Connacht came of age as a serious European team last Friday night after one of their greatest ever triumphs against the 2010 Heineken Cup finalists. A second half masterclass by Dan Parks and a massively committed forward effort were the critical factors in this stunning success.
After carving out a narrow 10-9 lead at half-time thanks to an opportunistic try from Fetu’u Vainikolo, the Connacht forwards upped the ante in the second half and the vastly experienced former Scottish international was able to kick the crucial scores.
A late, late try by Imanol Harinordoquy merely put a little gloss on the scoreline as the crack French side suffered the ignominy of not even achieving a losing bonus point. In truth, the Basques were more than just a little off colour but this takes nothing away from the home side, who were utterly dominant in a one-sided second half.
The first couple of minutes belonged to the visitors as they pressured Connacht deep in their own half, forcing a penalty which was converted by Dimitri Yachvili. Connacht couldn’t get into the game at this stage and they needed something to happen to kickstart their challenge.
It duly arrived after six minutes when Charles Gimenez fumbled Marcelo Bosch’s pass. David McSharry was onto the ball in a flash and crucially, he managed to get the offload away to Vainikolo in space outside.
Anyone familiar with the Tongan powerhouse would have known what to expect next and he didn’t disappoint, sprinting over from over 40 metres out to the delight of the home crowd.
Parks nailed the conversion for the first two of his 17-point haul and Connacht were in business
Discipline proved to be a problem for Connacht in the first half. They were whistled up eight times by English official Greg Garner and one of these allowed Yachvili to cut the deficit to one point after 19 minutes.
Four minutes later, a period of pressure close to the Biarritz line allowed Parks to convert an unlikely drop goal from literally right under the posts. But Connacht’s discipline let them down just before the break when Yachvili converted another penalty, while Eoin McKeon was also sinbinned for charging Yachvili.
No doubt Eric Elwood would have forcefully reminded his players about the importance of holding their discipline at the half-time break. There was a significant improvement in this area from the start as Connacht changed tack and tried to play territory more.
This worked a treat as Parks expertly took control of the game with his boot. It took Biarritz a full 21 minutes to get anywhere near the Connacht line by which time the Australian-Scot had stretched Connacht’s lead to 16-9 with two more penalties.
After repelling Biarritz’s isolated assault, Connacht continued to dominate and you felt that one more score would break Biarritz’s resistance. It proved elusive though, as Parks uncharacteristically missed a penalty after the hour mark.
The insurance points however duly arrived after 72 minutes when Parks kicked a fine drop goal. It was a freebie, as the referee had signalled a home penalty. And Connacht and Parks were not finished there. More scrum pressure forced another penalty which Parks nailed to confirm his Man of the Match rating.
This meant that Biarritz’s late salvo when replacement Harinordoquy squeezed over in the corner was academic. Yachvili’s missed conversion meant the visitors headed home with nothing.
Although Harlequins are still firmly in control of the pool, another win next week in the south west of France would make the London side, and indeed the rest of Europe, sit up and take notice of Connacht rugby.
Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman, David McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Ronan Loughney; Mick Kearney, Mike McCarthy; Andrew Browne, Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon. Replacements: Denis Buckley for Wilkinson 59 mins; Paul O’Donohue for Marmion 59 mins; Johnny O’Connor for Browne 70 mins, Etienne Reynecke for Harris-Wright 77 mins, Daniel Qualter for Kearney 77 mins, Miah Nikora 77 mins, JP Cooney for Loughney 78 mins, Matthew Jarvis for Henshaw 78 mins.
Iain Balshaw; Takudzwa Ngwenya, Marcelo Bosch, Charles Gimenez, Aled Brew; Mat Berquist, Dmitri Yachvili; Fabien Barcella, Benoit August, Francisco Gomez Kodela; Erik Lund, Thibault Dubarry; Wenceslas Lauret, Benoit Guyot, Raphael Lakafia. Replacements: Seremaia Burotu for Bosch half-time; Jean Pascal Barraque for Berquist 45 mins, Imanol Harinordoquy for Guyot 45 mins, Pelu Taele for Dubarry 48 mins, Thomas Synaeghel for Gomez Kodela 59-74 mins, Lodewicus Blaauw for Barcella 63 mins, Jean-Philippe Genevois for August 70 mins.
Referee: Greg Garner (England)