Wednesday 20 September 2017

Connacht heartbreak as challenge falls short

Connacht players following their defeat. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht players following their defeat. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Connacht's run-in to the best season in their history will be a single competition affair after they were beaten in dramatic circumstances in a Challenge Cup quarter-final in Grenoble last night. Having led for most of the game they almost managed to reclaim it in the dying minutes only to concede a penalty with the clock in overtime.

Grenoble will take on Harlequins, who beat relegation-threatened London Irish in a high scoring game at the Stoop. In the other semi-final, Montpelier will host the Dragons who were surprise winners yesterday over Gloucester at Kingsholm. Both semi-finals will be in a fortnight.

The only silver lining for Connacht is that fighting only one war will reduce their exposure to injury - which has already impacted on them heavily.

The last time these teams met at this stage of the competition, in 2005, current Grenbole coach Bernard Jackman and manager Andrew Farley were earning their corn in the Sportsground. Jackman has since, despite a dodgy enough start at club level, forged an impressive reputation as a coach. For Grenoble to be mid-table in the Top 14, despite having a modest budget compared to the heavyweights, reflects well on him. His side have every chance now of going on to win the competition.

Pat Lam's star has also soared however. If last season was a promising one then this term has been outstanding. Currently his side trail Leinster at the top of the Pro12 table only on points difference - they take on Munster in the Sportsground on Saturday night - and chasing the title itself, never mind qualification for next season's Champions Cup.

The measure of Lam's achievement has been in the implementation by his players of the grand plan. In rugby the natural reaction when pressure comes on is to hoof the ball away. For Connacht, regardless of the heat put on them by the opposition, they look to run. The basic premise is that they would rather have the ball in their hands instead of making tackles. Making it work however demands high skill, and Connacht spend a lot of their time on the training ground working on just that.

You can see it in the rapid development of a handful of their players. Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham anounced themselves in this season's Six Nations - Bealham underlined again last night why Joe Schmidt pushed him up the pecking order - and Matt Healy is now making a powerful case for inclusion on Ireland's three Test tour of South Africa in June.

His performance last night, between setting up two tries for Niyi Adeolokun in the opening half hour, and taking one himself, early in the second half, was first class. It deserved a better result.

Twice the game seemed sure to be going Connacht's way. They led 19-3 after half an hour, and then 29-16 after 53 minutes. A yellow card to Denis Buckley was costly and in the end they left themselves too much to do.

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