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Positive Signs For Keane’s Connacht Despite Sloppy Finish

Positive Signs For Keane’s Connacht Despite Sloppy Finish

It was a mixed bag for Kieran Keane in his first outing as Connacht head coach, his starting team establishing a 12-5 half-time lead at the Ricoh Arena last night before personnel changes and Wasps’ improved play saw the hosts emerge with a flattering 40-22 win.

PRE-SEASON MATCH: Wednesday, August 23

WASPS 40 CONNACHT 22, Ricoh Arena
Scorers: Wasps: Tries: Christian Wade 2, Tom Cruse, Josh Bassett, Brendan Macken, Guy Armitage; Cons: Danny Cipriani 5
Connacht: Tries: Tom McCartney, Rory Scholes, Stacey Ili; Cons: Craig Ronaldson, Steve Crosbie; Pen: Steve Crosbie

HT: Wasps 5 Connacht 12

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The first of two quick-fire pre-season games for Connacht – they host Pat Lam’s Bristol at the Sportsground on Saturday (kick-off 3pm) – began in impressive fashion for the westerners as Tom McCartney crashed over in the eighth minute out wide, and Jack Carty’s kick out to the wing teed up Rory Scholes for a debut try just four minutes later.

They were ‘two fantastic tries’ according to new Connacht boss Kieran Keane, with a well-executed second lineout maul setting up hooker McCartney’s opportunity and Craig Ronaldson adding a smashing conversion to Ulsterman Scholes’ effort in the same right corner.

It was a combination of well-drilled defence from the province and Wasps’ inaccuracies on the ball that meant the hosts only scored once before half-time. The Wasps forwards threatened via a close-in lineout before tricky winger Christian Wade managed to squeeze over for a five-pointer on the quarter hour mark.

Connacht’s defence was resilient as Carty tracked back to cover a dangerous hack through from Dan Robson, while a penalty at the breakdown deep in their own 22 relieved the pressure on the visitors’ pack which contained ex-Wasp James Cannon, who put in a great shift, and new signings Peter McCabe and Jarrad Butler (pictured below).

Connacht continued to force errors from the Wasps attack, a superb move from last season’s beaten Aviva Premiership finalists being foiled when Jimmy Gopperth’s pass was intercepted with Juan de Jongh almost certain to score a try.

Connacht’s maul defence and scrum just about held firm during the closing stages of the first half, the westerners lifting the siege through lively new scrum half James Mitchell who snapped up a loose ball, broke downfield and kicked past halfway.

With a stated aim of giving as many players as possible game-time in Coventry, Keane made 13 changes at the interval and the early signs were positive again on the resumption. Impressive out-half Carty caught the eye with a neat break and he sparked a pacy attack soon after, with Wasps needing a Marcus Watson tackle to force a knock-on close to their own line.

Connacht kept pressing and succeeded in converting the pressure into points with a 45th minute try from Stacey Ili. The New Zealander brilliantly broke away from Gaby Lovobalavu and used his strength to stretch out and make the line, with fellow replacement Steve Crosbie converting for a 19-5 scoreline.

Connacht soon had a numerical advantage too, Fijian centre Lovobalavu’s dangerous challenge straight from the restart leaving Wasps down to 14 men. However, Keane’s much-changed side failed to capitalise on the sin-binning, as Wasps’ powerful scrummaging grew in influence. after Ashley Johnson’s near miss when he lost control of the ball in a try-scoring position, a second lineout maul in quick succession saw replacement hooker Tom Cruse touch down.

Danny Cipriani, who was also sprung from a strong bench that was a big factor in Wasps’ comeback, converted to close the gap to 19-12 with 21 minutes remaining. Carty continued to threaten for Connacht in open play, slipping through a gap before being hauled down. Ili and Matt Healy also exploited space in midfield and out wide. The visitors duly won a central penalty which Crosbie landed to make it a 10-point game.

Unfortunately for Connacht, they were held scoreless thereafter and their tiring defence gave way under increasing pressure. Having had the benefit of playing Ulster last week, Wasps found another gear to score four unanswered tries which gave a final scoreline that did not reflect how closely-fought the game was.

Wade showed great wheels to race up the touchline and complete his brace with 65 minutes gone, and Wasps edged in front – 26-22 – barely two minutes later when a Cruse tackle saw Connacht turned over in contact. Joe Simpson was fed and he broke down the left before sending fellow replacement Josh Bassett over for a try. Cipriani added the extras to both tries.

Wasps were just as ruthless in the dying minutes, Connacht twice building promising phases before a knock-on and a forward pass ruined their approach work. The home side needed no second invitation, delighting the vast majority of the 7,134-strong crowd with Cipriani’s nicely-timed pass sending Dubliner Brendan Macken over, and then fellow replacement Guy Armitage muscled through for the final try after a five-metre lineout.

There were obvious positives and negatives for Keane to take from Connacht’s performance. He admitted afterwards: “I was extremely happy coming in at half-time. There was great fight in the guys. It was a really good first half from us. We started a little tentatively, took a couple of big hits, two bangs on the nose and then come back really strongly. I thought the first half team did particularly well.

“I’m a bit disappointed with the second half result. Those defensive lapses just allowed the opposition to grow in confidence and they’re a huge side. So when they had the ball all day, they put 35 points up that second half team. Some of the boys will be disappointed around their defence, that’s for sure.

“We have some work to do on our defence ahead of the Bristol game (this Saturday) and our PRO14 opener at home to Glasgow. The objective of tonight was to get guys as much game-time as possible and we managed to do that. The focus now shifts to selecting our first fifteen and that will be our focus for the next week.”

WASPS: Rob Miller; Christian Wade, Juan de Jongh, Gaby Lovobalavu, Marcus Watson; Jimmy Gopperth, Dan Robson; Matt Mullan, Ashley Johnson (capt), Jake Cooper-Woolley, Matt Symons, Will Rowlands, James Gaskell, Guy Thompson, Nathan Hughes.

Replacements: Tom Cruse, Simon McIntyre, Marty Moore, Kearnan Myall, Jack Willis, Alex Rieder, Joe Simpson, Danny Cipriani, Guy Armitage, Brendan Macken, Josh Bassett, Owain James.

CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Rory Scholes, Eoin Griffin, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, James Mitchell; Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney, Conor Carey, James Cannon, Andrew Browne, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: Conan O’Donnell, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Peter Claffey, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien, Conor McKeon, Steve Crosbie, Matthew Byrne, Stacey Ili, Cormac Brennan, Cian Kelleher.

Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (RFU)