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Saturday, 11 January, 2003, 19:22 GMT
Pontypridd edge thriller
Parker Pen Cup QF - First Leg
Connacht 30-35 Pontypridd
Connacht and Pontypridd produced a thrilling display of attacking rugby in the first leg of their Parker Pen Cup quarter-final on Saturday.
Although the Welsh visitors shaded the scoring 35-30 in the tightest of encounters, it leaves the tie finely poised for next week's return at Sardis Road.
The home side may have lost, but the skills the Connacht players showed made a mockery of the Irish Rugby Union's plans to mothball the province.
If this was the last competitive rugby match to be played at the Galway Sportsground for the immediate future, it was a fitting send-off.
The game started at break-neck pace and hardly let up for the whole 80 minutes, as Connacht and Pontypridd traded attack for attack.
Connacht fly-half Eric Elwood struck a penalty with little more than a minute gone, warming up the scoreboard operator for a busy evening's work.
Given what was to follow, it was surprising that it took until nearly a quarter of the match was gone before the two teams began in earnest.
Elwood and Brett Davey had both missed penalty shots before the Pontypridd full-back spotted a gap and raced upfield.
Ceri Sweeney was on hand to take it on before the fly-half spun the ball wide for Emyr Lewis to cross, Davey adding the conversion.
Before that the flow - and Ponty's midfield - had been disrupted by injuries to both centres that saw Jon Bryant's hamstring let him down and Sonny Parker sustain a suspected broken wrist.
The news will worry Wales coach Steve Hansen with the Six Natrions just around the corner, but the immediate concern was for Lynn Howells, who had to patch up his side.
Shaun James and Neil Jenkins came off the bench, with Sweeney moving to centre to accomodate Jenkins.
The world record Test points scorer was soon in action, potting a penalty as Pontypridd's forwards took responsibility and drew the infringment from their Irish counterparts.
The last time Pontypridd arrived in Galway, in the Celtic League, they inflicted a hurtful 40-0 defeat, but Connacht showed there would be no such repeat by hitting back after half an hour.
Scrum-half Eoin Reddan made the first of several sniping breaks to break the Welsh defensive line and No 8 Colm Rigney arrived at pace to make the try.
Elwood's conversion made it all square at 10-10, but Jenkins restored Ponty's slender lead with a penalty.
That signalled a Connacht onslaught for the remainder of the half, with another Reddan break setting up the home pack to shunt lock Rowan Frost over the line, Elwood converting.
It could have been worse for Ponty, but Gareth Wyatt had just enough pace to bundle Darren Yapp into the corner flag and prevent the try.
The see-saw scoring continued after half-time, with James dummying the Connacht midfield to score, after Jenkins' long pass had created the space for the centre to run into.
Jenkins couldn't convert, but made no mistake with a penalty soon after to cancel out one from Elwood.
Connacht then got caught with the sweetest of sucker-punches as Paul John launched a devastating counter-attack that took the visitors 70 metres upfield to the try line.
The scrum-half saw space in behind a ruck to chip, gathered the ball and fed Mefin Davies steaming up behind him.
The Wales hooker drew the defence before releasing No 8 Geraint Lewis to heave his way over the line in the right-hand corner, Jenkins striking a fine conversion.
For the first time there was more than one score between the sides and Ponty soon turned that into a 35-20 lead courtesy of Wyatt.
Connacht looked to have stifled a promising Ponty attack only for the wing to turn a leaden pass into scoring gold.
Wyatt turned back into traffic before bouncing off his right foot to ghost through the heart of Connacht's defence and race in under the posts, handing Jenkins an easy two points.
Yet Connacht have fine strike runners of their own and a devastating backs move - full of good lines of running and skilfull offloads - saw the excellent left wing Wayne Munn over in the corner.
Elwood couldn't convert that attempt, but Munn gave his fly-half another go with a minute remaining after a driving lineout had given the wing a half-chance.
Although Elwood again failed to claim the afters, Pontypridd have just a slender advantage for what will hopefully be more of the same in the second leg at Sardis Road next weekend.
Connacht: M McHugh; G Duffy, D Yapp, S Moore (capt.), W Munn; E Elwood, E Reddan; R MCormack, J Flannery, P Bracken, D Browne, R Frost, M Swift, C Rigney, J O'Connor.
Pontypridd: B Davey; G Wyatt, S Parker, J Bryant, E Lewis; C Sweeney, P John; G Jenkins, M Davies (capt), D Bell, B Cockbain, R Sidoli, M Owen, R Parks, G Lewis.
Ref: Tony Spreadbury (England).
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