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.”

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