Connacht’s flair no match for Exeter’s brawn in Challenge Cup

The hosts scored four tries but the English side’s strength up front told in the end

Connacht’s disappointment in defeat will be tinged with anger and frustration because there was more than a dollop of self-inflicted calamity in their performance. It was a shame because elements of Connacht’s back play – supplemented by the handling of several forwards – proved a joy to behold.

They scored four tries, three of which quickened the pulse, but despite leading 17-10 at the interval, they could not replicate the same volume of quick ball nor rise above a spiralling error-rate that undermined their ambition after the break.

The Chiefs deserved this victory on foot of their post-interval performance, in which they scored 23 points, but they were facilitated by their hosts’ fragility in both application, at times, and accuracy. Connacht’s fourth try, the outstanding Matt Healy’s second, brought them close to a second bonus point but it remained out of reach as Darragh Leader’s late penalty drifted wide.

Connacht’s travails were readily identifiable. The home side were on the receiving end of a 13-4 penalty count; their scrum was eviscerated, legally in the eyes of the referee. They coughed up 20-plus turnovers, and the kicking was loose. They also gifted an intercept try. Ultimately, it proved an insurmountable handicap.

Forwards win matches

The truism that forwards win matches was never more apparent, with the Chiefs dominating collisions, mauls and breakdown; in fact everywhere but the lineout, where they coughed up three throws.

The English club clinched their place in the knock-out stages with the win. England prospect and Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie deservedly won man of the match, offering a tour de force in the loose.

He was the central cog in a muscular display from the visiting eight, whose domination gave outhalf Henry Slade an opportunity to amass 18 points to augment three tries scored by captain Dean Mumm, Don Armand and a penalty try, awarded when Connacht slewed backwards and sideways at a five-metre scrum.

Accuracy was a fundamental issue for Connacht, in passing, kicking, decision-making and finally defending, the latter compromised by diminishing line-speed as tired bodies struggled to stop the powerful running of the Exeter team.

Losing outhalf Ronaldson to a quad injury sustained in the warm-up meant Jack Carty was promoted to the team and Miah Nikora to the bench. The young outhalf mixed the excellent with some loose kicking and will appreciate the need to refine his game management when he reviews the game.

Brilliant tries

It wasn’t all gloom and doom. The crowd were treated to some brilliant passages of rugby from the home side. Carty’s midfield break and Willie Faloon’s long pass allowed Healy to scoot over for the first try.

The second was a homily to a catch-and-drive from a five-metre lineout with the Connacht pack supplemented in numbers by several backs. The third was a gorgeous effort, started by Healy on one side of the pitch and finished in the far corner by Danie Poolman. Healy's second try was a testimony to glorious footwork and searing pace.

The fact that it was probably only his second or third touch after the interval encapsulated how dominant the English club were playing with the wind.

George Naoupu had a huge game at number eight, Faloon and Muldoon were effective. Robbie Henshaw shrugged off an ankle injury to see out the match. He was abrasive and direct in possession, so too Poolman, whose only aberration was the intercept pass.

Connacht travel to La Rochelle at the weekend, knowing victory will be enough to see them through to the play-offs, providing Bordeaux-Begles are beaten in Edinbugh.