French flair sees off best of West
Two images linger from Saturday's highly entertaining European Shield clash at the Sportsground. Unfortunately neither will provide Connacht with the succour they might have anticipated in a brave and at times compelling performance against gifted French visitors.
Simon Allnutt's departure on 45 minutes, shoulders slumped, limping to the sideline where he joined the tracksuited figure of Eric Elwood.
The initial prognosis was Allnutt had sustained knee ligament damage, an ironic quirk of fate, given that his predecessor, Elwood, has battled such a problem for the last six weeks.
The full extent of Allnutt's injury will be known later today. Connacht coach, Glenn Ross, will be anxious particularly as Elwood requires a miracle to rehabilitate sufficiently for Friday's final interprovincial against Ulster at Ravenhill.
The Irish out-half, whose suffering as a spectator on Saturday provided an insight into his current mindset, admitted that he is frustrated by what he perceives to be his slow recovery.
"I tried to kick the ball during the week and found that the knee was still unstable. It was very worrying. I am able to run without any problem, and even the kicking out of hand is not too uncomfortable.
Against an excellent French side Elwood was badly missed.
The somnambulist tendencies that the western province had displayed in the opening passages of previous matches returned to haunt them once again. They conceded a try after 32 seconds, another on six minutes and a third after 21 to trail 21-3.
Narbonne would fail to accommodate Connacht fully as they clawed back with traditional character.
It is easy to see why Narbonne have suffered only one defeat in all matches this season. Powerful up front, where they could afford to leave French international Laurent Benezech and Romanian captain Tibi Brinza on the bench until the second half, they played the game at pace, backs and forwards interlinking seamlessly.
They created and then exploited space, none more so than towering left wing Franck Schizano, and Italian international and traditional Irish nemesis Alessandro Stoica.
Playing at full back, Stoica belied his huge physique with nimble footwork proving a scourge to the Connacht defence.
Narbonne's first try perhaps best encapsulates the reason why they are such an accomplished team.
Forced back into their own 22 from the kick-off, they move the ball wide, twice straightening with forward thrusts, until Schizano is released close to the touchline.
Avoiding Russell Southam's tackle, he tiptoes past two Connacht defenders, still inches from the touchline, swerves inside and then races 50 metres for a try: one man's virtuosity but 10 of the team had handled the ball in those 32 seconds.
Further tries from Xavier Plataret and Renaud Calvel hinted at a rout but suddenly the West awoke.
Central to their recovery was the performance of Irish scrumhalf Conor McGuinness. Sharp and inventive, he scampered through several gaps, playing with vision and flair.
The Trojan work of Barry Gavin, carrying the ball to great effect, Shane McEntee's support play and Junior Charlie's offensive tackling began to make an impact. It was taken up by the rest of the pack.
When they did probe further out, Pat Duignan, sliced through occasionally and Willie Ruane also ran elusively in the second half. There was much to admire in Connacht's three tries, all products of cohesive and controlled forward play.
Ross was pleased with many aspects of the performance. He argued that the three early tries were a result of excellent play rather than defensive lapses. "They produced some superb rugby to create those chances." Connacht must now concentrate on winning their remaining games in the European Shield, hopes of a home quarter-final effectively dashed. First though, the carrot of a possible second-place finish in the interprovincial championship.
Scoring sequence: 1 min: Schizano try, Valls conversion, 0-7; 6: Plataret try, Valls conversion, 0-14; 8: Allnutt penalty 3-14; 13: Calvel try, Valls conversion, 3-21; 16: Alnutt penalty, 621; 24: McEntee try, 11-21. Half-time: 11-21. 51: Raynaud try, 11-26; 56: Maher try, 16-26; 62: Cobbe penalty, 19-26; 70: Tanir try, 19-31; 75: Stoica try, Valls conversion, 19-38; 82: Screene try, Cobbe conversion, 26-38.
CONNACHT: W Ruane; R Southam, P Duignan, M Murphy (capt), A Reddan; S Allnutt, C McGuinness; J Screene, B Mulcahy, M Cahill, G Duffy, J Heaslip, J Charlie, B Gavin, S McEntee. Replacements: O Cobbe for Allnutt (45 mins); J Maher for Cahill (48 mins).
NARBONNE: A Stoica; R Calvel, P Arlettaz, A Dumas, F Schizano; J Valls, S Buada; X Audu, H Guiraud, JB Poux, G Bourguignon, X Plataret,M Giovenelli, S Tanir, M Raynaud (capt). Replacements: L Benezech for Audu (61 mins); T Brinza for Plataret (61 mins); S Rouch for Arlettaz (70 mins); P Gensana for Tanir (75 mins).
Referee: J Steele (Scotland).