Connacht 16Glasgow 11
Murray Kinsella reports from the Sportsground
A FIRST-EVER Pro12 final for Connacht. Hell, a first-ever final.
They achieved it in as thrilling a manner as their entire season has been played out. Hearts were in mouths at times in the closing five minutes, after Rodney Ah You’s yellow card meant Pat Lam’s men finished with 14 players.
But with The Fields of Athenry booming around a Sportsground packed to bursting point, Connacht made history again.
Niyi Adeolokun streaks clear to score. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Niyi Adeolokun’s brilliant first-half try was crucial, while the kicking of the assured and composed AJ MacGinty did the rest of the scoreboard damage in a 16-11 victory.
Bundee Aki’s delicious grubber set up Adeolokun’s try in the first half and he was man of the match yet again in another monumental display. There were standout displays all around the inspirational Aki, with the likes of Adeolokun, John Muldoon, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Ultan Dillane and Tom McCartney excelling.
Connacht were the better team throughout, but Glasgow’s grit kept them in the contest even as they delivered a scrappy and indisciplined display.
It was Connacht’s defence that closed out the game. They dug in ferociously to keep the Scots camped in their own half as Gregor Townsend’s men desperately searched for the linebreak that might have allowed them to steal a place in the final.
Instead, it’s the westerners who advance into next weekend’s Pro12 decider against Leo Cullen’s Leinster. What a thriller that battle in Murrayfield promises to be.
An appearance in the final is only fitting after this remarkable season. The Sportsground was already filling up an hour before kick-off on a glorious day in Galway, and the party atmosphere will continue into the wee hours around the city.
Who would bet against this fairytale continuing in Edinburgh next weekend?
Referee Marius Mitrea’s lack of grip on the game contributed to a scrappy affair for the opening 30 minutes, while both sides made a high number of handling errors and gave up breakdown penalties regularly.
Aki sent a tone for his performance in the very first minute as he thundered into a carry that resulted in Glasgow out-half Finn Russell and tighthead Zander Fagerson both having to be replaced permanently due to head injuries.
After that injury interlude – Russell was stretchered off receiving gas – Marmion showed his intelligence with a sniping break that was halted only metres short of the Glasgow line by his opposite number Henry Pyrgos. Connacht knocked-on on the next phase.
Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
MacGinty was attacking the line well for Connacht, although some of their passing in midfield was done while standing still, allowing Glasgow to make firm hits in that area.
A big Healy bust on a simple screen pass in the 20th minute shook the Scots, but the wing couldn’t link with the support either side of him in the backfield and Peter Horne was able to make what looked like an illegal turnover with his hands supporting his bodyweight.
Connacht came again as Duncan Weir – on for Russell – spilled the ball and Aki scooped it up to burst into the Glasgow 22. McCartney and Finlay Bealham shifted the ball wide right rapidly, where the excellent Tiernan O’Halloran broke and fed Eoin McKeon to round under the posts for what looked like a legitimate try.
Mitrea, however, wasn’t convinced and a review with TMO Carlo DaMasco showed that Aki had knocked the ball on as he gathered it.
The barnstorming centre was only spurred on by that frustration, his inside pass soon after allowing MacGinty to break off a scrum.
Ryan Wilson intercepted MacGinty’s offload, but Connacht forced the back row into touch and from the resulting lineout, Townsend’s backline weren’t back 10 metres. MacGinty opened the scoring from the tee with 24 minutes played.
Connacht were poor in their exit attempt following that score, however, with Aly Muldowney’s scripted pass putting Ronan Loughney under pressure. Fraser Brown pounced over the breakdown and won the penalty that allowed Weir to make it 3-3.
Aki’s big carry then resulted in a third Glasgow player – Simone Favaro – being replaced for a head injury, while the visitors continued to make uncharacteristic handling errors as they attempted to create the game’s first try.
It was Connacht who did so. Aki, of course, was instrumental.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
His 37th-minute grubber was delicate down the right-hand 15-metre channel, resulting in the impressive Adeolokun deftly picking the bobbling ball, stepping inside Stuart Hogg and shaking off the desperate tackle attempts of Pyrgos and Duncan Weir 40 metres out from the tryline.
The run-in was a formality for Adeolokun after his show of skill and strength.
MacGinty converted, but again Connacht almost allowed Glasgow to respond. They knocked-on an offload attempt out of their 22, leading to a period of Glasgow pressure that almost ended with Leone Nakarawa dotting down.
The Fijian lock struck at the tryline from close range, but Loughney and MacGinty somehow combined to hold him up and bring about the relieving sound of the half-time whistle.
10-3 down, Glasgow came out of the blocks in the second half but were pinged in the Connacht 22 when Wilson held a Connacht defender off the ball to end a promising attack.
Nakarawa broke from the front of a lineout minutes later, but this time Gordon Reid lost the ball in midfield in the Connacht 22. Undeterred and now looking rampant, Glasgow burst back through the slaloming Bennett, who was stopped only by a brilliant Healy hit.
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Glasgow retained possession this time, however, and Nakarawa went through MacGinty and Marmion from two metres out for a try wide on the left confirmed by the TMO.
Weir’s conversion sailed wide and Connacht were able to push back out to a five-point lead with a MacGinty penalty at the end of a period of attacking pressure that began with Pyrgos’ poor box kick, gathered by a scrambling Muldoon.
Connacht’s inability to exit well in response to their own scores struck again in the 57th minute as McKeon failed to release in the tackle and Weir brought the Glaswegians back to 13-11 heading towards the final quarter.
Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
A silly penalty concession from Reid, diving on top of Marmion at ruck time, saw Connacht opt for the corner when they might have had a shot at goal – the second such instance in the second half.
Muldoon was held up over the tryline after darting off the first maul attempt, before Connacht won another penalty as Glasgow failed to roll away after the tackle. The Scots picked off the lineout, however, then did the same again after clearing their lines.
Missed opportunities but, with the lineout having failed, Connacht’s scrum delivered. Under pressure from Bealham, replacement Ryan Grant was penalised for driving in on the angle and MacGinty slotted the 65th-minute penalty for a 16-11 lead.
Connacht thought they had sealed the deal in the 71st minute, as Aki smashed Weir in the Glasgow 22, forcing the ball loose. Sean O’Brien – on for McKeon in the back row – pounced on the loose ball after MacGinty swung a foot at it, and then Connacht flashed the ball wide.
The hands from Heenan, Henshaw – a sublime tip-on pass – and O’Halloran found Adeolokun, who powered through Hogg for a superb finish in the right corner.
Mitrea initially awarded the try, sending the Spotsground into raptures, but then sent for the TMO review yet again. To some confusion, it was ruled that MacGinty’s hack of the ball had rebounded off Aki in an offside position. No try.
Lam was beginning to empty his bench at this point but the impact made by Ah You was not as desired. He went in high on Stuart Hogg and, again to the dismay of the Connacht Clan, Mitrea binned him to ensure a nervy endgame.
But Connacht’s resilience came to the fore and the Sportsground rocked.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki (Peter Robb ’71), Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’60); Ronan Loughney (Rodney Ah You ’65 – YC ’75), Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham (Dave Heffernan ’69); Ultan Dillane (Andrew Browne ’61), Aly Muldowney; Eoin McKeon (Sean O’Brien ’61), Jake Heenan (JP Cooney ’75), John Muldoon (captain).
Replacement not used: Shane O’Leary.
GLASGOW: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Peter Horne (Taqele Naiyaravoro ’60), Sean Lamont; Finn Russell (Duncan Weir ’1), Henry Pyrgos (Grayson Hart ’72); Gordon Reid (Ryan Grant ’63), Fraser Brown (Pat MacArthur ’60), Zander Fagerson (D’arcy Rae ’1 (HIA – Ryan Grant ’60 to ’63)); Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray (captain); Ryan Wilson, Simone Favaro (Adam Ashe ’29), Josh Strauss (Tim Swinson ’67).
Referee: Marius Mitrea [FIR].
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