Fionn Carr’s 77th-minute try sealed a hard-earned 29-23 win for Connacht against Newport Gwent Dragons at the Showground as the Guinness PRO12 season began.
A superb break from Bundee Aki set up replacement Carr’s clinching score, but the doughty Dragons, who improved significantly in the second half, took home a losing bonus point thanks to Tom Prydie’s penalty with the last kick of the game.
New Connacht flanker Nepia Fox-Matamua scored from a lineout catch and drive and Jack Carty kicked three penalties as the hosts led 14-3 at the interval.
However, the Irish province were badly caught out on the resumption, the visitors’ debutant scrum-half Sarel Pretorius burrowing over from a ruck to close the gap to just four points.
Danie Poolman’s unconverted effort and a further Carty penalty, in response to a Jason Tovey kick, saw Connacht wrestle back control and they did just enough to get over the finish line despite leaking a James Thomas try with five minutes to go.
New Zealander Fox-Matamua was prominent early on as assured out-half Carty landed two fine penalties from the right side to give the hosts a 6-0 lead.
Pretorius showed his sniping ability as the Dragons sought to respond, threatening on the counter before fellow South African Carl Meyer missed a long-range penalty.
Connacht lost Kieran Marmion to a suspected hip injury but Carty’s profitable night with the boot continued, his third successful penalty punishing a Dragons offside in the 21st minute.
The home side pressed for a try soon after, going for the corner via a couple of penalties and following Quinn Roux’s brilliant one-handed lineout take, the Connacht maul powered over with Fox-Matamua touching down.
Carty’s missed conversion was followed by the Dragons’ opening points from the boot of out-half Tovey, and Connacht would have been frustrated that a promising bout of late pressure was spoiled by handling errors.
Lyn Jones’ half-time words seemed to work a treat as Tovey and Nick Scott inspired a threatening Dragons attack, and the ever-alert Pretorius dotted down from the base of a ruck. Tovey’s conversion made it 14-10.
Crucially, Connacht were quick to respond as Eoghan Masterson and John Cooney were involved in a neat switch of play from a scrum, and industrious man of the match Tiernan O’Halloran passed for winger Poolman to get over out wide.
The Dragons kept in touch with a Tovey penalty but following a Meyer miss from distance, Connacht upped their efforts with Poolman, Rodney Ah You and Tom McCartney all carrying strongly before a simple Carty three-pointer.
A prolonged spell of pressure saw Thomas rewarded with a try from close range which Tovey converted for a 22-20 scoreline. However, Aki’s heroics in breaking clear to set up Carr’s decisive score secured the result for Connacht.