Despite an electrifying start, after which they led 19-9 with 27 minutes gone, Connacht just failed to record their second win of this year’s Heineken Cup last Saturday. Harlequins won the game with a clinical scoring burst of 15 points just before half-time and then in the second period they used their superior physical and aerial ability to shut down Connacht and close out the game.
The English champions would have been particularly pleased with this win as it avenged their 9-8 loss in Galway last January, a defeat which knocked them out of the Heineken Cup and left a black mark on their season. For Connacht, this was a very disappointing evening, as what looked like yielding a third Heineken Cup win in a row ended up without even the consolation of a losing bonus point.
In front of a passionate crowd of 8,199, Connacht’s biggest of the season, The Englishmen drew first blood with a penalty from out-half Ben Botica after four minutes. The home supporters did not have long to wait for something to get excited about however. George Naoupu took a quick tap penalty and set up the platform. Connacht recycled quickly and a superb flat pass from Dan Parks put David McSharry through and he scorched over for a great try. The stadium erupted and it was game on.
Harlequins narrowed the gap soon after with another penalty from Botica before Parks got the crowd roaring once more with a superb penalty from the right-hand side. The two stand-offs swapped further penalties before the 18th minute, as the scoring rate showed no sign of slowing down.
Connacht were beginning to take the game by the scruff of the neck at this stage much to the delight of the home fans. They seemed capable of breaking the Harlequins line whenever they got on the ball, with the likes of Vainikolo and Marmion finding holes. ‘Quins were thus forced into conceding two further kickable penalties in the 24th and 27th minutes, which Parks nervelessly converted.
However, just when Connacht seemed to be setting the foundations for another famous victory, disaster struck. Harlequins won a scrum in the twenty-two and they expertly managed to wheel it just enough to allow Danny Care to pick up and run over untouched by any Connacht hand. The Londoners were not finished there either. Three minutes before the break they worked the ball through several slick phases and punched right up to the Connacht line where Care again burrowed over. Botica added a further three points just before the break to leave Harlequins five points in front and the home team somewhat shell-shocked
Connacht needed to wrestle back the initiative early in the second period and they initially succeeded when a great break by Mike McCarthy forced an infringement and allowed Parks to kick another three points. Sadly this was to be Connacht’s last score as the Englishmen started to get on top for the rest of the game. They pinned Connacht back in their own half using their superior physicality and aerial ability and did not allow them any real scoring opportunities.
In this, they were aided by the performance of the French official Jerome Garces. Monsieur Garces did not endear himself to the Sportsground faithful, as he had previously missed several obvious ‘Quins knock-ons in the first half and seemed to ignore consistent infringements of the offside line by the visitors towards the end of the game. He was roundly booed as he left the field at full-time.
So try as they might, Connacht could not establish any field position in the second half. Two further penalties from the unerring Botica left them needing to score twice and this never looked likely.
It was a disappointing feature of the game for Connacht, that Harlequins dominated the lineout and also the restarts with England international Nick Easter particularly prominent. You would not expect an Irish team, with several ex-gaelic footballers in the ranks to fall down so much in this regard.
Overall then a bad night for Connacht but they are still alive in this season’s competition and the visit of the misfiring Biarritz in December offers a real chance to claim another notable scalp.
Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, David McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Adrian Flavin, Nathan White (c); Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy; John Muldoon, Willie Faloon, George Naoupu. Replacements: Johnny O’Connor for Faloon 57 mins, Jason Harris-Wright for Flavin, Brett Wilkinson for Buckley, Eoin McKeon for Swift 65 mins, Mata Fafita for Griffin 67 mins.
Mike Brown; Tom Williams, Matt Hopper, Jordan Turner-Hall, Sam Smith; Ben Botica, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Rob Buchanan, James Johnston; Olly Kohn, George Robson; Maurie Fa’asavalu, Chris Robshaw (c), Nick Easter. Replacements: Charlie Matthews for Kohn 73 mins.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)