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Late Surge Does It For Heroic Connacht

Late Surge Does It For Heroic Connacht

Connacht secured a home semi-final in the Amlin Challenge Cup with a tremendous final quarter fight-back against Bourgoin in brilliant sunshine at the Sportsground.


CONNACHT 23 BOURGOIN 20, the Sportsground

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Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Michael Swift, John Muldoon; Cons: Ian Keatley 2; Pens: Miah Nikora 2; Drop: Miah Nikora
Bourgoin: Tries: Tone Alefa Kopelani, John Senio; Cons: Benjamin Boyet 2; Pens: Benjamin Boyet 2

Replacement Miah Nikora, the late hero against Edinburgh in the Magners League last week, showed his coolness under pressure once again, with the New Zealander kicking two penalties and the match-winning drop goal.

When scrum half John Senio sniped through for Bourgoin’s second try, converted by Benjamin Boyet, the French side led 20-14 and looked poised to defeat the number one seeds at the quarter-final stage for the second year running.

London Irish fell to them twelve months ago, but Connacht, aided by a yellow card for Boyet, raised their game superbly in the final 20 minutes, with their forwards doing the hard graft and Nikora nailing his kicks.

Penalties in the 66th and 73rd minutes levelled an absorbing tie and following a series of pick and goes from the home pack, the Kiwi out-half knocked over a well-struck drop goal to earn Connacht a gutsy victory – their eighth on the trot at home.

Michael Bradley’s men faced into a blustery wind in the opening half and Boyet had two early penalty attempts from the 45-metre range which he pushed to the right and wide.

The game sprung into life in the tenth minute when an inside pass from Frank Murphy put excellent hooker Sean Cronin galloping over the ten-metre line. He kicked through, only for Bourgoin’s South African winger Rudi Coetzee to counter well and Senio soon broke back over the halfway line.

But, on the quarter hour, Connacht hit the front. The impressive George Naoupu bulldozed across the gain-line, Ian Keatley knocked a penalty to touch and experienced lock Michael Swift, with strong support from Brett Wilkinson, crashed over to the left of the posts.

Keatley landed the conversion but failed to punish French international Oliver Milloud for a scrum offence, ten minutes later, as his penalty effort drifted away from the target.

Connacht had their tails up but they missed out on a certain try in the 27th minute. Scrum half Murphy got a favourable bounce as he chased his own kick downfield, but with the Bourgoin rearguard completely stretched, lock Mike McCarthy knocked on with the try-line in his sights.

The hosts paid the price just three minutes later, as Bourgoin shunned a kickable penalty and hooker Tone Alefa Kopelani was able to burst clean through the middle of a ruck and dive over in the right corner, with Boyet converting.

A foot in touch robbed Keatley of a try, after good work by influential centre Niva Ta’auso, and captain John Muldoon was also called back for a knock on as Connacht pressed for their second try.

They did not have long to wait as, five minutes before the break, a wrap around move involving Kiwi Naoupu in midfield sent centre Keith Matthews roaring through a gap and he drew the cover before sending the supporting Muldoon through for a converted score.

Boyet kicked Bourgoin back to 14-10 as half-time approached and although a late, pacy break from full-back Gavin Duffy engineered a penalty for Keatley, his drilled attempt from wide on the right faded in a difficult wind.

Bourgoin made changes for the second half, the most significant seeing Boyet reverting to full-back and Sebastien Laloo introduced.

Bourgoin’s forwards came more into the game in the third quarter, and Coetzee offered a growing threat out wide. Some indiscipline from Connacht allowed Boyet kick the first of two early penalty attempts, making it 14-13.

The wind-backed hosts struggled for territory and Bourgoin took a deserved lead in the 58th minute when Senio spotted a mismatch on the 22, darted through a gap and dotted down despite the best efforts of Duffy.

Boyet converted and the game seemed to be slipping from Connacht’s grasp as Keatley missed a penalty from distance.

However, with Cronin, Swift, Muldoon and Johnny O’Connor putting in heroic displays, Connacht rose to the challenge.

A crucial moment came on 65 minutes when Murphy looked to go left from a ruck in front of the Bourgoin posts, and Boyet slapped the ball out of his hands. A yellow card was the only option.

Nikora, on for Keatley, landed the resulting penalty and after Laloo had missed a drop goal, the Connacht replacement rewarded his forwards with the levelling penalty.

The momentum was clearly with Connacht now and having missed a drop from further other just two minutes earlier, Nikora was right on the money with his 79th minute attempt to send the westerners through to the last-four of Challenge Cup for the first time since 2005.

Connacht’s semi-final opponents were confirmed on Saturday evening. French side Toulon will take on Bradley’s charges after securing their passage through with an impressive 38-12 quarter-final victory over the Scarlets.

TIME LINE: 3 minutes – Bourgoin penalty: missed by Benjamin Boyet – 0-0; 7 mins – Bourgoin penalty: missed by Benjamin Boyet – 0-0; 17 mins – Connacht try: Michael Swift – 5-0; conversion: Ian Keatley – 7-0; 25 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Ian Keatley – 7-0; 30 mins – Bourgoin try: Tone Alefa Kopelani – 7-5; conversion: Benjamin Boyet – 7-7; 35 mins – Connacht try: John Muldoon – 12-7; conversion: Ian Keatley – 14-7; 39 mins – Bourgoin penalty: Benjamin Boyet – 14-10; 40+1 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Ian Keatley – 14-10; Half-time – Connacht 14 Bourgoin 10; 44 mins – Bourgoin penalty: Benjamin Boyet – 14-13; 55 mins – Bourgoin penalty: missed by Benjamin Boyet – 14-13; 58 mins – Bourgoin try: John Senio – 14-18; conversion: Benjamin Boyet – 14-20; 60 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Ian Keatley – 14-20; 65 mins – Bourgoin yellow card: Benjamin Boyet (deliberate knock on); 66 mins – Connacht penalty: Miah Nikora – 17-20; 73 mins – Connacht penalty: Miah Nikora – 20-20; 79 mins – Connacht drop goal: Miah Nikora – 23-20; Full-time – Connacht 23 Bourgoin 20

CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon (capt), Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.

Replacements used: Miah Nikora for Keatley (62 mins), Robbie Morris for Hagan, Bernie Upton for McCarthy, Aidan Wynne for Carr (all 67), Adrian Flavin for Wilkinson (73-79, blood sub), Conor O’Loughlin for Ta’auso (79). Not used: Ronan Loughney, Mike McComish.

BOURGOIN: Mael Moinot; Rudi Coetzee, Willem van Zyl, Alexandre Dumoulin, Jean-Francois Coux; Benjamin Boyet, John Senio; Olivier Milloud, Tone Alefa Kopelani, Arnaud Tchougong, Bryce Williams, Coenraad Basson, Julien Frier (capt), Timothy Cowley, Camille Levast.

Replacements used: Jean-Philippe Genevois for Kopelani, Sebastien Laloo for Dumoulin, Bogdan Leonte for Levast, Matias Viazzo for van Zyl (all half-time), Vincent Pelo for Tchougong (65), Pablo Cardinali for Milloud (72). Jeremy Guillot, Yann Labrit.

Referee: Andrew Small (England)