By John O’Sullivan

 

Racing 92 26-22 Connacht

 

Connacht fell to a narrow four-point defeat to Racing 92 in Paris La Défense Arena in the Heineken Champions Cup.

 

In a brilliant exhibition of attacking Rugby, the visitors scored three tries — from Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and Conor Oliver — and collected a losing bonus point while they threatened to inflict the French team’s first-ever European defeat in their new stadium.

 

Racing, last season’s finalists, scored four tries of their own — from Georges Henri Colombe Kurtley Beale, Donovan Taofifénua, and Dominic Bird — but had to see out a nervous last few minutes to complete the bonus-point win.

 

The Westerners started with authority and made an early impression in attack. Both Dave Heffernan and Ultane Dillane made piercing carries early on, but the defence of the three-time finalists held firm and they repelled Connacht’s advances.

 

Slowly, the Parisians grew into the game and they made it count on the scoreboard when Colombe, the tighthead prop, managed to burst over from close range. Racing’s rolling maul was defended stoutly by the visitors, but — after a few phases of carries from close to the line — the hosts pressure eventually told and they opened the scoring. The difficult conversion from Maxime Machenaud landed and the Top 14 side were 7-0 to the good.

 

Connacht reacted well to the concession of the try and they had their own points soon after. Another barrelling run from Heffernan brought the Westerners into the 22 and Racing were penalised at the breakdown. Jack Carty made no mistake from the kicking tee and the visitors deservedly found themselves on the scoreboard, 7-3.

 

With the PRO14 team’s pack carrying hard and winning territory, the home side weren’t having it all their own way but their defence was firm and they were efficient with all of their attacking opportunities, especially in the transition.

 

A typically classy move from last season’s finalists saw Vakatawa — the France international centre — make a burst and then feed Kurtley Beale, the former Australia full-back, to run in a try which Machenaud slotted to stretch the Parisians lead to 14-3.

 

Another try soon followed when winger Donovan Taofifénua acrobatically flew in for a try in the left-hand corner. The angle was difficult, and the conversion fell wide but the French team lead 19-3.

 

Connacht, though, never lost composure and kept their attacking intensity up. A series of line outs and hard carries — with Dillane especially prominent — brought the visitors close on several occasions and they had a deserved try on the stroke of half time.

 

With an advantage, Carty beautifully executed a cross-field kick that landed flush into the arms of the jumping Healy. The winger caught it perfectly in midair and held his balance to touch down. The conversion was wide, but the visitors went into the break 19-8 down but definitely in the game.

 

Racing started the second half in a strong fashion and had a try ten minutes in when Dominic Bird — the former All Black — was the benefactor of a rolling maul and he touched down at the base. The conversion landed and the hosts found themselves 26-8 to the good.

 

Connacht never relented the pressure and they were game both in defence and attack and they showed this when they turned defence into attack and got themselves back into the game with 20 minutes remaining. Showing a brilliant turn of pace and spatial awareness, Wootton intelligently intercepted a Racing pass in his own 22 and went the length of the pitch to touch down for a try which Carty converted to bring the Westerners to 26-15 and within touching distance of the Top14 men.

 

With the wind in their sails, Connacht — where Paul Boyle and Dillane were both inspired in the ball carrying stakes — kept probing and pushing for a score. With five minutes remaining, they had the score their pressure merited when Oliver powered his way over from close range. The conversion was good from Carty and Andy Friend’s men found themselves only four points behind with as many minutes remaining.

 

The Westerners almost snatched what would have been a famous win when Tiernan O’Halloran kicked through a ball in the dying moments, but the ball beat everyone and went dead. The hosts saw it out and claimed the win.

 

Ultimately, it was a defeat but Connacht can be happy with their losing bonus point and performance in Paris.

 

Connacht team:

15-9
15: John Porch
14: Alex Wootton
13: Sammy Arnold
12: Tom Daly
11: Matt Healy
10: Jack Carty
9: Kieran Marmion

8-1
8: Paul Boyle
7: Jarrad Butler
6: Sean Masterson
5: Ultan Dillane
4: Eoghan Masterson
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Jordan Duggan for Buckley, Shane Delahunt for Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier for Bealham, Cian Prendergast for Sean Masterson, Conor Oliver for Butler, Caolin Blade for Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki for Arnold, Tiernan O’Halloran for Porch.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

There has been a significant growth in the number of schools playing girls Rugby in Connacht over the course of the last two years. 

 

In the 2019/20 school year, 21 girls schools teams from across the province played competitively, an increase of nine from 12 the previous year. From these teams, who competed in ten a side games, there were over 200 players, almost double the amount of participants from 2018/2019.

 

In total, 12 schools -- across both junior and senior age grades -- played girls schools Rugby in the last school year, which represents a growth of three schools from the preceding year. There were no girls schools teams in 2018, highlighting the rapid growth of the sport in a short space of time.

 

Emer O’Dowd, Connacht Rugby Women's Development Officer for North Connacht, has hailed the huge increase of participation in girls schools Rugby, and said that the aim is to eventually establish a 15 a side league and cup competition. 

 

“The school's game has grown massively and it’s brilliant,” the Mayo native said.

 

“In another couple of years,  we will hopefully have a full-on 15 a side schools league and cup competition. We have one now,  but it’s 10 a side. Numbers are growing and more and more schools are getting involved. It’s great and it’s grown massively this year.”

 

As head coach of the Club Force Emerging Talent Programme, a stepping stone between underage Rugby and adult competition for 18 to 24-year-olds, O’Dowd has been impressed by the levels of talent in the province.

 

She says that the success of the likes of Beibhinn Parsons and Nicole Fowley -- two players who came through the system from clubs in Connacht and played for Ireland -- has proved to young players that there is a pathway to the highest levels of Rugby west of the Shannon. The aim of the programme is to build the confidence and increase the skill levels of young players before they transition to adult level.

 

“There’s a lot of Beibhinn’s coming through, we can see it all over the province and it’s exciting”, the former Galwegians player,  who has worked with Connacht in various capacities since 2008, said.

 

“We formed the team last year and we had about 30 girls training, from 18 to 24-year-olds. We wanted to bring them in and give them some upskilling and training. We had the likes of Mary Healy, the former Ireland international, and Andy Friend and Pete Wilkins coming down to do sessions. We had professional coaches coming in to do sessions on specific areas. We had Craig Hansbury coming in to do work with the forwards and scrummaging, we had Ross Mannion coming in and then Lyndon Jones and myself and Mary(Healy) working on specific things.”

 

Clubforce, a Galway based sports participation management system used by clubs, leagues and governing bodies to fund and drive greater participation in sport, coming on board as sponsors of the Emerging Talent Programme has allowed the team to grow and put plans in place for the future.

 

Pre Covid, the Emerging Talent team -- who have played against their Munster equivalents and touring American College teams since their establishment a year ago --  were due to tour London and play London Irish -- a trip made possible by the sponsorship -- but the pandemic unfortunately caused its postponement. 

 

“They said they’d back us, which gave us a huge opportunity to put this team together and put the money and funding into it,” O’Dowd says of Clubforce’s sponsorship.

 

“It would have culminated into a tour over to London Irish last April, but it didn’t happen. But it will happen, once we get the green flag to start training again and start flying again then we’re going to go. It has been paused and not cancelled. It’s great to have Clubforce there to put the funding into us and have that money ring-fenced for us, it gives us great opportunities.”

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have issued the following squad update:
 
Niall Murray (shoulder) underwent surgery earlier this week and will be out action until January 2021.
 
Tom Farrell (thigh), Caolin Blade (ill), Peter Robb (groin) and Matt Healy (calf) will look to integrate into full team training next week.
 
Tiernan O’Halloran (hip) will continue to rehabilitate and will aim to integrate into team training the following week (19.10.20)
 
Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) continues his rehabilitation and aims to return to team training at the end of the month.
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) continues his rehabilitation.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) continues his rehabilitation from a long-term injury.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) continues to rehabilitate and will look to commence training integration in the coming weeks.
 
Ben O’Donnell (knee) has recently joined the squad and continues his rehabilitation from a long-term knee injury.
 
NOTE: PCR testing this week produced zero positive results amongst Connacht players and staff.

Following today’s squad announcement for tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 opener against Glasgow, the Connacht medical team have requested the following squad update:
 
Peter Robb (groin) and Matt Healy (calf) will both return to team training next week as they progress their rehabilitation from respective injuries.

Tiernan O’Halloran (hip) sustained a hip injury in training this week and will look to return to training next week.

Ultan Dillane (head) sustained a head injury in the Munster ‘A’ game last weekend and is following return to play protocols.

Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) is continuing his rehabilitation from a shoulder injury and will integrate into team training later this month.

Sean O’Brien (foot) is continuing his rehabilitation from a foot injury.

Oisin Dowling (back) is continuing his rehabilitation for a long term back injury.

Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) is continuing his rehabilitation from knee surgery earlier this year and will integrate into team training later this month.

Following the end of week 4 of pre-season training, the Connacht management team have issued the following squad update.
 
Jonny Murphy (head), Matthew Burke (thigh), Finlay Bealham (ankle), Kieran Marmion (ankle), Tom Farrell (shoulder) and Matt Healy (ankle) have all returned to team training follow injuries they sustained prior to the postponement of fixtures.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) is undergoing a period of rehabilitation for a long term back injury and will integrate into team training towards the end of August
 
Quinn Roux (hand) is continuing his rehabilitation from a recent surgery on his hand and will integrate into team training towards the end of August
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) is progressing his rehabilitation and will integrate into team training in early September.
 
Peter Robb (thigh) is recovering from a hamstring injury and will integrate into team training towards the middle of August
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) is continuing his rehabilitation from knee surgery earlier this year and will integrate into team training in early October.

Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that scrum-half Caolin Blade and winger Matt Healy have both signed two-year contract extensions that will keep them at the Sportsground until the end of the 2021/22 season.
 
Connacht native Caolin Blade came through the club structures in the province, playing for his local club Monivea RFC and from there went on to join the Connacht Academy. The 25-year-old has now made 109 appearances in the Connacht jersey and is one of only two Connacht players to feature in all 17 of the province’s games so far this season.
 
Winger Matt Healy is Connacht’s record try scorer with a total of 55 in 136 appearances across the Guinness PRO14 and European competitions. Healy joined Connacht from Lansdowne RFC in 2012 and went on to win a PRO12 medal with Connacht in 2016. He made his international debut during the summer tour of South Africa in the same year.
 
Commenting on the latest contract signings, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “Caolin Blade and Matt Healy are two important players for us and are central to our ambitions over the coming seasons. Caolin has come through the Connacht pathway and has proven himself to be a top class player who brings huge energy to our attack. Matt Healy is another exciting player who has an excellent try scoring record in the Connacht jersey, and I think there is still more to come from him. We are delighted that both players have committed to the province for the next two seasons”.

Montpellier 35

Connacht 29

With the clock in the red, French Top 14 side Montpellier held on to a six point lead as Connacht drove at their line in search of their fifth try in this enthralling Champions Cup game. The hosts had to fight all the way in this exciting encounter as the sides went in level at the break, after Connacht clawed back a 21 points to 0 deficit after 30 minutes.

With Connacht winning the corresponding game in the Sportsground back in November, this one was always going to go down to the wire. In that round one clash, Montpellier got on the scoresheet in the first three minutes and the script looked like repeating itself when Levan Chilachava raced onto a pass and touched down by that three minute mark this time around. This prompted a reaction as Connacht settled into the game and gave as good as they got, with captain Jarrad Butler and Bundee Aki in particular putting in some huge tackles early on.

Just as Connacht were growing into this game though Montpellier hit them with two converted tries in three minutes, both from winger Gabriel N’gandebe. To Connacht’s credit though, instead of dropping their heads as the second try went in on 28 minutes, they dug deep and started to play some of the most attacking, open rugby they have produced all season.

In the 35th minute Matt Healy got a ball out wide and had plenty to do before touching down. Straight from the kick off, Connacht were flying down the opposite wing and John Porch touched down with his finger tips from what seemed like an impossible angle. Carty’s successful conversion from the touchline put Connacht within a converted try. The away side then struck parity on the stroke of half time when Kieran Marmion was released, and he raced in under the posts.

Amazingly on the 44 minute mark, Connacht had secured a bonus point try when Kyle Godwin beat two defenders after taking a pass on the Montpellier 22. Montpellier were quick to respond with their fourth, which they converted after 52 minutes to nudge back into the lead. Connacht went toe to toe with the powerful French outfit and going into the final quarter they regained the lead through a Jack Carty penalty. Crucially though this was to be Connacht’s final score and when Montpellier got in for their fifth try of the day with three minutes remaining, a Connacht victory looked unlikely.

Connacht did what they did all day though and kept battling. John Porch bravely claimed the restart and the high tackle on him resulted in a Connacht penalty and a launch pad for a final effort at the Montpellier. Unfortunately, though the home side held on and won out on a 35 points to 29 scoreline.

So this result marks the end of Connacht’s Champions Cup season but their six outings in the competition showed that they are certainly not out of place in the top tier of European rugby. The challenge now turns back to the Pro14 and the visit of Cardiff to the Sportsground on the 15th of February – a must win fixture against their conference rivals (Get tickets here).

Connacht Scorers –

Tries: Matt Healy, John Porch, Kieran Marmion and Kyle Godwin

Penalties: Jack Carty (1)

Conversions: Jack Carty (3 from 4)

Connacht: T O’Halloran, J Porch, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, P McAllister, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, J Maksymiw, G Thornbury, E Masterson, C Faianga’a, J Butler (c).

 

Replacements: J Murphy, D Buckley for McAllister (49), E McKeon for Materson (53), C Blade for Marmion (54), T Daly for O’Halloran (57m) N Murray for Maksymiw (58m), C Kenny for Robertson-McCoy( 63), J Murphy for Heffernan (68), Robertson-McCoy for Heffernan and C Fitzgerald for Carty (70).

Connacht have been boosted by the return of a host of players ahead of the Champions Cup clash with Toulouse on Saturday (Kick off 3:15pm). Bundee Aki and Jack Carty are available for selection following a two week rest period, as is Ultan Dillane who was rested last week.

Finlay Bealham has returned to full training and is available for selection after completing his return to play protocols. He was involved in a collision in the game against Ulster.

In addition, Rory Burke (neck), Jarrad Butler (illness), Colby Fainga’a (knee), Matt Healy (thigh) and Peter Robb (head) are all reintegrating into training this week following their respective injuries.

The news is also very positive on Conor Fitzgerald following a scan on his ankle. He will return to full training next week. Peter McCabe (ankle) and Tom Farrell (shoulder) are progressing well with their injuries and they will also look to return to training next week.

Conor Kenny (head) sustained a head injury in the Leinster game and will follow graduated return to play protocols. Stephen Fitzgerald sustained a knee injury in the same game and is awaiting scan results to determine the extent of his injuries.

Meanwhile, Matthew Burke (thigh), Cillian Gallagher (shoulder), Darragh Leader (calf), Sean O’Brien (shoulder) and Quinn Roux (hand) remain on the medium to long term injured list.

Tickets for the clash with the French Top 14 Champions are available to purchase here.

Connacht Scrum Half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht as they travel to Kingspan Stadium to take on Ulster in the Pro14 on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
Blade has been a central figure for Connacht of late having taken part in all of the province’s 12 games of the current campaign. The 25 year old Monivea man will continue his half back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald for the trip to Belfast.
 
Elsewhere in the back line, Peter Robb has returned from injury to partner Tom Daly in midfield while Tiernan O’Halloran starts at full back in a back three that includes John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings.
 
Up front, Paddy McAllister is another to return from injury in time for the interpro clash. The loosehead prop joins a front row with hooker Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham at tighthead.
 
With Quinn Roux picking up a hand injury against Munster that will likely keep him out of action until the end of January, Andy Friend has been forced to make a change to his second row. Ultan Dillane will line up with Joe Maksymiw who came off the bench last weekend with 20 year old Roscommon man Niall Murray named among the replacements.
 
In the back row, Robin Copeland comes into the starting team at number 8. He will be flanked by Eoin McKeon and Paul Boyle at blindside and openside respectively.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have had a short turnaround from the Munster game, and with Christmas in the middle of that, there isn’t a huge volume of training the squad can get through. We are boosted by the return of Paddy McAllister, Matt Healy and Peter Robb, and those fresh legs are important as we head into the tenth weekend in a row of Pro14 and Champions Cup action”.
 
“Ulster have a fantastic record at home and are unbeaten in Kingspan since we defeated them some 14 months ago. So, we’re looking forward to another competitive interpro game in front of a passionate home crowd.”

 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Ulster (Fri 27 Dec, 7:35pm)
 
(15-9): Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt) (1-8): Paddy McAllister, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Eoin McKeon, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Kyle Godwin, Stephen Fitzgerald.

Ultan Dillane has returned to the Connacht starting team to face Montpellier in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup in the Sportsground on Sunday (Kick off 1pm).
 
Irish international Bundee Aki is also set for his first start since the World Cup, following his appearance off the bench against Leinster last weekend.
 
The return of Aki and Dillane comes as a boost to Andy Friend and his coaching team as Connacht return to Champions Cup action after a two year absence. Dillane comes into the second row alongside Sligo man and former Ireland Under 20 international Cillian Gallagher.
 
In the front row, the inclusion of Dominic Robertson-McCoy is the only change from last weekend. The tighthead prop lines up alongside experienced hooker Tom McCartney and Denis Buckley at loosehead.
 
In the backrow, Colby Fainga’a comes in at blindside with Jarrad Butler at openside and Paul Boyle in his now familiar number 8 jersey.
 
Jack Carty and Caolin Blade continue their half-back partnership and with Irish international Kieran Marmion on the injured list, Stephen Kerins is named as the replacement scrum-half for the second game in a row.
 
Bundee Aki will partner Kyle Godwin in midfield while the back three is made up of Darragh Leader at full back with Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy on the wings.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have received a boost this week with Ultan Dillane and Matt Healy returning from injury and Bundee Aki back in the starting side. They bring a huge amount of experience at this level and that will be invaluable to us. We are looking forward to the game on Sunday and we know the importance of getting off to a good start in this competition, especially at home”.
 
“We have had incredible support so far this season in the Sportsground and we are expecting a huge occasion again on Sunday afternoon. Everyone associated with Connacht Rugby is excited about our return to the Champions Cup and our focus now is on delivering a win against Montpellier”,
Friend added.
 
FIND YOUR MATCH TICKETS HERE
Connacht Matchday Squad V Montpellier (SUN 17 NOV, 1PM)

(15-9): Darragh Leader, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (1-8): Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Cillian Gallagher, Ultan Dillane, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (C), Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke, Conor Kenny, Eoghan Masterson, Robin Copeland, Stephen Kerins, Tom Daly, John Porch
 

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