are confident that they can earn a victory, based on their faith in their game plan. 

 

“We know what’s coming,” he said of the physically dominant game the Engish Premiership team play. 

 

“We were over there and we feel like we should have won that game and we felt we weren’t at our best when we were over there. We’re confident going into this weekend that we can win this game. We feel we have the right game plan to win it. We know what’s coming and we welcome it with open arms.”

Head coach Andy Friend says his Connacht team are expecting a hugely physical encounter when they travel to face Leicester Tigers in the next round of the Heineken Champions Cup on Sunday afternoon.

 

The Westerners began their European campaign in excellent style, winning 36-9 at home to Stade Francais last weekend, scoring six tries, and conceding none in an entertaining clash at the Sportsground.

 

But Friend expects the Tigers – who are unbeaten this season, winning ten games from ten across all competition to offer a formidable challenge to his squad.

 

Despite this, the ambition, shared by all in the coaching and playing staff, is to advance from the pool stage into the knock-out rounds, he said.

 

“I think their game style is pretty obvious, what they’re trying to do,” the Australian said.

 

“I think they had something like 57 kicks at the weekend(their Champions Cup win away to Bordeaux), so they play very much a territory-based game, with good half-backs that kick and a good back three that kick. They have got a big forward pack, so set-piece is going to be important.

 

“They’re looking pretty strong this year, with ten wins from ten. We’ll be turning up against a team at Welford Road who are full of confidence, with a game style that is currently working for them. We’re going to have to be ready for that, which we will be, and see if we can counter it in some way.”

 

Friend – whose team were defeated at Welford Road, in a game that was tight until the closing stages, last spring in the Challenge Cup – says the best course of action for the western province will be to focus on their own game and not to just try and counter the English team.

 

“No, I think we’ve got to be us,” the former Australian Sevens’ coach said.

 

“That’s why you have an identity, you have an identity because you believe in it and that’s what you train for and that’s what you do. Similar to Leicester having an identity, they do. I don’t know what words they use, but you can see the way they play: everyone knows what they’re trying to do and they do it very, very well.

 

“We have an identity, which we’ve talked about, which we’ve worked really hard to make sure what we put out there on the pitch every single game and I think we’re getting better at that. We have to respect the strengths they have got, which we will, but at the same time, it’s more about us and what we do and how we play our game.

 

“We said at the front end of this competition, we want to be the first Connacht team to come out of the pool stages and we still believe that and still want to be that team. We’re very aware of the challenge ahead of us, but we’re definitely going there to compete.”

 

Forward Cian Prendergast, meanwhile, says the mood in the Connacht camp is positive ahead of Sunday’s trip to Leicester Tigers.

 

Playing at blindside flanker, the 21year old excelled in the previous round against Stade Francais, capping his performance – which featured brilliant work at the line out – with a late try in the commanding 36-9 home win.

 

But now the Kildare native is looking forward and is focusing on what he expects to be a physical encounter at Welford Road, but one he is nonetheless excited about.

 

“Yeah, positive,” was Predenergast’s assessment of the mood in the Westerners’ squad.

 

“We have accepted that it’s five points earned(against Stade), but it’s a big week coming up. Playing the Premiership leaders, Leicester, who are unbeaten, away from home is a big challenge, so it’s a really exciting week.”

 

Prendergast was one of the several young players featuring for Connacht in last weekend’s win, with the likes of Niall Murray and Shayne Bolton – 22 and 21 years old respectively – also starring in the victory.

 

The second-row cum flanker says that Andy Friend’s faith in the squad’s young players provides them with confidence to perform against even the most prestigious of opposition.

 

Additionally, the leadership shown by the experienced players – like Jack Carty and Jarrad Butler – has created an environment where younger squad members can express themselves on the field of play.

 

“Friendy put a lot of faith in us this week in picking so many young players and he’s said that if you show your best hand in training and you perform when he gives you an opportunity, he is willing to pick you. He’s been good with that and he is willing to pick you in those bigger games.

 

“We fed off that last week, that we had those opportunities. Lucky enough, we had those leaders, like Jarrad and Jack, to help us through as well and even lads like Ultan(Dillane) and Gav(Thornbury) helping us out and guiding us through and taking as much burden off us as they can and helping us through the week.”

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