Saturday 24 March 2018

Connacht come up short of target

Connacht 10 Gloucester 14


If the games against Harlequins and Toulouse were the ground-breakers for Connacht -- their first away and home ties in the Heineken Cup -- then yesterday's tie against Gloucester in the Sportsground was their most important.

This was clearly the most winnable of the entire pool programme, and therefore the most pressured, for Connacht first and foremost need to prove that they can operate occasionally at this level. This was the occasion.

It helped that Gloucester were coming into the contest on the back of four defeats, which changed utterly the healthy complexion glowing in their camp after they rattled Toulouse away from home -- the first of those four defeats. Against that, Connacht were on an eight-game streak of setbacks, so for the home team is was a huge climb.

A crowd of 5,115 told you that not enough locals were prepared to pay to witness it, but those who missed out lost out, for it was an absorbing contest. Unfortunately for Eric Elwood his team lost out too. In the circumstances, a bonus point was three short of the target.

"It was very frustrating because we couldn't get back into the game in the second half when they used their set-piece very well," Elwood said afterwards. "When we got the ball we lost it crucially. We struggled in the second half to get field position, but I would have thought that when it became a one-point ball game we would have pushed on."

Having won the toss, Connacht opted to play into the wind, which is always a dodgy tactic on the basis that you can't be sure if it will be there in the second half. It was, but it didn't matter that much for despite having the game teed up for them in that second period they couldn't get enough ball.

Initially it set them the usual target: hold the ball for long periods and be super-disciplined when the opposition had it. After half an hour you would have said they were struggling on the second one. Referee Neil Patterson was unimpressed with a good bit of their work at the breakdown, and the crowd were hugely unimpressed with Mr Patterson's interpretation of what happened at a ruck that Connacht snaffled through Kyle Tonetti on 31 minutes.

That was the key moment in the build up to the opening try of the game, neatly finished out wide by James Simpson-Daniel after a good offload by Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. At 11 points down and enough time for Freddie Burns perhaps to add to his earlier two penalties, you could see trouble ahead for the home team.

And then, soon after the restart, they got a lucky break, with the referee somehow reckoning that John Muldoon's pass to Gavin Duffy -- he had done really well to reclaim a Garryowen from Niall O'Connor -- was backwards. Duffy finished perfectly and suddenly it was a different game. From there to the break, Connacht looked a different team, despite having to survive a referral upstairs when Charlie Sharples almost touched down a chip by Henry Trinder.

Within four minutes of the restart O'Connor had closed the gap to a point when he tapped over a penalty from the 22, which left us with Connacht for the rest of the half trying to find the balance between pressure through the boot, and ball in hand. First though they needed the ball, and losing out 14-6 on the penalty count fed the Cherry and White forwards, and their powerful maul, and frustrated the home team.

With Mr Patterson leaning in their favour Gloucester were more comfortable than they should have been, and inevitably their territory carved out another penalty for Burns, to leave Connacht needing a try to get their noses in front.

As it turned out they never came close, defending for long periods against the rumbling Gloucester forwards. In the last play of the game, with the clock in overtime, they were battling to get downfield when O'Connor opted to put it in the air in the hope that it would be regained 40 metres downfield. It wasn't. Game over.

Connacht: G Duffy; M McCrea, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran (F Vainikolo 59); N O'Connor, F Murphy (PO'Donohoe 59); B Wilkinson, E Reynecke (A Flavin 66), R Loughney (R Ah You ht), D Gannon, M McCarthy (M Kearney 73), J Muldoon, G Naoupu, R Ofisa (E McKeon 38).

Gloucester: O Morgan; C Sharples, H Trinder (J May 67), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, R Lawson; N Wood, S Lawson (M Cortese 73), D Christolini (R Harden 60), P Buxton (W James 73), J Hamilton, B Deacon, L Narraway (capt), A Hazell (A Qera 56).

Referee: N Patterson (Sco).

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