RugbyMatch Report

Connacht exit Challenge Cup as they are undone by Benetton’s first-half blitz

Pete Wilkins’s side scored the opening try before home side hit them with four of their own before half-time

Challenge Cup quarter-final: Benetton 39 Connacht 14

Connacht were left licking their wounds after falling to superior fellow URC competitors Benetton in their Challenge Cup quarter-final in Italy.

Backed by a hugely enthusiastic crowd that embraced the occasion, Benetton delivered a confident and controlled display to ensure the “Leonis” were deserving winners.

Apart from the first try scored by Connacht within the opening two minutes, the home side led throughout as Connacht struggled against both the heat and Benetton’s accuracy and physicality.

Both sides demonstrated their desire to play rugby in the opening minutes with Connacht benefiting from a penalty in the first minute. Opting for touch, Joe Joyce secured the lineout and the pack, aided by Bundee Aki and Dave Hawkshaw, drove forward before hooker Dave Heffernan, continuing his superb form, secured the try, with JJ Hanrahan adding the extras.


It was short-lived. After a yellow card to Darragh Murray, the home side capitalised, replicating Connacht’s effort with their hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi touching down, with Tomas Albornoz converting. And within 28 minutes Connacht found themselves with a mountain to climb as the home side opened up a 26-7 lead.

Pete Wilkins’s side did not help themselves with a plethora of handling errors in the face of a Benetton’s abrasive defence. And it did not get any better when producing a determined foray into their opponent’s half as a rare overthrown lineout put paid to any reward.

Connacht should have added to their scoreline with what looked like a certain try built by their pack with Heffernan touching down again, but on review it was overturned due to obstruction. Eventually, however, they delivered from a penalty to touch, with Joyce, Heffernan and Bealham making inroads before number eight Paul Boyle forced his way over for a much-needed score, with Hanrahan adding the extras, closing the gap to 26-14.

A 51st-minute try provided the travelling fans with reason to cheer when from a patient attack near the line Bundee Aki ploughed over, narrowing the gap to 10 points as Hanrahan’s conversion was wide.

That was as good as it got for the visitors. The Italians kept the scoreboard ticking over with two penalties and a try through Albornoz, who plundered a ball and chipped over the defence to score. The Connacht replacements added energy to their cause. Conor Oliver gave them some hope when he scored on 68 minutes, and with nothing to lose, Connacht cut loose, but to no avail.

Wilkins says it is now crucial to move on.

“I think when this team plays its best rugby, they are good enough to beat anyone over 80 minutes. We have to look at our errors, have to look at how we could have played better, otherwise the pain of this defeat is fruitless. We have to take something from it and grow again. It does temper the disappointment, but we can use what we can take from this game to get better.

“I think the physicality and energy we demanded from these guys was perhaps at times in previous seasons inconsistent. I think in the conditions we were playing in, to front up and deliver that, it is hugely reassuring the lads understand that level of commitment that is required for us to progress.

“That might be small consolation, but it maintains the level of the bar we have set this season,” he added. “When this team plays its best rugby, we are good enough to beat anyone across 80 minutes, and when all the players are available, and you throw in a [Mack] Hansen, a [Santiago] Cordero, and some of the other guys who will be coming back to us soon, it becomes really exciting.

“I have enough belief in the guys and enormous trust, but we were not good enough today, and we take that on the chin.”

SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: Heffernan try, Hanrahan con, 0-7; 6: Lucchesi try, Albornoz con, 7-7; 12: Menoncello try, 12-7; 19: Smith try, Albornoz con, 19-7; 27: Albornoz try, Umaga con, 26-7; 40: Boyle try, Hanrahan con, 26-14 (half-time 26-14). 53: Umaga pen, 29-14; 56: Aki try, 29-19; 60: Umaga pen, 32-19; 65: Albornoz try, Umaga con, 39-19; 68: Oliver try, 39-24.

BENETTON: R Smith; I Mendy, T Menoncello, N Brex, O Ratave; T Albornoz, A Garbisi; T Gallo, G Lucchesi, S Ferrari; N Cannone, F Ruzza; S Negri da Ollegio, M Lamaro (capt), T Halafihi.

Replacements: Umaga for Mendy (7 mins); E Snyman for Ruzza (14); L Cannone for Halafihi, M Spagnolo for Gallo, G Zilocchi for Ferrari (all 46); B Bernasconi for Lucchesi (57); A Uren for Garbisi, R Favretto for Negri (both 75).

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; A Smith, D Hawkshaw, B Aki, S Jennings; JJ Hanrahan, C Blade (capt); D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; J Joyce, D Murray; C Prendergast, S Hurley-Langton, P Boyle.

Replacements: E de Buitlear for Heffernan, P Dooley for Buckley, S Illo for Bealham, C Oliver for Boyle (all 47 mins); T Farrell for O’Halloran, N Murray for Joyce (both 52); M Devine for Blade (57); C Forde for Hawkshaw (62).

Yellow card: D Murray (6 mins).

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).