Andy Friend proud of Connacht’s character after battling win over Benetton

‘We had them under the pump and then we let them off, but we fought back and got the win’

Benetton 17 Connacht 21

Connacht gave themselves a much-needed lifeline in their hopes for a top eight finish in the United Rugby Championship with a crucial win over Benetton in Treviso on Saturday.

It went down to the wire as Connacht made it difficult for themselves, but they survived a second-half onslaught and showed real character to condemn the Italians to their fifth successive defeat.

With Connacht’s season on the line after two drubbings from Edinburgh and Leinster, the signs were ominous when Benetton took the lead for the first time with nine minutes remaining.

Yet, having been under the pump, Connacht were able to seize control with a penalty to touch. A resulting yellow card also helped, before prop Tietie Tuimauga scored the decisive try to put the Irish outfit into the lead with eight minutes remaining.

To finish the game with the four points was "really pleasing" said Connacht coach Andy Friend, particularly on the back of the Leinster result.

“I said before the game that I just wanted to sit in the shed and be proud of an 80-minute performance, and I am proud of them.

“It wasn’t perfect, there were errors, we had them under the pump and then we let them off, but we fought back and got the win.

“To me it was as much about the performance as it was the win. I am happy to take both, but I was much happier with the fight at the death. We have been guilty of not being collective and not finishing games, so to finish the way we did was really pleasing.”

Connacht's early superiority was worthy of the two opening-half tries – the first within a minute through blindside flanker Cian Prendergast, with outhalf Jack Carty providing the pass and the conversion.

Within minutes Benetton's outhalf Giacomo Da Re opened the home tally with a penalty before the visitors regained control with a series of penalties. Deserving of their second try, Connacht's Prendergast and Paul Boyle were pushing forward before lock Niall Murray touched down, and with Carty adding the extras, the visitors enjoyed a 14-3 lead going into the second half.

However, as expected Benetton made life difficult for Connacht, and took control. Within nine minutes Edoardo Padovani crossed with Da Ra adding the extras, and they maintained that initiative. Twice turning down penalties, and with Prendergast binned for a side entry at the breakdown, the hosts were on the front foot. After several scrum resets and a penalty, eventually number eight Toa Halafihi took charge and dived over for a try, which De Ra converted

Behind in the game for the first time with nine minutes left on the clock, Connacht responded, and with a third try under the posts, which Carty converted, Friend’s men were back in front.

It took some super defence, epitomised by the influential Tom Farrell, to stymie an injury-time comeback from the Italians, but crucially it also provided Connacht with a necessary fillip before facing Leinster in their forthcoming back-to-back Champions Cup meetings.

“We need to be better,” says Friend. “ It was really good what we saw today, but it’s just the start, it has to be our base. When it’s Champions Cup [and] Leinster next Friday night, we are going to need that and more. We are going to need that character and fight, with more accuracy and being more clinical, so that was step one today.”

BENETTON: A Coetzee; E Padovani, I Brex, T Menoncello, M Ioane; G Da Re, D Duvenage (capt); T Gallo, G Nicotera, N Tetaz; I Herbst, F Ruzza; M Lamaro, S Negri, T Halafihi.

Replacements: J Riera for Menoncello (18 mins), N Cannone for Herbst and C Braley for Duvenage (both 45), M Zuliani for Negri (50), T Baravalle for Nicotera, I Nemer for Gallo and T Pasquali for Tetaz (all 70), L Marin for G Da Re (72).

CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, S Arnold, M Hansen; J Carty (capt), K Marmion; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; N Murray, L Fifita; C Prendergast, C Oliver, P Boyle.

Replacements: L Fififa for Thornbury (51 mins), Tuimauga for Bealham (55), S Masterson for Oliver and C Blade for Marmion (both 56), A Papali'i for Boyle (58), C Fitzgerald for Arnold (62), D Tierney-Martin for Heffernan and G McGrath for Burke (both 65).

Referee: Pierre Brouset (France).