Photo thanks to @ConnachtRugby
The second season of Andy Friend’s Connacht tenure got underway in the shadow of the French alps in Oyonnax tonight. His first season in charge surpassed most peoples expectations for a side that too often had struggled to find consistency under the previous coach Kieran Keane. A third-place finish in Conference A, behind Glasgow and Munster and a first play-off place since their Trophy-winning 2016 season was just reward for the progress made under the affable Aussie.
Caolin Blade led out Connacht as captain at Stade Charles-Mathon against French Pro D2 side Oyonnax Rugby, who will start their domestic season next Friday night at home to Valence Romans. It was the home side who had the better of the early exchanges and came close to breaking the deadlock as a second-minute penalty scraped past the post and ten minutes later another penalty effort came back off the upright. Eric Millet put the home side in front with a try on 24 minutes after finding a gap in the cover after a series of strong carries from the Oyonnax pack. The try was duly converted and the home side led 7-0 at the break.
Friend then made wholesale changes to his side in order to give the whole travelling squad some game time, almost a whole new set of Connacht players emerged after the break, with only second-row Joe Maksymiw and winger Niyi Adeolokun retained. But the 13 subs bedded in quickly and within five minutes Connacht were back on level terms when Colby Fainga’a showed a nice turn of speed to race clear of the home defence. Conor Fitzgerald converted the extras to tie things up.
However, a penalty from Lionel Beauxis edged the home side back in front shortly after and another from Yohan Le Bourhis on 68 minutes made it 13-7 going into the last ten minutes. On 71 minutes Tiernan O’Halloran showed quick feet to make a half-break to bring Connacht up to the opposition’s 10-meter line, then Kyle Godwin found space out wide and put Conor Fitzgerald in for a late try. Fitzgerald added the conversion to give Connacht the lead for the first time by the slenderest of margins. A last-minute turnover for the men in green insured their season got off to a positive start.
Connacht starting 15:
Matthew Burke, Tom McCartney, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Seán Masterson, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland, Caolin Blade (c), David Horwitz, Matt Healy, Peter Robb, Kyle Godwin, Niyi Adeolokun, Darragh Leader.
Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Cillian Gallagher, Joe Maksymiw, Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (c), Angus Llyod, Conor Fitzgerald, Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Daly, Seán O’Brien, John Porch, Tiernan O’Halloran.