Connacht looking good for knockout stages

Connacht have given themselves a good chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup for the 11th time after securing a bonus point win at Stade Aime Giral.

Connacht looking good for knockout stages

Perpignan 21 Connacht 36

Connacht have given themselves a good chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup for the 11th time after securing a bonus point win at Stade Aime Giral.

The fact it was with an understrength side, which included the absence of all four current Irish internationals, was all the more pleasing for coach Andy Friend.

“We selected a team which we thought could win here and they made the opportunity count,” he said.

It’s a 13th win away to a French team for Connacht and a first bonus point of the campaign could yet be vital next month, even if it is one of the runners-up spots they secure.

An impressive early showing from Paddy Jackson had Perpignan on the front foot, but both he and the Catalan side faded badly to remain without a win this season.

Connacht had hoped for a bright start to rattle Perpignan’s confidence even further after a wretched season which had seen them fail to win any of their 14 games this season, but it was the home side who made the stronger start and a neat flick of the boot from Jackson after a poor pass from his scrum-half Tom Ecochard was the key to the opening try for full-back Julien Farnoux.

Perpignan grew in confidence after that early score and Jackson, having hit the woodwork with the conversion, added a penalty from 30 metres for a deserved 8-0 lead after 12 minutes.

Connacht, though, weren’t rattled and they settled into the game, aided by Perpignan’s continued ill-discipline, which coughed up six penalties on the trot, all of them hotly disputed by the home fans in the crowd of 5,166.

Academy out-half Conor Fitzgerald went for the kill with the first of them, going for the left corner after 20 minutes and the drive yielded an opening try for the returning flanker Sean O’Brien.

They repeated the dose five minutes later, this time captain Dave Fitzgerald scoring as they went 14-8 in front.

Perpignan continued to crumble and lost winger Tima Fainaaguku to a yellow card for persistent fouling.

Initially, Perpignan met this latest perceived injustice with a string of attacks, but they were then turned over in the 22 by Robin Copeland and moments later the Connacht No 8 was surging upfield and, when he was nabbed, O’Brien was on his shoulder to score Connacht’s third try.

Fitzgerald was unable to negotiate the conversion from the right, but a penalty made it 22-8 at the break.

Perpignan were fired-up for the start of the second-half and hit back with tries from hooker Manu Leiataua and winger Faingaanuku, neither of which Jackson could convert from the left, to cut the gap to 22-18 after 47 minutes.

Perpignan’s hopes of a first win died, though, when their ill-discipline resurfaced while playing an advantage, with centre Andrea Cocagi red-carded for a high challenge on Matt Healy.

Scrum-half Tom Ecochard, who took over the kicking duties after Jackson missed his third, landed a penalty from 35 metres to cut the gap to 22-21 going into the final quarter, but Connacht killed off any notions of a tight finish and they pulled away as Healy broke through to score under the posts after 67 minutes. Two minutes later Cian Kelleher sliced through with Jack Carty converting both to lead by 36-21 and wrap up the issue.

Scorers for Perpignan: J Farnoux, M Leiataua, T Fainga’anuku tries; P Jackson pen

Scorers for Connacht: S O’Brien (2), D Heffernan, M Healy, C Kelleher tries; C Fitzgerald 2 cons, pen; J Carty 2 cons

PERPIGNAN: J Farnoux (J Bousquet 68); E Sau, A Cocagi, A Taumoepeau, T Fainga’anuku; P Jackson (E Selponi 60), T Ecochard (S Degmache 67); Q Walcker (K Tougne 72), M Leiataua (C Deligny 72), Y Boutemmani (N Lemaire 59); T Labouteley, Y Vivalda; E Shahn (A Brazo 49), P Reynaud (A Brazo h-t-49 HIA) (J Van Heerden 65), K Chateau.

CONNACHT: D Leader; C Kelleher, K Joyce, D Horwitz (K Godwin 68), M Healy; C Fitzgerald (J Carty 60), J Mitchell (C Blade 60); P McCabe (M Burke 68), D Heffernan (T McCartney 57), D Robertson-McCoy (C Carey 60); J Cannon, G Thornbury (J Maksymiw 59), S O’Brien (E Masterson 56), J Connolly, R Copeland.

Referee: Ian Tempest (England).

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