Connacht 14 - Scarlets 8
By Rob Murphy at the Sportsground
The statistics that show a best ever start to a Pro12 season and a record equalling unbeaten home run tell some of the story but it is the performances in the pressure cooker scenarios that are most revealing. Frailties galore for sure but a new, never before seen, sense of poise is guiding them through games they would otherwise lose. Saturday’s clash in Galway was the latest example.
Let’s take all the wins so far this season, seven in total from eleven games in all competitions. La Rochelle and Zebre were non events against inept opponents while Leinster was a heroic effort above and beyond the call, leaving us with four games that have defined a campaign so far.
This encounter with the depleted Llanelli men was the most significant. A bruising duel with their main rival for the top six spot and an opportunity to exploit the hole left by seven international call ups to Wales for their clash with South Africa. To understand how it all panned out you need to go back to the wins over Dragons at home and Edinburgh and Treviso away.
Those were results achieved long before the arrival of the three New Zealanders who are rapidly becoming primary characters in a story that already had plenty of momentum by the time they pulled on the green jersey. The opening day win over the Dragons was a lot harder work than it needed to be, the win in Edinburgh the following week was a rival for worst game of the year and Connacht spent the last five minutes in Treviso frantically defending their line, hanging on.
Individually, those tales point towards a side riding their luck, collectively they point towards a side with mental resolve that can deal with the 'must win' scenario even when the nerves have taken over and the error count is high.
The error count was phenomenally high in the opening five minutes on Saturday evening. Two restarts botched and a complete signal breakdown to let a high garryowen bounce in their own 22. Steve Shingler pounced on both errors slotting an early penalty and collecting the loose hop on four minutes before releasing Harry Robinson for the opening try.
The simple conversion hit the post but the Scarlets lead was 8-0 after just 200 odd seconds of rugby. In front of what looked like the biggest Pro12 crowd ever for a game against a Welsh region and on what was the first genuine test of their top six credentials, Connacht were flunking.
It is some stat to note that the Scarlets would not score again in the remaining 76 minutes. From the moment new signing Bundee Aki charged into Regan King sending his fellow country man crashing to the ground and turning the ball over, the tide turned. Connacht were resilient, resourceful and remorseless in their pursuit of the win.
The half time deficit was 8-3 but by the midway point in the second half Connacht had completely turned the tide, yet again as we’ve seen time and again this season, emerging from a half time team talk with a clear sense of purpose and a clearly identifiable improvement in their attacking play.
The try that won it started with a turnover on the Connacht ten metre line forced by second half replacement Mick Kearney who added steel, focus and accuracy on his arrival. He spotted a loose ball at the edge of the ruck and in one motion both dived on it and scooped a pass away off the ground to hooker Tom McCartney.
The new signing from Auckland, in just his second match for the province, was having a superb all round game and on this occasion he quickly passed wide to Muliaina who had sprinted up to spark the counter attack, the full back fed Matt Healy and in one fluid movement the former Lansdowne winger took the ball and kicked ahead along the touchline.
How it stayed in play on four or five bounces that flirted with the line is hard to fathom but Healy demonstrated his tremendous pace to score. He is one of many signings from the past five years that have proven hugely beneficial.
The Scarlets barely threatened in the second half, they didn’t once visit Connacht 22 after a first half where they had shaded all the possession and territorial stats. Connacht had Quinn Roux doing the unseen power work, Kieran Marmion back and delivering his usual high quality performance and Dave McSharry popping up throughout the field in a tour de force at 12.
The scrum was a hugely pleasing aspect of the win for Lam and co, the dominance never wavered with Denis Buckley easily seeing off the challenge of two experienced tight heads and Finlay Bealham coming off the bench to play tighthead for Connacht and producing a brilliant effort in the final 30 minutes.
The Scarlets were without some frontline men and took to the airwaves on Sunday to proclaim the losing bonus point as a coup of sorts in the head to head battle with their rivals for the top six. The management of a Welsh region feeling the need to control the message after a Connacht encounter and trying to win the mind games, another sign that Lam’s men are ruffling feathers.
That said, the Scarlets were right to be happy with a losing bonus because Connacht had more than a couple of chances to snatch it away from them. The decision to take a kick at goal from a 70th minute penalty at scrum time five metres out was a pragmatic one from Muldoon and a learning from the Cardiff draw but it must have been tempting to go for broke. Carty was just wide with a drop goal and missed a long range penalty too late on.
Connacht’s three defeats this season have come away to Glasgow, the Ospreys and Exeter. Fixtures that wouldn’t have been high on the target list, however, plenty of daunting tests lie ahead. Two games with Bayonne to get out of the way first in Europe then a showdown with fifth placed Leinster on December 19th at the RDS. It won’t get any easier, six Pro12 wins on the board equals last seasons tally for the entire season, they’ll need to reach at least 12 if their target is to be achieved.
Connacht: M Muliaina; D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Browne; J Muldoon (cpt), E McKeon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: M Kearney for Browne, F Bealham for Ah You (44 mins), W Fallon for Naoupu (68 mins), D Leader for Muliaina, J Cooney for Marmion (both 73 mins).
Scarlets: S Evans; H Robinson, M Tagicakibau, R King, K Phillips; S Shingler, A Davies; P John, K Myhill, P Edwards; G Earle, J Snyman; A Shingler, J Davies, J Barclay (capt).
Replacements: G Owen for King (47 mins), J Adriaanse for Edwards (50 mins), L Rawlins for Earle (68 mins), W Jones for John (78 mins).
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WFU).