Connacht marked their return to Heineken Champions Cup rugby in memorable style with a terrific 23-20 victory over Montpellier at the Sportsground.
Tries from Paul Boyle, stand-in captain Tom McCartney and Caolin Blade, with the rest of the points kicked by Jack Carty and Conor Fitzgerald, saw the westerners prevail in their first European top tier game in three seasons.
Montpellier scored tries through Aaron Cruden and Anthony Bouthier, while captain Benoit Paillaugue added two penalties, but injury-depleted Connacht, who led 13-10 at half-time, were worthy winners in a performance of massive character.
Head coach Andy Friend said in his pre-match press conference that Connacht would try and avoid an arm wrestle against their much larger opponents. But it was Montpellier who showed their running prowess after barely a minute.
Jan Serfontein and Caleb Timu made inroads into Connacht territory with big carries. Eventually, the ball was worked wide to winger Yvan Reilhac and he deftly found Cruden’s trail line and the Kiwi ran in the opening try. Paillaugue converted for the dream start for the visitors.
Reacting well to the concession, Friend’s men pushed on and were rewarded for their attitude when Carty accurately slotted over a penalty. The hosts had some late adjustments before kick-off with skipper Jarrad Butler, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun all withdrawn through injury.
The scoring was of a tit-for-tat nature and Montpellier responded in kind with a Paillaugue three-pointer in the 22nd minute when Connacht went off their feet at the breakdown.
A nightmare start for Connacht! ?
The home captain predicted an 18-0 win before kickoff. It's taken just 70 seconds for that to be undone!
? BT Sport 3 HD pic.twitter.com/DS71quJTEJ
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) November 17, 2019
Connacht continued to grow into the game, with Bundee Aki and Colby Fainga’a prominent, and they began to impose themselves. After phases of probing carries in the Montpellier 22, blindside Boyle managed to crash over in the right corner to close the gap to 10-8. Carty dragged the difficult conversion narrowly wide.
One home try soon became two, as Connacht crossed again on the cusp of half-time. Second row Paul Willemse was yellow carded for taking out Fainga’a in the air at a lineout. To compound the visitors’ misery, from the resulting lineout, McCartney touched down at the tail of a rolling maul for a 13-10 turnaround.
3?? points difference at the break. 3?? points difference at FT.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 17, 2019
Paillaugue punished a Connacht offside to tie things up early in the second period. The westerners soon regained the lead when scrum-half Blade, showing razor-sharp instincts, sniped around the edge of a ruck and ran in for a try which Carty converted for a 20-13 scoreline.
Bludgeoning his way through contact, Serfontein established field position for the French outfit and full-back Bouthier was the beneficiary as he sped through impressively to score in the 62nd minute, with Paillaugue landing the levelling conversion at 20-20.
However, 22-year-old replacement out-half Fitzgerald coolly kicked Connacht back in front with a sweetly struck penalty. His 68th-minute kick, with the hosts’ steely defence withstanding huge pressure late on, ultimately sealed a stirring first-round success.
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