Connacht 36 Stade Francais 9
Connacht produced the ideal result to open their European Champions Cup campaign, and in the end it was a comfortable victory over French powerhouse Stade Francais.
The margin of victory may have been surprising given Stade’s illustrious reputation, but Connacht’s young guns can take a bow.
"You can't but be pleased, " says Connacht coach Andy Friend. "A bonus point win, six tries to nil against a team like Stade, which is no easy feat, so it is a great way to start our Champions Cup.
“We talk as a team about being adaptable, and we needed to be this week because we had a lot of things thrown at us. But we were adaptable and we managed to get a good 23 out there.
“Some of the more familiar names were missing, but that is the beauty of what we have got at the moment. We have some really good depth, so to have that 23 to turn up and do that to a team like Stade makes it really pleasing.”
Andy Friend’s team led 19-9 at the break, before finishing with a flourish and another three tries. In comparison, Stade never crossed the whitewash once - which is a huge commendation for Connacht’s defensive effort.
“ We have a really good squad with respectful competition,” says Friend. “I am not surprised by the result, and that’s not arrogance. I didn’t think we managed to get the speed into the game we wanted, so I didn’t think it was a fast game, which makes me even prouder with the way we managed to win it.
“I knew if we could get a lot ball movement, and move them around they would have struggled, but we didn’t actually have that so we needed to find another way so really pleased we got six and they didn’t get any.”
The French visitors came to play, and for the opening 40 minutes, their muscle and power troubled Connacht, but they had little else in their repertoire outside their maul and scrum prowess, except the superb skills of fullback Telusa Veainui.
The home side opened the scoring after 11 minutes, taking advantage of French indiscipline to kick for touch. Cian Prendergast did the business in the line-out, as he did all day, before Carty sent the ball out through Arnold and Bolton. The young South African almost made it across the line, but Caolan Blade was there in support to finish, and Carty adding the extras.
However the French scrum, as expected, proved one of their weapons, and by the 14th minute it provided the visitors with their opening points when outhalf Nicolas Sanchez opted to kick the penalty, narrowing the scores to 7-3. Another similar penalty was won minutes later and Sanchez delivered from halfway.
Connacht, however, carved opportunities through Stade’s indiscipline, but converting it into points points proved more difficult, despite dominating both territory and possession. It was not until the 27th minute they made it count and once again it was Prendergast at the tail who secured the line-out as they set up yards from the line, and eventually Carty sent the perfect pass to a waiting Porch who finished off for a 12-6 lead.
The first half dominance was completed with a third try, once again Connacht opting for a lineout and maul form a penalty to touch. With Blade and Arnold making inroads, Carty produced a looping pass for a waiting Alex Wootton who touched down. Carty's conversion gave the home side a 19-6 half-time lead.
The pace was dictated in the second half by the visitors who tried to bully Connacht off the park, but Friend’s squad once against proved their resilience. Stade’s only reward was a 47th minute penalty from Sanchez in 20 minute period during which the game stuttered.
Connacht, however, regained their dominance, but got no change. On two occasions they came close to scoring. On the first occasion Carty’s pinpoint cross-field kick for Wootton was well read by the opposition and well marshalled. Nor did they get anywhere from an attempted maul. Both sides were guilty of handling errors, with some of Connacht’s option-taking denying them headway.
Eventually the Connacht bench added impetus to the home side's cause, and they made the breakthrough on 69 minutes to bag the bonus point fourth try. Replacement scrumhalf Kieran Marmion was instrumental with a delicate chip and Eoghan Masterson finish off.
Connacht went on to score two more tries against a dispirited French outfit. From a series of drives on the line involving Jack Aungier, Jarrad Butler, and Porch, Marmion found Kilgallen on the short side who finished with aplomb. The superior Connacht fitness provided a last try scoring effort, the athletic Cian Prendergast crossing for his first try for Connacht and his first start in European rugby.
Eight years since staging a giant-killing over Toulouse, this will be another monumental victory in Connacht’s European odyssey.
Scoring Sequence – 10 mins: Blade try, Carty con 7-0; 14: Sanchez pen 7-3; 17: Sanchez pen 7-6; 27: Porch try, 12-6; 40: Wootton try, Carty con 19-6; Half-time 19-6; 47: Sanchez pen 19-9; 69: Masterson try, Carty con 26-9; 72: Kilgallen try 31-9; 80: Prendergast try 36-9.
Connacht: O McNulty; A Wootton, S Bolton, S Arnold, J Porch; J Carty (capt), C Blade; M Burke, S Delahunt, D Robertson McCoy; O Dowling, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.
Replacements: J Duggan for Burke (25 mins), D Heffernan for Delahunt (45, J Aungier for Robertson-McCoy; E Masterson for Dowling (both 55), D Kilgillen for Bolton (61), K Marmion for Blade (65), C Fitzgerald for Carty, S Masterson for Murray (both 71).
Stade Francais: T Veainu; P Champ, A Arrate, L Barre, L Etien; N Sanchez, J Hall; Q Bethune, T Latu, N Roelofse; M De Giovanni, J van der Mescht; M Kremer, C Francoz, T Gray (capt).
Replacements: P Gabrillagues for Van der Mescht (46-55), L Da Silva for Latu, L Godener for Gray, P Alo Emile for Roelofse (all 60), P Gabrillagues for Kremer (62), W Percillier for Hall (65), A Lapegue for Etien (70), G Wolf for Arrate (73).
Referee: Luke Pearce (Eng).