Cape Town — The 43-25 score-line was not reflective of the game, but Connacht coach Andy Friend admitted that the “best team won” as the Stormers secured their place in the United Rugby Championship final with a thrilling performance at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
The Irish visitors went toe-to-toe with the defending champions throughout a pulsating contest in front of over 46 000 spectators, and in fact reduced the gap to four points at 24-20 with 20 minutes to go, and then five at 31-25 with five minutes left.
But Marcel Theunissen and Ruhan Nel scored two late tries to end Connacht’s valiant challenge on a windy Cape Town day.
“It’s not the way we wanted it to finish. At 77 minutes, we were six points behind, and I honestly felt we were going to sneak it,” Friend said in the post-match press conference.
“You could see both teams were nervous from the outset — or certainly the Stormers were nervous from the outset, and then they found their mojo.
“We got into a bit of a lull, and it was a tit-for-tat sort of a game. I think in the end, the best team won, mate.
“But what a brilliant occasion for our blokes. For a lot of those fellows, it’s the first time playing on a big stage, and I thought we ran the defending champions pretty close.
“I don’t think the score-line in the end was reflective (of the game) — that last try probably hurt that score-line. But in the end, I think the best team won.”
Connacht stunned the home side in the opening exchanges, with a nervy Stormers making a couple of errors inside their 22.
Captain and flyhalf Jack Carty slotted an early penalty, and then the Irish side pounced when star wing Mack Hansen dived over in the left corner to put them 8-0 up after 13 minutes.
But the Stormers responded quickly through an Angelo Davids try, and then it became a Manie Libbok show as the No 10 booted a penalty and dotted down twice himself to establish a 24-8 advantage.
“We are used to the wind, but not a swirling wind! That one was… it depended on where you stood on the field as to what the wind was doing,” said Friend, who will be returning to his native Australia after five years at Connacht.
“I thought our tactics were right. It was probably the execution of the tactics that hurt us today. I don’t think the wind was a factor, to be honest with you.
“I think it was again the occasion, and we are dealing with humans — sometimes humans make errors, and today, we probably made too many errors on a stage fewer errors would’ve been better.
“Connacht will be better for that experience, and there is going to be frustration. We knew before the game that… You’ve got 40 000-plus people here, and there is additional pressure. There are players who will reflect upon that, and they will learn from that experience.
“But at the same time, I can never doubt the effort that went in there, and the desire to win that game. With three minutes to go, we were within a score to steal what most would’ve said was going to be an amazing victory.
“We didn’t do it, but we certainly put ourselves in with a chance.”
Stormers 43 – Tries: Angelo Davids, Manie Libbok (2), Paul de Wet, Marcel Theunissen, Ruhan Nel. Conversions: Libbok (5). Penalty: Libbok (1).
Connacht 25 – Tries: Mack Hansen, Conor Oliver, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Byron Rolston. Conversion: Jack Carty (1). Penalty: Carty (1).