A losing bonus could have been more but there were plenty of positives, writes John O’Sullivan…
Connacht came a couple of feet away from claiming yet another European scalp at the Sportsground on Friday last, but, unfortunately, their maiden Heineken Cup campaign under Pat Lam started with a 23-17 defeat to English side Saracens.
Saracens, who have been transformed tactically over the close season since the departure of South African Brendan Venter, laid the foundations of their victory early with a two try salvo in the opening twenty minutes.
Indeed, after just five minutes, American centre Chris Wyles sauntered under the posts after a well orchestrated team move from the Londoners. Wyles incisive line of running exploited a gaping hole in the Connacht defence and that will have no doubt irked Pat Lam and his backroom staff. Owen Farrell, as he invariably does, slotted the extra’s for 7-0 to the visitors. An already arduous task for the Westerners had just become significantly more difficult.
Wyles try elicited a response from Connacht and soon after Dan Parks had reduced the deficit to four points with a measured and successful penalty.
However, soon after Connacht’s resurgence was crushed by a try from unpopular English winger Chris Ashton. Immense credit is due to former Ulster player Mark McCall who, since the aforementioned departure of the media friendly Venter, has morphed Saracens from a conservative set piece dependant team into a fluid, ball in hand running team; and Ashton’s try came after one such bright move.
Both Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, were involved heavily in the try, as their carries made significant yards inside Connacht territory before quick ball released Schalk Britz who’s pass gave Ashton a cake walk over the line for the Sarries second try, which Owen Farrell converted for a 14-3 lead. Even from a Connacht fan, the variety in play for Ashton’s try was a joy to behold.
In what proved to be a hectic opening seventeen minutes, Connacht soon had a try of their own. Dan Parks launched one of his trademark Garryowens which South African Danie Poolman competed in the air for. However, Poolman missed the ball, which seemed to cause panic in a unusually hesitant Saracens defence and the ball bounced into the path of scrum half Kieran Marmion who didn’t need a second invitation to run at the Londoners defence.
Marmion eased past Billy Vunipola and into a massive chasm of space in the Sarries rearguard for a wonderful virtuoso try. I have been banging the Marmion for Ireland drum for a long time, and hopefully Friday’s performance will see the Welsh born scrum half move closer to Irish senior selection.
Parks added the conversion to slice the score to 14-10 in favour of Saracens. However, in a manual of what not to do next after scoring a try, Connacht were guilty of the cardinal sin of soon conceding a penalty and breaking their momentum. Unsurprisingly, Owen Farrell slotted the resultant kick for a 17-10 lead.
In what proved to be one of the most high octane games seen at the Sportsground for many years, Connacht soon equalized via a Danie Poolman try. Once again, the impressive Marmion was involved heavily. The scrum halves pass found the South African Poolman who’s step left the Sarries defence in disarray and saw him canter in for the game levelling try. Dan Parks, once again, scored the conversion.
All of this, after just thirty minutes. The physical exertion by Connacht in the opening half caught up with them in the second half and soon forced errors in concentration. Owen Farrell twice punished such errors with two successful penalties, taking the score to 23-17.
In one last roll of the dice, Connacht, through Tiernan O’Halloran came close to scoring. However, with his drained team mates lagging behind and unable to reach the ruck quick enough to clean it out, the Clifden man was left isolated and was pinged for not releasing and the game was sealed for Saracens.
Even in the wreckage of defeat, Connacht can be pleased with their performance, particularly those of their younger players. Kieran Marmion, Jake Heenan, Robbie Henshaw and Danie Poolman all played excellently and, should Connacht retain these players, the future is bright out west.
John O’Sullivan (@JohnOSullivan91) part time student, full time sports nut. I love rugby and am currently the PRO of Connemara RFC as well as admin for the Rugby Banter Facebook page. I also do some radio work for my local station. One day, I would love to be a Sports Journalist/Broadcaster.