Connacht 22 Perpignan 10
Not for the faint hearted; possibly not even for the sane. On a wild, wild Saturday in Galway, Andy Friend watched his Connacht's team enjoy their fourth win on the trot over a Perpignan side enduring a joyless season of rugby. It was part rugby game, part temperature management: the hot water bottles were dispensed in the dressing room at half time as Friend admitted he was genuinely concerned for his wingers, stuck on the edges on the action in perishing conditions.
It was no day for adventure and Connacht enjoyed mammoth ball-carrying and tackling shifts from Quinn Roux, James Connolly, Peter McCabe and Bundee Aki in a Challenge Cup fixture that was as much about managing the weather as the other crowd. A late try by Kyle Godwin warmed the crowd of 5,011 but the home team were in control throughout here. Their only disappointment was the failure to secure a bonus point.
“The weather is always going to make it tough to do what you want to do,” said Quinn Roux, who reckoned it was as bad as he has experienced in Bohermore.
“That is how we learn and hopefully there won’t be too many other nights like that but it is great to get the win in those conditions. We probably had a few opportunities in the first half that we missed out on but a win is a win.”
Not long after three o’clock, all the scare stories that the French visitors might have heard about Galway rugby materialized. The sky, dark to begin with, blackened. The wind kicked up. Torrential sheets of rain moved across the pitch.
Naturally, the Frenchmen found themselves playing into it. They were penned in to their own 22 and found themselves trailing by two tries to nil after just 20 minutes.
After David Horwitz watched his fifth minute penalty career off the post, he went for the flags thereafter as Connacht enjoyed an overwhelming territorial advantage. Daragh Leader cut a good angle on a set-piece from a Connacht scrum just to right of the Perpignan posts and crashed through the cover for a 10th minute try.
Connacht went wide from another scrum dead-centre on their 22 and Bundee Aki made the finish look simple, boring through the arriving cover.
The only time that Perpignan enjoyed any serious territorial gain came when Connacht kicked for touch on the full. Even then, the defensive line was solid and Leader snuffed out a speculative cross-field kick with an assured take in treacherous conditions.
It's hard to overstate how difficult the handling was: in the 15th minute, Matt Healy chased back to tidy up Enzo Seiponi's clearance kick and even though he did everything perfectly, the ball simply spilled out of his hands for a knock on. But Perpignan, under fierce pressure in the scrum, could do nothing to take advantage of the situation and ran in scoreless at half-time having lost lock Yohann Vivalda to the sin bin after a high tackle.
It was a bleak moment for the French side, struggling through an 11 game losing streak in the domestic league and leaving many of their first choice players behind for this assignment.
After they arrived in Galway, news came through that former Perpignan player Barend Britz had been tragically killed in an incident outside the pub that he ran in the city. Britz was a former team-mate of current coach Patrick Arlattez. A minute’s silence was held in his memory before the start of the game kicked off in the Sportsground.
In the second half, Connacht were more or less playing into a storm. They held possession for an unbroken four minute sequence, with scything runs from Horwitz and Aki, but still found themselves sandwiched between both 10-metre lines, going nowhere fast and barely able to see through the rain. It was an extraordinary sight.
“Our message out there was ‘back yourself’”, said Friend.
“When that second big storm came through we probably tightened up but you can forgive guys for that.”
Perpignan’s opening score came from an infringement by Connacht at the breakdown on their own ball: Buosquet’s thumping penalty kick through the gale was terrific.
On 55 minutes, the replacements arrived. So did the hailstones. A precision kick for touch from a penalty by Selponi brought Perpignan close to the Connacht line during a lull period in the game and from the lineout, replacement prop Manu Leitaua barged over to the delight of the visiting bench and their admirably cheerful band of traveling supporters.
All of a sudden, Connacht had 10 minutes of a game to manage. They did that with undue fuss: Perpignan’s scrumhalf Sadek Demgache was lucky not to be carded and was immediately replaced after holding Caolin Blade, in for Connacht, by the throat during a break in play.
Kyle Godwin finished the scoring after running home a try after the pack sucked the French into the Bohermore corner of the pitch and that was that.
The teams meet again in Perpignan next Friday night at 7.0pm.
Scoring Sequence: Leader try 5-0 (11 mins) Horwitz con 7-0 (12 mins), Aki try 12-0 (20 mins), Horwitz con 14-0 (21 mins); Horwitz pen 17-0 (45 mins);M J Bousquet pen 17-3 (47 mins); Manu Leiataua try 17-8 (66 mins); Bousquet con 17-10 (66 mins); Kyle Godwin try 22-10;
Connacht: Darragh Leader; Cian Kelleher, Kieran Joyce, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; David Horwitz, James Mitchell; Peter McCabe, David Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Joe Maksymiw, Quinn Roux. Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga'a; James Connolly. Replacements: M Burke for P McCabe (48 mins), Conor Fitzgerald for Horowitz (55 mins), P McCabe for M Burke ( 55 mins HIA), Dominic Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (61 mins) , Gavin Thornbury for Maksymiw (61 mins), Shane Delahunt for Heffernan (63 mins), Kyle Godwin for Aki (66 mins), Paul Boyle for Masterson (68 mins), Caolan Blade for Mitchell (70 mins).
Perpignan: Jonathan Buosquet; Tima Gainga'anuku, Pierre Lucas, Paul Marty, Eroni Sau; Enzo Seiponi, Sadek Degmache; Quentin Walcker, Raphael Carbou, Nicolas Lemaire; Youann Vivalda, Berend Botha; Johnan Van Heerden, Peirre Reynaud; Michael Faleafa. Julien Farmoux for Marty (64 mins). Replacements: Afusipa Taumoepeau for Lucas (53 mins), Kevin Tougne for Botha (55 mins), M Leitaua for Carbou (55 mins), E Iachizzi for Faleafa (63 m ins), Sylvian Charlet for Lemaire (63 mins), Tom Ecochard for Degmache (74 mins).
Referee: K Dickson (England).