Guy Easterby’s returning internationals did just enough to secure a bonus-point win in an eight-try feast as Connacht showed great character to post four tries in the second-half to come within two points on two occasions.
In the end Connacht were denied a record fifth straight win but their display of real grit earned them two valuable points — a losing bonus and a four-try bonus point. It ensures both sides remain where they started, in seventh and sixth positions, but with the Scarlets having extended their lead over Connacht to seven points, and with Pat Lam’s charges facing a tough finish against Ulster, Munster, Cardiff and Ospreys, hopes of a top-six finish look improbable for Connacht.
Connacht were under the cosh as early as the second minute when Scarlets took a quick penalty, scything open the backline, captain Jonathan Davies raced in for the perfect Scarlets’ opening with Priestland adding the conversion.
However, as Connacht caught up to speed they were rewarded after their first attacking phase when Scarlets were pinged for not rolling away at the breakdown. Parks capitalised with his first kick at goal.
It was left to the kickers to keep the scoreboard ticking over with Parks pegging back the deficit to 7-6 after 21 minutes and Priestland, having missed an earlier effort, tagging on a second to return to a four-point advantage.
With both sides testing each other out wide, where Fionn Carr, Tiernan O’Halloran and Robbie Henshaw, always looked lively for the visitors, unusually it was Connacht scrum that came under pressure. And although Priestland spurned a three-pointer after 29 minutes, the Welsh outhalf made amends four minutes later when Connacht were caught in possession for a 13-6 half-time lead.
After the interval, the league’s leading tryscorer Gareth Davies added to his tally, sniping over to extend the Scarlets’ lead to 20-6 after Priestland added the extras. And it all went awry two minutes later when from a position of attack, Connacht conceded a third try. Henshaw was just beaten to the line from his own kick and chase, but Connacht failed to deal with the counterattack which resulted in Turnbull bursting through from inside his own half to touch down.
However Connacht relieved some pressure with a huge crossfield kick that bounced awkwardly for the Scarlets’ cover and when caught in possession by Henshaw, scrum-half Kieran Marmion dived over in the right corner after 54 minutes to kickstart a dramatic final 20 minutes.
Connacht never relented, even aft replacement Darragh Leader was denied with a foot in touch. Fighting back for a second try, Fionn Carr dotted down from Miah Nikora’s perfect cross kick after 72 minutes, and Nikora’ s super touchline conversion brought Connacht within seven points eight minutes from time.
A minute later Carr, again, initiated a counter-attack from deep and combining with Marmion, they created space for Michael Swift to supply Henshaw who touched down in the corner, Nikora’s touchline conversion hitting the post that would have brought the sides level.
However there was still more in the Scarlets’ tank. In one last foray Gareth Maule dived over, with Priestland’s simple conversion looking sufficient to deny Connacht even a deserved bonus point, but on the stroke of full time Ronan Loughney secured a loose ball from the restart and with the defence stretched out wide, No 8 Eoin McKeon raced in, Nikora converting.
Connacht scorers: Tries: Marmion, Carr, Henshaw, McKeon. Cons: Nikora 2. Pens: Parks 2.
Scarlets scorers: Tries: J. Davies, G. Davies, Turnbull, Maule. Cons: Priestland 3. Pens: Priestland 2.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw, T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Carr, D Parks, K Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, A Muldowney, M Kearney, J Muldoon, E Masterson, E McKeon.
Replacements: N White for Ah You (46m), M Swift for Kearney (49m), A Browne for Masterson and D Heffernan for Harris-Wright (52m), R Loughney for Browne (62m), M Nikora for Parks (64m), D Leader for O’Halloran (68m).
SCARLETS: L Williams, K Phillips, J Davies (cpt), O Barkley, J Williams, R Priestland, G Davies, P John, K wens, R Jones, J Ball, J Snyman, J Turnbull, J Barclay, S Timani.
Replacements: R Kelly for Ball (HT), E Phillips for Owens, R Evans for John , R Williams for G Davies (all 55m), G Maule for Barclay (66m), H Pungea for Jones (73m).
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland).