Connacht head to England for Saturday’s return joust with Gloucester knowing an improved performance, particularly in the set piece, is vital to achieve a first Heineken Cup win.
Despite earning their first point in Europe’s elite competition last weekend against the English premiership outfit in their 14 - 11 defeat at the Sportsground, Connacht know they let slip another chance to achieve a much-needed win after a run of defeats.
Now they travel to Gloucester with hopes that an improved performance up front will provide the backs with sufficient ball to cause their opponents problems. If Connacht do not improve in that area, the Cherry and Whites will simply adopt a 10-man game plan and Connacht will be on the back foot again.
Connacht’s assistant coach Dan McFarland says the pack display in the set piece simply was not good enough - scrum, line-out, and defence of Gloucester’s rolling maul.
“It was clear that one of the major reasons we lost the game was because our scrum did not function. Gloucester had five scrums from which they got four penalties and one free kick - that gave them a way into the game,” McFarland says. “ And, probably for the first time, our line-out did function. Three of the first four went awry and as a result we did not get a foothold in the game and that is not normal for us.”
Another disappointment, he said, was Connacht’s inability to defend Gloucester’s driving maul - a facet of Connacht’s play that has been one of its strengths all season.
“If our set piece was right, our scrum had functioned, and we had defended the driving maul, I have no doubt we would have won. These are issues that are solvable and, although it will not be easy to turn things around away to Gloucester, we only lost by 14 - 11 knowing we did not play well and that parts of our game just did not function to a level we find acceptable.”
Connacht was missing the influence of Michael Swift last week, and they will be without the veteran lock again on Saturday. They are also missing Ray Ofisa who has damaged his medial ligament. On the plus side they are hopeful of Johnny O’Connor’s return, although it is unlikely he would play a full game, while Eoin Griffin is expected to be fully fit to start. TJ Anderson and Eoghan Grace have trained this week, alongside Eoin McKeown who came on as a backrow replacement last weekend.
Although the squad was “pretty down” earlier in the week, McFarland says the players remain positive that they can turn things around.
“Obviously we need a win, and with each win we don’t get, we have a little more pressure, but we believe in what we are doing, and we have another chance to turn things around and that’s what we are doing.”
Coach Eric Elwood accepts it is going to be even tougher in Kingsholm on Saturday.
"We know we are capable of mixing with this opposition, but they will be a different proposition at home, and that's the challenge for us," he says.
"Both teams were in a difficult place because we both had bad runs. At the moment we are frustrated with our performance and we know there is more in us.
"We all want the same thing, we want that elusive win, but you have to earn it. You have to be at your best, keep performance levels up, respect the ball when you have it, and work hard in defence. ”
The Connacht squad, which last Saturday boasted a total of 20 international caps, will now head to Gloucester, who had some 170 on the park in Galway. It told in the strength of the Gloucester pack, which caused the damage in the second half - a string of penalties at scrum time ensured the visitors were on the front foot throughout. However Connacht carved out opportunities, mainly through their aerial prowess and a dogged pack performance at the breakdown, led by Mike McCarthy and John Muldoon. Having fallen behind by 11- 0, Connacht came within a single point within minutes of the second half, but thereafter their opportunities were limited.
The visitors grabbed their chances when outhalf Freddie Burns kicked two penalties, and they seized the initiative with a penalty to touch from which left wing Daniel Simpson-Daniels eventually crossed. Connacht replied almost immediately when Niall O’Connor’s Garryowen was claimed by a chasing Ray Ofisa, and a little luck saw the ball bounce into the hands of a chasing Gavin Duffy who had enough power and pace to finish near the posts for O'Connor to convert. That score provided the impetus Connacht and the 5,115 supporters needed and, when O’Connor posted a 43rd minute penalty to close the gap to a single point, Connacht were within a real position to grab their first Heineken Cup win. However Gloucester reverted to their power pack and a string of penalties gave them the possession to add a 71st minute penalty and stifle any hopes of a home victory.
Connacht: G Duffy (capt ); M McCrea, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney; M McCarthy, G Naoupu; D Gannon, J Muldoon, R Ofisa. Replacements: E McKeown for Ofisa 37, R Ah You for Loughney HT, F Vainikolo for O'Halloran and P O'Donohoe for Murphy 59, A Flavin for Reynecke 65, M Kearney for M McCarthy 73.
Gloucester: O Morgan; C Sharples, H Trinder, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, R Lawson; N Wood, S Lawson, D Chistolini; P Buxton, J Hamilton; B Deacon, A Hazell, L Narraway (capt ). Replacements: A Qera for Hazell 56, R Harden for Chistolini 61, J May for Trinder 66, M Cortese for Lawson 72, W James for Buxton 72.
Referee: N Patterson (SRFU ).