It may be only mid-September but you got the sense at full time here in the Sportsgrounds that this was a massively significant result not just for the Connacht Rugby team and management but also for the fan base who can look with renewed optimism for the rest of the season.
Connacht Rugby have being competitive in their opening three league fixtures, a win over Zebre Rugby at home in round two was a solid display but this fixture against Scarlets was one where Connacht Rugby fans had highlighted early doors, hoping that a victory would ensue against one of the ‘big’ teams in this competition.
The tone was set within the opening exchanges. Robin Copeland barreling into Scarlets defensive cover early doors with such velocity that second row Cummins (not in a low position to tackle) had to retire due to concussion. His withdrawal prompted a pause in play much to the annoyance of the locals as Connacht Rugby were looking threatening with ball in hand but player welfare is paramount and Cummins safely got off the pitch for much needed medical attention.
Connacht Rugby’s early start was excellent; solid clear out work allowing Marmion and Carty to orchestrate their back line. Bundee Aki was a constant menace for the hosts as Scarlets defensively could not handle the Irish international with his marauding ball carries. Aki’s line break early doors breaking the Scarlets defensive line and good work from Tom Farrell with an intelligent supporting run to receive the offload for an easy try on four minutes.
7-0. Connacht failed to deal with the subsequent restart and a quick penalty concession was duly slotted over by Leigh Halfpenny. Connacht Rugby responded with a Carty penalty after fine work from the pack where Quinn Roux and Finlay Bealham were leading by example. Halfpenny then slotted over a long range penalty to narrow the gap to four points. 10-6.
Scarlets were struggling to contain the ball carries and clear out work of the hosts as Butler, Copeland and O’Brien were doing a splendid job. Further inventive play from Connacht Rugby seen with Jack Carty executing a superb pass to Cian Kelleher to gallop clear for an emphatic second try.
Carty’s game management to the fore on the try, duping two Scarlets defensive players into misreads. Kelleher was never going to be caught; another keynote cameo from the wing.
The Achilles heel of Connacht Rugby last season was their inability to protect leads after scoring themselves and so it proved again as Scarlets took advantage of hesitant exit strategy to expose the hosts stretched cover defense for Johnny McNicholl to smartly step inside to score unopposed. Scarlets back in the game as Halfpenny added the extras. 17-13.
The closing exchanges of the half saw Connacht Rugby presented with an additional penalty opportunity as Scarlets were pinged by Mitrea. Carty hitting a superb kick from the touch line to open the gap to seven points. An exciting half of rugby that the hosts will have felt should have yielded a bigger score margin.
The third quarter of this contest was tit for tat. Both sides enjoyed initially forays but it was the hosts who yet again were forcing the issue without little reward in the scoreboard stakes. Ultan Dillane was unlucky to cough up ball just on the Scarlets line after several impressive phases of Connacht Rugby play. The lack of points on the board looked for the locals all the world of the third quarter against Glasgow Warriors.
However, the start of the fourth quarter yielded points. Carty was lights out off the tee. 7/7 during the contest and he slotted home a sixty-second minute penalty as Scarlets high tackle count was starting to yield penalties. 23-13 suddenly went to 26-13 as Connacht Rugby won another penalty from the scrum.
This score sparked Scarlets into life and Tom Prydie touched down after Connacht Rugby were yet again caught out in their cover defense. Patchell slotted over the conversion and the game was back in the melting pot. 26-20 with eight minutes left. Cue home fan nerves to see if their side could close out the contest.
By this stage, Blade had come on for the industrious Marmion. Blade’s cameo was brief but significant as his tigerish breakdown work won the ball back for the hosts in midfield. Sean O’Brien was on hand to produce another significant ball carry and his awareness of Niyi Adeolokun saw a superb offload for the substitute wing to run in for the game winning score.
The roar from the Clan Terrace spoke volumes; the game was secured and a keynote win over Scarlets who despite missing a couple of first team starters were a serious outfit to defeat.
Connacht Rugby desperately needed a performance like this to ignite their season properly. Yes, there was the fine preseason but this specific home league win against one of the teams that will be challenging for Guinness Pro 14 honors will do wonders for the morale and confidence of the playing group and management of the team.
The game plan is still a work in progress but let us be quite clear; there were subtle areas of note. Carty’s attacking option execution has progressively improved even in this early part of the season. The decision to deploy the back three to the restarts has improved (if not fully) addressed this facet of play. The running lines of Dave Heffernan, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy were deliberate and well coached.
Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell in the three quarters were majestic on the day. Aki’s physicality in attack and on defense is such a threat for opposition and Farrell’s ability to pick running lines to create line breaks is so encouraging to see. Farrell for me is a center that should be looking to push late for Ireland RWC 2019 inclusion; he has all the attributes for the test match arena. His progression this season is immense.
It would be remiss if we did not applaud the efforts of the front five on duty and the back row for Connacht Rugby. Finlay Bealham and Denis Buckley were superb in the scrum exchanges; were the dominant unit throughout. Dave Heffernan at hooker continues to grow into the role and his mobility and ball carrying were on point.
The early withdrawal of Gavin Thornbury was a blow but credit Ultan Dillane for his cameo; did not shirk his responsibilities and ably assisted Quinn Roux who was a monster throughout. His tackle count was strong (11) and was always looking to upset Scarlets attacking play.
Robin Copeland is going to be such a good signing for Connacht Rugby this season; his experience and nous there for all to see yesterday. His nuisance factor at ruck time, his decision making to leave a ruck gave Connacht Rugby defense that extra second to regroup. O’Brien and Butler cameos were accurate throughout; negated the Scarlets back row threat and their defensive was rock solid.
A serious win for Connacht Rugby. The month of champions has ignited around the Sportsgrounds just in time for Leinster Rugby to arrive into town next weekend in a fixture which has all the hallmarks to be a classic. I cannot wait!