Benetton 19 Connacht 22
Connacht arrive in South Africa on Sunday armed with some much-needed momentum after claiming their first away win of this season's Pro14.
A superior second-half performance against Benetton in Italy on Saturday was the response coach Kieran Keane demanded after a first defeat to fellow Italians Zebre in Galway last weekend. It was not until the 70th minute that Connacht hit the front, but Keane was always confident his players would grab their sixth league win to keep them in the hunt for a qualification spot.
“We were hurting a little after last weekend and there was a bit of pressure to come up with a result,” said Keane. “The first half was a bit scrappy. Both sides had some chances, but they took one of theirs – that was the difference. At half-time I wasn’t worried because the players were really, really up for it. They were fully convinced they were going to turn it around. We knew we had to be more clinical in the second half and, to the boys’ credit, they were.”
While Connacht had lacked the necessary clinical edge, Kieran Crowley’s Benetton, missing 12 internationals, only grabbed an opening try minutes before the break – scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi spotting the gap after a maul stuttered towards the line, and outhalf Marty Banks converting for a 7-0 half-time lead.
Connacht, however, started the second half on the front foot. And from a second successive penalty, the province rolled forward until prop Finlay Bealham touched down.
Benetton countered in the 58th minute when Banks turned defence into attack with a cross-field kick that was fielded and finished by influential left wing Monty Ioane. But within three minutes the tide had turned in Connacht's favour when Cian Kelleher fed the ball to Jarrad Butler who powered through for Connacht's second try; Carty converted to level the game.
“Jarrad Butler was fantastic for us today, but there were others who fronted up as well. What I was really impressed with was the character the boys showed. When the game was really there to be won, we held our nerve,” said Keane.
Carty, in his first fixture since Christmas, grew as the game progressed. While keeping Benetton pinned inside their own half with his territorial kicking, he added a penalty after Benetton centre Tommaso Iannone was yellow-carded for a tip tackle on Tom Farrell .
It put Connacht ahead for the first time and they never looked back. Eoin Griffin provided the finishing power for a third try and Carty converted to stretch the lead to 22-12. Although Benetton ground out a losing bonus point with an 81st minute try, Keane said the win, "if not a complete performance" provided some momentum heading to South Africa.
“We have a big week ahead. We arrive in South Africa early today [Monday]and from there we are fully focused on the Cheetahs and preparing for that game . . . We will prepare well and we will have a real go again next weekend”.
Meanwhile, Ultan Dillane, who had been due to return to the Ireland camp, has now been released for Connacht's trip to South Africa.
Scoring sequence: 35m Tebaldi try, Banks con 7-0; HT 7-0; 43m Bealham try 7-5; 58m Ioane try 12-5; 61m Butler try, Carty con 12-12; 70m Carty pen 12-15; 73m Griffin try, Carty con 12-22; 80m Fuser try, Banks con 19-22.
Benetton Rugby: L Sperandio, A Bronzini, T Iannone, L Morisi, M Ioane, M Banks, T Tebaldi, F Zani, T Baravalle, M Zanusso, M Lazzaroni, I Herbst, A Sgarbi (c), M Barbini, W Douglas. Replacements: G Bronzini for Tebaldi (37), E Faiva for Baravelle and C Traore for Zanusso (both 41), R Brugnara for Zani (49), M Zanon for Bronzini (55), M Fuser for Herbst (59), N Manu for Barbini (63), M Tagicakibau for Lazzaroni (75).
Connacht: T O'Halloran, C Kelleher, E Griffin, T Farrell, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Thornbury, J Cannon, S O'Brien, J Butler, J Muldoon (c). Replacements: U Dillane for Thornbury (19-24m), D Heffernan for McCartney, D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham and D Coulson for Buckley (all 51), U Dillane for Thornbury (56), N Adeolokun for O'Halloran (66), E Masterson for O'Brien (70), J Mitchell for Blade (76), C Ronaldson for Carty (79).
Referee: Lloyd Linton (SRU).