Saracens forced to fight hard for victory in Galway
Kieran Marmion inspires Connacht against English league leaders
Connacht scrumhalf Kieran Marmion goes over for his side’s first try during the Heineken Cup clash against Saracens at The Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht 17 Saracens 23: This night had everything but the result for Connacht. All the old stereotypes about Connacht rugby – the swirling wind, the rain, the grimness – were completely dispelled last night in a vintage European cup game. A gorgeous autumn evening, a cracking atmosphere and two teams hell-bent on playing cracking rugby: it was a joy from beginning to end. Perfect strangers would have been hard pressed to tell which side had ambitions of winning this tournament in the closing minutes, as the Connacht men pressed hard for what would have been a wonderful and deserved victory.
“I am gutted for my team,” said coach Pat Lam. “I knew they would be up for it emotionally but I am gutted because of the inconsistencies and there were some big calls at crucial times. We were massive up front.”
The sight of the Saracens bench leaping for joy when Saracens plundered possession on the final Connacht drive told its own story. Any intentions that the English side had of making a statement were long forgotten by the end of the match.
This was easily the best evening that Connacht have enjoyed under Lam’s stewardship. None of the pre-match fears materialised. The home scrum was solid, they were impeccable at the line out all evening and once again, they brought a new daring to their game, twice electing to run the ball deep out of their 22 when under ferocious pressure early in the second half.
Lam had the conviction to run his bench as liberally as Saracens did: whatever Connacht were beaten by, it wasn’t going to be exhaustion.
Rodney Ah You is fast joining Messers Swift, Muldoon and Browne among the ranks of all-time Connacht cult heroes because of the reckless abandon with which he throws his body into defence and attack.
The score was 17-17 at half time and although Connacht were penned deep into their own half for a full 16 minutes, they never looked likely to falter here. Twice referee Pascal Gauzere went to the video referee, the second time after the terrific Kieran Marmion and John Muldoon dragged scrumhalf Nigel de Kock down as he made a lone break for the line. But Connacht held firm and were terrifically disciplined, confining Saracens after the break to two well-struck penalties from Owen Farrell.
The opening period had threatened a long night for Connacht, with Chris Wyles taking a short, quick pass from David Strettle and coasting through after six minutes.
They were through again just four minutes later, with Chris Ashton bundling across in the right hand corner after Saracens had twice worked the ball across the face of the Connacht defence before Wyles and the brothers Vunipola punched through the centre to leave a huge gap for Ashton to exploit.
At 14-3 for Saracens the noise evaporated from the Sportsground but Connacht turned the momentum of the game in wonderful fashion. Dan Parks tested Saracens with two perfectly weighted up and unders: Marmion thieved the loose ball to score after Danie Poolman contested the catch after 17 minutes. On the half hour mark Danie Poolman, a wonderfully positive source of aggression all evening broke through for Connacht’s second try and the match bloomed into a wonderful contest. Saracens looked uncertain every time Parks thumped the ball skywards.
“We had a clear game plan against these guys and our kicking game was important,” said Lam. “We put ourselves in with a chance to win the game. When you get a game that close . . . to get a penalty for holding on and in the last play when we going for the win, have a look at how many guys were offside. I feel for those guys. They have given everything and they deserve better.
They did. The crowd of 7, 546 gave them a huge ovation. The performance was bigger than the scoreline.