Connacht 16 - Newport Dragons 11
By Rob Murphy at the Sportsground
Connacht are making noise this season, they’re beating the drum and saying we’re here to challenge for a top six spot. It’s ambitious stuff, especially with such a young panel holding fort early doors until the big summer signings arrive but on Saturday evening, they answered all the hard questions and emerged from their first test unscathed thanks to a strong start to either half and a battling defensive effort late in the contest. .
Drawing too many conclusions from an opening day home win is an exercise in futility for sure but leaving aside the familiar trends - an eleventh opening day win in 14 years and a sixth win against the Dragons in their last seven encounters - this had a slightly fresher feel to what we have seen before from the westerners in this fixture and at this time of year.
Pat Lam called it a ‘calmness’ afterwards when asked to compare this year with last year in the context of the the opening day. He felt his side held their nerve in a testing finale as the visitors went in search of the win specifically naming captain John Muldoon, tighthead Nathan White and Mils Muliaina - who was used as a water carrier for the game - when referencing the main drivers of that vibe.
That was only one element of the composure which saw Connacht come out on the right side of a one score contest where they might not have last season. Jack Carty kicked superbly well in open play after half time, he looked composed, clued in and determined. Denis Buckley and Dave Heffernan were immense in the front row alongside the experienced White and Dannie Poolman was the vocal leader the the backline, especially during a crucial period late in the first half when Dave McSharry was in the sin bin.
Pretoria born Poolman will be a key man for the province this year having missed much of last season with a knee injury. He has the speed, agility and nous to become a top try scorer out west and if he can break the magic ten mark during this campaign, then sixth place might well be within reach. With Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki to come into the side, the chances will be there.
In many ways Poolman is like a new signing this season and so is Jake Heenan. The 22 year old open side from the Northland province of New Zealand was back to his destructive best in this game. Not satisfied with containing or repelling attacks but more stopping them dead in their tracks and killing the momentum of a young and talented visiting side.
The Dragons have recruited smartly in the off season and there is no question that they have improved immensely with a glut of academy developed backs giving them an unpredictable edge. The experienced Lee Byrne is back from Clermont Auvergne and he was their biggest threat throughout, winning almost every high ball dual and making some hugely impressive gains in open play. His sin binning during the second half was a key blow.
Lam spoke afterwards about the hard work being put into skill development with new management addition Andre Bell playing a role there alongside Dave Ellis. Even in the warm up, Connacht were working on drills that focused on catching and passing at speed, keeping the ball moving and not taking it into the chest and the opening try was a fine example of how such dexterity can unlock defences.
That first try involved a Shane Layden counter attack, a second phase charge from Dave Heffernan and swift hands including an overlap creating split second pass from Nathan White and some superbly deft rapid footwork from the electric new signing Niyi Adeolokun to draw three defenders before he released Eoin McKeon for the score.
Connacht led 8-0 at that point midway through the half. Darragh Leader’s penalty the other score by half time, the sides were level with Dave McSharry having seen the sin bin. The Dragons try had come from Nic Cudd after the home side miss timed a lineout throw to the back, got turned over and never recovered. The penalty from Jason Tovey came from the McSharry infringement but was all they got from that period.
After half time, Connacht settled faster and caused plenty of headaches for the home side. Byrne clattered into Carty under a high ball and saw yellow. Leader kicked a penalty not long after, before Jason Tovey joined his teammate in the mind for a tackle off the ball. With their opponents down to 13, Connacht made hay, Carty’s crossfield kick seemed overcooked but Poolman showed superb agility to catch and score in the corner.
The rest of the sin bin period wasn’t exploited and as the game drew to a close, the visitors grew in confidence and made their opponents shudder ever so slightly, earning a losing bonus point and setting up a late lineout in the 22 that yielded nothing but a turnover and a full time whistle.
A performance born out of power and strength in the set piece with the front row dominating and 24 year old Mick Kearney calling the lineouts to great effect and contributing with a phenomenal all round performance at the breakdown lay the foundation for this win. What it tells us about the season ahead is hard to say at this point, next Friday’s trip to Edinburgh is the other half of this opening tale, a performance there and optimism will reign.
Connacht: S Layden; N Adeolokun, D Leader, D McSharry, D Poolman; J Carty, I Porter; D Buckley, D Heffernan, N White; M Kearney, Q Roux; J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon.
Replacement: G Naoupu for McKeon H/t; K Marmion for Porter 53 mins; W Faloon for Muldoon 55 mins; R Ah You for White 61 mns; C Finn for Leader 65 mins; M Nikora for Carty 65 mins; S Henry for Heffernan 74 mins.
Dragons: L Byrne; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, A Brew; J Tovey, J Evans; B Stankovich, E Dee, L Fairbrother; A Coombs, R Landman; L Evans, N Cudd, A Powell.
Replacements: T Faletau for Powell 55 mins; I Gough for Coombs 58 mins; T Thomas for Dee 61 mins; D Way for Fairbrother 63 mins; O Evans for Stankovich 74 mins; D Jones for Evans 79 mins; G Jones for Tovey 79 mins; B Nightingale for Dixon 79 mins.
Referee: M Mitrea (FIR).