In the end ingenious scrum-half Danny Care made the difference with two rapid tries just before the break, turning the momentum in favour of the English champions and confirming their status as pool three winners.
But Connacht again demonstrated their evolving style of play under Eric Elwood’s stewardship in one of their best 40 minutes of attacking rugby. The weather did play its part on a clear evening in front of 8,199 spectators - a huge contrast nine months to the day when Quins’ cup hopes were drowned on an evening remembered for its driving wind and rain.
“I was glad it was a fine evening and a full house because we wanted to play rugby. We wanted to challenge them and we showed that with the possession we got in the first-half. Unfortunately, we did not get enough it, and certainly not enough in the second-half,” said Elwood.
“We had a plan to attack from deep and we tried to stay strong to what we were doing. There is no point kicking to a team like Harlequins because you are just inviting them onto you again.”
In a hugely entertaining first-half Connacht sprung into a 19-9 lead, courtesy of a Dave McSharry try who cut a line through the Quins’ defence to score near the posts. Out-half Dan Parks converted. McSharry, scrum-half Kieron Marmion and Fetu Vainikolo continued to pose the biggest attacking threat out wide, while up front Denis Buckley, Willie Faloon, Mike McCarthy and George Naoupu won the plaudits and vital penalties as both kickers took over the contest. Parks added four penalties to open up a 10 point lead, but the game turned when Care struck twice from the base to put Quins 24-19 in front at the break.
“That 10 minutes before the break was the turning point. At half-time it was 65-35 possession and you cannot give teams like Harlequins that amount of possession. At that stage we were disappointed but not down beat about it.”
However, it was Quinns’ physical prowess that made the difference in the second-half. Although Connacht’s defence again held firm, Quins’ out-half Ben Botica struck three penalties to deny the home side a losing bonus point.
“They are big in a lot of senses,” said Elwood. “ Young Denis Buckley, who was giving away 34kg to his prop — Michael Swift — is one of our bigger players and was giving away 20 odd to Ollie Kohn. Then they have Nick Easter locking in the scrum. They are a good team, with a solid set piece, good scrum and line-out, and when they get that platform to launch, they are going to ask questions.”
Quins’ Conor O’Shea was delighted to come away with a win after last year’s defeat.
“Do you come here and have an easy ride? I have been coming here all my life and you don’t. If we had been able hold onto the ball more in the second-half, we might have got more out of it. But Toulouse didn’t get a bonus point out of here last season; we didn’t, we lost; Leinster with a second string got thumped. This is not an easy place and we are delighted.”
However O’Shea believed Connacht would also pose a huge challenge for Biarritz.
“They will challenge you and at the end of this pool when Biarritz have to come here, this will be one heck of a hard place for Biarritz.”
It is a game Elwood says Connacht are relishing.
“We have learned a hell of a lot from our journey in the Heineken last year. We started well this season against Zebre and we were unlucky in that we got nothing out of this match. But we are relishing every minute and every game in the Heineken.”
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, A Flavin, N White (capt), M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: J O’Connor for W Faloon (55 mins), E McKeon for M Swift, J Harris-Wright for A Flavin, B Wilkinson for D Buckley (all 64 mins), M Fifita for E Griffin (65 mins), R Loughney for N White (67 mins), M Nikora for M McCarthy (76 mins).
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; B Botica, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa’asavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Replacements: T Guest for M Fa’asavalu (67 mins), C Matthews for O Kohn (72 mins) Referee: J Garces (France).