Connacht pay price as fightback falls short
Gloucester 14 Connacht 7
Connacht's season of promise was in danger of hitting the rocks last night, but they will be praying a redemptive second-half performance will keep the show on the road.
Pat Lam's side couldn't bridge the 14-point lead they allowed Gloucester to build through their own inaccuracy in a poor first-half, but things had looked so bleak at half-time that the spirit shown afterwards should give them heart for the difficult run-in to their Guinness Pro12 campaign.
Despite the rousing comeback, this was an opportunity lost for the western province whose early season momentum was a distant memory during an error-strewn first half in which David Humphreys' side did their damage.
Although keeping hold of sixth place in the league represents their main goal for the season, the draw had offered them a home Challenge Cup semi-final if they could get over last night's challenge, but on a cold, wet and windy night, Lam's men failed to adapt to the conditions until it was too late.
In contrast, Gloucester's basics were excellent in a dominant first 40, with Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and Wales' James Hook controlling matters at half-back, while Lions hooker Richard Hibbard was outstanding in the loose.
Playing with a strong wind at their backs, Connacht needed to start well, but instead they were far too loose in the opening stages, where their lineout creaked and young out-half Jack Carty showed he still has a way to go on the biggest night of his career so far.
The Athlone native missed touch when offered an early chance to exert some pressure through a penalty, before kicking the ball dead from his own 10m line.
An experienced side like Gloucester needed no second invitation and happily went through phase after phase, forcing their visitors to make countless tackles in the knowledge that eventually someone would slip up.
Each time Connacht repelled their advances, they handed the ball back to the English side, whose pacey back-three were only too happy to return the ball with interest.
Although the hapless Billy Twelvetrees let them off on a number of occasions, Hook wasn't about to do so when Danie Poolman kicked loosely to the fly-half on 21 minutes.
The classy Welsh international neatly slipped the South African's tackle and fed Steve McColl, who drew Mils Muliaina and put Charlie Sharples in under the posts.
Laidlaw converted and when Connacht looked to come back into it, poor handling from Rodney Ah You handed the initiative back to the home side, who again set up camp in the visitors' territory and patiently went through their phases.
Connacht survived the initial onslaught, but couldn't relieve the pressure when John Afoa won a penalty on the floor as Denis Buckley got himself isolated and Hook kicked to touch.
Humphreys' men patiently probed until Hook sent a deft left-footed chip in behind the line, the bounce cruelly evaded Robbie Henshaw and Bill Meakes was only too happy to pounce.
Five minutes from half-time, Lam's cause wasn't helped when Muliaina limped off; his side pressed to get off the mark before the interval but squandered decent positions when first Tom McCartney and then Matt Healy knocked on after decent work off the lineout.
Fourteen points down, Lam demanded a response at half-time and his team delivered a considerable improvement after the break, even if the need to chase meant they turned down kickable penalties and failed to make their lineout count.
They spent much of the third quarter in enemy territory thanks to a dominant scrum and an improving lineout, but they rarely troubled the home side with ball in hand as even their normally reliable maul fell victim of mistakes.
Despite their pressure, a Healy slip saw him concede a penalty that Laidlaw sent wide to keep a sliver of hope alive.
And, after replacement George Naoupu made big gains off the back of a lineout on the 22, Carty went to the corner and Aly Muldowney took McCartney's throw, transferred to Eoghan Masterson and the backs helped shove the ball over the line. Henshaw touched down, but the referee awarded the penalty try.
Suddenly, the comeback was on and Connacht were playing with the confidence that had deserted them early on. Daragh Leader and Ian Porter both made gains that Gloucester were able to deal with, but Connacht kept coming to the last with their scrum offering one last push. Ultimately, Henshaw knocked on in contact and the hosts survived.
Connacht had given themselves too much to do.
GLOUCESTER - S McColl; C Sharples, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw; D Murphy (N Wood 43, R Hibbard, J Afoa (S Puafisi 42-49); T Savage, T Palmer; S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic, G Evans (R Moriarty 74).
CONNACHT - M Muliaina (D Leader 35); T O'Halloran, D Poolman (C Ronaldson 53), R Henshaw, M Healy (I Porter 64); J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Muldowney (G Naoupu 5-12); A Browne (G Naoupu 44), E Masterson (J Connolly 74), J Muldoon.
Ref - M Raynal (France)