Fitzgerald’s heroics see Connacht make winning return to Champions Cup

Fitzgerald’s heroics see Connacht make winning return to Champions Cup
John Porch of Connacht is tackled by Aaron Cruden of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht 23 - 20 Montpellier

A nerveless Conor Fitzgerald penalty 13 minutes from time clinched European victory for Connacht as Andy Friend’s side battled bravely to launch their Champions Cup campaign with an impressive Sportsground win.

The 1pm kick-off and an Aaron Cruden try after a minute didn’t help the early atmosphere on College Road, but by the time Fitzgerald landed his first attempt at goal two minutes after his introduction the place was in raptures celebrating their first Champions Cup win since January 2017.

Connacht had recovered well to lead thanks to tries from Paul Boyle and captain Tom McCartney just before the break, while Caolin Blade’s third in the 53rd minute was cancelled out by Anthony Bouthier, which set up Fitzgerald’s heroics.

But there was plenty of green-clad heroes. Prop Denis Buckley played the full 80 minutes, was the top tackler with 18 and delivered two critical turnovers near his own line in the second-half; Robin Copeland only found out before kick-off that he was involved at all due to Jarrad Butler’s knee injury and he had his best game since joining the province; and Boyle again impressed with a snarling back-row display in the face of Montpellier’s mammoth physicality.

This was certainly a case of four points won for Connacht, but when Pool 5 concludes they might regret not finishing with a bonus point victory – such was the number of chances they created.

“With about nine minutes to go I said we have nine minutes to get a bonus point and with three minutes left I said we still got three minutes to get a bonus point. With 30 seconds to go I said let’s get the thing off the park,” said a delighted Friend.

“I thought we left a couple of tries out there in the first half and we need to be better at executing if you are going to get to the knockout stages of Europe. In the wash up we’ll look back and say we’re really pleased we got the win with all the disruption we had. I’m just proud of the way they fought.”

On the negative side of the ledger, Connacht’s second-row crisis worsened with a ninth-minute shoulder injury for Cillian Gallagher. Butler’s knee, Matt Healy (leg) and Niyi Adeolokun (leg) were all pulled out after initially being named, which brings Connacht injury list to a shocking 16 players.

“Yeah we are a bit skinny but it’s what it is,” said Friend. “Listen we are talking to (the IRFU) at the minute. We brought Pete McCabe in this week, we are probably looking at some back three players: of our six back three players we’ve got four of them out.”

While Connacht’s injury woes are their talking point Montpellier are dealing with a crisis of a different hue. Director of Rugby Vern Cotter was not in attendance amid rumours of a potential change of power at the club with coach Xavier Garbajosa, but his side hammered into Connacht from the off and Cruden waltzed over.

But despite their physical deficiencies, the home side carved out five excellent try-scoring chances in that first-half. Quite how their first didn’t arrive until a minute from the interval is a puzzle though.

After 15 minutes Connacht, at last, got some reward when Copeland forced Montpellier to hold on and Carty kicked the medium-range penalty. Paillaugue soon hit back when Boyle was penalised at the breakdown, a facet of the game that the French side often populated heavily in search of turnovers. While it worked well on occasion it was Connacht that won the critical second-half battles on the ground.

Try scoring chances continued to come and go unclaimed for Connacht, but a minute from the break Boyle eventually crossed when he picked close to the line, and McCartney’s mauled effort after four added minutes and a Paul Willemse yellow card put them 13-10 clear at half-time.

Connacht’s defensive and breakdown work improved hugely after the interval and Blade’s try and Carty conversion put them seven ahead, but after Bouthier powered over, it was left to Fitzgerald to kick the winner.

Scorers – Connacht: P Boyle, T McCartney, C Blade tries; J Carty pen, con, C Fitzgerald pen

Montpellier: A Cruden, A Bouthier tries; B Paillaugue 2 cons, 2 pens

Connacht: D Leader; J Porch, B Aki, T Daly, K Godwin; J Carty, C Blade; Ds Buckley, T McCartney (c), D Robertson-McCoy; C Gallagher, U Dillane; P Boyle, C Fainga'a, R Copeland.

Replacements: J Maksymiw for Gallagher 9; C Fitzgerald for Carty 65; E Masterson for Maksymiw 65; D Heffernan for McCartney 74; C Kenny for Robertson-McCoy 74.

Montpellier: A Bouthier; G N'gandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; A Cruden, B Paillaugue (c); M Nariashvili, Y Delhommel, M Haouas; N Janse van Rensburg, P Willemse; K Galletier, Y Camara, C Timu.

Replacements: H Immelman for Vincent 39-ht, blood; WJ Du Plessis for Willemse 51, HIA; B Du Plessis for Delhommel 53, HIA; G Fichten for Nariashvili 55; J Bardy for Galletier 55; H Immelman for Cruden 57; E Sanga for Paillaugue 65; J Du Plessis for Haouas 71; F Ouedraogo for Camara 74.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)

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