The Pat Lam era of success at Connacht Rugby ended at the weekend with a 21-15 defeat to Northampton in the play-off for Champions Cup rugby next season.
True to their history, Connacht went down fighting, but no question, Northampton were deserved winners on the day. However the defeat will rankle because it really was a game they could have won - despite having struggled all season to rediscover last season's Pro 12 winning form. Yes, it was always going to be a battle, particularly given some pre-game issues and injuries, but victory was still within their grasp. Northampton now host Stade Francais, who must be favourites to win the play-off final, while Connacht must lick their wounds and reconcile themselves to a season of Challenge Cup rugby. It is tough to take coming just 12 months after winning their first trophy in the professional era.
New coach New Zealander Kieran Keane will come in with the goal of returning Connacht to Europe's elite competition, and there are now two opportunities. The Pro 12 is changing its qualification to ensure the top seven automatically qualify - a more simple and fair system - while the winner of the Challenge Cup will take the 20th place. If they have already qualified, it will then go to the losing finalist.
Outgoing coach Pat Lam insists Connacht is "good enough to play in the Champions Cup"- they proved that last season with home wins against Toulouse and Wasps. But ultimately their Pro 12 form was less than good enough - just nine wins from 22 games. A poor pre-season did not help as Connacht were clearly not up to speed, and without that winning momentum and player injuries at key times, they looked a shadow of the previous season's winning side.
Lam's bombshell of his departure to Bristol appeared to derail the players, and the season petered out with a first loss to Zebre and a hammering from Munster.
Lam "signs off" at the Sportsground this week and will head to the West Country after attending John Muldoon's wedding, and a week's holiday in Italy. But he has told his players the responsibility lies with themselves.
"I am very proud of the effort, but ultimately Connacht is good enough to play in the Champions Cup, and that will be always be the frustrating thing," he says. Not however, as annoying, as failing to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup for the first time.
"Having our best Champions Cup season, beating Wasps and Toulouse, but not making it - that is the one that hurts the most. If we had got to that play-off, it would have been a massive achievement, and I still see that last five minutes in my head often.
"One thing we have always prided on, Connacht win or lose will frontup, and I take my hat off to the boys, they worked hard off the ball. Unfortunately discipline cost us, little errors cost us, it has been the story of the season really.
"I said to the guys, it's their responsibility now. Kieran [Keane] will come in next year and do a good job, but only if the boys front up attitude wise every week, and that is the responsibility of the players who will be there."
Players deserve credit
So Connacht fans have been deprived of one final game at the Sportsground this weekend, and Lam, who always spread the Connacht gospel in its five counties, says both the community, supporters, and the players deserve credit.
"Our family came here not knowing anybody, and Connacht was without a doubt the fourth province - the smallest budget and least amount of internationals. I leave here and none of that has changed, but a lot has changed in the four years. Only we and Leinster have won trophies - hopefully Munster can get the job done and get one as well; we have had more players who play for Ireland, and the participation right around the west of Ireland has grown.
"The one big highlight is the connection of the counties, to highlight we are not just a Galway team, but a west of Ireland team. Everywhere I have gone, both young and old people have got right behind this team - and it's a credit to the boys and the way they have played."
Thus it was a somewhat bittersweet sign off then for Pat Lam, bowing out at his former club in England. Lam's photo still adorns the walls as one of Northampton's heroes and, after Saturday, players such as Courtney Lawes, George North, Louis Picamoles, Nafi Tuitavake, and Luther Burrell, will probably be added in the years to come.
In contrast Connacht went into the game without Eoin Griffin, who due to EPC Rugby eligibility, was ruled out on Friday. Somewhat bizarrely there had been no player registration since January for Connacht, at which time Griffin had been injured and deregistered. To add to Connacht's woes they lost Andrew Browne during the warm-up, and Cian Kelleher after three minutes.
In between the hosts bagged their opening try when Connacht failed to control an up and under from scrumhalf Nic Groom. Nafi Tuitavake seized possession and set up field position, and outhalf Harry Mallinder, son of coach Jim, finished off and converted from the sideline - the saints were marching on, sang the supporters.
Connacht's reply was swift, however. Browne's replacement James Cannon controlled the line-out, and when Niyi Adoleokun latched onto Ronaldson's deft chip, he forced his way over, and it was all square after Ronaldson's conversion.
The Saints regained the upper hand at the breakdown allowing Mallinder to knock over six points, but Connacht kept in touch when Northampton failed to release at the breakdown and Ronaldson narrowed the gap to three.The only notable change at half time was assistant referee Pascal Gauzere who replaced injured ref Mathiew Raynal, and it was not until the 56th minute when Northampton extended their lead after scrumhalf Nic Groom ducked through for a try.
There was a steelier resolution in Connacht's play for the final 20 minutes, with John Muldoon leading the way. And no one worked harder than hooker Dave Heffernan who grabbed Connacht's second try from a methodical drive to the line after 62 minutes. However when replacement Naulia Dawaii was caught in possession deep in Connacht territory, Mallinder added the easy three points after 71 minutes to seal the win.
Northampton Saints: A Tuala (M Haywood 78 ); B Foden, N Tuitavake, L Burrell (R Hutchinson 23 ), G North; H Mallinder, N Groom (L Dickson67 ); A Waller (C Ma’afu 62 ), D Hartley, K Brookes (G Denman 62 ); CLawes, C Day (A Ratuniyarawa 63 ); J Gibson, T Harrison (T Wood 59 ), L Picamoles.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, D Poolman, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher (M Healy 3 ); J Carty, K Marmion (J Cooney 64 ); D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham (C Carey 67 ); Q Roux, J Cannon (U Dillane 49 ); S O’Brien, J Heenan (N Dawai 56 ), J Muldoon.
Referee : Mathieu Raynal / Pascal Gauzere,second half (both France ).