Connacht sign off a season of success

No trophy, but Champions Cup rugby is a huge ambition now achieved

"Disappointed men and some tears" was the natural response in the immediate aftermath of Connacht's 21-13 loss to Ulster in this season's Guinness PRO14 quarter-final, but the club can reflect on more positives, none more so than achieving its primary aim of qualifying for Champions Cup rugby for only the second time on merit.

Thus Saturday's quarter-final against Ulster in Kingspan Stadium was bonus territory, and on the day the more experienced home side held sway. Although Ulster had suffered two rare defeats to Connacht this season in the league, Ulster coach Dan McFarland - the former Connacht player and assistant coach - believed his squad had learned from their experience of knock-out rugby, and his big men produced big performances to get them over the line. Add in the passionate home crowd, and a final farewell for their captain and player of 15 seasons, Rory Best, and the odds always favoured the Ulster men.

Connacht will rue their failure to convert chances, but they also came up against a superb Ulster defence. Nor were not they helped by a nervous start as Ulster grabbed the initiative from the kick off, produced 23 phases of play, and within 15 minutes had taken a 8-0 lead. That Connacht twice came back within a point in the second half was testament to their character, but ultimately Ulster's physicality took its toll as its chief protagonist No 8 Marcel Coetzee bagged the winning try three minutes from time.

It epitomised the depth of squads against which Connacht mustcompete - and Connacht coach Andy Friend could only feel envious.

"Coetzee was outstanding, a big physical powerful beast of a man," Friend said. "Every time he carried, he took the ball across the line, wreaking havoc with us. He gave them energy when they needed it, and when we got our noses in front, he came up with another big play and got the winning try.

"We are looking for someone like that. We have a few players we think may be able to do so, but for various reasons we haven't seen it this year. We need to try to find it in pre-season. When you see the damage someone like that does, we don't have that physicality at the moment.

"We all saw ourselves coming here to win it and we thought we could, but credit to Ulster. They were good, and worked hard for the win and got it.

"We wanted to be in the semi-final and we'd love to be in the final and holding up silverware, but we have put some hoodoes to bed - the win in October [in Belfast for the first time in 58 years], we are in the Champions Cup which is a plus, it's the second time this season we got to a quarter-final and the play-off stages, but they are the facts. There are a lot of staff and boys hurting, but it will be turned around into positive energy."

Physicality exposed

Coetzee, Iain Henderson, and retiring captain Rory Best, in the pack, with Stuart McCloskey in the backs, epitomised the physicality of McFarland's squad within the opening minutes, and the result was an penalty covnerted by another former Connacht player, John Cooney. As Connacht struggled to get a foothold in the first quarter, not helped by unforced errors, Ulster took advantage. A missed tackle, and then Coetzee, Kieran Treadwell, and Nick Timony combined for the Ulster blindside to score after 15 minutes, with Cooney adding the extras.

A penalty provided Friend's side with a scoring opportunity inside the Ulster 22, and from a short line-out, hooker Dave Heffernan broke down the touchline until the scrambling Ulster defence stopped him short. A big tackle from right wing Balacoune halted Tieran O'Halloran in flight, and a super pass from Jack Carty to Matt Healy was once again stymied by Ulster's scrambling defence.

Connacht, however, stepped up another level in the second half, making inroads into the Ulster half, but they struggled to make it count until Bundee Aki bagged a try in the 51st minute, set up by a break from Colby Fainaga'a. Carty's conversion reduced the arrears to 11-10. Cooney added a penalty nine minutes later, but Connacht, playing with more purpose, looked more threatening, reducing the arrears to a one-point game again. It stayed like that until Coetzee wriggled his way out of a tackle to stretch across the line to score in the 77th minute.

"It was a workmanlike performance, but not enough to get us over the line," said Friend. "You have to aim high, you've got to get to the knock-out stages, and we did, but once you get there, you have to make sure you further, and that's got to be our goal next year.

"We need to be a bit more clinical. We created opportunities throughout the year and today was not dissimilar, but we need to be more clinical in how we finish them off. We still haven't played our best 80 minutes. We have seen glimpses of it, it's how to keep that accuracy and clinical performance for longer. That will be one of biggest work-ons as a group, on top of continuing to work on our fitness and strength areas, the culture building, which is a real positive, but more growth in that as well. There is still a lot to go, but yeah, it's all for pre-season next year."

Thus Connacht wrapped up a successful season, not with a trophy or a PRO 14 semi-final, but having achieved their primary seasonal ambition to qualify for Champions Cup rugby achieved. With more than 50 players involved in league or cup action, a number of youngsters having been promoted to the senior ranks, and with three more players to come in - likely to be a front row, outhalf, and back three, one of which will be a non-Irish qualified player, and, of course, plans for the new stadium moving along, Connacht close the season in much better shape and spirits than the previous two.

ULSTER : M Lowry; R Baloucoune, L Marshall (Darren Cave 50 – reversal 63 ), S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney (HIA – Dave Shanahan 24 to 34, permanent 69 ); E O’Sullivan, R Best (c ) (R Herring 69 ), R Kane (Tom O’Toole 69 ); I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O’Connor 73 ); N Timoney (S Reidy 80 ), J Murphy, M Coetzee. Replacements not used: Andy Warwick, Angus Kernohan.

CONNACHT : T O’Halloran; S Fitzgerald, T Farrell, B Aki (T Daly 63 ), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 52 ); D Buckley (Peter McCabe 71 ), D Heffernan (Shane Delahunt 57 ), F Bealham (C Carey 52 ); U Dillane, G Thornbury (E Masterson 34 ); E McKeon, C Fainga’a (P Boyle 65 ), Jarrad Butler (c ). Replacements not used: Darragh Leader.

Referee : Andrew Brace (IRFU ).


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