Connacht 23 Montpellier 20
In the opening seconds of this Champions Cup game, Paul Willemse trundled up to Paul Boyle and hit him with a cheap, casual shoulder that sent the Gorey man flying.
Boyle is no pushover and had thundered into the match with his opening drive from the kick-off. But the Montpellier flanker is a man mountain. Willemse made it clear that he would have happily taken Boyle’s sandwiches and lunch money too, given half the chance.
Just before that, Jack Carty had chased his own chip kick and then disappeared into the shadow created by Caleb Timu, the visitor's number eight. Examples of the staggering height and bulk disparity were evident all over the pitch and the local crowd was still sizing the French team up for size when Aaron Cruden skipped through for a try after 70 seconds.
They were as big a squad as ever appeared at The Sportsground. Suddenly, a long Sunday afternoon beckoned as Connacht marked their return to the elite European competition.
Andy Friend had been forced to make three changes in the hour before kick-off, with captain Jarrad Butler and backs Niyi Adeolukun and Matt Healy joining a Connacht injury list that can be now officially classed as a crisis.
Those setbacks and that early burst of crisp, Montpellier class silenced The Sportsground for ten minutes. Cillian Gallagher got to experience just ten minutes of European rugby before he, too, was forced to the sidelines with injury.
The French side overshadowed Connacht on both the weighing scales and their superior spending power. Montpellier have not been lighting up the domestic season but on paper, stripped of so many senior figures, Connacht should simply not have been able to live with their visitors.
So naturally, they went on to concoct a memorable November day that defied explanation.
How to explain the sight of Boyle finishing Connacht’s first try to bring the Sporstground back to boiling point just before half time?
By then, Andy Friend had already watched his team grow in confidence and stature. Shell-shocked a week ago by the concession of early scores to Leinster, they just shrugged this early setback off and started again.
They had created and fell one pass short on three terrific scoring chances. Robin Copeland stole a ball from Montpellier’s scrum but couldn’t find Kyle Godwin with the pass after eight minutes; Jack Carty’s skip pass to Godwin, again lurking on the wing, had too much juice just two minutes later and an electrifying break and off load by Bundee Aki gave Tom Daly the ball with grass to burn and options either side of him. Neither were exploited.
Those chances might have been fatal because at the other end of the field, Montpellier put the Connacht defensive structure through a severe stress test, with Timu, Yacouba Camara and Kelian Galletier battering through the middle as primary ball carriers. They sucked in three and four defenders each time but somehow, the Connacht team recovered to make covering tackles on the rare occasions they opted to play Reilhac and N’gandebe on the wings. A Galletier fumble and knock on in the 19th minute drew a huge roar from the local crowd: these were the moments when Connacht were just hanging in there.
They trailed 10-3 on the board for most of the first half and the French were probably waiting for this local storm to pass and waiting for their moment. But it didn’t materialise.
Boyle scored. Then, in the 39th minute, Willemse endured a moment of madness by charging into Colby Fainga’a, still airborne and in possession from the lineout. It was a dangerous moment and Willemse was fortunate to get away with a yellow card.
He was still explaining the moment away on the sideline when Connacht ran a perfect set-piece, mauling their lineout penalty, with captain Tom McCartney touching down. Even with Jack Carty’s radar off on both conversions, the French team returned to their dressing room finding themselves in that place of so many previous illustrious visitors. The bear pit had come to life.
In the second half, the French kept pace and the game grew into a thrilling spectacle. Caolin Blade’s edged Connacht into a promising position in the 53rd minute, exploiting a penalty advantage to reverse the thrust of Connacht’s attack and complete a hugely plucky solo-burst for the try line with Bundee Aki waving furiously on his outside shoulder.
Montpellier replied ten minutes later with a stunning score from deep by fullback Anthony Bouthier. It was of the few times Connacht's wall had been broached and meantime, Montpellier continued to throw the kitchen sink, several du Plessis's and Henry Immelman in from replacements: they had quality and freshness to burn.
The scoreboard read 20-20. Three huge defensive turnovers from Aki, Denis Buckley and Robin Copeland broke up an ominous Montpellier attacking period when a try would have been heartbreaking.
Friend showed faith to bring in Conor Fitzgerald for Carty for the last 15 minutes: one of his first acts was to nail the penalty that would ultimately separate the teams. It was a huge statement by Connacht, who must now get their minds and bodies right for next Saturday's assignment in Toulouse.
Scoring Sequence: 1st min A Cruden try; con Paillaugue 0-7; 16th min Carty pen 3-7; 22nd min Paillaugue try 3-10; 38th min Boyle try 8-10; 40th min McCartney try 13-10; 47th min Paillaugue pen 13-13; 53rd min Blade try; Carty con 20-13; 63rd min Bouthier try, Paillaugue con; 20-20; 67 mins Fitzgerald pen 23-20
CONNACHT: D Leader; J Porch, B Aki, T Daly; K Godwin; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, D Roberston-McCoy; C Callagher, U Dillane, P Boyle, C Fainga'a; R Copeland. Replacements: 19 J Maksymiw for C Gallagher (9 mins), 20 E Masterson for 19 J Maksymiw, 22 C Fitzgerald for 10 J Carty (65 mins), 16 D Heffernan for 2 T McCartney (72 mins), 18 C Kenny for 3 D Robertson-McCoy (76 mins).
MONTPELLIER: A Bouthier; G Ngandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; A Cruden. B Paillague; M Bariashvili, Y Delhommel, M Haouas; N Janse Van Resnburg; P Willimse; K Galletier, Y Camara; C Timu. Replacements: 3 WJ de Plessis for Willemsde (52 mins), 16 B Du Plessis for 2 Y Delhommel ( 55 mins), 21 J Bardy for 1 M Nariashvilli , G Fichten for 6 K Galletier (57 mins), 22 H Immelman for 10 A Cruden ((57 mins), 20 E Sanga for B Paillaugue (65 mins), 18 J De Plessis for 3 M Haouas (71 mins), 19 F Ouedraogo for Y Camara (75 mins).
Referee: M Carley (England).