Connacht reach the promised land

Pat Lam’s side will contest Pro12 final with Leinster after hard-fought win over Glasgow

Connacht’s Niyi Adeolokun goes clear to score a try. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Niyi Adeolokun goes clear to score a try. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Connacht 16 Glasgow 11

They’ve never had it so good, but now they could have it even better next Saturday. Connacht tore up the history book and all preconceived notions one more time to dethrone the holders for the second time running at their raucous Sportsground bearpit in this semi-final and thus earn a shot at Leinster at Murrayfield next Saturday.

They utterly deserved it too, never wavering from their belief that they could work the ball through the hands and keep looking for holes, keep probing, with offloads out of the tackle or quick hands, always sure of where their teammates were.

In one phase quasi playmaker Aly Muldowney offloaded to the equally ubiquitous Tom McCartney, as did the outstanding Ultan Dillane to Ronan Loughney, before AJ McGinty, who again gave another dimension to their running game from outhalf, found the excellent Eoin McKeon. John Muldoon rose to the occasion, as normal, and as for Bundee Aki, he was just his normal Man of the Match, but there were no weak links. Tiernan O’Halloran was again a constant, livewire danger.

In a slightly wild, madcap game, they and their supporters lived on the edge for sure but to go with their ambition they were equally brave and secure to keep plugging the gaps and making the tackles when Glasgow threw everything they could at them. It was some way to sign off their seasonal campaign at home, some way to reach their first ever final. A long night was assured.

Niyi Adeolokun was their match-winner with an opportunist try and, like McKeon, also had another try harshly ruled out for a barely noticeable offence beforehand. It would have been cruel if they hadn’t won through.

Much of their basics were better, and aside from their better handling, their line-out was more assured too

For all the foreboding forecasts, the sun shone brilliantly as a vibrantly expectant full house descended on the Sportsground. There was a stiff breeze alright blowing in, as is usually the case, from the Bohermore end, but the heavy bursts of rain had abated a good two hours or more before the start, and the crowd were in situ for the warm-ups, never mind the kick-off.

Once again Taoiseach Enda Kenny was hunted down by the on-pitch PA announcer, James Heaslip, and cameraman as he watched on from the front of the Clan Terrace. The roar which greeted John Muldoon and co as Connacht took the field was deafening.

Playing into the wind, from Connacht’s first line-out off the top ball at the tail from the recalled McKeon had Aki charging up the middle. He ploughed through the combined tackles of outhalf Finn Russell and tight-head Zander Fagerson, who collided head-on with each other with such horrible force that the referee Marius Mitrea sensibly and sensitively stopped play immediately.

The one replay was sufficient, for it made unsavoury viewing. Fagerson eventually walked off for a head assessment, whereas after six minutes or more of attention from the medics, Russell was stretchered off to be replaced by Duncan Weir, while Fagerson would not return either.

Connacht were quickly into their stride, going wide to Tiernan O’Halloran for a show and go, before Kieran Marmion did likewise with an arcing break off the base. But a knock-on enabled Peter Horne to clear Glasgow’s lines with a wind-assisted left-footed punt. However, their initially passing was a little ragged and Horne was tackled into touch by Aki after tidying up a loose offload by Hogg.

By contrast, Connacht were soon into their running rhythm, backs and forwards interchanging, and Dillane threw out one lovely left to right, flat skip pass to Adeolokun on the wing. When Marmion box kicked cleverly into space, Adeolokun then made the follow up tackle on Horne and Robbie Henshaw, in his farewell home game, was quick onto the ball to win a penalty.

Connacht went to the corner - even 30 metres and wide from the right was too difficult into the wind - but their running game became static as the receivers took the ball flat and on their heels, coughing up a penalty for side entry to protect more slow ball as Glasgow pushed hard. That said, the visitors also earned a warning from Mitrea, issued via captain Johnny Gray, for yet another side entry to a ruck.

When Mark Bennett made good use of the wind with a kick up the line to earn an attacking line-out, they went to the corner from a penalty but Fraser Brown overcooked his throw. By contrast, off another secure Connacht line-out, Matt Healy was worked into space to leave Horne for dead, but Bennett was permitted to make a steal when seemingly off his feet.

Then, after another steal, Glasgow turned over the ball in midfield and Aki latched onto with a pick-up and charge. Off the recycle Connacht put width on the ball, McCartney finding O’Halloran who showed and went through again before his pass enabled McKeon to seemingly run in the try. Alas, recourse to the video showed the faintest of knock-ons by Aki in his pick-up.

Soon McGinty was breaking again, popping the ball up to the supporting Jake Heenan.

It was all Connacht, but it was still 0-0.

Finally, when Glasgow’s backs encroached within ten metres of a Connaacht line-out, McGinty opened the scoring. But Connacht’s exit strategy of running it into the wind saw Ronan Loughney penalised for holding on as D’arcy Rae was quick over the ball and Weir made it 3-3.

Simone Favaro, who had seemed intent on beheading McGinty, then became the third Glasgow player to depart with apparent concussion when, already seemingly wobbly, he then tried to stop Aki on another charge.

When Glasgow looked to stretch the Connacht defence, the passing was so laboured and loopy that McCartney, of all people, was across the pitch to force the spillage on the touchline from Tommy Seymour. Connacht responded by doing likewise from their own 22, going wide to Adeolokun, who was tackled into touch.

It was exciting if a little wild, hot helped by the near free-for-all at the breakdown and the loose passing. Whereupon came something different. It emanated from another Glasgow turnover in midfield, Marmion and the ubiquitous McCartney making good carries before Aki weighed up the options and rather than move the ball along in the face of Glasgow’s aggressive line speed, the centre found space by instead grubbering deftly. There’s always space on a rugby field, the key is in finding it, even if Aki wouldn’t be known for his kicking game.

Adeolokun ran onto to the ball, but watched it closely to gather without losing too much of his stride as Stuart Hogg slipped, and then stepped out of the tackles of Henry Pyrgos and Weir. There was only one outcome after that, and the winger was roared all the way to the posts as he touched down.

Almost as critically, when Connacht’s running exit strategy again contrived to put themselves under pressure, Glasgow put together their best spell after going to the corner. Off a take by Leone Nakarawa their maul was held up but Josh Strauss was launched at Connacht midfield and Pyrgos made a good carry before Strauss plunged for the touchdown, only to be held up under the posts by Loughney and McGinty.

Connacht were full value for their 10-3 lead; indeed as seven line breaks to none and only three missed tackles to 20 by Glasgow.

Upon the resumption though, whatever Gregor Townsend and his coaches said at half-time, Glasgow were a side transformed. Stuart Hogg came into the game with a couple of counter-attacks, as did the freakish Nakarawa with a take and charge from a short throw to the front by Brown which didn’t look straight. After a stunning break infield by Bennett, though bravely stopped by Healy as last man, Nakwarwa was there to plough through McGinty’s tackle to score.

Weir missed the difficult conversion and so Connacht stayed in front. Now Connacht energy from the emotion of the occasion and Muldoon put them on the front foot when superbly retrieving a loose box kick into the wind by Pyrgos (no exit strategy was easy into that wind) and Nakarawa was pinged for playing the ball off his feet. Connacht went to the corner where their maul was held up but when Glasgow came up offside McGinty made it 13-8 from under the posts.

O’Halloran couldn’t win the hanging restart, and when McKeon was penalised for not rolling away, Weir made it a two-point game again.

Three times in a row Connacht went to the corner, the Warriors surviving by hook or by crook; twice bringing mauls down without being reduced to 14 men before Nakarawa beat Andrew Browne in the air.

Compensation came by way of a scrum penalty, when Rae was pinged for scrummaging at an angle, and after chants of the The Fields died down, McGinty’s 35 metre penalty just about squeezed inside the line of the left upright.

They looked to have put the game out of sight when Aki emptied Weir for the turnover and Sean O’Brien completed the steal. John Cooney, Jake Heenan, Henshaw and O’Halloran worked the ball to Adeolokun, who finished brilliantly. But again Mitrea went back to his TMO and over-ruled the try for a supposed accidental offside against Aki after McGinty’s foot had touched the ball. It looked a harsh, cruel even and a call which was compounded by a yellow card for Rodney Ah You for a high one-handed tackle on Hogg, which in part was the result of Glasgow, not for the first time, reacting by charging in for a free-for-all.

This would be a test of Connacht’s resolve and somehow, such was the energy coming from all four sides of the pitch and on it, you never doubted them.

Glasgow ran it from everywhere in desperation but, critically, were kept at bay in their own half by the ceaseless work-rate and tackling of the home side; Healy making one great read when coming in off his wing.

One final turnover led to a Connacht scrum as they ran the clock down, the Clan Terrace joyously giving the countdown. “Five, four, three, two, one.” McGinty kicked the ball dead. Cue pitch invasion. Connacht are in the 2016 Guinness Pro12 final.

Scoring sequence: 25 mins McGinty pen 3-0; 27 mins Weir pen 3-3; 37 mins Adeolokun try, McGinty 10-3; (half-time 10-3); 49 mins Nakarawa try 10-8; 54 mins McGinty pen 13-8; 57 mins Weir pen 13-11; 66 mins McGinty pen 16-11.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney, Eoin McKeon, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (capt). Replacements: John Cooney for Marmion (60 mins), Andrew Browne for Dillane, Sean O’Brien for McKeon (both 61 mins), Rodney Ah You for Loughney (66 mins), Dave Heffernan for Bealham (70 mins), Peter Robb for Aki (71 mins). JP Cooney for Heenan (75 mins). Not used: Shane O’Leary,

GLASGOW WARRIORS: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont; Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos; Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray (capt), Ryan Wilson, Simone Favaro, Josh Strauss. Replacements: D’arcy Rae for Fagerson, Duncan Weir for Russell (both 1 min), Adam Ashe for Favaro (29 mins), Pat MacArthur for Brown, Taqele Naiyaravoro for Horne (both 60 mins), Ryan Grant for Rae (60-63), Tim Swinson for Strauss (68 mins). Not used: Grayson Hart.

Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).

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