Heartbreaking end to Connacht’s Champions Cup hopes

“We should have and could have won it. We are on a journey of where we want to take Connacht Rugby, and this is all part of it.” 

Gloucester 40 

Connacht 32 

It should have been a week preparing for the biggest home match in Connacht history. The French side Bordeaux-Begles up against Connacht in the Galway Sportsground - a fixture the fans would have relished and the players would have been confident of winning to secure that ultimate prize of Champions Cup rugby.

Instead Connacht have been left licking their wounds that will take several months to heal. Gloucester, in taking last Sunday's first-leg play-off in Kingsholm by 40-32 after extra time, will now be the favourites to claim that last place in the elite European competition.

It is a cruel blow for Pat Lam's Connacht players, who, continually punching above their weight, looked set to take a deserved victory, only to be denied at the bitter end.

Ahead at half time by 17-15, Connacht also looked set to win the second half and the game when leading by 25 - 18 with a minute left on the clock. However referee Romain Poite deemed otherwise. Two refereeing decisions that unfathomably went against Connacht allowed Gloucester's Billy Meakes to score the equaliser and send the game into extra time when Connacht should have been celebrating.

"At that moment everyone thought we were gone, done and dusted," said Pat Lam. " Gloucester were on the up and the crowd, some 8,000, went crazy, but we talked about what we needed to do in extra time and the belief.  When we scored that try in extra time and went four points up, we needed to control the ball, but we gave it away. Those are the learnings we need to take.

"It's hard, hard," said coach Pat Lam. " No one gave us a chance, and we should have and could have won it. For us, we are going to get better and we will build on it next year. We are on a journey of where we want to take Connacht Rugby, and this is all part of it." 

And of those controversial decisions, Lam, having previously been sanctioned for criticising referees, said he was "not talking about referees".

"It went to the TMO and they made the calls. Certainly it looked like blocking, one of our players was taken out, but you have to live with those calls unfortunately, and move on," he said. 

"Absolutely proud of the boys, but absolutely gutted. We certainly deserved more from that."  

In a thrilling contest that went went to the wire, Connacht suffered once again from a poor start and a disappointing finish -  Gloucester opening after just 122 seconds when No 8 Ross Moriarty was given the nod for the first try by TMO, and  Greig Laidlaw added the conversion for a 7-0 lead.

Connacht worked their way back into the contest from the restart, and grabbed a 10-7 lead thanks to John Cooney's 60 metre dash and try, and Carty's resulting conversion and earlier penalty. 

With both sides playing open running rugby in perfect conditions, mistakes did creep in. Gloucester edged the scrum and out wide Connacht's defence needed to be on its toes - an overlap allowing Charlie Sharples to post a second try.  However Connacht continued to find a way forward and showed the necessary patience  to go through the phases. The reward came when Fionn cut a straight line from Jack Carty's pass, and the young outhalf finished off with a try and conversion for a  17-15 half-time lead.

Although Gloucester restored the lead within three minutes, Connacht grabbed a valuable foothold after 60 minutes despite being a player down. Carty's inch perfect chip was caught by Healy who raced in for Connacht's third try.  Carty missed the touchline conversion, but it gave Connacht a 22 - 18 lead after 61 minutes. And in a frantic finish, thanks to a John Muldoon intercept and Healy's well judged kick, Connacht finished the game in their opponents' half, with Carty adding an extra three points for a 25 - 18 lead. At the time it seemed Connacht's dream would come true.

Then those crucial refereeing decisions played their part - first a penalty against John Muldoon when his opposite number Tom Palmer had failed to roll away, and second when Connacht's Andrew Browne had been blocked.  It allowed Gloucester to equalise, gave them the momentum, and with most players having been rested the previous week, they also had the legs to finish the job at the bitter end.

Although the home side took a three-point lead in extra time, Connacht's spirit never wilted as they once again struck for a superb try, Matt Healy grabbing his second to go in front by 32 - 28.

However a third Connacht yellow card to replacement hooker Dave Heffernan -   Denis Buckley and Eoghan Masterson having been binned in the first and second half respectively -  ensured the Cherry and Whites prevailed.  Darren Dawiduk crossed to take a one-point lead. Then it was Jonny May - the player who broke Connacht's hearts several years ago -  who sealed the deal with a try in the ninth minute of extra time. 

"Everyone has to put it in context. Scotland captain running the other side. We have 16 guys injured who could have been in the team. We are really maxing this squad. 

"I have to pay a special mention of Jack Carty [man of the match]. We don't have the international 10s because we cannot afford them. We need to build them and it has been a rollercoaster [for Jack], but it's been a development for him and he was superb out there.  He is an example of what we need to do for Connacht to build into next season - we have a good core group to build on from next year - it's just a pity we are not in the Champions Cup."

Connacht:  T O'Halloran, F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, J Cooney, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, G Naoupu, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), E Masterson, E McKeon.  Replacements,  F Bealham for Ah You and A Browne for Naoupu (54 ), Ian Porter for Cooney (64 ), S O'Leary for O'Halloran (65m ),  D Heffernan for McCartney (70m ), J Connolly for McKeon (70m ),  M Nikora for Carr (75 ).

Gloucester: C Sharples, J May, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (cpt ), H Purdy, J Hook, G Laidlaw, N Wood, R Hibbard, J Afoa, T Savage, T Palmer, J Rowan, D Thomas, R Moriarty.  Replacements, R Cook for Purdy (50m ),  D Dawidiuk for Hibbard (60 ), D Robson for Sharples (64 ), Y Thomas for Wood and L Ludlow for  Thomas (both 65 ), E Stooke for Moriarty (70 ), . Extra time, S Night for Afoa  (88m ), R Moriarty for Ludlow (88m ). 

Referee Romain Poite (Fr ). 

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