Oíche Na Gaoithe Móire was an enormous storm that wreaked havoc and destruction on the island of Ireland on the 6th January 1839. Almost 176 years later, to the day, a terrible gale howled at the Sportsground and Edinburgh inflicted a defeat that might well cause as much damage to Connacht’s European ambitions as the weather did to Ireland’s landscape in the 19th century.
Eight points separated the sides before kick-off with the Irish province sitting in sixth and Edinburgh eighth. This was a mid-season contest but both sides knew that the result could have huge ramifications for their hopes to qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
Notwithstanding the fact they were playing into the elements, Alan Solomans’ men made the brighter start as they held onto the ball, drawing Connacht into losing their discipline.
On the four minute mark, Captain Ross Ford, instructed his flyhalf, Greig Tonks, to go for touch. The visitors mauled towards the line but once the wheels stopped turning, referee, Leighton Hodges instructed Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to move the ball. The scrumhalf did not heed the official’s warning and possession was turned over.
The first opportunity of points came in the seventh minute when Hodges pinged the away team for being offside. Connacht flyhalf, Miah Nikora, stepped up for the shot but his effort, despite being aided by a hurricane, failed to have the distance and it cannoned off the crossbar.
As you would expect the conditions were making error-free rugby an impossibility as both sides struggled to adapt.
The deadlock was broken in the 17th minute when Scottish international number eight, Dave Denton, crashed over from short range.
Wing, Dougie Fyfe, made a scathing incision in the thin green line and only for some heroic Western defence, Fyfe would have picked up the score his run had deserved. Connacht’s line held firm but Hodges called a halt to the play to award a penalty to the Scots for offside.
With the penalty right in front the sticks, the visitors bravely took a quick-tap penalty and charged towards the line. The home defence held firm. However, after a few more phases, Denton was able to get over the whitewash for the try.
Hidalgo-Clyne added the extras to hand the visitors a 7-0.
Pat Lam’s charges looked clueless as to how to break the all-enveloping black line. Little grubber kicks ahead were being blocked with ease and as for using the sledgehammer approach, Edinburgh’s nuts and bolts were undisturbed.
The home crowd were eventually given something to cheer when Nikora, realising that a driver was needed as opposed to a nine iron, nailed his shot after 23 minutes. (3-7)
Despite the confidence boost of the three points, Connacht did not click into gear and the away team continued to frustrate the home team and supporters.
Connacht needed inspiration and it came from their gem, Robbie Henshaw, who produced a massive hit in the midfield to stop an Edinburgh attack dead. Referee, Hodges, eventually penalised the visitors for holding on and Nikora kicked for territory.
The ball was secured at the lineout and the home team mauled towards the try line. Kieran Marmion whipped the ball out wide and Edinburgh defended desperately.
However, desperation cannot be used as an excuse for illegal play and the Welsh whistle blower singled out lock, Ben Toolis, for punishment and the giant second row was sent to the bin.
Captain, John Muldoon, declined to go for the easy three, right in front and went for the scrum. The two packs collided and the Westerners’ set-piece obliterated their opponents and Hodges had no option but to run underneath the posts for a penalty try.
Nikora chipped over his conversion to hand the home team the lead for the first time in the match. (10-7)
Connacht finally had the gale in their sails and Marmion sent up a box kick which caused mayhem in the Edinburgh back field. Greig Tonks fumbled the slippery ball and the home side collected possession.
The away side’s defensive line was all over the place and they were caught offside by Hodges. Muldoon pointed towards the posts and Nikora did not let his Captain down, to extend the advantage to six points. (13-7)
That was the last action of the first half and Connacht headed into the shed with something to hold onto for the second forty. A lead they scarcely deserved.
Facing into the typhoon, Connacht were intent on not kicking away valuable possession. However, this played into Edinburgh’s hands as they were able to defend robustly and secure a penalty for holding on.
Ford told Tonks to go to touch and the flyhalf duly did. After repelling a number of Scottish attacks, the home side’s discipline failed them as looshead prop, Denis Buckley, was caught going off his feet at the ruck.
Scrumhalf, Hidalgo-Clyne struck his penalty through the posts to narrow the gap to three points after 44 minutes. (13-10).
And five minutes later the scores were level when the Westerners’ scrum was adjudged to have infringed. Hidalgo-Clyne made no mistakes with his effort and Connacht’s halftime advantage had been eradicated in nine second half minutes. (13-13)
The Sportsground, almost exclusively wearing green, knew their men were struggling and they raised their voices to encourage their heroes.
But Edinburgh were still dictating the pace of the game and should have gone in front on the scoreboard on the 54 minute mark.
Despite a strong scrum from the home side, Hidalgo-Clyne made a break down the short side and chipped through. Fyfe, with blistering speed, was first to the ball and all the winger had to do was control possession and slide over the whitewash. But Fyfe knocked on and Connacht escaped.
The scrum was becoming a problem for Lam’s men and although he brought on Finlay Bealham to sure up the set-piece, Edinburgh continued to have the upper hand, resulting in another penalty.
Hadalgo-Clyne, accused by the home fans of taking too long over the kick, screwed his effort wide of the upright and the scores remained the same.
Solomans’ Scots were utterly dominant as they squeezed the Westerners. But it was a testament to the home side’s grit and determination that they did not concede until the 70th minute.
However, all that pressure was to tell as Hodges ran out of patience perceiving that Connacht were persistently offending and Bealham was yellow carded. Although it must be asked how the replacement was to roll away whilst being trapped at the bottom of the ruck.
The ever impressive Hidalgo-Clyne slotted over the long distance penalty to hand the Murrayfield team a three point lead. (13-16)
And that was the way it finished notwithstanding a multiple phase attack at the death by the Westerners. Edinburgh became the first side to take four points away from the Sportsground this season.
Pat Lam said after the match they were bitterly disappointed to lose their home record. The Samoan said, “They (Edinburgh) were powerful and we struggled in the contact.” Lam spoke of the six point advantage at the break not being enough. “At 13-7 we knew it wasn’t enough and that it was going to take a monumental effort to hold out on a six point lead.”
The coach described the penalty count against his men as “frustrating” and “interesting” and hinted that the visitors played the referee better, “Our halfbacks had no clean ball and that they (Edinburgh) did very well with slowing it all down.”
Eoin McKeon backed up his coach’s statements about the first half performance saying that “trying battle against the wind in second half was a nightmare.”
Edinburgh coach, Alan Solomans was delighted with his team’s performance and “the big win.” He pointed to winning the toss and playing into the wind for the first forty as a big boost for his men before kick-off. Solomans lavished praise on scrumhalf Hidalgo-Clyne, “he is a good kicker and showed great temperament out there.”
Solomans also highlighted the importance of the breakdown at the Sportsground. “We went really well in that area and I felt playing two opensides (Roddy Grant and Hamish Watson) payed off for us.”
‘The Night of the Big Wind’ has gone down in Irish folklore for its destruction. Connacht will be hoping that Friday night’s result will not be remembered as the night where dreams of Champions Cup rugby were destroyed.
Tries – Penalty
Cons – Nikora
Pens – Nikora (2)
Tries – Denton
Cons – Hidalgo-Clyne
Pens – Hidalgo-Clyne (3)
15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Miah Nikora, 9 Kieran Marmion, 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Tom McCartney, 3 Rodney Ah You, 4 Quinn Roux, 5 Aly Muldowney, 6 John Muldoon (c), 7 Willie Faloon, 8 Eoin McKeon
16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 George Naoupu, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Dave McSharry
15 Jack Cuthbert, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Matt Scott, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Greig Tonks, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 1 Alasdair Dickinson, 2 Ross Ford (c), 3 WP Nel, 4 Anton Bressler, 5 Ben Toolis, 6 Roddy Grant, 7 Hamish Watson, 8 David Denton
16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 John Andress, 19 Fraser McKenzie, 20 Tomas Leonardi, 21 Sean Kennedy, 22 Jade Te Rure, 23 Andries Strauss
By Matt Cassidy @ The Sportsground
Image via Google Images