Connacht continued their impressive pre-season form with a 14-12 victory over Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate on Friday. They head into the first round of the GUINNESS PRO14 on the back of three wins and with all available players getting game-time during pre-season.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY MATCH: Friday, August 24
BRISTOL BEARS 12 CONNACHT 14, Ashton Gate
Scorers: Bristol Bears: Tries: Luke Daniels, Uren; Con: Ian Madigan
Connacht: Tries: Matt Healy, Paul Boyle; Cons: Jack Carty, Craig Ronaldson
HT: Bristol Bears 5 Connacht 0
Jack Carty’s terrific touchline conversion of Matt Healy’s 43rd-minute try ultimately proved to be the difference between the sides, as Andy Friend got one over on one of his predecessors in the job, Bristol Bears boss Pat Lam, and recently-retired Connacht legend John Muldoon who is now Bristol’s defence coach.
In-form Academy forward Paul Boyle also notched his first senior try for Connacht, with head coach Friend saying afterwards: “That was a different game to our last two pre-season fixtures (against Brive and Wasps), but I was pleased with the way the boys responded in the second half and how they found a way to win that game.
“We had a really physical game and we’re ready now for the season ahead. It will be different next weekend and it will be a big challenge taking on Glasgow (Warriors) at the Sportsground. We’re really looking forward to it and we are expecting a big atmosphere in Galway next Saturday.”
With number 8 Robin Copeland hungry for work on his debut, Connacht got off to a solid start against the Gallagher Premiership newcomers. The new centre pairing of Kyle Godwin and Tom Farrell continued where they left off against Wasps and dovetailed well.
Despite some decent territory and fleet-footed winger Matt Healy almost breaking free, it was Bristol who took the lead on the quarter hour mark. Their new full-back Luke Daniels, who signed from Ealing Trailfinders, was released to score on the left but Ireland international Ian Madigan put the conversion to the right and wide.
Carty increased his influence behind an industrious Connacht pack, and a galloping break through the middle by Copeland deserved a score. However, Bristol held out with the visitors being denied by a foot in touch and they were also unable to profit from further strong running by Healy and Farrell.
The 2,393-strong crowd watched Lam’s men hold onto their five-point lead up to half-time, as a George Smith turnover spoiled some late Connacht momentum and Copeland returned the favour in the closing stages to leave Bristol with nothing to show for a series of promising attacks.
Injuries saw James Connolly and former Ulster star Charles Piutau called ashore prematurely, the latter, a major summer signing for Bristol, lasting barely 10 minutes before coming off with a worrying shoulder injury. The early second half pressure came from Connacht and they got their just reward in the form of Healy’s seven-pointer.
The forwards did the donkey work, with Connolly’s replacement Cillian Gallagher helping to win a penalty which launched Connacht back into scoring range. Putting pace on the ball off a strong set piece platform, the westerners shipped it wide for Healy to slide over in the corner and Carty added what proved to be a vital conversion.
Copeland continued to be a threat with ball in hand, almost being put clear by Tiernan O’Halloran’s slick hands, but Bristol forced a second try from captain Steven Luatua’s intercept as he linked with replacement scrum half Andy Uren who won the footrace to the line from 40 metres out.
Now 12-7 in arrears with 52 minutes on the clock, Connacht wasted little time in hitting back as they regained the lead by the hour mark. Bristol replacement Jake Woolmore was sin-binned and former Ireland Under-20 skipper Boyle took advantage, coming around the corner with support from Shane Delahunt and bundling his way over following a tapped penalty.
Replacement Craig Ronaldson supplied the additional points off the tee, restoring Connacht’s two-point buffer, and it was left to their well-organised and disciplined defence to copper-fasten the result. They foiled Bristol’s late surge and would have finished further in front had centre Farrell’s chip ahead – via his own bustling midfield break – come off.
The GUINNESS PRO14 action, and a mouth-watering ‘Month of Champions’, kicks off for Connacht against Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground next Saturday (kick-off 3pm). The Glasgow game is the first of four in Galway during the month of September – tickets are on sale at connachtrugby.ie/tickets.
BRISTOL BEARS: Luke Daniels; Luke Morahan, Alapati Leiua, Siale Piutau, Ryan Edwards; Ian Madigan, Nic Stirzaker; Yann Thomas, Harry Thacker, John Afoa, Ed Holmes, Joe Latta, Steven Luatua (capt), George Smith, Jack Lam.
Replacements used: Charles Piutau for Edwards, Chris Vui for Latta, Jordan Crane for Lam (all half-time), Andy Uren for Stirzaker (47 mins), Piers O’Conor for C Piutau, Jake Woolmore for Thomas, Nick Fenton-Wells for Thacker, Jake Armstrong for Afoa (all 51), Callum Sheedy for Madigan (71).
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, James Mitchell; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (capt), Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, James Cannon, James Connolly, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.
Replacements used: Cillian Gallagher for Connolly (40 mins), Conor McKeon for Mitchell, Niyi Adeolokun for Kelleher (both 44), Shane Delahunt for Heffernan, Joe Maksymiw for Cannon, Craig Ronaldson for Carty (all 53), Peter McCabe for Buckley, Conor Carey for Bealham (both 60), Eoin Griffin for Godwin, Quinn Roux for Copeland (both 71).
Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)