Inconsistency plagues Connacht as Cup dreams ended
Connacht 28 Gloucester 33
The final whistle that was greeted by a deathly silence around what had been a heaving Sportsground told its own story. It will be a while yet before Connacht are dining at the top table of Europe again, and judging by yesterday's evidence that may not be a bad thing.
The Connacht supporters are realistic about the transitional period that their side currently find themselves in, but even still, the frustration could be felt around Galway as they were dumped out of the Challenge Cup by Gloucester.
The Westerners' problem all season has been their inconsistency, and this bitterly disappointing defeat was a snapshot of that. Their poor domestic campaign meant that this was seen as their best route back to the Champions Cup, and while they did mount a late comeback, ultimately it came up short.
The hosts struggled to get their high tempo going and they will wonder what might have been because any time they did they hurt Gloucester, they proceeded to butcher gilt-edged opportunities.
"To be honest, I'm not disappointed," head coach Kieran Keane said afterwards. "I thought it was a great day, a great occasion. It was lovely to play in the day time. The boys got really pumped up for the game. The spectacle, the atmosphere, everything, it was just a good day of rugby."
Everything except the most important thing - the result.
The two teams shared four tries apiece, but Jack Carty's radar was off. The out-half, who was making his 100th appearance for his home province, missed three conversions that he would ordinarily expect to make.
When Connacht reflect on the defeat, they will do so knowing that they scored four quality tries. Two of those arrived in the second half courtesy of their flying wingers Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy. The latter's 71st-minute converted score left his side trailing by just two points but a late Billy Twelvetrees penalty sealed Gloucester's passage into the last four.
Connacht trailed 17-10 at the break, despite Ben Morgan spending 10 minutes in the bin for a high tackle. By that stage, Kieran Marmion had cancelled out James Hanson's early try.
The hosts made their numerical advantage count when Bundee Aki scored the try of the game after a brilliant offload from Denis Buckley to Tom McCartney in midfield.
That was as good as it got for Connacht however, as Gloucester roared back and tries from Tom Marshall and Henry Trinder, which was converted by Owen Williams who also had his troubles from the tee. The former Wales out-half added an early second-half penalty to push the English side 20-10 in front, before Adeolokun finished well in the right corner.
Carty landed his first kick with a penalty shortly afterwards, but then ex-Ulster prop John Afoa found another gaping hole in the defence and he waltzed through to score a try that Williams converted.
"Our defence wasn't where it normally is," Keane conceded. "We weren't that strong there and we gifted them a few points, which makes life hard.
"We were a little bit naive in what we did in the game on a couple of occasions, which put us on the back foot for virtually the whole game, but man, the character, the effort, the teamwork, the problem-solving - all those things were just wonderful. And we lost.
"I don't know what the right word is but sometimes people use the word 'sabotage'. Look, we allowed them into the game a little too easily. But it just put a smile on my face that we kept coming back and coming back. That's pleasing for me, it means I can do something."
Connacht did keep coming back but they left themselves too much to do. A second Williams penalty kept the scoreboard ticking over before Healy had the majority of the 8,129 inside the Sportsground on their feet.
Craig Ronaldson had already knocked over a penalty after Lewis Ludlow was shown a yellow card and the replacement out-half then converted Healy's try to offer hope of what had looked like an unlikely comeback.
But those hopes were dashed when Jarrad Butler followed Ludlow to the bin with three minutes left, and Twelvetrees added the insurance penalty for Gloucester.
Scorers - Connacht: Marmion, Aki, Adeolokun, Healy 1 try each, Carty 1 pen, Ronaldson 1 pen, 1 con. Gloucester: Hanson, Marshall, Trinder, Afoa 1 try, Williams 2 pens, 2 cons, Twelvetrees 1 pen.
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 Thursh (T Savage 72); R Moriarty (R Ackermann, 60), L Ludlow, B Morgan.
Ref: R Poite (France).
Sunday Indo Sport