Jump to main content


Connacht Off To A Flyer In Challenge Cup

Connacht Off To A Flyer In Challenge Cup

Building on the momentum from last weekend’s memorable league win over Leinster, super-charged Connacht got their European Challenge Cup campaign off to an impressive start with a 30-12 dismissal of Dax.

Connacht have not qualified for the European Challenge Cup’s quarter-finals since the 2005/06 season and when the draw and fixtures for this season’s pool stages were revealed, this looked a particularly tricky opening game.

Dax, coached by former France back rower Thomas Lievremont, had beaten Castres, Biarritz and Bayonne in the Top 14 in recent weeks and although they made a full 15 changes to the team from last week’s Bayonne match, the hosts still fielded a talent-laden side.

Google Ad Manager – 300×250 – In Article

The small crowd at Stade Maurice Boyau increased the decibel levels as attack-minded Dax opened well, putting Connacht under immediate pressure with a silky run from out-half Maxime Petitjean.

The visitors had been forced into a late change when winger Mike Roberts cried off with a calf injury. John Hearty took his place and Daniel Riordan, who had travelled across as the extra man, was bumped up to the replacements bench.

And although Petitjean and New Zealander Duncan Bell looked dangerous in possession, Connacht survived the early onslaught and were able to take the lead in the 15th minute.

Scrum half Frank Murphy grubber-kicked the visitors to within five metres of the Dax try-line. Andrew Farley then produced a fine lineout steal and two phases later, team captain John Muldoon wrestled his way over after concerted drive.

Out-half Ian Keatley, recovered from a head injury, popped over the conversion but Dax soon closed toe gap to 7-5 thanks to a try from full-back Laurent Diaz.

Four minutes after Muldoon’s effort, Dax countered from a scrum as their number 9 Jean Baptiste Pezet broke clear on the blindside. The Connacht cover got across to him but his clever kick forward was gleefully touched down in the corner by Diaz.

The extras were missed by Petitjean but Dax, who had been having the better of open play, moved 12-7 ahead for the interval when winger Bruno Hiriart scored an excellent try, side-stepping through Connacht’s rush defence and easily gobbling up the last 20 metres to the line.

Petitjean, whose neat distribution egged his team-mates on, tagged on the conversion but he missed a 35th-minute penalty chance and Connacht coach Michael Bradley will have been pleased with just a five-point half-time deficit.

The second half was a completely different story as Connacht turned the screw and youngster Keatley, man-of-the-match against Leinster, again showed his goal-kicking class.

Under intense pressure, the former Ireland Under-20 international held his nerve to kick three penalty goals and convert tries from back row duo Johnny O’Connor and Ray Ofisa.

Keatley, having kicked a penalty moments earlier, had a hand in O’Connor’s score. He put up a garryowen which O’Connor took down and the ball was recycled for centre Gavin Duffy to break into space.

The Mayo man covered 30 metres before he popped a sweet pass out of the tackle for the supporting O’Connor to gather and score to the left of the posts.

Keatley made it a seven-pointer, pushing Connacht into a 17-12 lead, and even better followed when he landed two more successful penalties.

Adding to the tension, Connacht lost their skipper Muldoon to the sin-bin with just seven minutes to go. The Portumna native saw yellow for hands in the ruck in the visitors’ 22 and Dax seemed poised to score.

Nonetheless, Connacht’s defence was stout and their tackling never wilted.

They even had enough time for a late surge as armed with turnover ball, the hard-working Farley galloped forward and his well-executed offload put Ofisa over for his try.

Rubbing salt into the hosts’ wounds, Keatley swung the conversion over from the touchline to crown Connacht’s seventh tournament victory on French soil and their first since they won 19-16 at Montpellier in October 2005.

The westerners, the only team to have played in all 12 seasons of the Challenge Cup, now have the mouth-watering prospect of a sold-out Sportsground clash with London Irish to look forward to next week.