Leicester Tigers 48
Groundhog day in England. And no excuses this time. Connacht failed to live up to their promise and potential as they exited the Challenge Cup Round of 16 with their tails tucked between their legs. It was another poor result across the water, but on this occasion Andy Friend's squad can have no complaints.
Connacht's European competition had begun with high hopes this season, when producing one of their finest performances against Champions Cup French favourites Racing 92. Despite the Parisians' damaging rolling maul, Connacht nearly pulled off it, losing in the end by four points. A home loss followed to Pat Lam's Bristol, not helped by a Bundee Aki sinbinning, but when the Covid-restructure moved Connacht into the Challenge Cup, here was a real chance for silverware. Add in a victory over Leinster this season, their fine on-the-road form, and it appeared Connacht could hold their own against Leicester - a team past its former glory days, but gaining momentum under wily Steve Borthwick.
Alas, Connacht failed to rise to the occasion at Welford Road on Saturday as Leicester, despite having rested several front-line players, stormed to victory by 48-32, seven tries to four, and into the quarter-finals.
Given Leicester's power up front, it was not unexpected they would try to decimate Connacht with a well-executed rolling maul, and they did three times. Referee Adam Jones appeared loath to add to Leicester's single sin-binning after the home side had racked up a 10:1 penalty count by half-time.
Yet Connacht did not help themselves. There were many bright moments, but too many errors, and their failure to fire sufficient shots inside the 22 was costly.
"Too many moments we didn't deliver, whether physically, or mentally or skill wise," said Friend, "and that is what we have to eradicate to be the team we want to be.
"No bones about it, I am gutted because this is the end for us. I really wanted to win and really thought we could win. It is another disappointment. We had an opportunity I thought at 32-34. We had worked so hard to get back, and I though we were going to steam roll them then."
"In the first half we didn't find space as well as we needed to, in the second half we started to move them around and scored, but certainly from 10m out, we need to be better."
It had all started so well. When John Porch launched a counter-attack, centre Sean O'Brien slipped past fullback Zack Henry, and Kieran Marmion popped up in support to cross for a seventh minute try out wide. However, it was not long before Leicester launched the line-out maul from a penalty, with hooker Charlie Clare grabbing the first of four first-half tries. Within minutes they scored a second, Guy Porter bursting from an under-resourced ruck.
Despite Connacht's solid scrum and a leading performance from Paul Boyle, the only points came via Carty who closed the gap to 12-8.
The real damage, however, was done in the next few minutes as Connacht failed to capitalise on a yellow card to the Leicester hooker. Instead they conceded in an attacking position, providing Argentinian Matias Moroni with an easy score, before they again capitalised on a Connacht error to bag their fourth try. Although Friend's men staged a series of attacks within five metres of the line, they were forced to settle for a Carty penalty, closing the gap to 24-11 at the break.
An Eoghan Masterson try and Carty conversion brought them within six points, 24-18, but as Connacht tried to up the tempo, Tigers' added a penalty to keep their scoreline ticking over. And although replacement scrumhalf Caolan Blade provided Wootton for a 60th minute converted try, Tigers' Charlie Clare once again profited from a line-out maul to maintain their two-score advantage.
The best Connacht could do was a Paul Boyle try, but the home side countered with another two pack-driven tries.
"At key moments in the game we gifted points instead of scoring," said Friend. "They had a man in the bin and they scored 14 points which is unacceptable.
"Twice came within two points, but we gifted it back. Really frustrating and we keep making a habit of that. We lack that killer instinct when we've got a team on the ropes and we have to become that ruthless team. We keep talking about wanting to be a team fighting for silverware, but until we change that, there won't be any."
Leicester Tigers: Z Henry; H Potter, M Moroni, M Scott, G Porter; J McPhillips, B Youngs (c ); L de Bruin, C Clare, J Heyes; C Henderson, T Lavanini ; G Martin, L Wallace; J Wiese. Replacements, W Hurd for Heyes and J Wells for Lavanini (both 48 ), F Steward for Henry (55 ), T Reffell for Wallace (58 ), B White for Youngs and J Whitcombe for L de Bruin (both 69 ), D Kelly for Moroni (72 ), N Dolly for Clare (78 ).
Connacht: J Porch; A Wootton, S O’Brien, T Daly, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; E Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle (c ).Replacements, C Blade for Marmion, S Delahunt for Heffernan and D Robinson-McCoy for Bealham (all 50m ), A Papali'i for Oliver (56 ), O Dowling for Thornbury and C Fitzgerald for Carty (both 67 ), J Duggan for Buckley (69 ).