By John O’Sullivan

 

Connacht wrapped up their United Rugby Championship campaign with a 22-20 win over Zebre at the Sportsground. 

 

It was an emotional day as the fans said goodbye to Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson, Sammy Arnold and Abraham Papali’i who will all depart the province but the team delivered the bonus point win to mark the occasion in style. 

 

The hosts scored four tries in total, through Kieran Marmion, Niall Murray, Masterson on his Connacht swansong and John Porch in a performance showcasing some excellent attacking play. 

 

The away team, meanwhile, scored three tries of their own and added a penalty, but it was the home team who held on for the deserved win. 

 

With the Sportsground bathed in balmy weather, both teams were content to play an open brand of rugby in the opening exchanges and it was Zebre who drew first blood. 

 

Strong breakdown work won the visitors a penalty and Carlo Canna made no mistake in slotting the kick and the Italian team worked themselves into a 3-0 lead with barely five minutes gone. 

 

Connacht, however, worked their way back into the game immediately in what was proving a highly entertaining opening seven minutes of the contest. 

 

After a clever line-out routine, Tom Daly carried hard and punctured through the Zebre defence. The centre was stopped eventually, but the hosts had an overload wide on the left and the ball was moved to Marmion who dove in the for the score to move Connacht 5-3 ahead. 

 

The home team were totally in the ascendancy after their try – with Daly and Cian Prendergast central to their ball carrying and playmaking efforts – and they made it two tries not long after their first. A beautiful sweeping move from right to left saw Prendergast acrobatically dodge a would-be tackle with a step before delivering an even better offload to Murray to touch down in the left corner and take the score to 10-3. 

 

The Connacht broken play attack looked superb, but so, too, did set-piece attacks and it showed just after the midway point of the first half. In his final appearance at the Sportsground, a well–constructed line–out maul saw Masterson touch down for a try manufactured by the pack. Carty slotted the extras and the hosts lead 17-3. 

 

Zebre, to their credit, didn’t baulk and they had the game’s next try, on the stroke of halftime. Full-back Lorenzo Pani was the benefactor of a quick move and he touched down in the corner. The conversion was wide and the teams went into the interval with Connacht 17-8 in the lead. 

 

Connacht wrestled momentum back at the beginning of the second half and their pressure told with the second period eight minutes old. The hosts spread the ball wide quickly first through Carty and then Oran McNulty, with the full-back feeding Porch, whose step and pace took him away from the cover defence and over the line for a try of both collective and individual brilliance. The home team were deserving of both their bonus point and their 22-8 lead. 

 

With both teams emptying their benches – Dillane, Papali’i and Arnold came on for their Connacht swang songs – the game became fractious and it was the visitors who were the team to snap out of the lull first and they went over for an unconverted try through their replacement tight-head Matteo Nocera muscled over from close range to see the home team’s score reduced to 22-13 with ten minutes remaining. 

 

With their tails up, the Italians went in search of more scores and they registered their third try with the game approaching the 80th-minute mark. Centre Enrico Lucchin showed great pace and strength to breakthrough for an individual try that Cana converted to cut the host’s lead to 22-20 with just over a minute left. 

 

The hosts, however, showed determination to pin Zebre in their own half and close off the game to take the win at 22-20. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Oran McNulty 

14: John Porch 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Tom Daly 

11: Alex Wootton 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Cian Prendergast 

7: Sean Masterson 

6: Eoghan Masterson 

5: Niall Murray 

4: Gavin Thornbury 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dylan Tierney Martin 

1: Denis Buckley 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dave Heffernan for Tierney Martin 

17: Matthew Burke for Buckley 

18: Sam Illo for Bealham 

19: Ultan Dillane for Thornbury 

20: Abraham Papali’i for E. Masterson 

21: Colm Reilly for Marmion 

22: Conor Fitzgerald for Carty 

23: Sammy Arnold for Farrell

The Connacht matchday 23 has been named for tomorrow’s final game of the season against Zebre Parma at The Sportsground (k/o 5pm).
 
Andy Friend and his coaching staff have opted for a blend of youth and experience. Dylan Tierney-Martin is handed his first Connacht start at hooker, while there are also starts for Seán Masterson at openside flanker and Oran McNulty at full-back.
 
Centurions Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham partner Tierney-Martin in the front row, while locks Gavin Thornbury and Niall Murray are paired together. Masterson is accompanied in the back row by his brother Eoghan and Cian Prendergast at number 8.
 
Kieran Marmion and captain Jack Carty continue at 9 and 10 respectively, as do centres Tom Daly and Tom Farrell. The side is completed by wingers Alex Wootton and John Porch.
 
Included on the bench are departing players Ultan Dillane, Abraham Papali’i and Sammy Arnold who will make their final appearances for the club if called upon.
 
As is tradition in Connacht, all the departing players will be presented to the supporters after the final whistle – the first time since pre-COVID that such a presentation will be able to take place.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Even though we missed out on the playoffs we have plenty to play for tomorrow. Finishing with a 50% win record is important, but more so is finishing on a high at our home ground – both for our playing group and our supporters.
 
The likes of Dylan, Seán and Oran all deserve their opportunity tomorrow and I know the departing players involved will savour the experience as well.”
 

CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ZEBRE PARMA
Saturday 21st May, 17:00 @ The Sportsground
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Oran McNulty (8)
14. John Porch (58)
13. Tom Farrell (78)
12. Tom Daly (60)
11. Alex Wootton (33)
10. Jack Carty (179)
9. Kieran Marmion (208)
1. Denis Buckley (207)
2. Dylan Tierney-Martin (5)
3. Finlay Bealham (173)
4. Gavin Thornbury (62)
5. Niall Murray (34)
6. Eoghan Masterson (118)
7. Seán Masterson (17)
8. Cian Prendergast (30)
 
Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (164)
17. Matthew Burke (38)
18. Jack Aungier (31)
19. Ultan Dillane (126)
20. Abraham Papali’i (24)
21. Colm Reilly (8)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (52)
23. Sammy Arnold (37)

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht are looking to end their season on a high with a win over Zebre Parma at the Sportsground in the United Rugby Championship on Saturday, kick-off at 5 PM. 

 

With several players leaving the province at the end of the season, the Australian is keen for them to feel the appreciation of the fans before they depart for new pastures. 

 

Abraham Papali’i, Eoghan Masterson, Peter Robb, and the retiring Matt Healy – among others – will be leaving Connacht and, given large swathes of the previous season were played in empty stadiums, they will be given their send-off in front of an atmospheric Sportsground crowd. 

 

Despite the game wrapping up the campaign, Friend says that training has been at a high level and the players’ focus is on putting on a good showing and securing the victory. 

 

“It’s a tricky period because you have players exiting,” the head coach said. 

 

“You’ve got the last game, which is still an important game because it’s another chance to play in front of your family and friends and support, as well as putting on the Connacht jersey. 

 

“We know we can’t go any lower or any higher on the ladder(the table) but it is still an important game. In fairness to them all, they have been really good and their heads are definitely on, so let’s bring on Saturday.”

 

Mack Hansen and Cian Prendergast picked up awards at last Friday’s Connacht Rugby awards and Friend is looking forward to not only those players, but everyone in the squad making more strides next season. 

 

The Australian also detailed how pleased he was with individual improvements from players in the Connacht pack and the growth of players across the board will increase the level of competition next season and will complement the qualities brought by the new recruits. 

 

“Yeah, I think there were some great performances this year,” he said. 

 

“The boys you named(Hansen and Prendergast) and others as well. I thought the growth of our second-row stocks rose this year. I thought Matthew Burke and Jordan Duggan, when Denis Buckley was out for so long, had enormous growth throughout the course of the year. Jack Aungier came in and improved again. 

 

“There were some really good performers throughout the course of the year, but what’s important is if you have a poor game there are quality footballers sitting behind you. That’s when players tend not to have a poor game, because the pressure’s there. 

 

And that’s what we’re building here at Connacht Rugby where we’re going to have, I believe, a squad of 44 where there’s genuine competition across all positions and slip up, in terms of performances, next season and you might not get another chance.”

Connacht get ready for their final game of the season this Saturday as they take on Zebre in the URC at The Sportsground, kick-off is 5pm

 

With the curtain closing on the 2021/22 season this weekend, it’s a chance for Andy Friend to potentially look at younger players and give them game time in front of home supporters. One of those players hoping to get a chance is Dylan Tierney-Martin who has had his injury issues this season along with battling for the number two jersey.

 

The 22-year old spoke about how he’s developed as a player this season with the Connacht senior squad.

 

“I’ve got some great hookers ahead of me since joining the senior side and I’ve enjoyed my journey with this being my first season as a pro”

 

“I’ve learned a lot from Shane Delahunt, Dave Heffernan and Jonny Murphy who have kept themselves right and performed very well”

 

“I found it tough to break that barrier and get some opportunities because of how well the boys were doing but near the end of the season I have had chances to show what I can do”

 

The step up from the academy or underage setup to the professional senior squad can take a bit of adjusting and Dylan explains what he’s found to be the biggest difference.

 

“The biggest jump I found was the consistency and detail of preparation”

 

“I think once you get to that level in terms of being a pro player it does come down to the level of preparation and doing things over and over again and not get bored of it”

 

“The coaches have been great and Andy (Friend) has been very good to me in terms of building my character and as a person as well so not just the player and I do feel I’ve matured a lot this year”

 

Recent rumours around the URC have been the potential inclusion of an U23 grade. Dylan was asked if this new U23 grade could benefit younger players more compared to the AIL.

 

“It’s a tough question because I know there’s merit in both”

 

“I know the AIL traditionally has been the path way for younger players the whole way through but there is merit in that U23 league so it could be beneficial for a lot of players”

 

“If the URC could work with the AIL to align the two tournaments where they don’t clash, have them in the drop weeks or the Champions Cup week where there is no AIL I think it could be something to look at”

 

By John O’Sullivan

Connacht were defeated 41-21 by the Cell C Sharks in an entertaining United Rugby Championship clash in Durban today.

 

Despite scoring two tries via Gavin Thornbury and Caolin Blade – one of which Conor Fitzgerald, who also added three penalties, converted – on his 150th appearance for the province and leading 21-10 at halftime, Connacht couldn’t hang on to make it two wins on their South African tour, after their win against the Lions last weekend.

 

The hosts added five tries of their own with an especially strong second half making it four league wins in a row for the South African side.

 

Connacht were intent to attack early and it paid dividends when Fitzgerald made no mistake from the penalty tee. With their line out an efficient attack launch pad, the Irish team went through phases from the set-piece – with Tom Daly and Jarrad Butler carrying hard – and they earned the penalty that brought them the lead.

 

The away team had the better of the opening ten minutes, but, from that point, the Sharks worked their way back into the contest and they opened their account for the afternoon when their fly-half, Curwin Bosch, kicked a penalty to level up the scores in what had been an open and entertaining opening fifteen minutes.

 

Connacht were making headway with big carries – where both centres, Daly and Tom Farrell – and threatening the Sharks’ defence and, with the first half at its halfway point, this is how they retook the lead. A big carry saw the Irish team establish field position in the opposition 22 and when the hosts attempted to stop that momentum with hands in the ruck, Fitzgerald punished them with his second penalty to take the score to 6-3 in favour of the visitors.

 

The opening half was an even affair and the Sharks were the next team to establish themselves in the ascendancy, especially after John Porch’s yellow card reduced Connacht to 14 men, and they scored the game’s first try when Gerbrandt Grobler, formerly of Munster, squeezed over the line from close range. Bosch kicked the extras and the South Africans lead 10-6.

 

Connacht’s reaction was instantaneous. Thornbury, who had been threatening to block down several of the Sharks clearing kicks and coming close on a few occasions, using his huge frame to good effect, charged down an attempted box kick and showed the dexterity to catch the bouncing ball and the pace to run in the score. Despite being a man in arrears, Andy Friend’s men lead 11-10 and, on the balance of play, it wasn’t undeserved as the game reached the half-hour mark.

 

Defensively, Connacht were resolute, both in terms of tackling and at the breakdown, and it was through their excellent jackal threat over the ball – an area where Conor Oliver characteristically showed his class – that they extended their lead. This time, it was Cian Prendergast who applied the vice grip over the ball and earned the penalty that Fitzgerald slotted to put the away team 14-10 to the good, with the Porch’s sin bin soon to elapse.

 

With their allocation of players back, the visitors packed even more punch in attack and, only moments after Porch’s return from the naughty step, Connacht had their second try. On a momentous day on his 150th cap for the province, Blade made a searing break through the guts of the Sharks defence. The Monivea man then played a give and go with Finlay Bealham, with the tight-heads beautiful pass landing flush in the scrum half’s hands for him to run in the try. Fitzgerald added the extras and the Irish province were eleven points up at 21-10.

 

Blade showed his use on the other side of the ball only seconds later. Winning their own kickoff, the Sharks attacked, but the scrum-half showed brilliant breakdown acumen and strength to superbly position himself over the ball and World Cup-winning Springbok Makazole Mapimpi to win the penalty and see out the half 21-10 in front.

 

The Sharks began the second half with intensity and it yielded a try only five minutes in when centre Marius Louw burst over for a try. Connacht’s initial defence was very impressive, holding the home team at bay, but eventually, the pressure told and Louw was at hand to provide the finishing touch. Bosch converted and the Irish team’s lead was cut to four points at 17-21.

 

Gaining confidence from their try, the Sharks pressed for more and their pressure told when Bongi Mbonambi, the South African international hooker, muscled over from minimal distance and Bosch kicked the conversion to give the hosts a 24-21 lead and crown a hugely profitable opening ten minutes to the half.

 

The momentum was with the home team and they added their third try in quick succession when second-row Grobler showed good strength and opportunism and pick and go over the line from close range. Bosch made no mistake from the tee and Connacht trailed by ten at 31-21.

 

The game became broken as the game ticked on, with neither team really managing to assert themselves. Nevertheless, Bosch stretched the Sharks’ lead further – 34-21 – with a penalty with roughly five minutes remaining.

 

Le Roux Roets then sealed the win by showing great strength to burst over the line for a try that Bosch converted to take the score to 41-21 in favour of the Sharks, the score they held until the final whistle.

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: Mack Hansen
14: John Porch
13: Tom Farrell
12: Tom Daly
11: Alex Wootton
10: Conor Fitzgerald
9: Caolin Blade

(8-1)

8: Jarrad Butler ©
7: Conor Oliver
6: Cian Prendergast
5: Leva Fifita
4: Gavin Thornbury
3: Finlay Bealham
2: Dave Heffernan
1: Denis Buckley

Replacements:

16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Heffernan
17: Jordan Duggan for Buckley
18: Jack Aungier for Bealham
19: Niall Murray for Fifita
20: Oisin Dowling for Butler
21: Kieran Marmion for Blade
22: Jack Carty for Fitzgerald
23: Tiernan O’Halloran for Wootton

The Connacht management team have named their matchday 23 for tomorrow’s URC fixture against the Cell C Sharks in Durban (k/o 3.05pm Irish time).
 
A win for Andy Friend’s side would cap a second win on their tour of South Africa, and would ensure they become the first team to beat all four South African sides, having already defeated the Vodacom Bulls, DHL Stormers and Emirates Lions.
 
There are six changes from the side that beat the Lions last week, with Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita, Conor Oliver, Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Farrell all brought into the starting XV.
 
Bealham forms an experienced front row with Denis Buckley and Dave Heffernan, while Jarrad Butler captains the side from number 8 with Cian Prendergast at blindside flanker.
 
It’s an historic game for Monivea scrum-half Caolin Blade who reaches 150 appearances for the club, while Tom Daly partners Farrell at centre. The back three is unchanged so Mack Hansen again starts at full-back with wingers Alex Wootton and John Porch for company.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Beating all four South African teams would be a tremendous achievement but we’re full aware we’ve a significant task ahead of us tomorrow. The Sharks have named a side full of Springbok internationals and will have a large and passionate fanbase behind them in Durban.
 
That said, the group has taken huge confidence from the win in Johannesburg and the atmosphere around the camp all week has been really positive.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS CELL C SHARKS
Saturday 30th April, 15:05 Irish time / 16:05 local time @ Hollywoodbets Kings Park
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Mack Hansen (13)
14. John Porch (57)
13. Tom Farrell (77)
12. Tom Daly (59)
11. Alex Wootton (32)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (51)
9. Caolin Blade (149)
1. Denis Buckley (206)
2. Dave Heffernan (163)
3. Finlay Bealham (172)
4. Gavin Thornbury (61)
5. Leva Fifita (14)
6. Cian Prendergast (29)
7. Conor Oliver (40)
8. Jarrad Butler (94) (C)

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin (4)
17. Jordan Duggan (27)
18. Jack Aungier (30)
19. Niall Murray (33)
20. Oisín Dowling (24)
21. Kieran Marmion (207)
22. Jack Carty (178)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (205)

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