Battered and bruised Connacht look to derbies for festive cheer

Tiernan O'Halloran Connacht, goes over to score his side's first try against Gloucester. Picture credit: Matthew Impey / SPORTSFILE

Tiernan O'Halloran Connacht, goes over to score his side's first try against Gloucester. Picture credit: Matthew Impey / SPORTSFILE

Connacht will be looking for some much-needed festive cheer when they travel to Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day for their joust with Munster.

Eric Elwood's team travel to Limerick "sore, battered and bruised" after their heartbreaking last-minute loss to Gloucester in last weekend's Heineken Cup fixture at Kingsholm, and there is no respite as they head into the Christmas break with two interprovincial fixtures against Munster and Leinster

"Obviously Munster is going to be a huge, huge task for us," says coach Eric Elwood. " History tells us we haven't won down there for a long time, and they are going very well. They are a good side, we know that. No matter what side goes out wearing the red jersey it's going to be a difficult task for us."

The odds are always against Connacht and no opposition demonstrates that more clearly than Munster. Connacht's 42 international caps comes up against a side that contains 908 - the highest number in the RaboDirect.

However Elwood, as always, travels into the heart of Irish rugby confident his side can upset the odds if Connacht performs to potential.

"The key for us is that I want the lads to believe in what we are doing and take the positives from our performance against Gloucester."

That display was one of the best this season - where the pack was back to its best in the set piece, the backs looked dangerous with the ball in hand, and their defence stood firm until the dying minutes when the English premiership side stole a 23 - 19 win.

Connacht had deservedly led Gloucester throughout most of this return fixture at Kingsholm, but were denied a first Heineken Cup victory when replacement Jonny May escaped a tackle and swept over the line with just four minutes remaining.

It was the most bitter pill for Connacht to swallow, particularly having upped their game from last weekend's Sportsground effort in which they also claimed a losing bonus point. This week, however, the disappointment was far greater, and Elwood confessed there were few words spoken in the team room afterwards.

"I did not have to say anything, the players said it themselves," he said. " They are gutted. You have grown men crying and it's a tough sight. Unfortunately the better team lost, but I thought our performance was magnificent.

"Our guys are learning every week to play in Europe, and hopefully these performances will stand to us. We have two derby matches against Munster and Leinster, and that is the next challenge. We are losing ball games, but it has not broken our spirit."

Connacht had travelled to Gloucester intent on regaining the form they displayed against Harlequins, and more specifically to improve their set piece which had let them down at the Sportsground the previous week. There were a few early wobbles - the first scrum came under pressure and yielded a penalty which led to Gloucester's first try - but thereafter it stood firm, giving the Cherry and Reds no change. Similarly Connacht repelled the Gloucester forwards, stymied their driving maul, while a secure Connacht line-out provided the platform which their young backs relished. Outhalf Niall O'Connor directed the game with a new authority, and provided the early touch kicks to the corner that kept the home side under pressure. Connacht showed, with the ball in hand, how they could dominate proceedings, but they could not get over the winning line despite leading with four minutes remaining.

"To bounce back like we did this week, how we played the game, some of our execution and tackles - magnificent," said Elwood. "Just small margins cost you in big games and that's what happened tonight. It's heartbreaking."

Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath empathised with Elwood's current plight.

"They did everything right, especially for 60 minutes. It's tough for Eric - it's tough on his budget to compete with the other provinces - but he should be proud of his side. They will bitterly disappointed because they had an opportunity."

Connacht enjoyed territorial advantage from the start and for the first time in several games they pushed into a 13 - 10 lead at half time. Gloucester outhalf Tim Taylor had opened with a penalty in front of the posts, but Connacht's reply was a try for Tiernan O'Halloran. Frank Murphy's intercept from Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu instigated the move which saw Gavin Duffy, Murphy again, and George Naoupu handle up the left wing before O'Halloran crossed on 12 minutes with O'Connor adding the extras. Within minutes O'Halloran saved a certain try at the other end on the TMO's ruling, but from the resulting five-metre scrum Connacht could not stop Taylor who raced over for a try which he converted.

Fullback Olly Morgan and Mike Tindall's presence in the backline kept Connacht's defence on its toes, but it was the visitors who finished the half the stronger. O'Halloran, Duffy, and replacement Kyle Tonetti showed their attacking prowess which led to the equalising penalty from O'Connor, and he added another just before the break after the Gloucester scrum was penalised.

Connacht maintained that momentum throughout the second half with O'Connor edging his side 16 - 10 in front. Gloucester's first chance came in the 58th minute when replacement outhalf Freddie Burns closed the gap, but it was still Connacht creating the opportunities. Although they failed to convert, they kept their noses in front as both outhalves exchanged penalties to give Connacht a three-point lead. However a last attack from Gloucester yielded a try-winning score for the home side to keep their faint hopes of qualification alive.

"We are in the business of winning and we can't hide form it, and we don't attempt to hide from it, " said Elwood. "We are disappointed that we are not winning because we are putting ourselves in great positions to take points and victories. But part of our learning curve and experience, particularly at this level, is how to close out games and win them.

"The good thing is we are competitive. We are playing a good brand of rugby, we are asking questions of top sides, we are asking questions of teams supposedly far superior in terms of budget and quality, and that's why we you come to places like Kingsholm and play in the manner you do, and you play them off the park and get nothing for it, it's important to take the positiveness and move forward."

Gloucester: Morgan, Sharples, Tindall, Fuimaono-Sapolu, Simpson-Daniel, Taylor, Runciman, Murphy, S. Lawson, Harden, Buxton, Hamilton, Deacon, Hazell, Narraway. Replacements: May for Sharples (67 ), Burns for Taylor (41 ), R. Lawson for Runciman (49 ), Wood for Murphy (55 ), Cortese for S Lawson (77 ), Knight for Harden (64 ), James for Buxton (67 ), Qera for Hazell (49 ).

Connacht: Duffy, McCrea, Griffin, McSharry, O'Halloran, N O'Connor, F Murphy, Wilkinson, Reynecke, Loughney, Naoupu, McCarthy, Gannon, J O'Connor, Muldoon. Replacements: Tonetti for McCrea (25 ), O'Donohoe for F Murphy (58 ), Rogers for Wilkinson (78 ), Flavin for Reynecke (56 ), Ah You for Loughney (58 ), McKeown for Gannon (52 ), Kearney for Muldoon (67 ).

Referee: Leighton Hodges (RFU ).


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