What a game. What a moment to savour. What terrible weather – not that a single Connacht supporter cared.
Connacht’s immense performance was of the highest calibre and will go down in rugby folklore as the night the small west of Ireland province took on and beat the reigning English Aviva Premiership leaders in their last Heineken Cup game.
Eric Elwood’s men not only ended a 14 game losing streak, but made history in Europe and finally gave the 5,000 or so fans something to cheer about in a season that has been anything but joyful.
Niall O’Connor’s three first-half penalties did enough to claim a famous victory in torrid weather conditions at the Sportsground on Friday night.
Sam Smith’s try on eight minutes and a second-half Nick Evans penalty saw the English side come close to breaking hearts but when the Kiwi missed a sitter after the break, the Connacht players and the noisy home support knew tonight would be their night despite the home side spending almost 50 minutes inside their own 22’.
O’Connor’s early penalty, awarded after ‘Quins James Johnston failed to bind correctly at a scrum, was cancelled out by Smiths try minutes later. Nick Evans flat pass saw the winger squeeze in at the corner but questions will be asked of Fetu Vainikolo’s meek attempt of a tackle.
Evans had to improvise at the conversion. The ball fell off the tee, so he attempted a drop-kick which swirled in the wind and sailed wide.
Another penalty, almost identical to the first infringement, was awarded which O’Connor dispatched putting Connacht into a 6-5 lead. Harlequins tried to up their game, dominating possession but Connacht’s defence was steadfast, accurate and more importantly disciplined throughout.
This was as pure a team performance as you’re likely to see all year and watching Mike McCarthy, Michael Swift and Man of the Match John Muldoon throwing their bodies on the line time and again, tackle after tackle, one would be forgiven to mention this was the same team who capitulated so easily against Aironi only few weeks previously.
O’Connor kicked his third penalty on 15 minutes and despite being starved of possession, Connacht, somehow kept the visitors at bay for the remainder of the half. The last few minutes saw Connacht almost cross for their own try after a succession of phases on the ‘Quins line but had to settle for a penalty that O’Connor missed, nevertheless the Irish province went in 9-5 up at half-time.
It was all Harlequins when the second period got underway. Eternally kept in their own 22’, Connacht battled hard and were almost undone by an Evans grubber kick which winger Ugo Monye spilled at the line allowing a huge sigh of relief.
That relief was soon turned to anxiety as Evans kicked his first penalty to close the gap to a point with 20 minutes to go. Now it was squeaky bum time.
By now the crowd were in full voice but were quickly silenced as referee Nigel Owens pointed for a ‘Quins penalty 20 meters out. This reporter had already penned Evans’ name on the score sheet but unbelievably he missed what might be the easiest kick of his career.
The Sportsground erupted and the team responded in kind using a combination of sterling forward work, a high tackle count and forcing ‘Quins into unforced errors to keep their lead intact.
Battling hard at rucks, the visibly tiring Connacht players never flinched from making a tackle or supporting their teammates when needed.
The last few minutes were never wracking to say the least as ‘Quins slowly made headway and thoughts turned to Nick Evans attempting a long-range drop-goal but thankfully that never materialised and the biggest roar of the night was saved for the final whistle.
Connacht 9-8 Harlequins, 8pm
O’Connor(pen) 4mins, 12 mins, 15mins
Sam Smith 8mins (Try)
Nick Evans (pen) 60mins,
80min IT’S OVER. CONNACHT WIN!!!!
80min This should be it!!! Connacht ball! They have the put-in at the scrum just inside their half. It’s as good as over!
77min Connacht are ringing the changes. Every player that is coming off is receiving a huge roar. The play is in the middle of the park, Connacht ball just hold onto it and don’t make ANY mistakes!!
75min The Sportsground has just erupted here. Somehow they managed to overturn a ruck. If they dont win this there is no justice left in the world of rugby. Hang in there Connacht.5 minutes left!!!
73min Harlequins ahve a lineout inside Connacht 22′. dont be surprised if the scores stay like this that vans may try a long-range drop goal…
71min The physicality of this game is not for the faint hearted. Players are down on both sides here. And are badly in need of a breather. Scrum to Harlequins inside their own half.
68min A huge double-tackle from McCarthy and O’Halloran force Quins in a penalty. Lineout to Connacht at Quins 22′
66min Another penalty to Quins. a somewhat squeaky clean Nick Evans will add this to his tally. Disappointing from Conancht couldn’t handle pressure at the scrum. Unbelievably Evans has missed!!!
63min Well we are back in Connacht 22′ with a scrum to Quins. O’Halloran just knocked on. More danger here.
61min What Evans can do so can O’Connor who has just kicked a peach into the corner. Lineout to quins deep in their own 22′
59min Penalty for Quins. Evans shouldn’t miss this. He doesn’t.
58min Nick Evans has just shown his class by kicking 40 meters to put Connacht back in their own 22′. The Kiwi knows they are struggling to get out there.
56min For the first time in the half, Niall O’Connor kicks a penalty into touch on half-way. mike McCarthy has just been unreal to say the least.
55min This is breathtaking stuff here. Connacht are tackling like their life depends on it. EVERY tackle is man and ball, EVERY player working their socks off for each other and the crowd?? They’re shouting as if they are in their ten’s of thousands. Epic stuff. But they are still in their own half!
50min But they somehow manage to steal it. Still inside their own 22′.Making no ground with this wind and rain.
50min Connacht in danger of giving away penalty try. keep infringing at the scrum.
47min I’m pretty sure the wind has actually increased here. Connacht are being pulverized by it. Scrum for Quins 5 meters out.
46min Ugo Monye almost got in but he knocked on at the death. A grubber kick from Evans played him through. The wind hasn’t ceased and Connacht are finding it hard to get out of thier own 22′. Even kicks are not reaching their usual distance. Pressure here.
41min Connacht have weathered the early pressure (pardon the pun) from Quins and now have a scrum on their own 22′
40min HALF-TIME: Connacht have been nothing short of brilliant in this opening half, dominating possession and territory – But no try’s. Harlequins look a bit shell shocked but they will have he wind in the second-half and this will be a massive advantage for them. Connacht need to keep this monstrous performance going for just 40 more minutes and who knows. Do we dare dream of a first Heineken Cup victory?
37min Well what a few minutes of rugby there. Connacht put Quins deep in their own 22′, stole the away side’s lineout and were inches from the line after six or seven phases. A penalty was awarded for not rolling away, although Quins were offside on numerous occasions, but O’Connor has missed his easiest kick at goal yet.
32min After some stoppages for injuries, Quins have a scrum just inside Connacht’s half. Nigel Owens missed an offside and agave Quins a scrum for a dubious knock-on.
28min Paul O’Donohue has dropped the ball form a Connacht lineout at Quins 22. The Connacht pack are immense tonight, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson all putting their bodies on the line as the fans sing the Fields of Athenry.
26min Opportunity missed for Connacht. Good work saw them hack the ball down the pitch resulting in a line out to quins on their own 5 meter line but Nick Easter was illegally brought down in the lineout.
24min Harlequins have the put in now at same location. Ominous signs here…I eay my words somehow Connacht get their hands on possession and clear it down field. Relief!
22min It’s getting a bit out of hand between players now but ref Nigel Owens is talking to both captains. We’re coming back for a scrum on Connacht 5 meter line. It’s a home put in.
20min First penalty for Quins. Connacht not rolling away. Evans gone for the line…
19min Danny Care and Paul O’Donohue after having an unorthodox introduction to each other. Handbags really. But a lot of players got involved. Game resumes lineout to Quins outside Connacht 22′. Crowd really getting behind Connacht.
18min Harlequins are struggling to make yards no matter how many phases they go through. Connacht are standing fast and driving them back whenever they can. Line out to Connacht inside their own half.
14min It’s 3 out of 3 for O’Connor. Huge roars of support herer at the Sportsground.
12min In an almost replica of the last kick, he makes no mistake. Good use of the strong wind…Another penalty for Connacht this time closer in for offside.
11min Connacht awarded another penalty from a scrum. Some work must have been done during the week. O’Cnnor to kick for the posts inside Harlequins half.
8min TRY. A number of phases for Quins that put Connacht on the back-foot and saw winger Sam Smith get over in the corner after the ref went to the TMO. Nick Evans made a hash of the conversion, the ball falling off the tee and attempted a drop goal to no avail.
5min Harlequins with a line out on Connacht 22′. nick Evans went for the line because even he can’t kick against this wind.
4min He makes it. 3 points up. huge cheer form the home support.
3min Penalty for Connacht from the scrum! O’Connor with a strong wind at his back will attempt his first kick at goal tonight.
1min An early scrum for Quins at half-way. Lets see how Connacht’s pack react.
0minNiall O’Connor gets us underway here at the Sportsground. The blustery wind is blowing in from the College road side along with a heavy mist in favor of Connacht. plenty of support ehre for the Irish province.
0min It’s a misty, windy evening here at the Sportsground and we have some injury news for the Connacht team. Dave McSharry has been replaced by Henry Fa’fafili at inside centre. Stay tuned for all the live action here. Kick-off is at 8pm
0min Connacht are looking for their first Heineken cup win, but Harliquins need a win to secure a quarter final place. Connacht can be backed at 5/1 on betfair
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Ugo Monye, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Sam Smith, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care;
1 Joe Marler, 2 Chris Brooker, 3 James Johnston, 4 Tomas Vallejos, 5 George Robson, 6 Maurie Faasavalu, 7 Chris Robshaw, 8 Nick Easter.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Tim Fairbrother, 19 Ollie Kohn, 20 Luke Wallace, 21 Richard Bolt, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Tom Casson.
15. Gavin Duffy (Capt), 14. Fetu Vainikolo, 13. Kyle Tonetti, 12. Dave McSharry,11. Tiernan O’Halloran, 10. Niall O’Connor, 9. Paul O’Donohoe
1. Brett Wilkinson, 2. Adrian Flavin, 3. Ronan Loughney, 4. Michael Swift, 5. Mike McCarthy, 6. John Muldoon, 7. Ray Ofisa, 8. George Naoupu.
16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Dylan Rogers,19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Henry Fafafili.
As the Pool stages of the 2011/12 Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup reach a climax this weekend and next with Round 5 and Round 6 matches in both tournaments, coveted quarter-final places are on the line.
Given that calculators will be in hand at many grounds over the coming days, here is a reminder of the quarter-final qualification process for the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup.
HEINEKEN CUP QUALIFICATION
(i)The Pool winner will be the Club with the highest number of match points earned in each Pool. The runners-up will be the two second placed clubs from all six Pools with the next highest number of points. For the quarter-finals, the Pool winners will be ranked 1 to 6 in terms of the number of points earned. The runners-up will be ranked 7 and 8.
Clubs in the same pool
(ii) if two or more clubs are equal on points and the clubs are in the same Pool, then qualification / ranking will be based on the matches played between the clubs concerned:
(a) the club which has earned the most number of match points from the matches
(b) the club which has scored the most tries in the matches
(c) the club with the best aggregate points difference from the matches
Clubs from different pools
(iii) if still unresolved, or the clubs have not played each other previously in the Pool stage, qualification / ranking will be based on:
(a) the number of tries scored in all Pool matches
(b) aggregate points difference from all Pool matches
(c) the club with the fewest number of players sent off and / or suspended in all Pool matches
(d) toss of a coin
Clubs ranked 1-4 will have home advantage. The quarter-finals will be:
Club 1 v Club 8; Club 2 v Club 7; Club 3 v Club 6; Club 4 v Club 5
Quarter-finals – 6/7/8 April
Semi-finals – 27/28/29 April
Final – Twickenham Stadium, Saturday 19 May (5.00)
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP
The five Pool winners will qualify for the quarter-finals and will be the clubs with the highest number of match points earned in each Pool. For the quarter-finals, the Pool winners will be ranked 1 to 4 and 8 in terms of the number of points earned.
(i) the Pool winner will be the club with the highest number of match points earned in each Pool.
(ii) where two or more Amlin Challenge Cup Pool winners are level on match points then ranking will be based on:
(a) the number of tries scored in all Pool matches.
(b) aggregate points difference from all Pool matches.
(c) the club with the fewest number of players sent off and / or suspended in all Pool matches.
(d) toss of a coin.
The three next best Heineken Cup runners-up (the third, fourth and fifth best) will qualify for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals. The top four Amlin Challenge Cup Pool winners will have home advantage with the quarter-finalists ranked accordingly:
1 ACC 1 (Top ranked ACC Pool winner)
2 ACC 2 (Second ranked ACC Pool winner)
3 ACC 3 (Third ranked ACC Pool winner)
4 ACC 4 (Fourth ranked ACC Pool winner)
5 Heineken Cup 1
6 Heineken Cup 2
7 Heineken Cup 3
8 ACC 5 (Fifth ranked ACC Pool winner)
The quarter-final pairings will be:
Club 1 v Club 8; Club 2 v Club 7; Club 3 v Club 6; Club 4 v Club 5
Quarter-finals – 5/6/7/8 April
Semi-finals – 27/28/29 April
Final – Twickenham Stoop, Friday, 18 May (8.00)