Connacht 50 Oyonnax 14: The road to Bilbao has now become clear for Connacht.
A home quarter-final against Gloucester and if they win that an away semi-final, probably to Newcastle Falcons, is all that stands in their way of an appearance in a first European final.
To get there they will need to break a few trends; they haven’t defeated Gloucester in three European meetings, while a possible semi-final in Newcastle — presuming the Falcons take care of Brive — will see Connacht try to win in England for only the third time in 24 trips. It’s by no means an easy route to a Challenge Cup final, but it is doable.
This is Connacht’s tenth time in the knockout stages but unlike all the other appearances — they made the semi-finals three times — they head into the business end for the first time since lifting the Pro12 title two years ago.
Winning that maiden piece of silverware should ensure a different mindset this time around. They achieved the first part of the jigsaw on Saturday when getting the win which ensured a home quarter-final and coach Kieran Keane said that they fancied their chances against anyone at the Sportsground where they have now won six on the spin.
“We will be tough to beat here. We are looking forward to it. The season goes on. It is nice to undefeated in this competition and we look forward to it,” said the Kiwi.
They had the bonus point in the bag by the end of the first quarter, with Niyi Adeolokun sending out a timely reminder about his finishing power when racing in for a brace of tries in just over three minutes.
Scrum-half Kieran Marmion was outstanding and his good work helped set up tries for Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran.
Adeolokun completed his hat-trick by the half hour and then Matt Healy, the 29th Connacht player to hit the 100 appearances mark for the province, darted over in the left corner.
The only blips came in the form of an injury to out-half Craig Ronaldson, resulting in O’Halloran taking over his duties, while Oyonnax got in for two tries.
The French sent a side featuring seven of the team which drew with La Rochelle recently but with a lot of youth on board as well in the squad, but Puma Alex Muller and winger Daniel Ikpefan managed to get in for tries to cut the gap to 36-14 at the interval.
“We broke their back in the first-half and got a bit untidy in the second. The game was won in the first-half,” added Keane.
“It was a perfect start. We definitely put a lot of importance on trying to get our starts better and right. On this occasion it was good. It was a brilliant start.” The second-half was a forgettable affair, disjointed as both sides emptied their benches.
But a revival by Oyonnax was never on the cards and Connacht sealed the win with a try by Tom Farrell and a late penalty try.
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; D Coulson, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, N Dawai, J Muldoon.
C Kelleher for Ronaldson (33), T Farrell for Aki (48), C Blade for Marmion (48), D Robertson-McCoy for Carey (49), S Delahunt for Heffernan (55), J Connolly for Dawai (55), P McCabe for Coulson (70), C Gallagher for Adeolokun (73).
A Muller; D Ikpefan, U Seuteni, R Hansell-Pune, T Giresse; A Fuertes, J Hall; K Vartanov, Q MacDonald, T Laclayat; G Fabbri, S C Njewel; C Browning, B Taieb, T Tauleigne.
I Mirtskhulava for Laclayat (33), J Lima for Fuertes (35), T Raynaud for Vartanov (51), B Geledan for MacDonald (51), L Barba for Tauleigne (51), J Audy for Hall (57), M Veau for Giresse (66), S Kerry for Njewel (73), Laclaya for Mirtskhulava (75).
Craig Maxwell-Keys (England).
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