Connacht lose epic battle in the Alps

Connacht and Grenoble produced an epic European Challenge Cup quarter-final that beguiled and bedazzled the 14,876 fans at Stade des Alpes.

But at the end of a pulsating 80 minutes, Bernard Jackman's side prevailed by a single point, 33-32, and the former Connacht and Leinster hooker apologised for the victory.

"I am really sorry that we won tonight. I am really happy for us, but I feel if Connacht won there would be absolutely no regrets on my part.... It's very difficult to come to France and win and Connacht did everything but."

Jackman said their first European quarter-final victory would certainly encourage the dwindling support for rugby in the small enclave as he forges a future and culture to rival the more illustrious and big-spending French clubs.

Pat Lam would undoubtedly be happy if he had Jackman's budget, but his young side produced the tries of the evening, and had the victory well within their grasp, leading from the start until the 75th minute.

"We got a couple of good leads and we let them back in just through a couple of errors. That’s probably our big learning - to keep the foot on the throat. There was a try that we had worked, one guy was in the wrong place, if he was in the right place, we were under the sticks.

"It really came down to individual execution and mental execution."

However Grenoble were not to be outdone in attacking flair either with three tries, but it was the accuracy of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski that proved pivotal, scoring 23 points and ensuring his side crept back twice from the brink.

Denis Buckley's yellow card in the 62nd minute was one key moment, and there were a couple of errant kicks from outhalf Shane O'Leary, starting in only his second match this season, but in Wisniewski Grenoble had the ace, a player who completed a drill which Jackman conceded had been trained specially for this occasion with the drop goal in the 75th minute to seal the match.

The respective coaches could not have written the script better - a tight game and a testament to two attacking teams. Connacht, having enjoyed a flying start, led by 19-3. They signalled their intent early, using the width of the park with Niyi Adeolokun touching down for the opener. It stemmed from good ball retention from Academy's Sean O'Brien, Aki was once again at the fulcrum, and from his long pass, fullback Matt Healy scorched upfield before sending Connacht's fastest man through for the first try after 10 minutes, which Shane O'Leary converted.

The outstanding Mahamadou Diaby was denied a try by TMO, but Wisniewski slotted an ensuing penalty to kick-start the home side's tally, but within four minutes Healy was flying back up field again. Kieran Marmion jinxed his way to within inches of the line before O'Leary launched an inch-perfect cross field kick for Robbie Henshaw to catch and dot down for try number two.

Connacht continued to play front foot rugby, rewarded with another Healy break and Adeolokun try, with O'Leary adding the extras for a 3-19 lead.

But Grenoble dominated the remainder of the half. A poor exit kick resulted in Wisniewski scoring and and converting, and tails up, they finished the half with another six points from his boot, closing the gap to 16-19.

Grenoble's first rolling maul after the restart was a portent of more to come, but when Aki seized loose ball, Connacht struck for their fourth try. Fionn Carr found Healy whose electric pace once again left his defenders behind, bursting in from the 22. O'Leary added the conversion for a 16-26 lead.

The former Grenoble player added a three-pointer after good work by tackler Fionn Carr, but Connacht came under increasing pressure from mistakes. After a penalty to the corner, the home side sensed a turning tide. Connacht lost Denis Buckley to the sinbin, and Dupont exploited the stretched cover to score, with Wisniewski converting. With the extra man on the field and in the stands, Grenoble sought the killer blow.

It took seven minutes, but eventually Diaby touched down in the left corner and Wisniewski nailed the touchline conversion to put his side ahead for the first time. Although Cooney slotted a penalty three minutes later, the home side set themselves up for the winning drop goal, to deny Connacht a first away quarter-final win and a fourth European semi-final.

GRENOBLE: Gio Aplon; Tino Nemani, Chris Farrell, Nigel Hunt (Fabrice Estebanez 68 ), Lucas Dupont; Jonathan Wisnieskwi, Charl McLeod; Sona Taumalolo (Fabien Barcella 54 ), Loick Jammes, Dayna Edwards (Roussouw de Klerk 54 ); Ben Hand (captain ) (Mathias Marie 70 ), Peter Kimlin; Steven Setephano, Mahamadou Diaby, Rory Grice (Fabien Alexandre 27 ).

CONNACHT: Matt Healy; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman (Fionn Carr 38 ); Shane O’Leary (Peter Robb ’67 ), Kieran Marmion (John Cooney 64 ); Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan 72 ), Finlay Bealham ( JP Cooney 75 ); Ultan Dillane (Quinn Roux 61 ), Andrew Browne; Sean O’Brien (George Naoupu 71 ), James Connolly (Ronan Loughney 61 to 71 ), John Muldoon (captain )..Referee: Matthew Carley [RFU].



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