Connacht bravehearts battle to bitter end

Harlequins 25 Connacht 17

Connacht were simply superb on their Heineken Cup debut at the Stoop last night.

Fiercer in the tackle; sharper at the breakdown; more ambitious in attack — this was a classic away performance by Eric Elwood’s men.

They outscored their hosts two tries to one, and attacked and ran with more verve and intent than any Quin.

Yet the one area in which they were deficient was goal-kicker. Nick Evans is a former All Black fly-half for a reason, and many feel he would have been one of the best in New Zealand’s history if he wasn’t born in the same era as Dan Carter.

And Evans was the difference here as he kicked 20 points, including two late penalties that sucked the life out of Connacht.

But make no mistake, Connacht produced a hell of a fight against a side that set an English record by becoming the first side to win their opening 11 games in any season.

That Elwood was bursting with both pride and disappointment was understandable. Connacht fought from first to last and should have had more to show for their efforts.

“The disappointing thing is that for all the effort, all the endeavour and all the commitment we came away with nothing,” said Elwood.

“We look at this as a six-test series, and this was simply the first test. It wasn’t perfect tonight, but we can be very proud.

“It lived up to everything we wanted the Heineken Cup to be. I think we opened a lot of people’s eyes with our display here. We wanted to attack, and we did.

“We faced our challenge head-on. If people believe in your work ethic and the direction you are going in then you can achieve a lot. We have no superstars, we stick together.

“That’s what we did, and now we face a fantastic test against Toulouse next week. No-one expected us to do anything here, and no-one will expect us to do anything next week.

“We know the resources we have, but we like to dream.”

And dream they did at the Stoop. They fronted up in the tight, so long a real worry for this side, who were making their 100th European appearance.

The only criticism could be that they gave away far too many penalties. With a goal-kicker of the quality of Evans on the pitch that was always likely to be problematic. The Kiwi ended with a haul of 20 points, which was vital.

Yet Connacht can enjoy their moment in the sun. Miah Nikora was first to score a point for them in this competition, knocking over a simple penalty to expose a huge number of visiting supporters in the crowd.

And they were in delirium when Eoin Griffin stepped through a gap created when Chris Robshaw slipped in midfield, drawing full-back Mike Brown and allowing Tiernan O’Halloran the easiest of run-ins, something the young wing celebrated with gusto.

Harlequins fought back and were rewarded when scrum-half Karl Dickson went over after a typically powerful surge, and it appeared at that point that Quins would accelerate away.

It was not to be as Connacht started the second-half in fine form, driving Quins back again and again.

Their moment came when substitute Niall O’Connor swung a brilliant pass wide to Gavin Duffy, who touched down.

Connacht seemed certain to press home their advantage; they had a series of attacking scrums that they just couldn’t convert into points.

And they were punished by Evans, who nervelessly fired home two late penalties.

The scoring was done, but the adulation was still to come. A guard of honour for Connacht; deserved, wonderfully deserved.

Scorers for Harlequins: Tries: Dickson. Cons: Evans. Pens: Evans 6.

HARLEQUINS: Brown, Stegman, Lowe, Turner-Hall, S. Smith, Evans, Dickson, Marler, Brooker, Johnston, Kohn, Robson, Fa’asavalu, Robshaw, Easter.

Replacements: Urdapilleta for Lowe (34), Care for Dickson (50), Gray for Brooker (59), Vallejos for Kohn (15), Wallace for Fa’asavalu (73).

Connacht scorers: Tries: O’Halloran, Duffy. Cons: Nikora, N. O’Connor. Pens: Nikora.

CONNACHT: Duffy, Tuohy, Griffin, McSharry, O’Halloran, Nikora, O’Donohoe, Wilkinson, Flavin, Ah You, Swift, McCarthy, Muldoon, Ofisa, Naoupu.

Replacements: Fa’afili for McSharry (66), N. O’Connor for Nikora (49), F. Murphy for O’Donohoe (55), Loughney for Wilkinson (70), Reynecke for Flavin (55), Rogers for Ah You (55), Anderson for Ofisa (28).

Referee: Jerome Garces (France).

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