Connacht still alive in race for Europe
Connacht 20 Ospreys 24
Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30
But Champions Cup hopes now hinge on an away play-off against Gloucester
Connacht did their end-of- season thing on Saturday, handing out awards and saying goodbye to provincial stalwarts Dan McFarland and Michael Swift while knowing all along that they were back on the job this morning.
If things had gone to plan for Pat Lam's team, they'd have had reason for real celebration at their do in Galway yet, despite achieving a record tally of 10 league victories for the season, they still needed a favour from Leinster to get over the line and into a European Champions Cup play-off against Gloucester.
Kingsholm holds nothing but bad memories for the western province, particularly after their last visit ended in infamy when Mils Muliaina was led away from the stadium in police custody.
Connacht could have won that night, but as has become the pattern of their season, they gave themselves too much to do with a below par first-half performance. Lam needs to find a way of inverting their performances - they always finish strong but the slow starts are killing them.
So it is that a campaign that finished with 10 wins and 50 points feels hollow for a team whose stated ambition was sixth place and Champions Cup qualification. That they spent the first 20 of the league's 22 rounds in the top six before falling away at the death will gall them.
By holding Ospreys to three first-half tries, Connacht did Munster a favour but they needed one of their own as Leinster's late surge in Edinburgh got them over the line. Not that Lam necessarily saw it that way.
"I tell you, Anthony Foley and all of the Munster people can buy us a pint," he said when it was suggested he might pick up the tab the next time he and Matt O'Connor caught up. "We knew the Ospreys were going for that bonus point at the end and we got the messages down.
"That's the beauty of it, four provinces and one team. Leinster got their win and Munster got their home semi, but we're not there because of Leinster, we're there because we got 50 points on the back of 10 good wins over the course of the season and a draw as well as all of the bonus points we picked up.
"We're not there because of anyone else."
As it stands, the prospect of beating Gloucester on Sunday looks a step beyond this team who are a pale imitation of the vibrant force who blazed a trail for so long this season.
Kieran Marmion is the latest player to join the large collection of walking wounded after he picked up an ankle injury. Those that remain are showing signs of fatigue and allowing old bad habits creep into their game.
Their first-half was as bad as anything Connacht have produced all year, which was particularly poor timing as it came against an Ospreys side on their 'A' game and pushing for top seeding and a home semi-final.
Showing little respect for the laws, Rhys Webb and Alun-Wyn Jones led a dominant effort that saw their side cross for three first-half scores to lead 24-0 at the break.
Backed by a strong wind, they used their dominant scrum and excellent breakdown work to force Connacht's defenders into awkward positions and the missed tackles flowed.
Dan Biggar happily took advantage, kicking a penalty and converting his own try before the excellent Ben John carved the home side open and Webb added a third before half-time.
By that stage, eyes were beginning to drift towards phones in the stand as it became clear that Connacht's fate would be decided elsewhere. For the Ospreys, a lucrative Liberty Stadium semi-final beckoned if they could just ram home their advantage in the second-half.
They didn't account for Connacht's latest rousing second-half, however, and found themselves on the back foot throughout the third quarter. Jack Carty kicked two penalties and the impressive Eoghan Masterson came up with the ball after a maul involving backs and forwards got over the line.
Carty converted and, with 26 minutes remaining, his side were within nine points of the league leaders who changed tack and used all of their international experience and class to shut the game down.
It was classic cup rugby, extracting the sting for just enough time so that Denis Buckley's 80th minute try came too late.
As it was, Scarlets had won in Treviso and Connacht couldn't finish in sixth. Word arrived from Edinburgh that Leinster had done their part, so they could breathe some relief.
It means a return to Gloucester to face the team that ended Lam's side's Challenge Cup campaign in familiar fashion, running up a first-half lead and then just about weathering the storm after the break. The winner hosts France's seventh placed team on Sunday week.
The coach knows that another poor start will be just about irretrievable and called on his young, injury-ravaged team to learn their lessons quickly.
"If our defensive system and attacking structure is not right, then we are down to playing individual rugby and we're just not good enough for that when you consider the internationals we're up against," he said.
"So, we have to be spot on and that's what we emphasised today - everyone do their jobs well as a team."
They will rue their lost points against Cardiff in particular and look at Treviso qualifying for the Champions Cup on the back of three wins all year and wonder about the meaning of meritocracy.
But they remain alive in 2014/15 and can still dine at the top table if they can figure out how to start like they finish.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy (S O'Leary 69); J Carty, K Marmion (J Cooney 21); D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You (F Bealham 65); A Browne (G Naoupu 61), A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon (M Swift 65).
Ospreys - D Evans (S Davis 67); H Dirksen, B Kohn, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin (S Parry 78), D Arhip (A Jarvis 68); T Arsron, AW Jones (capt); J King (D Lydiate 61), J Tipuric, D Baker.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)