In-form Connacht finish pool campaign with a flourish
Keane pleased with progress as Adeolokun stars in eight-try rout of outclassed Oyonnax
Bundee Aki celebrates scoring a try for Connacht against Oyonnax at the Sportsground. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
European rugby is once again providing a building block for Connacht.
While perhaps not in the strongest group in this season’s Challenge Cup, Kieran Keane’s side finished their pool fixtures unbeaten and on top, with five wins and one draw.
But Keane now has his eye on advancing further, not only in this competition, but in the development of this group of players, who racked up their seventh victory on the trot in the Sportsground, which started with Saturday’s visitors in October, and included memorable wins over Munster and Ulster.
Understandably Keane is now a devotee of Europe, thankful it has given his side some much-needed confidence and momentum after a shaky start to his stewardship.
“I think the competition has been a good platform for us to achieve the ambition we have been seeking. It has given us confidence, the opportunity to rotate players and give everyone a feel for what we are trying to do. It has allowed us to put a little bit of polish on our game, and it has given us continuity,” he says.
That new attacking “heads-up “game plan with offloading at pace produced eight tries against Oyonnax – three posted between the 21st second and the 11th minute. Man of the match Niyi Adeolokun grabbed the opening two of his hat-trick, while scrumhalf Kieran Marmion was the fulcrum of Connacht’s scoring blitz, producing some well-weighted kicks, with Bundee Aki claiming the third try.
The Connacht backs, revelling in the attacking style, queued up for scores. Tiernan O’Halloran, who took over the No 10 duties following a leg injury to Craig Ronaldson, and Matt Healy, who celebrated his 100th cap, had Connacht 36-14 ahead at half-time. Replacement Tom Farrell bagged the seventh try, and a marauding pack with captain John Muldoon in charge, deserved the plaudits for the eighth, a penalty try.
“We got off to a flyer which was a big focus,” says Keane. “I was shitty last week [against Worcester], but I’m all right now. I think it hit a nerve with the boys that they had bombed it. Today I felt we broke Oyonnax’s heart and their interest in the first half.”
As third seeds, Connacht will face sixth seeds Gloucester, who dropped down the seeds following their loss to top seeds Pau in Kingsholm . Something of a nemesis for Connacht in European competition, Gloucester have prevailed in all four tight games against against Connacht since 2011. Yet Keane relishes the prospect.
“It’s a challenge for us, nice to be a part of it. We’ve had some disappointing results and we’ve thrown away a few fixtures in the PRO 14, dare I say it, and we are disappointed about that aspect. So we have to look at the positives, and this offers us an opportunity to perhaps get some silverware or aspire to get it.
“We tend to respond pretty well once we’ve had our tail put between our legs, and the boys have responded each time, and as a coach I have been pretty pleased with that. It takes a certain amount of discipline to play the game we aspire to play. We haven’t been that good at it sometimes, and other times we have been brilliant. Getting that consistency is where I am trying to steer things.”
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy, C Ronaldson, K Marmion, D Coulson, D Heffernan, C Carey,U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, N Dawai, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: C Kelleher for Ronaldson (32m),T Farrell for Aki and C Blade for Marmion (47m), D Robertson-McCoy for Carey (48m), S Delahunt for Heffernan and J Connolly for Dawai (54m), P McCabe for D Coulson (69m), C Gallagher for Adeolokun (69m).
OYONNAX: A Muller; D Ikpefan, U Seuteni, R Hansell-Pune, T Giresse; A Fuertes, J Hall; K Vartanov, Q MacDonald, T Laclayat, G Fabbri, S Christian Njewel, C Browning, BTaieb, T Tauleigne. Replacements: I Mirtskhulava for Laclayat (32m), J Lima for Fuertes (34m), B Geledan for MacDonald, L Barba for Tauleigne (all 50m), J Audy for Hall (56), M Veau for Giresse (65m), S Kerry for Njewel (72m), Laclayat for Mirtskhulava for (70m).
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)