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Connacht pay heavy price as bonus chance turned down

Connacht 18 Bristol 27

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Hit hard: Jack Aungier of Connacht is tackled by Ioan Lloyd of Bristol Bears during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool B match at the Sportsground. Photo: Sportsfile

Hit hard: Jack Aungier of Connacht is tackled by Ioan Lloyd of Bristol Bears during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool B match at the Sportsground. Photo: Sportsfile

Hit hard: Jack Aungier of Connacht is tackled by Ioan Lloyd of Bristol Bears during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool B match at the Sportsground. Photo: Sportsfile

Trailing by nine points with the clock in the red, all logic suggested to take the three on offer, snatch the losing bonus point, and then see which way the cards fall.

As it is, however, neither a converted late try nor a penalty were unlikely to have done much for Connacht's chances of advancing to the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup, but to have come away empty-handed at the end of a frenetic tussle with Bristol was a real kick in the teeth.

Logic can often go out the window in the white heat of battle, and it certainly did at the Sportsground last night, as Connacht were left to rue some poor decision-making.

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Bristol Bears' Dan Thomas is tackled by Connacht's Jarrad Butler (left) and Caolin Blade. Photo: PA

Bristol Bears' Dan Thomas is tackled by Connacht's Jarrad Butler (left) and Caolin Blade. Photo: PA

Bristol Bears' Dan Thomas is tackled by Connacht's Jarrad Butler (left) and Caolin Blade. Photo: PA

 

Paul Boyle is a young captain and given the experience he had around him at the time, he should not be the fall guy, but even still, the Gorey man was quick to put his hands up and acknowledge that he had made an error.

"The honest answer is in my head when I was making the decision was that we were out of the Heineken Cup and the pride thing took over," the Connacht captain admitted.

"In the end, looking back on it, it is not the smartest decision. I will take that on the chin. Challenge Cup did not come into my head at all. So that was a mistake. That is on me."

Connacht will have major regrets about how they managed the end-game, but the sloppiness was largely indicative of a fractured performance which was some way below their best.

"At the end of the day, you have to trust the players out there on the field," Connacht head coach Andy Friend, said with regard to the decision to opt for a scrum rather than take the shot at goal.

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"If they feel they have momentum and they think they can get over, well I'll back that. Paul and I had a brief chat afterwards around that decision. But I will trust and back what they are doing out there, but it didn't work for us there tonight."

It took a while to get going, but as soon as it did, Connacht and Bristol served up the Christmas cracker that had been expected. That will come as scant consolation to Friend, whose side came up short in Europe for the second week running. Defeat to Racing last weekend meant that there was no margin for error here, but Connacht were the architects of their own downfall, as their Champions Cup ambitions all but went up in smoke.

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Connacht's John Porch scores his side's second try despite the efforts from Bristol Bears' Niyi Adeolokun. Photo: PA

Connacht's John Porch scores his side's second try despite the efforts from Bristol Bears' Niyi Adeolokun. Photo: PA

Connacht's John Porch scores his side's second try despite the efforts from Bristol Bears' Niyi Adeolokun. Photo: PA

 

A sloppy set-piece, coupled with several inaccuracies and poor discipline, left the Westerners with too much to do, as Pat Lam returned to Galway and masterminded a 27-18 defeat of his former side.

The game exploded into life either side of the break, and it was Connacht who paid a heavy price, as Bundee Aki was given a costly yellow card after Bristol had opened the scoring.

"I thought the game was in the balance up until then, and we talked about it at half time, making sure we don't give away any silly penalties and we get a bloke in the bin," Friend said.

"Now, they did as well, so we needed to capitalise a bit better than what we did, but at that stage we were chasing things, so yeah, that hurt us."

It wasn't the only thing that hurt the Westerners as their lineout struggled badly, which repeatedly cost them field position.

"Both teams didn't get the accuracy they wanted," Friend reasoned.

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Connacht's John Porch (left) and Bristol Bears' John Afoa compete for a high ball. Photo: PA

Connacht's John Porch (left) and Bristol Bears' John Afoa compete for a high ball. Photo: PA

Connacht's John Porch (left) and Bristol Bears' John Afoa compete for a high ball. Photo: PA

 

"Normally, with our own lineout we are more accurate than we were tonight. We are working hard to rectify that, we had key locks out and at the same time, Ultan Dillane did a good job calling there. I'm not going to put it down to a lineout failing."

Back-to-back defeats means that Connacht are likely to switch their focus to the PRO14, and although a Challenge Cup place is still on offer, Friend will be mindful of managing his squad over the upcoming busy festive period.

A trip to Bristol and a home game against Racing lies ahead after Christmas, but such is the difficult nature of both remaining pool games, Connacht are really up against it.

"These next few games will be really crucial for us, we have Ulster, Leinster and Munster - three massive ones," Friend admitted.

"I do believe we belong in the Champions Cup. We were frustrated coming out of Paris as well as we are tonight. People said we did well but we still lost and we don't want to be that footy team that people are proud of because we lost a game of football.

"I love the energy but we want to be winning games in the Champions Cup, not just competing. We haven't been able to do that yet but it is really important that we try and get two wins."

Connacht trailed Bristol 5-3 at the break as former Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne got the only try of the first half before Jack Carty added a late penalty.

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Bristol Bears' head coach Pat Lam. Photo: PA

Bristol Bears' head coach Pat Lam. Photo: PA

Bristol Bears' head coach Pat Lam. Photo: PA

 

Aki's yellow card, for pulling back Piers O'Conor off the ball, shortly after the restart was very damaging, as Bristol ran in two converted scores courtesy of Ed Holmes and O'Conor - both of which were converted by Callum Sheedy.

Although Connacht did hit back through Tiernan O'Halloran, they were unable to make the most of Bristol's Siale Piutau following Aki to the bin.

A Carty penalty made it a six-point game (13-19) with 13 minutes left on the clock, but just as it looked to be too little, too late when Ioan Lloyd's try secured Bristol's bonus point, the home side struck again through John Porch on 74 minutes.

Any hopes of completing what would have been a remarkable comeback were soon dashed, however, as Sheedy added a late penalty, before Connacht turned down the chance to earn a losing bonus point.

Connacht - J Porch; A Wootton (T O'Halloran 49), A Arnold, B Aki, M Healy (T Daly 70); J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 55); D Buckley (J Duggan 55), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 52), F Bealham (J Aungier 52); E Masterson, U Dillane; S Masterson (J Butler 49), C Oliver (C Prendergast 72), P Boyle (capt).

Bristol Bears - M Malins; S Naulago (N Adeolokun 70), P O'Conor, S Piutau (A Leiua 76), I Lloyd; C Sheedy, H Randall (T Kessel 79); J Woolmore (M Lahiff 60), B Byrne (W Capon 60), K Sinckler (J Afoa 54); D Attwood, E Holmes; S Luatua (capt) (J Joyce 70), B Earl, N Hughes (D Thomas 60).

Ref - M Adamson (Scotland)


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