The curtain came down on Connacht’s Heineken Cup qualification hopes on Sunday when they lost to closest rivals the Dragons in their Magners League clash in Newport.
A single try separated the two sides in this high-stakes fixture, but the Dragons’ victory extends their lead over Connacht now to 10 points.
It was a disheartening defeat for Connacht, exacerbated by some erratic refereeing decisions from Scottish man Graham Knox, taking charge of only his third league game, and Connacht will have reason to point to several questionable decisions that provided the Dragons with both possession and momentum at critical times.
That said the home side dominated territory and possession, utilising their big pack which was led by hooker Tom Willis, and aided by the influential figure of No 8 Joe Bearman and Luke Charteris. As a result Connacht struggled to get their hands on the ball, and although they showed flashes of enterprising and solid rugby when they went through the phases, it was the home side that controlled the game for long periods.
Connacht had trailed by 10 points at the interval, with the crucial breakthrough coming after 36 minutes when Bearman was awarded the only try of the opening half. It came after Connacht’s Michael Swift was penalised for a high tackle on wing Richard Fussell, but from the penalty to touch, Charteris found lifter Bearman with a forward pass which deceived the Connacht defence and the No 8 crashed through for the try. Outhalf James Alridge added the extras, having already potted a 33rd-minute penalty.
Yet Connacht looked well capable of closing that deficit, opting to spread the ball wide at every opportunity. Keith Matthews, just back from injury, looked potent in attack, while Andrew Farley dominated the line-outs. The second row player and prop Brett Wilkinson were at the heart of Connacht’s defence on several occasions, but too often Connacht were forced to play their rugby between the 10m lines, and outhalf Ian Keatley’s sole first-half chance was a hurried drop goal effort which was wide.
However when Connacht hit back within10 minutes of the restart, they were well in contention, despite losing the unlucky Gavin Duffy to the sin bin. And when the Dragons were pinged for not releasing with centre Gomer-Davies following the Connacht man to the sideline, Connacht took advantage with some solid phase play and quick ruck ball. Although Keatley was wide a penalty, he set up Fionn Carr after Farley took control from the drop-out. Farley was once again involved before Carr found a gap and fended off three tacklers for a 48th-minute try.
At that stage it was anyone’s game, but when replacement hooker Adrian Flavin was penalised for a crooked line-out, it was an opportunity lost for Connacht and one gained for the home side. They put together a string of phases before Gomer-Davies eventually pierced the defence on 60 minutes.
Worse followed when Frank Murphy was on the wrong side of another questionable refereeing decision, and from the resulting penalty the Dragons once again used their big men as battering rams before Connacht ran out of numbers and prop Rhys Thomas crashed over. With a 24 – 7 lead, it was all over for Connacht, and with it their seasonal ambitions. Another Dragons’ penalty put the game beyond reach, and although Keith Matthews finished off a sparking Connacht try which was started by Liam Bibo running out of defence with Carr adding a chip through, it was too late in the game to turn the tide, and also too late in the season.
Dragons: J Tovey, G Wyatt, R Gomer-Davis, A Smith, R Fussell, J Alridge, W Evans, A Black, Willis (cpt ), R Thomas, H Macdonald, L Charteris, D Lydiate, R Parks, J Bearman, Replacements, N Hall for Black (75m ), L Evans for Parks (75m ), A Walker for Evans (77m ).
Connacht: G Duffy (C ); F Carr, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, L Bibo; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, B McGovern; M Swift, A Farley; A Browne, J O'Connor, R Ofisa. Replacements: A Flavin for Cronin (54m ), B Loughney for McGovern (62m ), C O’Loughlin for Murphy (68m ), D Gannon for Farley (73m ), N Nathan for Bibo (74m ), A Dunne for Matthews (75m ).
Referee: G Knox (SRU ).