Elwood the maestro in Connacht's finest hour

 

Grown men who had seen a few good days but mostly bad ones were moved to tears of joy, as Connacht delivered the biggest competitive win in their history and the most compelling manifestation yet of what their excellent young coach Warren Gatland is trying to achieve.

Evidence of the rapid progress being made on relatively limited resources under Gatland is that, in the crudest of terms, this was a 50point improvement for Connacht on their European Conference meeting of a year before at the same Sportsground against the same opposition.

Perhaps deluded by that 31-11 win last year, Northampton left their four Lions on the bench given the need to grant match practice to others in only their second competitive outing of the season.

Comparatively rusty, a less than gracious Lions coach Ian McGeechan described it as Northampton's worst display in his two seasons plus at the club. But that's understandable. Coaches see things myopically, and the canny Scot was right to lament an increasingly flawed display.

However, as bad as Northampton were, Connacht were brilliant. The visitors' sins were more forced than unforced, Connacht hardly missing a first-up tackle all day in their aggressive defence - the rock around which this superb win was founded.

The tackles kept going in, from everywhere, as forwards and backs alike repelled Northampton on their own line with big hits and hounded them further afield. From Billy Mulcahy through to the ubiquitous Shane McEntee - giving surely his best performance in the Connacht green - the forwards put their necks on the line around the fringes. In midfield, too, Mervyn Murphy and Pat Duignan pushed up and put in some inspirational tackles.

There's a tendency to take Eric Elwood's superb defence for granted, so much so that one isolated missed tackle stood out, the point being underlined when Gregor Townsend finally sent fellow Lion Nick Beal dancing through a suddenly porous defence after Elwood had departed with an injured wrist. But if anything, things deteriorated after the Lions were introduced, so much so that Connacht had moved a further 20 points ahead.

If the pack was the orchestrator, then Elwood especially was the conductor - though inside him Conor McGuinness kicked astutely as well. Elwood controlled proceedings, varied his game deftly and once sent Nigel Carolan through midfield with an outrageous one-handed flicked pass behind his pack. Furthermore, he landed eight kicks from eight.

"I've been involved with Connacht for 10 years, and that was the best," said Elwood afterwards.

Driving off the athletic line-out takes of Graham Heaslip, punching through the fringes and then moving it wide, Connacht's control and positive approach established the foothold for an early penalty and a crucial ninth minute try by their find of the season, the 25-year-old Australian-born son of Roscommon parents, Pat Duignan who was luckily on holidays here last year.

Stepping out of one tackle in taking Elwood's second phase pass, Duignan then stepped inside Ian Hunter to score by the posts. The tortuously slow Hunter was like a yo-yo being pulled hither and tither by the boot of Elwood. One fumble from an expert box kick by the out-half and the rampaging Connacht pursuers enabled McEntee to burrow over from Heaslip's ensuing take with the trademark line-out cum maul.

All the while Elwood's immaculate place-kicking took it to 20-0 before Alastair Hepher's two penalties either side of the interval hinted at a Northampton comeback. But Connacht re-established their control, Elwood landed another penalty and then they withstood five drives close to their line before Murphy enveloped Northampton lock Jason Chandler and Barry galloped upfield from the turnover.

Cue to another Elwood penalty and there was no stopping them now. Townsend's short-side pass to Beale bounced off the latter's shoulder and Willie Ruane gathered to sprint 80 metres untouched into the corner, Elwood proving no angle was too acute with the conversion. Barry had his calf badly spiked after a big tackle on Matt Allen which enabled Connacht to break away again, Murphy landing a penalty.

Even when Townsend and Beale finally clicked for Northampton's sole try, post-Elwood, Connacht had the last, brilliant say. From another lofted box kick by McGuinness, Carolan rose majestically at full tilt to pluck the ball in mid-air and twist out of the tackle before dancing out of another tackle to score wide out. Even Simon Allnutt couldn't miss the difficult conversion. No Connacht man could do wrong. Wonderful stuff.

Scoring sequence: 3 mins: Elwood penalty, 3-0; 9 mins: Duignan try, Elwood conversion, 100; 24 mins: McEntee try, Elwood conversion, 17-0; 28 mins: Elwood penalty, 20-0; 35 mins: Hepher penalty, 20-3; 46 mins: Hepher penalty, 20-6; 55 mins: Elwood penalty, 23-6; 64 mins: Elwood penalty, 26-6; 68 mins: Ruane try, Elwood conversion, 33-6; 72 mins: Murphy penalty, 36-6; 79 mins: Beale try, Hepher conversion, 36-13; 83 mins: Carolan try, Allnutt conversion, 43-13.

Connacht: W Ruane (Ballina); N Barry (Clontarf); P Duignan (Galwegians), M Murphy (Galwwegians), N Carolan (Galwegians); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's); J Maher (Bective Rangers), B Mulcahy (Skerries), M Finlay (Blackrock), M McConnell (Buccaneers), G Heaslip (Galwegians, capt), R Rogers (Blackrock), B Gavin (Galwegians), S McEntee (Wanderers). Replacements - R Southam (Suttonians) for Barry (73 mins), S Allnutt (Corinthians) for Elwood (73 mins), R Ward (Old Belvedere) for Maher (75 mins), M Cahill (Bohemians) for Finlay (79 mins), M Reilly (St Mary's) for Gavin (79 mins).

Northampton: I Hunter; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; A Hepher, D Malone; M Hynes, C Johnston, M Stewart, J Chandler, M Bayfield (capt), D Mackinnon, S Tatupu, B Pountney. Replacments: (temporary) S Fowle for Mackinnon (27-32 mins), Fowle for Bayfield (48 mins), N Beale for Hunter (56 mins), G Townsend for Moire (56 mins), A Clarke for Johnston (68 mins), C Allen for Hynes (68 mins).

Referee: G Borreani (France).