Harlequins 25-17 Connacht
11th November @ The Stoop
Connacht suffered disappointment on their Heineken Cup debut at the Stoop on Friday night, being denied a deserved losing bonus point in the dying stages of the match. Eric Elwood’s men scored two tries to Harlequins’ one but ultimately it was the boot of Nick Evans that denied them anything in this match. The New Zealander struck 20 of his side’s points.
As expected of any debutants, Connacht came bursting out of the blocks in this game, showing they were not afraid to run the ball from deep early on. However, it was ‘Quins who got on the scoreboard first, a penalty from Evans after Gavin Duffy was penalised for holding onto the ball in the tackle. Mia Nikora responded two minutes with a penalty of his own after Harlequins were punished for the same offence. Evans restored the lead with his second penalty for Conor O’Shea’s team when referee Jerome Garces spotted Connacht offside.
Connacht’s positive start to the game was rewarded in the 13th minute as Eoin Griffin sliced through the Harlequins defensive line after an intelligent decoy run by second-row Michael Swift. 22-year-old centre Griffin drew the last defender to send Tiernan O’Halloran over for Connacht’s first ever try in the Heineken Cup. Nikora added the extras to put Connacht 10-6 up.
Harlequins surged back at the Western province and began to put multiple phases together. Evans reduced the deficit to 10-9 when he slotted another penalty after his side went through 20 phases of play, Connacht doing well to deny a try with ‘Quins threatening from just metres out.
In the 31st minute, after ‘Quins again went through numerous phases, scrumhalf Karl Dickson sniped over from close-range for what would be the only try for the current Aviva Premiership leaders. Evans made no mistake with the conversion, 16-10 to Harlequins. The All Black hit another penalty soon after to extend this lead after a high tackle on Chris Robshaw.
Encouragingly, Connacht finished the half attacking in Harlequins territory and came out after half time re-invigorated. After ‘Quins had a try correctly disallowed, Connacht’s replacement outhalf, Niall O’Connor, missed his first effort at goal. A well-judged Gavin Duffy cross-kick then allowed Brian Tuohy to bundle Sam Smith into touch five metres from his own line, setting up promising field position for Connacht. After strong carries by Swift and John Muldoon amongst others, Tuohy floated a beautiful skip pass to Duffy who went over in the corner against his former club. O’Connor added the conversion.
Once again, Harlequins responded well to Connacht’s try. The TMO denied them a score in the 67th minute, Mike McCarthy doing just enough to deny Smith a score from Evans’ grubber. Evans then put his side 22-17 up after John Muldoon was caught offside. ‘Quins nearly put the game beyond doubt as Joe Marler broke from inside his own half, feeding Mike Brown, who in turn offloaded to Nick Easter. Easter’s attempted offload to Smith was knocked on and Connacht remained in losing bonus point territory.
From the resulting set piece, though, Connacht were penalized for hands in the scrum and Evans stepped up to slot what was the final score of the game. Connacht valiantly made one last effort but ‘Quins aggressive defence denied them any chance of a point.
So, in the end disappointment for Connacht. They showed cutting edge at times going forward and defended bravely. Ultimately, it was Harlequins’ ability to retain possession and go through multiple phases that stretched Connacht, forcing them into conceding the penalties that cost them here. Elwood and his players will take encouragement from this performance ahead of Toulouse’s visit to The Sportsground. This may be Connacht’s debut season at the top table of European club rugby but they showed that they are not here to merely make up the numbers.
Photo courtesy: David Howlett