Connacht came within metres of a late match-winning try but Montpellier held on to win a pulsating Heineken Champions Cup clash 35-29 at the GGL Stadium.
With both teams out of quarter-final contention, they threw caution to the wind and produced a nine-try thriller which was decided by winger Yvan Reilhac’s 77th-minute try.
Connacht had the momentum at half-time despite trailing 21-0 at one stage thanks to seven-pointers from Levan Cilachava and Gabriel N’gandebe. The Irish province produced a dazzling 10-minute spell, either side of the break, that saw them reel off four tries.
Matt Healy, John Porch and Kieran Marmion brought them level before Kyle Godwin’s 43rd-minute effort made it 26-21. A Jack Carty penalty still had Connacht leading late on, yet Reilhac completed his second half brace to claim third place for Montpellier in Pool 5.
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Connacht’s porous defence let them down as Montpellier dominated the opening half hour. Attacking from a close-in ruck, Georgian prop Cilachava got past Eoghan Masterson to touch down in the third minute.
Although captain Jarrad Butler led Connacht’s determined response, they fell further behind in the 23rd minute when tricky winger N’gandebe evaded the clutches of both Tiernan O’Halloran and Healy to go in under the posts.
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Montpellier let their footballing skills do the talking five minutes later, Handre Pollard and Reilhac both kicking through before full-back Johan Goosen retrieved possession near the Connacht line. Quick ruck ball allowed N’gandebe to beat the first defender and crash over.
Yet, as the interval approached, Connacht made timely inroads. Montpellier were suddenly caught for numbers on the left and returning scrum half Marmion and Godwin combined to send winger Healy scampering over.
Try number two followed from a Masterson interception, the ball being moved wide for Australian Porch to finish acrobatically in the right corner. Carty converted and also tagged on the extras to Marmion’s score, set up by Bundee Aki cleverly drawing in three defenders.
The last six months has seen improving PRO14 refereeing standards, and it's only just beginning.
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Into the second half, Carty’s terrific pass put centre Godwin through to make it 26 points without reply. Montpellier hit back with their own bonus point score soon after, a Goosen kick bouncing up favourably for Reilhac to run in behind the posts.
South African star Pollard’s conversion was cancelled out by Carty’s well-struck 57th-minute penalty, and Montpellier’s decision to then turn down a simple three points almost cost them as Connacht survived some set-piece pressure.
The visitors were struggling for territory, though, and were not helped by loose kicking and an under-fire lineout. It was Pollard’s midfield break which inspired Montpellier, and lock Nico Janse van Rensburg was able to float a pass out for Reilhac to go over in the corner.
Pollard’s excellent conversion put six points between them and despite van Rensburg seeing yellow for taking out Porch in the air, his team-mates won a last-gasp turnover to send Connacht to the bottom of the table.
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