Connacht survive error-riddled fixture to join Sale at top of Pool Three
English visitors spurn kick at goal in final minutes, penalised for crossing in lineout
Connacht’s Ultan Dillane and Denis Buckley celebrate with fans after beating Sale. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Somewhat “bizarrely” Connacht have given themselves a real chance of qualifying for the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals after a first win over English visitors Sale at the Sportsgound on Saturday.
Ahead by 17 points after the opening quarter, Connacht with minutes remaining were struggling to defend a two-point lead when they coughed up a penalty on the left 22m line. Yet Sale spurned the kick at goal, opted for touch, and were then penalised for crossing in the ensuing lineout.
Connacht, who survived the error-riddled fixture littered with 29 penalties, join the English outfit at the top of Pool Three, with a final trip to Bordeaux next Saturday.
A bizarre game of rugby, said Connacht coach Andy Friend, who, in his frustration at his players conceding that last penalty, had walked out of the coaches’ box only to discover Sale kicking for touch.
“Surprised, I really was. Because for me that’s last-chance saloon. You’ve got a crack at it, you’ve got international players there, probably all kicking at about 80 per cent. That’s a pretty good roll of the dice. But they went to the corner, and a similar penalty that went against us in the first half went against them.”
Minutes before the final drama Connacht looked in control, winning a penalty on half way. Instead they failed to control possession in the lineout. It was another big moment in Connacht’s litany of learnings.
“There were moments where I thought we could have controlled the ball better, and even right at the death. We’ve got to win that last lineout. We win that last lineout, we maul it and put the ball off the field, it’s a dead rubber.
“But we lost it. So they are the moments we have to look at because in big games – and we want to be a team that gets into the Champions Cup – in a Champions Cup game you give that opportunity to an opposition and you are gone. Today we got away with it.
“We are a side that want to get into those play-offs in this Challenge Cup, but also want to be looking for Champions Cup, and they are learnings, and we have to be better at those.”
Connacht enjoyed the better of the first-half action, with outhalf Jack Carty opening his side’s tally with a 12th minute penalty, before a superb kick from Matt Healy gave the home side territorial control. After forcing a turnover, Bundee Aki drew the defence before slipping the ball to midfield partner Kyle Godwin, who caught the cover with his angled burst, touching down after 20 minutes, with Carty adding the extras.
The home side’s energy reaped rewards two minutes later, flanker James Connolly forcing a turnover in midfield, and scrumhalf James Mitchell was able to hack the ball down-field, secure possession, and race over for try number two.
Carty’s conversion put the home side into a 17-0 lead, but right on the half-time whistle Sale snuck in for a soft try from Chris Ashton after Denny Solomona broke up the right wing.
Influential scrumhalf Faf De Klerk added the conversion, and although missing two kicks at goal in the second half, he put Sale into the lead with a try on 49 minutes, and two rapid-fire penalty kicks.
However, Connacht’s replacements added impetus – Shane Delahunt was dogged at the breakdown, Caolan Blade upped the tempo, and replacement outhalf David Horwitz landed the game winner.
Replacing Jack Carty who was hit hard with a late tackle, Horwitz struck the 72nd minute penalty that proved just enough to seal a deserved and dogged win over Sale for the first time.
‘Really good side’
“Probably one of the more frustrating games to watch and to play, but at the end of the day we’ve beaten Sale,” said Friend. “They are a really good side, and came in with good form. I think it will go down as a good win for us.
“It continues to build our belief. I think there is enormous belief of what we can achieve, our systems, and the way we are trying to play. It reinforces that – it’s a brick in the wall, and we will just keep pushing forward.
“Everything now is about getting to the top eight, how we recover after this one, how we prepare for Bordeaux, and how to get that win.”
Scoring sequence: 13m Carty pen 3-0; 20m Godwin try, Carty con 10-0; 22m Mitchell try, Carty con 17-0; 40m Ashton try, De Klerk con 17-7. HT 17-7. 49m De Klerk try 17-12; 61m De Klerk pen 17-15; 63m De Klerk pen 17-18; 72m Horwitz pen 20-18.
CONNACHT RUGBY: T O’Halloran, C Kelleher, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, J Mitchell, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Cannon, E Masterson, J Connolly, J Butler. Replacements: Q Roux for Cannon (46), C Fainga’a for Masterson and C Blade for Mitchell (both 53), C Carey for Bealham (58), S Delahunt for McCartney and D Horitz for Carty (61m), M Burke for Buckley (66), D Leader for Healy (70), Cannon for Roux (HIA 76m)
SALE SHARKS: C Ashton, D Solomona, S James, J O’Connor, A Reed, K Wilkinson, F De Klerk, R Harrison, R Webber, W John, B Evans, J Phillips, J Ross ©, T Curry, J Strauss. Replacements: L James for O’Connor (54), B Curry for Strauss (62), A Ostrikov (71).
Referee: P Brousset (France).