Connacht left this season’s Champions Cup with their heads held high after Andy Friend’s side recovered from a 21-point deficit to lead, only to be denied two minutes from time in Montpellier.
Matt Healy, John Porch, and Kieran Marmion drew Connacht level at half-time, before Kyle Godwin put them ahead, but the French side finished strongly and Yvan Reilhac scored his second and the winning try.
There was nothing but pride to play for in this final Pool 5 clash at the GGL Stadium, and in front of their home supporters, Montpellier came out of the traps with ferocious intent and after they retained possession brilliantly through the phases, Georgian tighthead Levan Chilachava showed good skills and power to finish from close range.
In the battle of the two out-halves Jack Carty was most certainly coming out on top. Handre Pollard missed two penalty kicks to touch for his side, while Carty prodded and probed for his side and pushed them into Montpellier territory with a couple of well judged kicks.
But just as they seemed to be gaining a foothold in the game, Connacht’s defence let them down when Gabriel Ngandebe broke through some generous tackling and scored under the posts for a 14-0 lead in the 24th minute.
Five minutes later the French winger doubled his tally when Pollard picked out Yvan Reilhac with an accurate chip to the wing, and this time Ngandebe showed excellent strength to score from close range. At 21-0 down, Connacht looked out of the running.
But in the six minutes before half-time Connacht turned the game upside down. An excellent linebreak from Porch ignited their challenge before Godwin sent Healy over in the left corner. Three minutes later Connacht grabbed their second try.
Eoghan Masterson’s intercept on halfway won the ball back for Connacht, who immediately went wide and Porch scored in the corner with a stunning one-handed diving finish. Carty’s touchline conversion was exquisite, to make it 21-14.
And still there was time for Connacht to equalise before the interval. Tiernan O’Halloran’s kick through almost saw Godwin score, only for Johan Goosen to intercept. A five metre scrum followed and with each phase Connacht seemed to lose yardage, but after Porch kept the ball alive Bundee Aki’s offload sent Marmion over three minutes into added time. Carty completed the stunning recovery and the sides were level 21-21 at half-time.
Montpellier were shattered after that deluge before the break, but having caught their breath, they started with a bang, and only a brilliant last-gasp intercept from Porch saved the westerners with numbers out wide.
And less than a minute later, Connacht struck at the other end. A well-worked first phase move off the top of a lineout saw Carty free Godwin with a pass out the back and the Australian glided over to give his side a 26-21 lead.
A wicked bounce allowed Reilhac in to score the lead try for Montpellier in the 53rd minute, but a penalty from Carty had Connacht back in front five minutes later.
Strangely Pollard turned down a tap over penalty for the lead in favour of a scrum 18 minutes from time, and after Connacht held solid in defence, Reilhac crept over in the corner for the winner.
L Chilachava, G Ngandebe 2, Y Reilhac 2 tries; H Pollard 5 cons.
M Healy, J Porch, K Marmion, K Godwin tries; J Carty 3 cons, pen.
J Goosen; G Ngandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; H Pollard, B Paillaugue; U Tcheisvhili, B du Plessis, L Chilachava; N Janse van Rensburg, P Willemse; F Ouedraogo, Y Camara, K Galletier.
A Bouthier for Vincent (51), V Giudicelli for du Plessis (51), M Nariashvili for Tcheisvhili (51), M Haouas for Chilachava (51), K Fotuali’i for Paillaugue (57), T Darmon for Pollard (69), M Devergie for Camara (69), K Mikautadze for Willemse (69), H Pollard for Bouthier (71 HIA).
T O’Halloran; J Porch, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; P McAllister, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy; J Maksymiw, G Thornbury; E Masterson, C Fainga’a, J Butler.
D Buckley for McAllister (49), E McKeon for Masterson (52), C Blade for Marmion (55), T Daly for O’Halloran (59), N Murray for Maksymiw (59), C Kenny for Robertson-McCoy (64), J Murphy for Heffernan (70), C Fitzgerald for Carty (71), D Robertson-McCoy for Kenny (71 blood).
Matthew Carley (England).