Wednesday 25 April 2018

Connacht's 'naivety' costs them Euro dream

Connacht 28 Gloucester 33

Connacht captain John Muldoon (centre right) and Eoin McKeon can’t hide their dejection after their Challenge Cup defeat to Gloucester. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht captain John Muldoon (centre right) and Eoin McKeon can’t hide their dejection after their Challenge Cup defeat to Gloucester. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Even accounting for the fact that this is very much a transitional period for Connacht, Saturday's lacklustre defeat to Gloucester felt like a huge missed opportunity.

A wildly inconsistent PRO14 campaign meant that the Challenge Cup was their best route back to the Champions Cup, but they came up short and were overturned in their own back yard, which will rankle with supporters.

What will hurt even more is that Connacht may not have had to win the Challenge Cup - a place in the last four could have been enough if, as expected, the other three semi-finalists qualify via their respective domestic leagues, for next season's Champions Cup.

As it is, the Westerners face another season in Europe's second tier. It remains to be seen what kind of knock-on effect that will have in terms of attracting players to the Sportsground, yet head coach Kieran Keane doesn't envisage that being an issue.

"Well, not from our experience this season, we've done pretty well," the Kiwi suggested.

In keeping with their overall season, Connacht will have many regrets for the manner in which they were so easily opened up by Gloucester.

Tom Farrell is stopped by Ben Morgan of Gloucester during the quarter-final clash at the Sportsground. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tom Farrell is stopped by Ben Morgan of Gloucester during the quarter-final clash at the Sportsground. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The Premiership side didn't have to be at their best, yet at times they were made to look like world-beaters. Their profligacy ensured that the five-point winning margin wasn't greater.

The emergence of Pat Lam, who was in Galway working as a television pundit, on to the side of the pitch before kick-off was greeted with the kind of adulation that surely had the home crowd yearning for days gone by.

But deep down the majority of Connacht supporters will realise that Lam didn't exactly tear up trees in his first season with the club either.

Only finishing above the two Italian teams in the PRO12 and being knocked out at the pool stages of the Champions Cup backs up that point.

Kieran Marmion goes over to score Connacht's first try. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Kieran Marmion goes over to score Connacht's first try. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"Hang in there, hang in there," is Keane's message to the fans.

"Don't be too disappointed if it doesn't happen for us this season. It's going to happen. Just stay the course."

The likelihood is that Connacht are indeed on the right track, but their glaring defensive issues must be eradicated. Like Keane, Peter Wilkins is in his first season as defence coach.

It will take time for his systems to be fully implemented, yet in what was the Westerners' biggest game of the season, they creaked under the pressure.

"I do believe we're a little bit naive as a team still, so from my perspective we do have an issue about allowing teams to get into an area and get the ball," Keane maintained.

Matt Healy is tackled by Gloucester's Tom Marshall. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Matt Healy is tackled by Gloucester's Tom Marshall. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"Second half an example, I'm not going to talk too much about it, but they squeezed us looking for the penalty.

"I mean the whole team knew that it was going to happen, but we gave the penalty away at scrum time and that gave them eight or nine points, I think it was at that stage.

Flair

"So little things like that, we know what's going on but unfortunately we slip up sometimes."

Bundee Aki makes it over to score a try despite the efforts of Jason Woodward. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki makes it over to score a try despite the efforts of Jason Woodward. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Both teams scored four tries and while at times Connacht's attacking flair was a joy to watch, their problems of old came back to haunt them.

James Hanson's early try was cancelled out by Kieran Marmion before another one of Ireland's Grand Slam winners Bundee Aki scored a stunning team try.

Jack Carty struggled from the tee in his 100th appearance for his home province, and that was punished by Tom Marshall and Henry Trinder tries, as well as an Owen Williams conversion and penalty, which left the visitors 17-10 in front at half-time. That was despite Ben Morgan spending 10 minutes in the bin.

"I think it was just a bit of a bounce of a ball (for Gloucester's opening try), wasn't it?" Marmion reasoned.

"It just didn't go our way, which kind of sums up our last season really - we haven't had the bounce of the ball."

The second half didn't get much better as a clever Niyi Adeolokun try, converted by Carty, was quickly followed by former Ulster and All Black prop John Afoa scoring a fourth try.

Matt Healy's excellent score nine minutes from time, as well as a conversion and a penalty from Craig Ronaldson, kept the comeback alive, but by that stage Williams had found his radar.

With Lewis Ludlow in the bin, and Connacht now within two points, Jarrad Butler was also shown a yellow card and then Billy Twelvetrees fired over a late penalty to seal the win.

"When we're in possession we look pretty good at times, but sometimes we don't," Keane added.

"Bundee Aki's try was a great team try. I don't think you'd see too many better this weekend. Man, when we get it right, we get it right. But we don't always get it right.

"You can't look at the doom and gloom of what actually, or possibly is going to become reality.

"Otherwise you'll wake up in the morning and wonder what the hell you're doing. I think the team is in a good space, we've got growing pains, we're learning, we're getting tighter.

"We've recruited really well, we're looking forward to this and that and we're trying to get our house in order."

Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty (C Ronaldson 58), K Marmion; D Buckley (P McCabe 68), T McCartney (D Heffernan 58), F Bealham (C Carey, 62); G Thornbury, Q Roux (U Dillane 58); E McKeon (E Masterson 72), J Butler, J Muldoon.

Gloucester - J Woodward; C Charples, H Trinder (B Burns 72), M Atkinson, T Marshall; O Williams (B Twelvetrees 71), W Heinz (capt) (C Braley 78); V Rapava Ruskin (J Hohneck 50), J Hanson (M Matu'u 68), J Afoa ( F Balmain 68); E Slater, J Thrush (T Savage 72); R Moriarty (R Ackermann, 60), L Ludlow, B Morgan.

Ref - R Poite (France)

Irish Independent

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