Connacht 18 Bristol 27
Former Connacht head coach Pat Lam made a triumphant return to the Sportsground with his Bristol Bears on Sunday afternoon.
The English team’s power proved decisive, most notably up front with their driving maul. However it was in the second half when they returned to type, utilising their pace and skill, to see off Connacht with a four-try bonus point after the hosts lost their talisman Bundee Aki to the bin.
In the end Bristol were deserving winners in this first competitive encounter between the two sides, scoring four tries and converting more chances than Andy Friend’s side. That Connacht spurned an opportunity to take away a bonus-point with a penalty kick late in the game will remain a talking point: “At the end of the day I trust the players,” explained Friend. “I will trust and and back what they are going, but it didn’t work for us tonight.”
Friend said his team did not play to their potential and the yellow card was key.
“Disappointed, frustrated, cranky – all of of those things. We didn’t play our best footie out there, but we got caught in an arm wrestle. There was some dumb stuff out there to honest. Frustrating – but at the of the end of the day they were the better team on the night and we have to give them credit for it.”
The game was in the balance there until Aki’s yellow card, he said.
“We talked about not giving away silly penalties, and we get a bloke in the bin. They did as well, but we needed to capitalise. It hurt us.”
Bristol, despite playing away, were favourites with the bookies, but Connacht gave as good as they got in the first half, despite trailing 5-3. The low score reflected the dominance of both defences which did not detract from the energy and ferocious nature of the combatants who both spurned several chances to put points on the board.
Although Connacht were under the pump after 20 minutes with Bristol having the upper hand at scrum time, the English side’s execution was not its best up against an aggressive Connacht defence. A turnover by Conor Oliver, and a penalty conceded for Bristol for engaging early at scrum-time when five metres from the line, gave Friend’s side some much-needed breathing space.
It also provided Connacht with their first real scoring opportunity thanks to a superb break from Kieran Marmion. Breaking three tackles, Wootton finished the charge up the wing, but was finally dragged down just shy of the line.
The stalemate looked ready to break when Carty produced the perfect chip to the corner, but despite going through the phases and inching closer, eventually Bristol delivered a crucial turnover with the line at Connacht’s mercy.
Instead the breakthrough arrived six minutes before half time when Connacht conceded in the 22. Bristol immediately sent the ball to touch, and when captain Steven Lautua collected at the front of the lineout, it set up a drive that was rewarded when hooker Bryan Bryne touched down. Minutes later a similar Connacht effort was defended well by Lam's men before Jack Carty posted a penalty to close the gap to 3-5 at the break.
The course of the second half was changed when Aki was yellow carded for a pullback on Max Malins - the great great grandson of Peter J Kelly, one of the founders of the GAA. Bristol returned to their running best and from another penalty secured at the scrum, Ed Holmes found the space down the wing to score.
Minutes later they had added a third, centre Piers O’Connor taking advantage of the gap in midfield to duck inside Tom Daly with Lloyd on his outside.
It gave the visitors a 19-3 lead, but Connacht, desperately needing a try to get back in the game, carved an opportunity from two successive penalties. After several pushes for the line from the pack, it was replacement Tiernan O’Halloran who hit the line at pace and charged through for a much-needed try after 53 minutes to narrow the gap to 10-19. They came closer when Siaale Piutau was sin-binned for a trip on O’Halloran, narrowing the gap to six points with the resultant penalty.
Bristol though bagged a fourth try after 71 minutes - scrumhalf Harry Randell spotted the gap in defence and sent the ball wide to a waiting Lloyd who waltzed across the line. With the clock winding down Connacht did create one last scoring opportunity - quick hands proved decisive with John Porch replicating Lloyd’s effort to narrow the margin to 18-24.
Somewhat incredibly, Connacht then spurned a penalty kick at goal, which would have brought them within a losing bonus point.
Scoring sequence - 34 mins: Byrne try 0-5 ; 40 mins: Carty pen 3-5 . Half-time; 47mins: Holmes try, Sheedy con 3-12; 50 mins: O'Connor try, Sheedy con 3-19; 56 mins: O'Halloran try, Carty con 10-19; 66 mins: Carty pen 13-19; 71 mins: Lloyd try 13-24; 74 mins: Porch try 18-24; 78 mins: Sheedy pen 18-27.
Connacht: J Porch; A Wootton, S Arnold, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; E Masterson, U Dillane; S Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle (Capt). Replacements: T O'Halloran for Wootton (43 mins), J Aungier for Bealham and J Butler for S Masterson (both 49 mins); S Delahunt for D Heffernan (51 mins), J Duggan for Buckley and C Blade for Marmion (54 mins), T Daly for Healy (69 mins), C Prendergast for Oliver (72 mins).
Yellow card: B Aki (42 mins).
Bristol Bears: M Malins: R Naulago, P O'Conor, S Piutau, I Lloyd; C Sheedy, H Randall; J Woolmore, B Byrne, K Sinckler; D Attwood, E Holmes; S Luatua (Capt), B Earl, N Hughes. Replacements: J Afoa for Sinckler (54 mins), W Capon for Byrne, M Lahiff for Wilmore, and D Thomas for N Hughes (all 60 mins), J Joyce for Luatua (64 mins), N Adeolokun for Naulago (69 mins), A Leiua for Piatau (76 mins), T Kessel for Randall (79 mins).
Yellow card: S Pitatau (66 mins).
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).