Jack Carty returned to the Sportsground after his Irish debut in the Six Nations to guide them to a priceless victory in their quest for a knockout place and Champions Cup rugby next season. Carty was kept in reserve but then after Connacht had blown a 14-0 lead, was sprung from the bench to steer them home and in the process become the province’s all-time top scorer.
Carty edged them back in front with a penalty after coming on and then was twice involved as Matt Healy got over for his second try after a superb offload by Carty sent Eoin McKeon through and from the next phase Carty spun it wide for the left winger to finish. It got even better in the final play when Carty squeezed over to secure the bonus point on a memorable night after a bruising encounter.
Benetton came to the Sportsground boosted by their longest unbeaten run in the competition and knew that pushing that out to nine games without a loss would give a huge boost to their hopes of making the knockout stages for the first time.
And they took the game to Connacht but while they enjoyed 76% possession they found themselves 7-0 down towards the end of the opening quarter. Scrum-half Caolin Blade spotted the lack of pillars in the Benetton defence and darted from a ruck just outside the 22 to sidestep Ian McKinley and dive over between the posts.
Kyle Godwin converted to make it 7-0. Connacht took control from there and doubled their lead on the half hour. Initially Benetton did enough to repel them and looked set to survive when Tiernan O’Halloran was stopped short but James Cannon did enough to force scrum-half Dewaldt Duvenage to spill the ball behind his own line and Matt Healy pounced to touch down, with Godwin converting for 14-0.
But Benetton hit back and opted for a scrum in front of the posts after a 12-phase move had coughed up their sixth penalty of a half where they conceded just one. It was a smart move as No.8 Toa Halafihi broke from the base and put replacement out-half Antonio Rizza, who had come on for the injured McKinley moments earlier, over for a try which he converted to cut the gap to 14-7.
Benetton hit back to level after 55 minutes through scrum-half Dewaldt Duvenage after 54 minutes but the arrival of Carty turned the game back in Connacht’s favour as they coasted to an invaluable win.
Scorers for Connacht:
C Blade, M Healy (2), J Carty; Conversions: K Godwin (2), J Carty; Penalty: J Carty.
Scorers for Benetton Rugby:
A Rizzi, D Duvenage; Conversions: A Rizzi (2).
T O’Halloran; D Leader, T Farrell, P Robb, M Healy; K Godwin, C Blade; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E McKeon, C Fainga’a, J Butler.
S Fitzgerald for O’Halloran (38, HIA), T McCartney for Delahunt (52), G Thornbury for Cannon (57), K Marmion for Blade (57), J Carty for Godwin (57), P McCabe for Buckley (60), C Carey for Bealham (62), E Masterson for Butler (71).
L Sperandio; R Tavuyara, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, M Ioane; I McKinley, D Duvenage; N Quaglio, H Faiva, M Riccioni; I Herbst, A Zanni; M Lazzaroni, G Pettinelli, T Halafihi.
T Baravalle for Faiva (31), A Rizzi for McKinley (31), D Appiah for Quaglio (51), M Barbini for Zanni (51), T Iannone for Benvenuti (65), T Pasquali for Riccioni (67), R Barbieri for Herbst (68).
Mike Adamson (Scotland).