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Slick Exiles Have Too Much For Connacht

Slick Exiles Have Too Much For Connacht

There was no joy for Connacht in their first ever competitive fixture with London Irish as the Exiles ran in four tries at the Sportsground on Friday to extend their lead at the top of European Challenge Cup Pool 1 to six points.

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The rain fell steadily before kick-off but it failed to dampen the spirits of the 4,186-strong crowd assembled as they looked forward to watching two sides who impressed in the opening round of the European Challenge Cup.

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Connacht raced away from Dax in the second half to claim a notable 30-12 win at Stade Maurice Boyau seven days ago, while London Irish went on the rampage when Rugby Rovigo visited the Madejski Stadium last weekend, coasting to a 12-try 78-3 win.

So it was all to play for as the westerners, who welcomed back Aidan Wynne, Adrian Flavin and Ray Ofisa into the starting line-up, took part in their 79th tournament match.

Playing into a forceful breeze and the pelting rain, Connacht had a composed first few minutes although the Exiles’ Australian place-kicker Peter Hewat should have opened with a penalty from 40 metres out.

Nonetheless, Irish did not have long to wait for their first points of the night. Paul Hodgson tapped an indirect free-kick, kicked over the defence and brilliantly turned Liam Bibo over in the tackle.

With Connacht struggling to regroup, Irish recycled the ball quickly and Bob Casey, Nick Kennedy and Tonga Lea’aetoa combined to put Elvis Seveali’i through on an overlapping run for a ninth minute try.

Hewat missed the conversion and Connacht gained decent territory after the restart. They tapped a penalty and rumbled on through the forwards, stretching the Irish defence and increasing the decible level with some cohesive work around the fringes.

Ian Keatley, with his confidence boosted by recent displays, sent up a cross-field kick which the impressive Bibo collected but what would have been a try-scoring pass was unfortunately knocked on by supporting full-back Fionn Carr.

Worse followed for Connacht as Irish clinically seized their chance to counter attack.

Sailosi Tagicakibau immediately ran the ball back at the home side, bursting out of two tackles and he made it up to just over halfway before offloading for Seilala Mapusua who had enough gas to make the line.

Hewat converted for a 12-0 lead and Connacht looked in serious trouble. Getting out of it though did not seem much of a chore.

Michael Bradley’s men got themselves back in touch with a fantastic 17th-minute try.

Hewat, who struggled in the conditions, launched a kick chase but Andrew Farley made decent ground returning it. Connacht upped the tempo off the ruck, with scrum half Frank Murphy evading a tackle out wide on the right.

Johnny O’Connor, who got through an amount of work, carried the ball and sold a clever dummy before he sent Carr hurtling over from 22 metres out. The crowd rose in appreciation, cheering a cracking score.

Keatley added the extras and 12-7 was how it stayed until half-time. The Exiles looked a little flustered as they lost their initial control and Connacht had the better of the second quarter.

O’Connor and Ray Ofisa niggled away at the breakdown and put in some big hits and Adrian Flavin, who started his rugby career at Irish at five-and-a-half years of age, got to grips with the lineout, where the Casey-Kennedy axis had been causing Connacht problems.

Murphy, Keatley and Gavin Duffy did the right things in possession and Bradley’s charges shored up their defence when Irish looked for further counter-attacking opportunities.

But, despite some noteworthy individual performances and the compulsive beat of the out-of-season samba band, Connacht were overrun in the second half.

Irish’s power and pace was too much in the end as Connacht’s successful tackle rate decreased and players of the calibre of Topsy Ojo, Paul Hodgson and indeed Casey, who would have impressed the watching Declan Kidney and Gert Smal.

The Ireland coaches will also have noted how Connacht number 7 O’Connor has strung together a series of strong performances over the past three weeks, beginning with that famous Magners League win over Leinster.

The Galway man was everywhere again on Friday, snaffling as much possession as he could for the men in black and living on the edge as he gleefully spoiled the Exiles’ ball.

However, with the game in the balance, Irish crucially got over for a try five minutes into the second period. Good hands from Hodgson, Hewat and Seveali’i helped put the pacy Ojo through for a 30-metre dash to the line.

Hewat’s conversion was soon cancelled out by a well-struck penalty from Keatley, which the hard-working Murphy set up.

That kept Connacht within sight at 19-10 and the home supporters agonised when Carr, charging through on an excellent run and taking a pass from Bibo, was just shunted into touch as he touched down.

Ofisa also almost put prop Brett Wilkinson over for a try but Hewat got in between them to knock the pass away, with referee Jerome Garces ruling that it was not deliberate.

With a raft of substitutions being made, the intensity dropped in the final quarter. Connacht were still looking dangerous though and Casey recognised this when he asked Hewat to kick for goal in the 69th minute.

The out-half obliged to stretch Irish’s lead to 12 points. Injuries forced Connacht to end the game with Colm Rigney in the front row and Troy Nathan filling in as a makeshift flanker and their challenge fell away.

Toby Booth’s charges added a flattering gloss to the score-line when Ojo grabbed his second try and the Exiles’ bonus point score.

The winger struck from longe range, showing his supreme finishing qualities as a weary Connacht let him slip through at the death.

It is back to the bread and butter of the Magners League next week for the westerners with a trip to Edinburgh, but there could still be further twists and turns in Europe in December and January.