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.

Hooker Shane Delahunt will become the latest centurion after he was selected in the starting XV for Connacht’s final Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup clash with Ospreys at The Sportsground tomorrow (k/o 6.00pm)
 
Delahunt joined the Connacht Academy in the summer of 2014, and made his debut off the bench against Glasgow that September. Following a string of appearances he was handed his first Pro contract ahead of the 2016-17 season and has been a mainstay in the squad since then.
 
Delahunt starts in a new look front row with props Jordan Duggan and Dominic Robertson-McCoy, while Niall Murray and Ultan Dillane continue their second row partnership. There’s one change in the back row where Eoghan Masterson starts at number 8, with flankers Cian Prendergast and captain Jarrad Butler retained.
 
There are further changes at #9 and #10 with Caolin Blade and Jack Carty both starting, while Tom Daly and Bundee Aki continue to pair up at centre. The final change is in the back three where Ben O’Donnell comes onto the wing, with Peter Sullivan on the opposite side and Alex Wootton moving to full-back.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“I’m delighted for Shane Delahunt who becomes the latest centurion in the squad. Shane always gives us huge energy and he’s had a big increase in game-time this season which is a testament to him and how he’s performed. He’s a great character and a popular member of the dressing room too.
 
“We’d obviously prefer to be in the chasing pack for the Final but it’s still important we finish the season on a high. It’s been such a strange and long 12 months for all the players and staff, but we owe it to ourselves, the supporters and our departing players and staff that we do everything to win this one.”

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS OSPREYS
Friday 4th June, The Sportsground, kick-off 6.00pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. Alex Wootton (21)
14. Peter Sullivan (16)
13. Bundee Aki (110)
12. Tom Daly (48)
11. Ben O’Donnell (5)
10. Jack Carty (158)
9. Caolin Blade (131)
1. Jordan Duggan (12)
2. Shane Delahunt (99)
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (67)
4. Niall Murray (17)
5. Ultan Dillane (113)
6. Cian Prendergast
7. Jarrad Butler (72) (C)
8. Eoghan Masterson (110)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (15)
17. Matthew Burke (22)
18. Jack Aungier (13)
19. Oisin Dowling (6)
20. Sean Masterson (12)
21. Kieran Marmion (186)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (36)
23. Sammy Arnold (15)

With no formal approvals in place to allow the South African teams to enter the UK & Ireland for their Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup fixtures, PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby will operate dual tournaments with no cross-hemisphere fixtures.
 
Despite a colossal effort, the South African teams were not granted the permission to travel in time to allow the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup to be played as originally planned. Such challenges are not unique to rugby as many international sports have found the Covid-19 pandemic a difficult landscape to plan for.
 
All options for the South African teams to travel to Europe safely were explored and exhausted by the league, this is due to the heightened restrictions caused by South Africa’s presence on the red list of the territories involved.
 
Dual tournaments
 
The ‘northern’ Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will still take place on the dates previously published as teams from across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales aim to take upset eight-time title winners Leinster Rugby. The fixtures for Rounds 4, 5 and 6 had already been scheduled and provided to clubs, but will now have the South African teams removed and kick-off times may be modified ahead of publishing.
 
The ‘southern’ tournament will be called Rainbow Cup SA and will include the very best of what South African club rugby has to offer; Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls, whose World Cup winning Springboks are priming themselves for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions. These games will be available in the UK and Ireland with PRO14 Rugby’s current TV partners and full details of this competition will be confirmed by SA Rugby shortly.
 
All avenues exhausted
 
A wide stakeholder group, led by a working group between the tournament team at PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby, produced a long list of various options for entry of the teams, base camps and high-standard medical protocols across the past four months to cater for different scenarios.
 
In total, 12 venues across the UK, Ireland and Europe were considered as base camps for the South African teams to operate out of or to use as a quarantine destination before entering the UK and Ireland. SA Rugby also explored another four locations separate to this. Further, destinations in the Middle East were also explored as potential hosts for fixtures involving South African teams.
 
This process produced project plans for each venue to include suitable training and accommodation facilities and charter travel schedules under the constant guidance of a Medical Management Committee, consisting of the PRO14 medical consultant, tournament staff and union Chief Medical Officers. This group tracked the status of Covid-19 in the various territories and advised on the strategic approach to governments at all times.
 
Throughout this process, PRO14 Rugby has had great support of governments and health authorities in all jurisdictions.
 
No impact on long-term partnership
 
This decision will have no impact on the long-term partnership between PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby and more details about those plans and league structure for the ground-breaking 2021/22 season onwards will be made public shortly.
 
Martin Anayi, CEO of PRO14 Rugby, said: “A staggering volume of work has been undertaken to provide a number of proposals and options to accommodate this – all as we navigated the challenges of the second and third waves of Covid-19 as well as the South African variant which constantly changed the landscape we were operating in.
 
“Among our unions, our own staff and SA Rugby there is no more that could have been asked in terms of designing plans that were medically sound, however, there has been no perfect solution found in time to allow for South African teams’ entry into our territories.
“Whilst the outcome is clearly different from what we had intended, our relationship and partnership with SA Rugby has been greatly strengthened and enhanced by this experience. We are looking forward to the two Rainbow Cup competitions and in due course sharing our intentions about our future partnership that will be boosted by the experiences and project-planning involved to this point ahead of the 2021/22 season.

 
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said: “This is a huge disappointment, but time had simply run out.”
 
“No stone was left unturned to try and find a solution to the challenges – including basing our teams for 10 days in locations in the Middle East or Europe. But the pieces of the jigsaw would not fall into place in time to allow us to put those plans into action.”
 
The full fixture schedule for the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup, including kick-off times and broadcaster information, will be released shortly.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht are excited to start their Rainbow Cup campaign, with Friday night’s trip to Ulster first on the agenda. 

 

After the Westerners’ trip to Belfast, Leinster will travel to the Sportsground on May the 8th with Connacht’s trip to Munster on May 14th completing the initial trio of interprovincial clashes. 

 

Further details of the rounds four, five, and six fixtures — with games against South African teams —  will be released in due course. 

 

Friend said the players are eager to make up for the disappointment of their Challenge Cup defeat at the hands of Leicester Tigers last time out and the mood among the playing personnel is good ahead of Friday’s interprovincial. 

 

“We’re all looking forward to getting stuck into this new Rainbow Cup, whatever it looks like,” the Australian said. 

 

“Ulster on Friday night gives us our next opportunity. The energy around the group has been good, the feeling around the group has been good. We can’t wait to get up there to Kingspan and have a shot.” 

 

Managing the game against Ulster  — who will meet Leicester in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup —  and being strong in defence and at the set-piece will be key to the outcome, Friend believes. 

 

“We know where we’re at when things are on song,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“When our defence is getting out off the line, and we’re managing the game in the right direction and our set-piece is on top. We know exactly what we can produce and the disappointing thing is that — in all little areas — we haven’t been at our best in the last few weeks. 

 

“We know what we can produce and we know when we have produced that, we have made life difficult for Ulster in the past. But when we haven’t, and that happened at the Sportsground earlier in the year, they have managed to get the win. 

 

“We have to make sure we put out our best performance and that’s our intention to go and do that.”

 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Finlay Bealham feels that the Rainbow Cup interprovincial contests will provide the opportunity for players to put their hand up for Irish national team selection, as well as being games that they love playing in. 

 

With a scheduled tour of the Pacific Islands this summer, Bealham — who was involved with the Irish squad during the Six Nations — described the trio of all Ireland clashes as Irish trials for players. 

 

With the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa coinciding with Ireland’s summer tour, there may be even more vacancies for players to force their way into the international fold. 

 

“Those Interpro games are where lads put their hands up for national selection,” the 29-year-old said. 

 

“They’re almost like Irish trials, aren’t they? You see the boys in their best form for these games and it has all the ingredients for Friday night to be a great game. We’re really looking forward to it.”

 

On a personal level, Bealham — who was brought in to the Irish camp as cover for their final Six Nations games, against Scotland and England — is keen to force his way back into the national team picture and add to his fourteen caps. 

 

While wearing the Irish green again is an ambition, the prop says that, first and foremost, his concentration is on performing at his best and helping the Connacht cause, starting on Friday night.

 

“Of course it’s always in the back of your mind that the Irish selectors will be watching these performances and they’ll be looking closely and analysing the game. I know it’s a cliche, but I would be worried about doing my best for the team and doing my role, and executing that as best I can. 

 

“It’s about making the lads either side of you look good, whether that’s in the scrum or in the maul and it’s about doing those selfless things that ultimately make a team better. I think when we’re performing well as a team, more boys will get selected, and yeah it’s not about me going out and scoring ten tries and saying ‘pick me’. It’s just doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability. 

 

“Those interpros, I love them, they’re very fiery and very physical.”

The current Guinness PRO14 campaign will end in March allowing South Africa’s four ‘Super’ teams and our existing clubs to finish the season with a 16-team “Rainbow Cup” competition ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour. 

After consulting with key PRO14 stakeholders, the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup was chosen as the best pathway to finish up the current campaign and introduce South Africa’s four ‘Super’ teams: the Vodacom Bulls; Emirates Lions; Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers. This decision also allows our European-based sides to earn qualification for European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) tournaments in 2021/22 in a fair and equitable manner.

Ahead of the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will provide a ground-breaking spectacle for fans who will see international star players from north and south establish new rivalries in their bid for the ultimate Test selection.

Right through until the last kick of the ball in the Rainbow Cup in June, fans will be able to watch it all unfold with our broadcast partners Premier Sports, eir Sport, S4C, TG4, DAZN and Super Sport.

How it will Work

  • The 2020/21 Guinness PRO14 campaign will finish after 16 rounds with the Conference winners facing each other in a final in late March
  • Qualification for EPCR tournaments in 2021/22 will be decided by rankings after Round 16
  • On April 17, 2021, the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will kick-off and introduce the Vodacom Bulls, Emirates Lions, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers and their World Cup-winning Springboks
  • The Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will consist of a pool stage (two pools of eight teams) and a final between the two pool winners

Final Chapter of Guinness PRO14

Rounds 12 to 16 will take place from February 20 and conclude on March 20. A final will then take place at the home venue of the highest-ranked team. This abbreviated fixture list will aim to ensure home and away in-conference fixtures are completed and each team plays all of its cross-conference matches also. Further clarification will be available when fixtures are confirmed.

The scheduled dates for the conclusion of the 2020-21 Guinness PRO14 campaign are:

R12: February 20

R13: February 27

R14: March 6

R15: March 13

R16: March 20

Final: March 27

Once Round 16 has been completed, the top-ranked teams from each conference will qualify for the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup. Requirement for play-offs is under review.

Guinness PRO14 “Rainbow Cup” – Forging New Rivalries

With South Africa preparing to host their first British & Irish Lions tour since 2009, the World Cup champions will see their ‘Super’ teams – the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers take on the very best that Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales have to offer.

Players aiming to make the British & Irish Lions squad will find no better trial environment to test themselves in, as they go up against the likes of Siya Kolisi, Pieter Steph du Toit (both  DHL Stormers), Duane Vermeulen (Vodacom Bulls), Elton Jantjies (Emirates Lions) and former Guinness PRO14 top-try scorer Makazole Mapimipi (Cell C Sharks).

The Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will kick off on April 17 with two pools of 8 teams made up of two Irish, two South African, two Welsh, one Italian and one Scottish club. Each team will play one game against each pool opponent and the sides that finish top of their pools will face off in a final on June 19.

Across 57 matches, the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will feature the best of the Springbok talent going toe-to-toe with some of the British & Irish Lions’ biggest names – every one of them keen to lay down a marker to their respective selectors ahead of what will prove to an historic tour.

CEO Statements from Martin Anayi and Jurie Roux

Martin Anayi, CEO, PRO14 Rugby: “At a time where our sport has faced its greatest challenge, we have promising news about an innovative solution to partner with South African rugby ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour.

“It was vital that we worked with all parties to ensure our 12 teams had a clear road towards European qualification. With a Lions tour in South Africa to come it is hard to think of anything better to whet the appetite than the best players from the Celtic regions competing against World Cup-winning Springboks in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup.”

Jurie Roux, CEO, SA Rugby: “The inclusion of South Africa’s ‘Super’ Teams in the Rainbow Cup is a once-in-a-generation, watershed moment for South African rugby. After so much turmoil and uncertainty in 2020, the prospect of a return to top-flight international domestic competition is one to which we all can all look forward with real excitement.”

ENDS

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