Connacht must overcome Champions Cup frustration to focus on Pro 12

Positive play: Captain John Muldoon secures line-out for Connacht against Toulouse in the final pool fixture of this season’s Champions Cup.

Positive play: Captain John Muldoon secures line-out for Connacht against Toulouse in the final pool fixture of this season’s Champions Cup.

One seasonal ambition missed; another big one remaining. Connacht's exit from the European Champions Cup is tough to take, but it will be even harder if Connacht fail to be back in the competition next season.

Pat Lam and his squad now move on to concentrate solely on the Guinness Pro 12 to ensure they remain in the elite competition, and it is going to be a long and tough slog to achieve it.

Connacht are currently in eighth place - 12 points off Ulster in the automatic sixth qualification position. And while there is still the possibility of qualifying through play-offs with Premiership and Top 14 sides if finishing in eighth or ninth place, that is a route teams would prefer to avoid.

It will certainly focus Connacht's season, not least if forced to play Zebre in a refixed Pro 12 while Munster are hosting Toulouse in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. But that is the challenge now. Connacht need to get over their disappointment and turn frustration into accomplishment. And that is something Pat Lam's squad is well able and " determined" to do.

On Sunday in France, Connacht, needing to come within seven to earn the bonus point and qualify for the quarter-finals, finished just two points off that goal. A poor start was a major contributing factor (going down 14-0 ), a yellow-card another, and add in some poor returns at the breakdown and some "systems errors". Yet a first quarter-final was in their grasp after captain John Muldoon crashed over to leave the score 19-10. They carved several opportunities, not least in the 69th minute when Healy was unable to secure possession with the line beckoning. Minutes earlier the player had produced a superb kick and chase to force a crucial turnover. And while a successful drop goal would have been enough, it is not as easy to deliver on the pitch as it looks from the sideline.

What Connacht will take away is a superb effort to go into the final round in pole position with 18 points in what was the closest group in the campaign. On the last day, while Connacht could have won, the four-times French champions' deserved to win. After their blistering start, they dominated territory and possession, and in attack were sharper, while ferocious at the breakdown. Connacht, as always, were not found wanting, particularly in defence, while their forwards produced a near flawless line-out, also stealing four after Connacht upped their intensity and tempo in the second half.

Obviously frustrated, the players and Lam, who heads to Bristol at the end of the season, will have regrets, but they will also take the positives.

"When I arrived first in Connacht, we were in the Champions Cup through Leinster," said Lam. " We had no chance getting out of the pool, even though we won this fixture. But where we are now, having worked hard and had a genuine chance - right through to the last play - that shows just how far we have come.

"Earning the right to be here, top seeds, and then almost getting there, and that is the frustrating thing, but I'm pretty proud how far we have come in Champions Cup rugby, and determined, and so are the players, to make sure Connacht Rugby is there next year - even if I'm not."

Toulouse made the perfect start with a try after three minutes. Ffrom the kick-off, they brushed off tackles and recycled as influential centre Gael Fickou broke though the cover. Although French international prop Cyril Baille was held up, Fickou profitted from an overlap to touch down within four minutes, outhalf Jean-Marc Doussain converting.

Their second came after 18 minutes when fullback Yoann Huget opened the defence before finding right wing Arthur Bonneval who escaped Matt Healy's attempted tackle to race in from 30 metres.

Connacht, struggling to get their hands on the ball, were also guilty of losing it on too many occasions with a series of uncharacteristic errors. A 33rd minute penalty from centre Craig Ronaldson was their only score of the opening half, but when Connacht lock Quinn Roux was sin-binned for a deliberate knock on, Doussain missed the opportunity to extend the 14-3 half-time lead.

However the home side closed in on the qualification spot with a third try after 48 minutes - flanker Tekori breaking from the tail of a close-in maul from a penalty to touch, but a superb touch finder from Ronaldson set up field possession, and captain John Muldoon crashed over for a try to put Connacht right back in the game. Ronaldson added the extras to close the gap to nine points after 53 minutes, but it was to be the last score of the match - just two points short of the necessary bonus point which would have secured a first quarter-final along with the Pro 12's Leinster, Munster, and Glasgow Warriors.

"The last thing you want to do when you come over here is give them a lead of 14 points," said Lam, "particularly off a couple of system errors. But a lot of teams down by 14 points could easily fold, but the boys came back really well. We just needed a penalty or try to get within seven, and we knew we had to do that. We had chances and couldn't take them.

"Everyone is frustrated knowing we could have taken it and could have been a part of history, but then on reflection, three years ago, we were here and won, and it was great, but realistically we had no chance of getting out of the pool. To go down to the last play against a team we all know what they have and their history and record, it was no surprise.

Now Lam says Connacht must ensure they earn the right to be back in this competition. "We have a week off to recover, and five big games on the trot, Cardiff, Dragons, Zebre, Treviso, and Zebre [again], so there is no doubt we have to win all of them to get us back in the top six."

There was also this week's review to complete.

"It will probably kill us to have a look at it," says Lam. " Maybe easier when they blow you out of the water - but to just need two points, it's going to be a hard review."

TOULOUSE: Y Huget; A Bonneval, Y David, G Fickou, P Perez; J Doussain, S Bezy; C Baille, C Tolofua, C Johnston; R Gray, Y Maestri; J Tekori, T Dusatoir, F Cros. Reps: V Kakovin for Baille 66mins; M van Dyk for Johnston 66; L Ghiraldini for Tolofua 68; G Galan for Tekori 68; P Faasalele for Cros 71.

CONNACHT : T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, P Robb, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; N Fox- Matamua, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Reps: S O’Brien for Fox-Matamua 63mins; D Poolman for Adeolokun 63; D Heffernan for McCartney 65; J Andress for Bealham 75; J Cooney for Marmion 75.

REFEREE: Wayne Barnes (RFU ).

John Muldoon: "Disappointed, but you have to remember that we've won four games in the Champions Cup on the back of qualifying for the competition through our own work last season.

"It's a great experience for us. Without being disrespectful to any of the lads, Craig [Ronaldson] was playing for Lansdowne two or three seasons ago, so was Matt [Healy] and they're inexperienced in terms of big-game situations like this. Bundee [Aki] would have been a big influence against Toulouse and we have a lot of lads coming back over the next few weeks.

"We have to get some wins in the Pro 12 and make sure that we're back in this competition next year. This time last year we went on a run of five [wins] out of five with five bonus points and ultimately that probably won us the league. We need to start winning some games."

Full-back Tiernan O’Halloran: “It is massively disappointing, but we didn’t match up physically from our kick-off.

“It’s the first time we came near qualifying for the knock-out stages. That’s our benchmark now. That’s where we need to be year in, year out.

“We’re in a tough position in the PRO12 and it’s back to that now. What’s done is done here.”


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