Connacht hopes of putting London Irish to the sword in a winner-takes-all meeting next January floundered in the Galway Sportsground on Friday evening.
To top their European pool and gain automatic qualification into the quarter-finals, Connacht needed to take the spoils at home against London Irish, setting themselves up for a crunch return joust. However, the visitors, after being gifted two early tries, grabbed the initiative in the second to bag the bonus point and take a stranglehold on the pool – a position they look likely retain given their credentials.
In a tournament that has become increasingly competitive, London Irish demonstrated the domination English premiership sides. Connacht still have a huge stake in the qualification process, but it now likely that one of two best runners-up spots in the six-pool format and an away quarter-final is the best they can hope for.
Connacht played well, certainly better than the scoreline suggests, as they once again competed for everything and attacked with confidence and their new-found panache. However they were made to pay for gifting London Irish two soft tries in the first half, and then failing to finish the try-scoring chances they created.
Irish boasted a hugely physical pack, backed by the speed of their three-quarters, and that proved a formidable all-round combination - reflected in their current sixth position in the premiership . Yet just 12 - 7 down at the break, Connacht had looked the more creative of the two sides.
Despite an erratic line-out and a creaking scrum, they had stymied a London Irish outfit that too often kicked poorly and failed to create anything with the possession they had. John Muldoon and Johnny O'Connor made a statement in front of Irish coach Declan Kidney in continuing their outstanding form, aided and abetted by Ray Ofisa in the back row. Ian Keatley once again kicked intelligently, while Fionn Carr was at the heart of Connacht's most creative efforts.
Weather, of course, played its hand once again at the Sportsground, and it was Connacht who faced into the wind and rain in the opening half. But they contributed to their downfall when Irish posted 12 points by the 14th minute. The first try came courtesy of a free after Connacht scrumhalf Frank Murphy delayed his put-in against a wheeling scrum. When Irish hacked the ball down field, fullback Fionn Carr did well under pressure to claim possession, but after the big Irish pack drove over - off their feet - they quickly fed it out wide and it was Elvis Seveali'i who crossed after nine minutes.
If that was a soft try, their second five minutes later was a gift. Connacht, putting in the hard yards and going through the phases, were camped on the visitors' line when the ball was spun from left to right. Right wing Liam Bibo did well to control possession, but his attempted pass inside to Carr spilled forward, and England winger Topsy Ojo took advantage. Breaking out down the blind side, he found a willing Seilala Mapusua who was able to run in the 10m line untouched.
It was a sickening blow for the home side, but to their credit their response was rapid, and when Murphy made the incisive break up the blind, he found support in Bibo who supplied Carr for the finish. Ian Keatley added the extras to reduce the arrears.
The visitors, however, upped their tempo on the resumption. Flanker Steffon Armitage set up the try with a break from a penalty kicked to touch, and Connacht, having stopped No 8 Chris Hala'Ufa just shy of the line, missed a couple of first-up tackles as the ball was spun wide, giving Ojo had an easy run-in from 10metres out. Peter Hewat added the conversion, and although Connacht pegged back the lead with a 53rd minute penalty, the London Irish outhalf cancelled that effort on 66 minutes.
Connacht did have their chances. Carr, who had chinked inside and out of three defenders, came closest, but put a foot in touch just a yard from the line. Minutes later Ray Ofisa broke from the loose, but his attempted pass to a supporting Brett Wilkinson was knocked forward by Irish outhalf Peter Hewat.
Unable to finish those efforts, the game's complexion changed with a host of replacements and front row injuries, which necessited uncontested scrums. As a result Connacht lost their shape, and Irish, with superior counter-attacking skills, capitalised as Ojo added his second to ensure Irish take pole position in the pool.
Connacht: F Carr, L Bibo, G Duffy, A Wynne, J Hearty, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M Swift, A Farley, R Ofisa, J O'Connor, J Muldoon (cpt ). Replacements: R Loughney for Morris 53m, S Cronin for Flavin 55m, R Morris for Wilkinson 58m, A Browne for Swift 60m, C Rigney for Morris 66m, A Dunne for Hearty 68m, T Nathan for Muldoon 74m, K Campbell for Murphy 76m.
London Irish: D Armitage, T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau, P Hewat, P Hodgson, A Corbisiero, J Buckland, T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy, B Casey (cpt ), R Thorpe, S Armitage, C Hala'Ufia. Replacements, C Dermody for Lea'aetoa 41m, D Paice for Buckland 53m, F Rautenback for Corbisiero 53m, D Danaher for Thorpe 57m, G Johnson for Rautenbach, S Geraghty for Seveali'i 65m.
Referee: J Garces (France ).