Heineken Champions Cup
Round 1 – Sunday 17th November 2019
The Sportsground, Galway
Connacht 23 Montpellier 20
Connacht got their Champions Cup campaign off to the best possible start today with an impressive win over Montpellier. Three late injury withdrawals prior to the kick-off had the home crowd of over 6,000 fearful against a big physical French side. Captain Jarrad Butler and wingers Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy picked up knocks and were replaced in the starting line-up by Robin Copeland, John Porch and Tom Daly. Daly came in at centre while Kyle Godwin moved across to cover the left-wing.
Andy Friend’s Connacht have endured a tough run of injuries of late. Their threadbare squad was further tested when Cillian Gallagher had to be replaced by Joe Maksymiw after only 8 minutes. Connacht were already 0-7 behind at that stage after former All-Black Aaron Cruden crossed in the first minute after a neat exchange of passes with Yvan Reilhac sent him clear.
The local crowd could have been forgiven for thinking it wasn’t to be their day at that stage. However, Connacht showed great resilience to pick themselves up and find a way back into the contest.
A Jack Carty penalty on fifteen minutes gave them a foothold in the game. That was quickly cancelled out by a Benoit Paillaugue shot at the posts five minutes later. But the home side turned the game on its head with two tries in the space of four minutes just before the break.
Firstly Paul Boyle powered over after carries from Caolin Blade and Tom Daly had got Connacht within inches of the line. Then as the clock went into the red at the end of the half Connacht won a lineout five meters out. Tom McCartney threw a dart to the airborne Colby Fainga’a who was tackled illegally by Paul Willemse. The South African born French international was sent to the bin as Jack Carty opted to kick to the corner again. Connacht got the maul rolling from the resulting line-out and Tom McCartney was on the end of the set-piece play and got the try to send Connacht in 13-10 ahead at the break.
Within five minutes of the restart, the sides were all square again as another Paillaugue penalty tied things up at 13 all. Connacht dominated the play from the restart. They took the game to their more illustrious opponents. Jack Carty, Tom Daly and Bundee Aki all made good ground to take Connacht up to the 5m line. Scrum-half Caolin Blade found a gap in the visitor’s defence to snipe over for a try. Carty converted and the home side were seven points ahead on the 52-minute mark.
Montpellier rang the changes, as both Bismark and Jannie du Plessis were brought into the fray. Crudden, meanwhile, was replaced by Enzo Sanga. The visitors turned up their intensity in search of a response. As the game ticked into the final quarter centre Jan Serfontein sent Anthony Bouthier through a gap in the home defence. The Montpellier full-back raced clear to score and restore parity once again.
Jack Carty who appeared to have picked up a knock was replaced by Conor Fitzgerald on 64 minutes. The youngster was immediately tested when Connacht were awarded a penalty out wide on the left. Fitzgerald was unerring with his kick, as he nudged Connacht 3 ahead. The westerners defended manfully for the last twenty minutes as they held out for the win.
Next up for Andy Friend’s side is a trip to Toulouse for a Saturday lunchtime clash at Stade Ernest Wallon. Toulouse opened their campaign with an impressive second-half display at Kingsholm. They trailed Gloucester 20-9 at the interval, before keeping the home side scoreless for the remainder of the game to win 20-25.