There will be no historic Champions Cup quarter-final for Pat Lam before he leaves Connacht and the departing coach and his players will leave Toulouse with a hatful of regrets.
Having failed to fire in the first-half at Stade Ernest Wallon, the Guinness Pro12 champions, who needed to prevent scoring four tries while earning a losing bonus point to progress, got within nine points and spurned a series of good opportunities to get within the range they needed.
Toulouse played well, but Connacht were the architects of their own down-fall during a hugely frustrating second-half where a series of attacking mistakes and a failure to win the ruck battle cost them dear.
Although their attacking execution let them down after half-time, they will reflect on a first-half in which they never got going and struggled to get a foot-hold in the game.
Toulouse now face a return to Thomond Park to face Munster in a repeat of the 2014 quarter-final, while Pool winners Wasps will take on Leinster in Dublin after they overcame their early difficulties to engineer a bonus point win against Zebre.
It looked ominous early on for the Irish province and the home side thought they had scored through Cyril Baille after just four minutes, but after an excellent break from Gael Fickou and a relentless set of carries the prop was held up over the line by the combined efforts of Denis Buckley, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan.
Toulouse didn’t let that put them off, however, forcing a free-kick and then a penalty from the resultant scrum and re-set and after Sebastien Bezy tapped the penalty it was only a matter of time before they worked an over-lap for Fickou to score.
Jean-Marc Doussain converted and although Connacht had a brief foray into enemy territory, their attempts to put a Toulouse lineout under pressure went too far and Wayne Barnes handed the home team a reprieve.
The Irish province were struggling to get a foot-hold and they found themselves further adrift when Yoann Huget streaked outside the stranded Peter Robb off a solid scrum ball, drew Tiernan O’Halloran and fed Arthur Bonneval and he finished brilliantly by handing off Matt Healy.
Doussain converted from the touchline as the game threatened to get away from a Connacht side who were showing the effects of having so many players just back from injury.
Jack Carty missed touch with a crucial chance to put his side in position and that error summed up a first-half laced with mistakes.
A Peter Robb knock-on invited yet more attacking opportunities for Toulose as Bezy raced into the Connacht half, but Yann David was hauled down short of the line by Craig Ronaldson before Wayne Barnes penalised the attempted set-up of a maul for obstruction and the visitors survived.
Ronaldson got his side on the scoreboard with a penalty after a brilliant Buckley poach but a silly concession from Quinn Roux, who tugged Bezy’s arm while lying on the deck as the scrum-half looked to get the ball away, handed Doussain the chance to cancel that score out.
He missed it, but Barnes sent Roux off for 10 minutes but Toulouse couldn’t add to their tally before half-time and a neck-roll from Census Johnston gave Ronaldson a chance to pull a penalty back but his effort sailed wide.
Tiernan O’Halloran stopped Fickou short after he had swept Kieran Marmion aside and a Joe Tekori knock-on allowed Connacht relieve the pressure.
Two successive penalties for hauling down mauls edged Toulouse into the corner and put Connacht on a final warning from Barnes and although Roux returned, the French side decoyed the drive and Tekori crashed over on the peel.
Doussain failed to convert and Connacht hit back almost instantly as they capitalised on obstruction in midfield with Ronaldson finding the corner with a brilliant kick.
Toulouse hauled down the maul but a second attempt was spoiled, leading to a Connacht scrum in midfield. Robb trucked it up close to the line and with an over-lap outside him John Muldonn broke through Bezy’s tackle to score and Ronaldson converted to make it a nine-point game.
Suddenly, the visiting fans in the 12,023 crowd found their voice and the natives began to get restless but a promising Connacht attack came asunder as Christopher Tolofua forded a penalty for Heenan holding on while an off-side penalty minutes later further undermined their efforts before Baille forced another ruck penalty on the edge of his own ’22.
Another chance went a begging as Maestri picked off a Dave Heffernan throw on the edge of the Toulouse ’22 and then Thierry Dusautoir forced yet another breakdown penalty to further frustrate Connacht.
Still, they stayed in the game knowing that they were so close to their goal and James Cannon brilliantly picked off a lineout, Huget and Bezy messed up from Matt Healy’s chip in behind but again Connacht couldn’t take advantage of the field position and Healy knocked on Carty’s wide pass.
During the series of phases before that moment, Connacht had ample opportunity to attempt a drop-goal but didn’t and ultimately they would regret their choice.
Connacht continued to ruin their own good chances. Having engineered a lineout on the edge of the Toulouse’22, they eschewed the maul as Muldoon peeled to the blind-side but had his pass to Healy picked off by Bezy.
That turned out to be the chance. Toulouse couldn’t get the bonus point to secure their place, but as Connacht looked to attack from deep within their own territory the game was summed up by the final play as a Toulouse forward got himself over the ball after Tiernan O’Halloran’s carry and forced one last ruck penalty.
Game over, Connacht out.
TOULOUSE – Y Huget; A Bonneval, Y David, G Fickou, P Perez; JM Doussain, S Bezy; C Baille (V Kalvokin 66), C Tolofua (L Ghiraldini 68), C Johnston (M van Dyk 66); R Gray, Y Maestri; J Tekori (G Galan 68), T Dusautoir (capt), F Cros.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun (D Poolman 63), P Robb, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (J Cooney 75); D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 65), F Bealham (J Andress 75); Q Roux, J Cannon; N Fox-Matamua (S O’Brien 63), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
Referee: W Barnes (England)
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