Connacht Rugby and Pat Lam will welcome the two-week break from Pro 12 action after a frustrating and controversial loss to Cardiff at the weekend.
The 18-17 defeat, which came eight minutes into injury time, left Connacht reeling, coach Pat Lam facing misconduct charges, and the Pro 12’s credibility in question. And after all that, the news has been announced that assistant coach Dan McFarland, after 15 years involvement as a player and coach, is leaving the province at the end of the season “to explore new avenues and different challenges”.
The frustration felt by Pat Lam in the aftermath of Connacht’s defeat - one which could well prove decisive in their bid for Champions Cup rugby - was understandable. Connacht may not have played their best rugby and failed to utilise their superiority, but on 80 minutes they were winning. One or two incorrect calls are part of all games, but in this instance Connacht were penalised several times in injury time, lost Mick Kearney to the sinbin ( in an otherwise disciplined performance ) for repeated offside infringement, and, having survived all that, had legitimate claims to have secured the victory when hooker Tom McCartney grabbed possession from a knock-on in the 83rd minute. If Connacht were the architects of their own misfortune, it was the touch judge and an incorrect call that hammered the final nail.
Lam will now face a disciplinary hearing for questioning the touch judges’ decision making in front of the media, but it will provide a platform for the province to state its case. As a European qualifier, the Pro 12 has grown in stature and importance, and most would agree its credibility would be improved if neutral officials are assigned to all Pro 12 fixtures.
Lam’s hearing, at a date yet to be decided, is likely to comprise members from those unions not involved, Scotland or Italy. He can also be accompanied by a legal representative or Connacht official if he wishes.
Lam’s complaint is that Hodges' call deep in injury time cost Connacht the game when it appeared the Irish province had survived a late onslaught, secured possession at the breakdown, and kicked the ball dead.
"It is the biggest call and I am absolutely gutted," he said. "There is a changing room there that deserved more," he said.
Showing video footage of the last minutes of play at Arms Park last evening, Lam said: "The ball comes back, it’s 83.27 minutes into the game, Cardiff knock the ball on, there is no ruck, our hooker picks the ball up, it is cleared, the ref is just about to blow and then Leighton Hodges, the touch judge, says it's hands in the ruck.
"A, clearly no ruck, B, clearly he knocked the ball on, and the referee is one metre away to call that. That is a massive call and it [the game] should be over and finished. I will go through the process now, but it was the wrong call and it cost us the game."
With a 17-11 lead, Connacht were forced to endure an agonising eight minutes of extra time which was only concluded when Argentine Joaquin Tuculet exploited the stretched Connacht defence to grab his second try, and fullback Rhys Patchell converted for a one-point win.
Connacht, superior at the set piece, had made it count when Jake Heenan claimed the touchdown from a driving maul and Ronaldson had added the conversion for a 7-0 lead after six minutes.
Both sides looked to play open rugby and both were guilty of handling errors, but Connacht were the more effective, particularly up front, and when their maul forced the concession of another three-pointer, Ronaldson converted for a 10-0 lead after 22 minutes.
Connacht allowed the Blues to get back into the contest, and while Connacht's defence always kept the Blues in check, Rhys Patchell posted two penalties.
Connacht came close on several occasions, but were left to rue their failure to convert domination into points, and some poor kicking after the interval handed the hosts the initiative. Once again Connacht's defensive line held out until Cuthbert looked to have waltzed in, but it was overruled by TMO for obstruction.
Cuthbert provided the impetus for Cardiff with a superb line break, and although it took a try-saving tackle from Matt Healy to stop him five metres out, Argentine international Joaquin Tuculet eventually crossed in the corner, before a 64th minute penalty put the Blues into the lead for the first time.
Not for the first time this season Connacht showed their resolve, and on 70 minutes Muldowney claimed what looked like a winning try.
However the dramatic conclusion to this Pro 12 fixture turned the game on the its head, Lam in trouble, and opened up a debate on the tournament’s credibility. Connacht, however, remain in sixth position.
Connacht: M Muliaina, T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, M Healy, C Ronaldson, J Cooney, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, M Kearney, A Mulowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), J Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements, E Masterson for Naoupu (48m ), F Bealham for Ah Yu (54m ) , D Leader for Muliaina (59m ), A Browne for Heenan (61m ), R Loughney for Buckley (67m ), J Carty for McSharry (67 ).