Connacht's European challenge gets tougher with loss of three key men

Connacht centre Sean O'Brien cuts a path through Dane Blacker, left, and Tom Rogers of Scarlets during the Guinness PRO14 match at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales. Photo:  Gareth Everett/Sportsfile

Connacht centre Sean O'Brien cuts a path through Dane Blacker, left, and Tom Rogers of Scarlets during the Guinness PRO14 match at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales. Photo: Gareth Everett/Sportsfile

Connacht, their PRO14 season concluded, now prepare for the return of European Rugby and a date with former maestros Leicester on Saturday April 3.

They must do so without three key players, captain Jarrad Butler, the talismanic Bundee Aki, and the injured set-piece maestro Quinn Roux - not exactly what coach Andy Friend would have hoped.

That Butler and Aki are ruled out by red cards is all the more frustrating. Both received their marching orders according to the letters of the law, but sometimes they are not always so strict. Even Friend lamented Aki's four-week ban, and also the lack of a similar punishment when fullback John Porch was elbowed high in Parc Y Scarlets on Monday night.

"It is frustrating because there are inconsistencies and that's the bit that hurts you," says Friend. "All you want is consistency across the board, so I thought it was pretty obvious there was an elbow to the throat, but it was deemed different. All we ask for as coaches and players is consistency with those calls."

Friend also has an "issue" with Aki's red card, although "to the letter the law, it was a red card because it was shoulder to head".

"But I am not sure what else Bundee could have done. If Bundee goes any lower, he puts himself in harm's way. I think there are such things as rugby accidents or rugby incidents, and I think we have to be very careful as lawmakers and as people who look to protect players - I totally agree - but we have seen accidents that happen in a game and there are occasions where there is no malice or intent. I felt for Bundee because to the letter of the law his shoulder hit his head, but I'm not sure what else that man could have done in that tackle. "

The three players would have been key for Connacht's European Challenge Cup bid - "When you come into these big knock out games, you want your best players," says Friend.

While it will allow others to step up, one critical area where the trio will be missed is in defence, which was porous against the Scarlets on Monday evening in Connacht's final Guinness PRO14 fixture.

With Connacht having already qualified for Champions Cup rugby next season, it was an opportunity to see some less experienced players in action, but Friend understandably lamented a second half in which his team leaked 29 points.

"Our defence on the whole was poor," says Friend. "I said at half time, yes, we have scored 33 points, but let's not kid ourselves, we played against 14 men for the majority of it. So although the scoreline flattered us, we knew what was coming, and they were better than us."

Despite any mitigating factors, it was not the response Friend expected from his players.

"It's not fair to say they [these last two games] didn't mean anything to us, they did mean something to us. We went into these games wanting to win, so we have let our lead slip against Edinburgh - that was heartbreaking - and now we let a massive slip here. The way we are finishing games is unacceptable and something we have to get much much better at."

That improvement will have to be swift with Leicester primed to defend their strong European record. Monday's second-half collapse will still be fresh, letting slip a 33-12 half-time lead to lose by 41-36.

Scarlets, locked in a battle for the last Champions Cup place with Cardiff, recovered from two first-half sin-binnings, and prevailed. A strange fixture that had all the hallmarks of a typical end of season try fest - some 11 in all - but Scarlets revelled in the loose game come the second 40 minutes.

Connacht bagged five tries in that opening half after the home side had opened with an Aaran Shingler try inside two minutes.

Friend's men, however, made the most of their first attack - helped by a yellow card to Scarlets' prop Pieter Scholtz. A dominant scrum was rewarded with go-forward ball before fullback John Porch crossed and outhalf Conor Fitzgerald converted. They added a second six minutes later - scrumhalf Kieran Marmion breaking up field before Abraham Papali'i finished out wide for a 12-5 lead. After a second Scarlets' yellow card, Connacht's attack from deep was rewarded when centre Sean O'Brien, relishing his first start, added his name to the scoresheet, Although Scarlets centre Steff Hughes crossed for his side's second try, Connacht finished the half with two more tries, Dominic Robertson McCoy and Kieran Marmion adding their names to the scoresheet.

However, Scarlets scored three tries within 16 minutes of the restart, and it was all one-way traffic thereafter. Although Connacht's two bonus points ensured they finished comfortably in second place, some six ahead of the Welsh outfit, the second-half collapse did not sit well with the Connacht boss.

Scarlets: T Rogers; T Prydie, T Morgan, S Hughes (capt ), S Evans; D Jones, D Blacker; S Thomas, M Jones, P Scholtz, L Rawlins, S Lousi, A Shingler, JMorgan, S Kalamafoni.Replacements: Angus O’Brien Johnny Williams, W Homer, Mathias, J Sebastian, Uzair Cassiem.

Connacht: J Porch, B O’Donnell, S O’Brien, T Daly, A Wootton, C Fitzgerald, K Marmion; J Duggan, S Delahunt, D Robertson-McCoy, N Murray, G Thornbury, P Boyle (capt ), C Oliver, A Papali’i. Replacements: F Bealham, O Dowling, S Masterson, P Sullivan, J Carty, C Reilly, D Tierney-Martin .

Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU ).


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