Connacht 21 Brive 17
Top of their European pool and the Pro 12 League is a great place to be for Connacht, but their seasonal ambitions may become a little clearer come this Saturday night after a date with Munster.
Coach Pat Lam was left counting the toll of Saturday’s win over Brive that put them in pole position in their Challenge Cup pool one before heading into the back-to-back Christmas fixtures, but worrying are the big losses in personnel. With openside Nepia Fox-Matamua out with a knee injury, and Andrew Browne having undergone hand surgery immediately after the game, Connacht’s task in Thomond Park became that much harder.
“We said the last two weeks was going to build our mental toughness and it was an opportunity to build resilience. We’ve a lot of things thrown our way and the boys have handled it well, but to lose Nepia Fox-Matamua and Eoin McKeon at the same time, then Brownie [Andrew] had his hand split, and we ended up with three front rowers in a reorganised pack, it was a gutsy effort .”
Fox-Matamua’s loss is exacerbated by the long term unavailability of Jake Heenen, who is not due back from his shoulder injury, leaving just one openside available, third year Academy player James Connolly.
“It’s a big blow, but in saying that young James Connolly has his turn too to step up. He’s s still in the early stages of his development, but we said all along, it’s not who wears the jersey, but who does the job in the jersey, so the next person has to step up.”
Lam has used 28 players in these opening two fixtures of the European Challenge Cup - somewhat ironically they returned from Siberia having suffered no injuries - but the physicality of Brive took its toll, with another two players, Ben Marshall and Eoin McKeon, undergoing concussion protocols.
“They were very big brief pack,” said Lam.
“When they ran onto the field, I looked over and said, ‘Well here we go, this is going to be a tough day at the office’ . We pulled away, but then it was tight at the end.”
The French visitors had Connacht on the back foot in the early exchanges, but failed to open their tally when fullback Romaine Sola missed two penalty attempts, but hooker Thomas Acquier broke the scoring impasse from a classic line-out and drive after 25 minutes.
Connacht, however, took control for the remainder of the half, but were unable to convert chances until right wing Rory Parata dived over from a Carty crossfield kick, and the outhalf struck two penalties for an 11-5 lead at the break. Three tries after the restart kept Connacht in the driving seat, Ben Marshall crossing out wide, and scrumhalf Kieran Marion profiting from Niyi Adeolokun and Robbie Henshaw's burst up the wing. Although left wing Benito Masilevu touched down for Brive, Connacht were comfortable in a 21-10 lead. However when replacement Sevenaia Galala burst through from five metres, Brive were within four points, setting up a tense finish.
“It was tough on the ticker at the end, but it’s also a reflection of where this team is at. We are in the habit of of winning by working hard,” said Lam.
“Now we are on the back foot again against Munster. They have had a week off and this is probably the biggest hit we have taken injury-wise, but we to learn from what we have ben through, not just in the last couple of weeks but through this season and last.
“We have to regroup and prepare well for a big game – it’s number one versus number two down in Thomond Park.”
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran (capt); R Parata, R Henshaw, B Aki, N Adeolokun; J Carty, K Marmion; R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, N White; B Marshall, A Browne; E Materson, N Fox-Matamua, E McKeon.
Replacements: D Qualter for Marshall (47 mins), F Bealham for White and C Ronaldson for Aki (both 53 mins), D Heffernan for Fox-Matamua and G Naoupu for McKeon (both 62 mins), I Porter for Marmion (63 mins), C O'Donnell for R Loughney (71 mins), R Loughney for Browne (73 mins).
BRIVE: R Sola; E Radikedike, B Petre, C Tuatara, B Masilevu; M Ugalde, JB Pejoine (capt); D Lavergne, T Acquier, K Buys; J Snyman, W Steenkamp; H Briatte, P Luafutu, W Whetton.
Replacements: A Mafi for Sola (half-time), S Hireche for Whetton, G Jgenti for Buys, G Ribes for Acquier, and G Shvelidze for Lavernge (all 49 mins), S Galala for Mafi (52 mins), T Iribaren for Radikedike (53 mins), V Lebas for Steenkamp (71 mins).
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (RFU).