Connacht come so close to shocking Harlequins in Heineken opener
A Harlequins side who have brushed everyone aside in England this season was out to the pin of their collars by a spirited Connacht team who looked set for a shock win at The Stoop on Friday night.
Connacht looked like a side who have been performing for years in the Heineken Cup as they revelled in the highly charged atmosphere at the London venue.
In the end Harlequins were just relieved to secure the win but for long periods in the second-half it seemed a remarkable victory was about to be achieved by Connacht who were given a standing ovation by the crowd of 11,866 at the end of a highly entertaining clash.
Harlequins were forced to roll up their sleeves and work the phases in the opening half after Connacht took the game to them with some excellent play.
Notions that Eric Elwood’s men would just try contain the English Premiership leaders were quickly dispelled and they showed a great appetite to spray the ball wide from the outset.
It may have been their first game in the Heineken Cup but Harlequins are familiar foes and Connacht were not overawed by the occasion.
They were rewarded for their approach when a superb break from Eoin Griffin put Tiernan O’Halloran over for a fine try to stun Quins after 13 minutes.
Miah Nikora, who had earlier landed a penalty to cancel Nick Evans’ opening effort, landed the conversion for Connacht to lead by 10-6.
But Harlequins hit back and took the game to Connacht and by the interval Elwood’s men had made 93 tackles in their efforts to contain Conor O’Shea’s side.
The pressure eventually told and after Evans had landed his third penalty, Quins struck for an excellent try which started deep inside their own half and ended 15 phases later with scrum-half Karl Dickson getting the touchdown.
Evans landed the conversion from the left after 33 minutes to put Harlequins 16-10 in front.
And the Kiwi extended the lead before the break when he made no mistake with a penalty from 35 metres.
Harlequins prop Joe Marler thought he had extended the lead with a try off a five-metre lineout but was whistled back for obstruction.
Replacement out-half Niall O’Connor had a chance to reduce the deficit shortly after coming on but his effort from 32 metres to the right flew the wrong side of the near post after 53 minutes.
But Connacht got right into the game towards the end of the third as they piled on the pressure. Skipper Gavin Duffy gave them great field possession with a kick to the right corner which was taken into touch by Sam Smith and Quins were not allowed clear their line as Connacht went for the kill.
Elwood’s men threw everything into the move and sprayed it wide for Duffy to take the ball at pace and sprint home to score against his former side.
O’Connor added the difficult conversion from the left to make it 19-17 after 57 minutes and Quins looked rattled.
They managed to hit back with a rare second-half move which saw replacement scrum-half Danny Care thread a grubber through but Mike McCarthy got back and did enough to prevent Smith getting the touchdown, although it took the television match official to make the call.
That meant there were just two points between the sides going into the dying moments but Connacht were just unable to hit the front and they blew it by gifting Quins two easy penalties in the closing stages to lose out on a bonus point.
Pens: Evans (6)
Tries: O’Halloran, Duffy
Cons: Nikora; O’Connor
Harlequins: M Brown; S Stegmann, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson; J Marler, C Brooker, J Johnston; O Kohn, G Robson; M Fa’asavalu, C Robshaw, N Easter.
Replacements: T Vallejos for Kohn, 15; B Urdapilleta for Lowe, 33; D Care for Dickson, 50; J Gray for Brooker, 57; L Wallace for Fa’asavalu, 72.
Connacht: G Duffy; B Tuohy, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu.
Replacements: TJ Anderson for Ofisa, 29; N O’Connor for Nikora, 49; E Reynecke for Flavin, 55; D Rogers for Ah You, 55; F Murphy for O’Donoghue, 55; H Fa’afili for McSharry, 66; R Loughney for Wilkinson, 69.
Referee: J Garces (France).