Connacht coach Andy Friend was both relieved and surprised when Sale Sharks opted to go to the corner from a penalty in the final play of this crunch Challenge Cup match at the Sportsground on Saturday.
It was a difficult kick out on the left touchline, but Faf de Klerk, having earlier missed two easier efforts, went for the corner and Sale blew the chance when they were pinged for crossing.
“I walked out of the (coaches) box,” admitted Friend when Sale got the penalty to win it.
“I thought, really, the game is the lap of the gods at the stage.
“When I got downstairs and I saw that they weren’t taking the shot for goal, that they were kicking for the corner, I thought, ‘interesting’.
“And then in the end another penalty, it went our way that time and we got the win, so I am happy.”
A win in Bordeaux next Saturday will secure a place in the quarter-finals of the competition for Connacht, but they are likely to be away in that fixture, possibly against Worcester Warriors or Sale.
However, having experimented with selection throughout the tournament, Friend is pleased that they now have control of their own destiny as they look for a second win in France this season, having already won in Perpignan before Christmas.
It would have been a tough pill to swallow for Connacht had they lost it at the death, but they didn’t make life easy for themselves either.
They opened up a 17-0 lead after 23 minutes thanks to tries from Kyle Godwin and former Sharks scrum-half James Mitchell, but they butchered two five-metre lineouts and another one from a good attacking position inside the 22.
Their lead was reduced to 17-7 in the final play of the opening half when Chris Ashton scored, leaving Steve Diamond’s men 10 points adrift with wind advantage to come.
“We knew after 20 minutes what we were in store for,” said Diamond. “It’s a daunting task coming here, people underestimate it, but we certainly didn’t.
“The elements were with Connacht in the first-half, and we knew if we could stay in it, I thought that would be a 12 or 15-point wind. It was and it was a game of two halves.”
De Klerk cut the gap after 52 minutes when he nabbed their second try, after Jono Ross made the hard yards down the right, but he surprisingly failed to convert having also missed a kickable penalty just after the restart.
Jack Carty, who had got Connacht off the mark with a penalty after 14 minutes and also converted both tries, had an opportunity to push Connacht’s lead out to eight at the end of the third quarter, but he never got hold of a penalty from the left as he tried to steer it low into the wind.
Sale hit back and De Klerk reduced the gap to two with a penalty from the ’22’ to make it 17-15 with 18 minutes left.
Four minutes later he edged them in front for the first time with a kick from the left, but Connacht, having got to the right corner with a penalty, then won one in a much better position and replacement out-half David Horwitz made no mistake to go 20-18 in front.
That set up a frantic finish and when Connacht turned it over as the clock was close to red, that should have been enough. However, they lost the lineout from a penalty and then presented Sale with a match-winning opportunity which they failed to take.
“I was surprised they didn’t kick for goal, I really was,” said Friend.
“For me that’s last chance saloon. You have a crack at it, you have international players there who were probably kicking at about 80pc.
“That’s a pretty good roll of the dice, but they went to the corner and a decision which went against us in the first-half went against them that time, so at least the referee was consistent there.”
He is again likely to mix up his squad for the trip on Saturday to take on a Bordeaux-Begles side who are out of contention.
And Friend will undoubtedly have an eye on their crucial PRO14 clash with Cardiff Blues the following week as he bids to bring this block of games to a successful conclusion before the start of the Six Nations.
“We are making breaks, you have got to make your own luck. To me I don’t believe we are getting the rub of the green more than anyone else,” added Friend.
“We are making our own luck. I always got told that the harder you work the luckier you get and we are working hard at the moment.”
Connacht – T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy (D Leader 71); J Carty (D Horwitz 63), J Mitchell (C Blade 54); D Buckley (M Burke 67), T McCartney (S Delahunt 63), F Bealham (C Carey 60); U Dillane, J Cannon (Q Roux 48-77); E Masterson (C Fainga’a 54), J Connolly, J Butler
Sale Sharks – C Ashton; D Solomona, S James, J O’Connor (L James 56), A Reed; K Wilkinson, F de Klerk; R Harrison, R Webber, W John; B Evans, J Phillips (A Ostrikov 73); J Ross, T Curry, J Strauss (B Curry 63)
Ref – P Brousset (France)