Connacht got their pre-season run of matches off to a positive start on Saturday as they came away from Sandy Park with an 8-6 victory over Exeter Chiefs.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY: Saturday, August 11
EXETER CHIEFS 6 CONNACHT 8, Sandy Park
Scorers; Exeter Chiefs: Pens: Gareth Steenson 2
Connacht: Try: Fetu’u Vainikolo; Pen: Miah Nikora
Connacht head coach Eric Elwood opted to put out a rather young and experimental side which afforded both him and his management team the chance to try out a number of different combinations. And it worked.
Exeter Chiefs, known within the Aviva Premiership as an extremely strong side, were subjected to increased pressure from the visiting team.
The province’s entire matchday squad was given game-time with debutants Brian Murphy, Finlay Bealham and Peter Reilly all in the starting line-up.
First-timers from the bench included Jason Harris-Wright, JP Cooney, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Mata Fifita and centre Robbie Henshaw, who only last year helped Marist College, Athlone to win the Connacht Schools Senior Cup.
Connacht were first off the mark when, five minutes in, Exeter were penalised for playing the ball on the ground at the ruck. Miah Nikora went for the posts to make it 3-0 to Connacht.
It was not long until Exeter got level with a penalty kick from former Ireland Under-21 international Gareth Steenson. Still in the opening half and under pressure from the home side, Connacht strayed offside just outside their 22 to allow Steenson to make it 6-3 for half time.
The second half saw Connacht take full advantage when the Chiefs turned over and winger Fetu’u Vainikolo outpaced centre Sireli Naqelevuki to score the opening try.
Nikora’s conversion was wide of the target but after a period of sustained pressure the Connacht defence held strong and the two-point lead was retained until the final whistle.
The westerners’ assistant coach Dan McFarland was particularly pleased with the notable physicality of the squad and also praised their performance at the breakdown where they caused problems for the Chiefs.
The predominantly young and, for the most part, inexperienced players really stepped up and proved that the pre-season training has prepared them for the upcoming games and the challenges they face.
McFarland added: “This was an excellent opportunity to have a look at some of our young players. They acquitted themselves very well. Getting the first game played gives us a chance to look at some of our ideas and assess where we stand.”
Connacht team manager Tim Allnutt commented; “Absolutely everybody contributed positively to this deserved victory and we’re now looking ahead to the Harlequins game.”
Connacht will play Harlequins at the Stoop next Saturday. You can follow Connacht Rugby on Facebook and Twitter for score updates as they happen.
EXETER CHIEFS: Phil Dollman; Josh Tatupu, Sireli Naqelevuki, Ian Whitten, Matt Jess; Gareth Steenson, Kevin Barrett; Ben Moon, Chris Whitehead, Hoani Tui, Tom Hayes (capt), James Hanks, Ben White, James Scaysbrook, Richard Baxter.
Replacements used: Mark Foster for Tatupu (half-time), Nic Sestaret for Naqelevuki, Brett Sturgess for Moon, Aly Muldowney for Hanks, James Phillips for White (all 54 mins), Sam Hill for Whitten, Simon Alcott for Whitehead, Alex Brown for Tui, Kai Horstmann for Baxter (all 66), Damian Welch for Hayes, Dave Ewers for Scaysbrook (both 72), Myles Dorrian for Steenson (74).
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Fetu’u Vainikolo, Kyle Tonetti, Brian Murphy, James Loxton; Miah Nikora, David Moore; Finlay Bealham, Adrian Flavin, Peter Reilly, Michael Swift (capt), David Gannon, Andrew Browne, Eoghan Grace, George Naoupu.
Replacements used: Denis Buckley for Flavin (25 mins), Jason Harris-Wright for Bealham (32), Mark McCrea for Loxton, JP Cooney for Reilly, Michael Kearney for Swift, Willie Faloon for Grace, Eoin McKeon for Naoupu (all half-time), Mata Fifita for Moore (41), Matthew Jarvis for O’Halloran (57), Mark McCrea for Vainikolo (75).
Referee: Andrew Small (England)