Connacht improve but can’t better impressive Scarlets
Kieran Keane got the performance he asked for but the Welsh side were just too good
Scarlets 36 Connacht 27
In a nine-try fest at Parc y Scarlets, Connacht produced a redeeming performance, if not a winning one.
Producing their most complete attacking performance this season, they bagged four tries and a bonus point, but they suffered another heartbreaking finish as the champions claimed their fifth try at the death to deny them a losing bonus as well.
It was the performance coach Kieran Keane had demanded after their disappointing start to the season. It was not without mistakes, but on a perfect night for running rugby, Connacht played with a greater intensity and purpose to keep the game in the balance until the end.
The first half produced seven tries as the champions took a 26-22 lead. They opened with the first of those four tries after eight minutes. With all the early pressure they were rewarded with a try from Johnny McNicholl, his fifth in five outings, to set the tone of the evening’s fare.
Connacht, however, kept in touch and good defence from openside Jarrad Butler forced a turnover, allowing outhalf Jack Carty to secure possession and finish under the posts, adding the conversion.
Scarlets’ fullback Halfpenny, who had missed the earlier conversion, tacked on an 11th minute penalty, and the scoring fest continued when left wing Steff Evans evaded Tom Farrell’s tackle to grab the Scarlets’ second after 17 minutes, with Halfpenny again off target.
With a solid scrum, Connacht earned a kickable penalty which Carty delivered, but in the see-saw nature of this contest, the home side profitted when charging down Connacht’s restart, Patchell crossing out wide to stretch the lead to 19-10.
Connacht, however, silenced the 7,700 Parc Y Scarlets crowd with two tries in quick succession before the break. Tiernan O’Halloran touched down out wide after Farrell had carved a gap through the cover in a switch of play, and Carty converted to narrow the gap to 19-17.
Then just three minutes later Cian Kelleher took advantage of an overlap to dive over in the right corner, and Connacht took the lead 22-19.
Connacht coughed up possession all too easily again, and within two minutes, Connacht’s hard work was wiped out when man of the match Steff Evans supplied Halfpenny out wide. The former Lion with 75 international caps, added the extras before the break to take a four-point lead.
The second half remained a loose open affair with increasing handling errors, and changes in personnel. It was only punctuated by a missed Carty penalty before Halfpenny stroked a three-pointer after 57 minutes to extend the lead to 29-22.
However in the 74th minute Connacht’s persistence was rewarded.
Lively No 8 Eoin McKeon, one of three hard-working backrows, set up Tiernan O’Halloran for a vital fourth try. Carty missed the touchline conversion to level the contest, and more heartbreak followed when former Leinster player Tadhg Beirne spoiled the party with a final try, which Halfpenny converted at the death.
Scorers – Scarlets: J McNicholl 1 try, S Evans 1 try, R Patchell 1 try, L Halfpenny 1 try, 4 conversions, 1 penalty, T Beirne 1 try.
Connacht: J Carty 1 try, 2 conversions, 1 penalty, C Kelleher 1 try, T O’Halloran 2 tries.
SCARLETS: L Halfpenny, J Mcnicholl, J Davies, S Williams, S Evans, R Patchell, A Davies, R Evans, K Owens (cpt), W Kruger; J Ball, D Bulbring, A Shingler, W Boyde, J MacLeod.
Replacements, D Evan for R Evans (20m), T Beirne for Boyde (HT), L Rawlins for Bulbring (52m), J Evans for Davies (54m), E Phillips fort Owens and P Asquith for Patchell (both 64m), T Prydie for McNicholl (69m) for Patchell (both 64m), S Gardiner for Kruger (71m).
CONNACHT: D Leader, CKelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, T Farrell, T O’Halloran, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney (capt), C Carey, U Dillane, Q Roux, J Heenan, J Butler, E McKeon
Replacements: K Marmion for Blade and E Griffin for Leader (both 52m), G Thornburgh for Dillane and F Bealham for Carey (59m), D Coulson for Buckley (65), S Delahunt for McCartney (70m), E Masterson for Heenan (79m).
Referee: N Owens (WRU).