3,794 spectators – a record attendance for a pre-season game at the Sportsground – watched Connacht score four tries in overcoming Pat Lam’s Bristol 24-14, with the GUINNESS PRO14 kick-off now just a week away.
PRE-SEASON MATCH: Saturday, August 26
CONNACHT 24 BRISTOL 14, the Sportsground
Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Peter McCave, Kieran Marmion, Penalty try, Rory Scholes; Cons: Craig Ronaldson, Penalty try con
Bristol: Tries: David Lemi, Mat Protheroe; Cons: Ian Madigan, Billy Searle
HT: Connacht 7 Bristol 7
It was another useful workout for Kieran Keane’s Connacht side who led Wasps for most of Wednesday’s pre-season clash in Coventry before losing 40-22. Back on home soil yesterday, the province returned to winning ways thanks to a penalty try and scores from Peter McCabe, Kieran Marmion and Rory Scholes (his second in two matches).
Speaking to reporters afterwards, head coach Keane said: “Lovely to get a win here and pretty humbled by the crowd. I have not experienced anything like it in pre-season. The atmosphere was pretty unique, it was a beautiful day, some great rugby, and a good result for us.
“We did pretty well, but we could have done better. We are not perfect, but no one is really, and we have a wee bit of work to do to get up to speed. Some issues manifested themselves again today, but they are not unsolvable. There’s a real buzz around the group. We have the talent and the work ethic and the personnel to address it.”
Ahead of next Saturday’s PRO14 opener at home to Glasgow Warriors, Connacht flew out of the traps thanks to a superb second-minute break from Matt Healy. He was stopped short of the line but the hosts kept the pressure on and recycled well, building for new prop McCabe to crash over from close range. Craig Ronaldson converted for an early 7-0 lead.
Ireland out-half Ian Madigan and former Connacht hooker Jason Harris-Wright were two familiar faces in the Bristol line-up. Madigan’s boot put the visitors into scoring range via a penalty, but pressure from John Muldoon in the lineout and a subsequent turnover saw Connacht bounce back to halfway.
Lively winger Healy continued to cause problems for Bristol out wide, hoovering up the ground on a 30-metre break before his offload resulted in turnover ball for the English Championship outfit. It was another turnover which led to David Lemi’s levelling 22nd-minute try, the right winger taking advantage of some confusion in the home defence to score with Madigan converting.
A couple of penalties – the first won by full-back Darragh Leader and the second off a scrum – invited Connacht forward approaching the half hour mark. However, Bristol coped well in defence and duly relieved the pressure, winning a series of lineouts to get within striking distance where prop Soane Tonga’uiha went closest to scoring.
It was all-square at seven points apiece after an entertaining first half, and with no changes at the break, Connacht resumed in better fettle. Ultan Dillane, who is looking sharp after shoulder surgery earlier in the year, led the charge as Bristol were forced backwards, and a free-flowing move ended with scrum half Marmion touching down from the base of a ruck. Ronaldson missed the conversion.
It was end-to-end stuff again as Bristol, with former England international Tom Varndell regularly posing a threat out wide, but Dillane was to the fore as the Connacht defence stood firm, and centre Eoin Griffin broke soon after to bring the westerners back into the opposition half.
Jack Carty sent a subsequent penalty towards the corner as Connacht’s set piece game provided the platform for try number three. Following the introduction of Conor McKeon, James Cannon, Bundee Aki and Scholes, the home pack used a five-metre scrum to earn a penalty try and open up a 19-7 advantage.
Former Brumbie Jarrad Butler made his presence felt on his home debut, stealing a 67th minute lineout to set the Connacht attack in motion again. Nonetheless, Bristol responded with a tremendous solo try from full-back Mat Protheroe who evaded past several defenders to dot down by the posts, with fellow replacement Billy Searle converting.
Lam’s side were consigned to their fourth pre-season loss, though, when the in-form Scholes made it over in the left corner for the clinching try with six minutes to go. Varndell was prevented from answering back late on as Connacht, with 10 replacements used, stood firm for an encouraging 10-point victory.
Happy to make a winning start in Galway, back rower Butler said: “We definitely wanted to get a win under the belt before the first round next week. For the most part, we’ll be pleased with the majority of that game. In the second half we kinda let it slip a little bit. Personally, I was really, really buggered!
“But I think we’re really happy and we’re looking forward to next week and round 1. All the training, you get through the hard work because you want to play round 1. We’re really excited to be here now and get into the season.
“This was my first game at home and this crowd was unreal. They were really loud and enthusiastic. Just jogging out onto the field, you get a really good reception and it makes it so much easier and it makes it so much fun to play at home.”
CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Cian Kelleher, Eoin Griffin, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Andrew Browne, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements used: Bundee Aki for Ronaldson, James Cannon for Browne, Rory Scholes for Healy, Conor McKeon for Marmion (all 54 mins), JP Cooney for McCabe, Conor Carey for Bealham (both 63), Eoin McKeon for Muldoon, Shane Delahunt for McCartney (both 64), Steve Crosbie for Carty, Stacey Ili for Kelleher (both 72).
BRISTOL: Jordan Williams; David Lemi, Will Hurrell, Tusi Pisi, Tom Varndell; Ian Madigan, Rhodri Williams; Soane Tonga’uiha, Jason Harris-Wright, Sione Faletau, Joe Batley, Joe Joyce, Sam Jeffries (capt), Dan Thomas, Nick Haining.
Replacements: Max Crumpton, Jack Cosgrove, Tyler Gendall, Joe Latta, Steven Luatua, Jack Lam, Jordan Crane, Reiss Cullen, Billy Searle, Jack Tovey, Sam Bedlow, Luke Morahan, Mat Protheroe.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)