Racing 26 Connacht 22
European rugby continues to compel and confound as Connacht once again stepped onto the big stage and came within a score of producing the biggest upset of Champions Cup round one.
Ultimately the expectations played out, but not before three-time finalists Racing 92 were forced to cling onto a four-point lead minutes from the end with Connacht on the attack.
Racing, having sauntered their way to a 19-8 half-time lead before bagging their fourth try 11 minutes into the second half, appeared to be too strong and too powerful up front. Their lineout supremacy, both in attack and defence, providing the home side with front-forward ball for their international backs to relish.
But enter some fresh legs in the second half for Connacht, and a traditional never-say-die work ethic, and Andy Friend’s men came within inches of turning the game on its head.
That Connacht, with all the momentum, had an opportunity to take full points with the last play of the game was frustrating for Friend.
“We knew it was going to be tough and and we gave ourselves a really good opportunity to win it, and we didn’t, so there is an element of frustration,” said the Connacht head coach.
“Let’s call it as it was, their set piece and maul was dominant. I think we sorted it out in the second half. We nullified it much better, which was good. Despite the line-out, which is an area we have to look at, I thought to stay in the game and right up to the end have possession, shows the amount of character and courage in this side.
“I’m proud of the performance. We worked so hard to come back and then just couldn’t nail it at the end. The momentum had definitely swung our way, so to get that penalty at the end, and to be in their 22, I could envisage we were going to win that game of football, but we didn’t. They missed opportunities as well, so in the end the result is probably a fair reflection of it, but either team could have won.”
Europe has often been the springboard for Connacht to produce its best fighting spirit, and two tries in the final 20 minutes here put them right back into contention against last year's finalists.
“We are building on-going belief and understanding of how we want to play and what we can do to opposition. We have learnings today, and now we have Bristol next Sunday.”
Connacht could well be without captain Jarrad Butler with an HIA and Sean Masterson, who injured his knee in a tackle, but youngsters such as Cian Prendergast, Jordan Duggan, and Jack Aungier did not look out of place in Paris La Defense Arena.
Three tries in an entertaining opening half put the hosts in control, but there still were plenty of positives for Friend's side with some huge carries of intent, led by Ultan Dillane.
However a stuttering line-out too often gifted the French hosts easy possession, and from a penalty to touch there was no stopping the rolling maul before George Henri Colombe broke through the defensive line to score, and Maxime Machenaud added the extras.
Three minutes later Connacht had their first points when good work from Dave Heffernan forced his opposite number offside at the ruck, and Jack Carty was able to convert. The footwork of Australian Kurtley Beale did the damage for Racing's second try, and as Connacht struggled to gain first phase possession through a shaky lineout, a third try was once again set up by the pack before Donovan Taofifenua crossed with an acrobatic finish.
Connacht, however, clung on, and gave themselves real hope when a superb cross-field kick from Carty was fielded by Matt Healy to score, reducing the deficit to 19-8 at the break. Although it looked beyond hope again when Bernard Le Roux forced his way over for the fourth try after 51 minutes.
Superb defence from John Porch and Dave Heffernan halted Racing's momentum before Conancht gained control in the last quarter. Winger Alex Wootton turned poacher in defence, producing the perfect intercept to run the length of the pitch to score, Carty's conversion closing the gap to 26-15.
And when the home side was denied a try for a forward pass, it gave the visitors the boost they needed. From a penalty to touch, Dillane, Caolin Blade, Aungier kept Connacht on the front foot attacking the line before Conor Oliver found the gap to score. But that was as close as they'd come.
Scoring sequence - 6 mins: Colombe try, Machenaud con 7-0; 10 mins: Carty pen 7-3; 17 mins: Beale try, Iribaren con 14-3; 23 mins: D Taofifenua try, 19-3; 40 mins: Healy try 19-8; Half-time. 19-8; 51 mins: Le Roux try, Iribaren con 26-8; 62 mins: Wootton try, Daly con 26-15; 75 mins: C Oliver try, Daly pen 26-22.
Racing 92: K Beale; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, D Taofifenua; F Russell, T Iribaren; E Ben Arous, C Chat, GH Colombe; B Le Roux, D Bird; W Lauret, B Chouzenoux, F Sanconnie.
Replacements Maxime Machenaud (3-13 mins HIA, permanent 59 mins) for Iribaren; Kevin Le Guen Camille Chat (18 mins), Guram Gogichashvili for Ben Arous (50 mins), Cedat Gomes Sa for Colombe (50 mins),Ibrahim Diallo for Laure (59 mins), Donnacha Ryan for Le Roux (67 mins).
Connacht: J Porch; A Wootton, S Arnold, T Daly, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; E Masterson, U Dillane; S Masterson, J Butler, Paul Boyle.
Replacements, C Oliver for Butler (13 mins), C Prendergast for Masterson (35 mins), J Duggan for Buckley, J Aunger for Bealham, B Aki for Arnold and C Blade for Marmion (all 50 mins), S Delahunt for Heffernan (64 mins), T O'Halloran for Porch (76 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).