Sunday 21 July 2019

Cruel obstruction blocks Connacht's path to Europe

Gloucester 40-32 Connacht (AET)

Connacht’s Dave Heffernan can’t hide his disappointment at the final whistle
Connacht’s Dave Heffernan can’t hide his disappointment at the final whistle
Gloucester's Jonny May celebrates scoring a try in extra time
Gloucester's John Afoa (left) is tackled by Connacht's Eoin Mckeon during the European Champions Cup Play-off showdown
Connacht's Eoghan Masterson is shown a yellowcard and sinbinned by referee Romain Poite
David Kelly

David Kelly

Madness, the band, will be let loose in this stadium next weekend; madness of a wildly different variety occurred in Kingsholm yesterday.

From potty Poite to the mazy running of Mr Chaos, Johnny May, this sun-splashed spectacular had all the excitement expected of a desperate struggle between two sides deemed not good enough to qualify automatically for the Champions Cup.

Sadly for Pat Lam’s Connacht side, their extraordinary efforts after 100 minutes of effervescent, energetic and error-strewn rugby were not enough to earn his side’s place amongst the European elite.

Gloucester themselves may not yet even earn the distinction; they must endure yet another play-off – against Bordeaux-Begles next weekend in Worcester, as Suggs and Co pitch up here.

After this heart-stopping affair, one wonders would Connacht’s supporters have been able to surf another 80-minute wave of raucously rollercoasting emotions.

As is their wont, the plot read like a dog-eared action thriller.

Enmeshed in danger from the first page after conceding a horrendous score after just 73 seconds, they fought back manfully and seemed set fair to make a dramatic spring to glory when leading by four points as the end credits were being prepared.

Referee Romain Poite, interloping as a dastardly villain to green-tinted eyes, offered the home side more than a helping hand when ignoring a blatant obstruction during the final play of normal time which, thanks to Bill Meakes’ controversial try, ushered the game into extra-time and, ultimately a bridge too far for a tiring Connacht.

“For us it looked like there was blocking, one of our players looked like he was taken out, but you have to live with those calls,” said a gutted Lam after the piece.

Ben Kay, the former England player, called it “disgraceful”.

“At that moment, everyone thought we were done and dusted and the crowd were gone crazy but we re-gathered ourselves for extra-time,” added Lam.

Again, the pernickety Poite would influence matters, awarding Gloucester a penalty on the stroke of half-time in extra-time when Tom Palmer was clearly lying on the wrong side.

James Hook kicked his side 28-25 ahead and it didn’t appear as if the script could take any more dramatic lurches. But it did.

Matt Healy’s second try of the afternoon survived another TMO intervention, Robbie Henshaw being correctly absolved of a knock-on in the build-up and, 32-28 ahead with just eight minutes remaining, the game was again Connacht’s to lose.

Somehow they conspired to do so, needlessly tossing away possession; first, when Darren Dawidiuk mauled over close to the line after Dave Heffernan had been binned for Connacht.

Johnny May then poured salt into open wounds with a wondrous 70-yard run to secure the win, flooring Connacht and ending their dreams of qualifying for the Champions Cup by right for the first time in their history.

“I’m so proud of the boys and gutted for them,” added Lam. “We certainly deserved more from that. We need to take the learnings out of this. Our inexperience cost us at crucial times.”

Naturally, Gloucester head coach David Humpreys, who had virtually resigned himself to defeat when Jack Carty kicked his late penalty to push his side four points clear with as many minutes remaining, steered clear of any refereeing analysis.

“It was the type of game that was just impossible to analyse,” remarked a breathless Humphreys, the former Ulster chief . “We’d resigned ourselves to being on holiday. It’s not appropriate after that game to talk about refereeing decisions.”

If Connacht managed to erase the poor starts and finishes to games this season, they might have already qualified for Champions Cup fare.

If anything, they were a bit too eager from the first whistle; the pod they deputised to collect the kick-off wildly over-shooting their mark and George Naupou spilled.

A mere 73 seconds later, they were assessing the damage beneath their posts, Ross Moriarty having burrowed over from a five-yard drive.

Greig Laidlaw converted and, on a clammy afternoon against a rested home side already declaring their intent to unleash a multi-phased, all-running game, the away side could have had their senses jolted.

Unnerved, however, they stuck resolutely to their task.

An early success at the scrum – the set-piece would soon require the first intervention of Mr Poite as he removed both Denis Buckley and John Afoa – gave them their opening bow in the eighth minute.

Sixty seconds later, they were ahead, stunning the mostly partisan 7,633 crowd. The outstanding Matt Healy crashed into Charlie Sharples as he rushed on to a tentative Bill Meakes pass; as the ball spilled loose, scrum-half John Cooney spurted forth and scampered for the line.

Jack Carty converted and his side led 10-7.

Back came Gloucester, working the shortside superbly, Fionn Carr being dragged out of position as lovely hands from Meekes allowed James Hook the space to send Sharples clear.

Carr responded superbly, linking with out-half Carty to send the youngster over the whitewash and his conversion edged the visitors 17-15 ahead on the half-hour.

On the hour mark, Connacht scored their third try, a brilliant chip from Carty locating the wondrous Healy in oceans of space and his competent finish was, sadly, unconverted by the try’s creator.

Despite leading 22-18, it would prove to be a crucial miss given the late drama to come even as he nailed a penalty for 25-18 in the final minute of normal time.

Cue more madness – this was one step beyond.

Gloucester – C Sharples (D Robson 65); J May, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (capt), H Purdy (R Cook 52); J Hook, G Laidlaw; N Wood (Y Thomas 66), R Hibbard (D Dawidiuk 61), J Afoa (S Knight 90), T Savage (E Stooke 71 (R Moriarty 75)), T Palmer; J Rowan, D Thomas (S Knight 35-45), R Moriarty.

Connacht  – T O’Halloran (S O’Leary 66); F Carr (M Nikora 75), R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, J Cooney (I Porter 65); D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 71), R Ah You (F Bealham 55), G Naoupu (A Browne 55), A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson (JP Cooney 35-45), E McKeon (J Connolly 72).

Ref – R Poite (FFR)

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