In Eric Elwood’s first game in charge, Connacht kicked off their pre-season campaign with a heavy home defeat to a sharp and unforgiving Harlequins side at the Sportsground.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY MATCH: Friday, August 13
CONNACHT 7 HARLEQUINS 40, the Sportsground
Scorers: Connacht: Try: Conor O’Loughlin; Con: Ian Keatley
Harlequins: Tries: Nick Evans, Matt Cairns, Mike Brown, Tom Williams, Ceri Jones, Gonzalo Camacho; Cons: Nick Evans 3, Rory Clegg 2
The Aviva Premiership outfit built up a 21-0 lead by the half hour mark but a Conor O’Loughlin try just before half-time had Connacht back in contention for the early stages of the second half.
However, with both sides making the usual raft of changes around the hour mark, the game lost shape and Harlequins proved to be sharper in attack and defence, scoring three tries in the final quarter to mark a comfortable victory.
Connacht were without numerous frontline players, Sean Cronin and Gavin Duffy are on extended breaks due to their involvement with Ireland’s summer tour, while John Muldoon, Keith Matthews and Frank Murphy are on the current injury list.
That list was added to early on with stand-in captain Johnny O’Connor forced off with a hip injury. Ray Ofisa took his place and performed well but Connacht were left reeling from a 14-minute spell around the midway point of the half.
Watched by director of rugby Conor O’Shea, Harlequins scored three quick tries to establish a deserved lead.
Nick Evans got the first, hooker Matt Cairns notched up number two, and Mike Brown rounded off their first half scoring on 28 minutes. The hugely influential Evans kicked all three conversions.
O’Loughlin’s try came on the stroke of half-time. It was a solo effort that stemmed from his alertness in taking a quick tap penalty on halfway and bursting through a huge hole before cantering home under the posts, Ian Keatley converted.
Connacht were more alert and aggressive on defence in the early stages of the second half, somewhat making amends for their first half errors.
Replacements Mike McCarthy and Ofsa were to the fore at this stage but the interchanging towards the midway point of the half brought an end to the promising spell.
‘Quins finished very much in the ascendency although their first try of the second half came completely against the run of the play.
Tom Williams intercepted Ezra Taylor’s pass as Connacht were on the attack in the visitors’ half. The winger sprinted half the length of the pitch to score.
That put an end to any hopes of a revival and tries from Ceri Jones and Gonzalo Camacho in the closing stages left an uneasy look on the scoreboard for the large home support to ponder.
Connacht and Harlequins are set to meet again in back-to-back Amlin Challenge Cup pool games in December.
Speaking after his side’s first pre-season outing, Connacht’s new head coach Eric Elwood said: “We were very slow in our transition from attack to defence, you have to make your tackles, work hard on your defence to get the ball back and I thought some of their scores were quite easily preventable.
“That’s a disappointing result, to concede six tries at home, our focus now is to rectify some of the areas that were highlighted.
“We have to respect and generate fast go-forward ball and work on our defence as well, that’s not how Connacht teams defend.”
Connacht will hope for considerable improvements ahead of next Saturday’s final pre-season tussle with Saracens.
CONNACHT: Troy Nathan, Tiernan O’Halloran, Niva Ta’auso, Aidan Wynne, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Conor O’Loughlin; Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Jamie Hagan, Mike Swift, Bernie Upton, Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor (capt), Mike McComish.
Replacements used: Ray Ofisa for O’Connor (15 mins), Mike McCarthy for Swift, Cillian Willis for O’Loughlin, Miah Nikora for Keatley (all half-time), Rob Sweeney for Hagan (51), Shane Monahan for O’Halloran (56), Ezra Taylor for Browne (61), Dermot Murphy for Flavin (63), Eoin Griffin for Ta’auso, Dave Nolan for McComish (both 64), Darragh Fanning for Carr (69), Dennis Buckley for Brett Wilkinson (76).
HARLEQUINS: Mike Brown; Tom Williams, Ollie Smith, Jordan Turner-hall, George Lowe; Nick Evans, Karl Dickson; Joe Marler, Matt Cairns, Mark Lambert, Ollie Kohn, Tomas Vallejos, Chris York, Will Skinner (capt), Tom Guest.
Replacements: Joe Gray, Ceri Jones, James Johnston, Peter Browne, Lewis Stevenson, David Moore, Rory Clegg, Charlie Mattews, Tom Casson, Gonzalo Camacho.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)