Tries in each half from man-of-the-match Sean Cronin and Gavin Duffy inspired Connacht to a much-needed 16-13 victory over Bayonne at the Sportsground on Friday.
Connacht played their way back into contention in Pool 1 of the Amlin Challenge Cup, overcoming table toppers Bayonne by a narrow margin.
Eric Elwood’s men conceded a converted try in the closing stages, but had done enough over the opening 65 minutes to garner their first win in this season’s tournament.
The Sportsground has been something of a fortress for Connacht in recent seasons, and that home comfort was evident early on as Ian Keatley kicked his side into a fourth minute lead.
The out-half missed a second penalty and his opposite number, Sebastien Fauque, kicked Bayonne level in the 13th minute as the action switched from end to end.
In a fast-paced opening quarter, both sides probed with searching kicks. Connacht stood up to the beefy visiting pack, who launched a series of pick and goes. Fauque rewarded their good work with a second penalty, 22 minutes in.
Connacht responded with some terrific, full-blooded attacking, Darragh Fanning, Fionn Carr and Keith Matthews stretching their legs as they broke Bayonne’s defensive line.
Connacht’s scrum offered a solid platform, with props Brett Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan performing well against their direct opponents, and Johnny O’Connor was as busy as ever at the breakdown.
Scrum half Frank Murphy did well to gobble up a loose ball after Connacht had pressurised a Bayonne scrum and although Hagan made serious headway, brushing three defenders aside in the next attack, a knock on dashed Connacht’s hopes of a try.
However, just minutes later, hooker Sean Cronin made the breakthrough as he scooped up a loose ball after Marc Baget had failed to gather a kick from Keatley.
Bayonne were caught out by Cronin’s burst of speed and he darted over from 30 metres out, gleefully diving over in the left corner for his fourth try in 12 Amlin Challenge Cup games.
Keatley’s missed conversion was followed by a late rally from Bayonne. As they moved menacingly towards the home line, winger Fanning produced a try-saving tackle which then saw him sin-binned as he failed to roll away.
But Connacht breathed a sigh of relief when Fauque missed the kickable penalty from close to the posts, leaving Elwood’s charges with an 8-6 interval lead.
Connacht had the better of play as the second half got underway, and Keatley nailed the second of two penalty attempts to put five points between the sides.
With Fanning back on the pitch, Connacht tried to step it up a couple of gears in attack, but Bayonne would not budge.
And in such a tightly-contested game, Connacht’s defensive efforts were also top notch – Matthews and Niva Ta’auso deserving a mention for their first-up defence.
The French outfit, who beat Harlequins 16-12 last Sunday, pinned the hosts back in their 22 – only for John Muldoon to rouse a huge effort out of his side which saw them force the visitors back to the halfway line.
Cronin showed his fast-breaking ability in the loose again, creating the attack which led to a telling try from full-back Gavin Duffy. After Fionn Carr was stopped short of the line, the Mayo man was on hand to score from close range, doing well to dot down under pressure from two defenders.
Keatley could not add on the extras and after recent signing Barry Fa’amausili was introduced in place of ankle injury victim Hagan, Bayonne mustered a quick response to that try.
Their replacement hooker David Roumieu slipped through for a 68th minute which Cedric Garcia stepped up to convert, leaving the game on a real knife edge at 16-13.
Bayonne had the momentum in the dying minutes, but Connacht dug deep to soak up the pressure and gain some vital territory back.
There were some bone-crunching tackles from the likes of Ray Ofisa and Mike McCarthy and a huge scrum as Connacht put their bodies on the line, defying the odds against a team that had beaten Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in recent weeks.
Keatley missed a 78th minute penalty from just inside the Bayonne half, adding to the tension. But Connacht ,managed to close out a result which gets their European campaign back on track, ahead of December’s two clashes with Harlequins.