Lam laments errors as Westerners miss their chance to join big boys
It burned so bright, but the Pat Lam era is in danger of petering out after Connacht missed their shot at a first European Champions Cup quarter-final.
Toulouse 19 Connacht 10
Two more points would have been enough for the western province to take their place among the elite but despite a second-half fightback they couldn't get the job done.
What's worse was they were undone by their own errors against a team that started like a train but finished with fear after two years outside of the knock-out stages.
After having barely any possession or territory during a difficult first half, Connacht had both when they most needed them but couldn't take advantage. They were destroyed at the ruck on their own ball, but also took bad options at pivotal moments and coughed up possession too cheaply too often.
Connacht had the ball under the Toulouse posts with 10 minutes remaining, but never even looked like going for a drop-goal, instead working the ball wide, where Matt Healy knocked on. That would prove their last real chance.
"We're frustrated," Lam said. "You miss out by two points, it's a killer blow, particularly when we had enough chances to get over the line.
"The last thing you want to do when you come over here is give them a 14-point lead, particularly off a couple of system errors - a lot of teams that come here could have easily folded.
"The boys came back really well and we all knew the situation. We just needed a penalty or a try to get it within seven. We were keeping track and had chances and unfortunately we didn't take them."
The victory sends Toulouse 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.
For Lam in his final months as Connacht coach, the focus turns to making sure the Pro12 champions are back in Europe's top tier next season.
"We have got to make sure we earn out our right to be back in this competition next year," he said. "We have a week off now, boys can recover and then we have got five big games on the trot: Cardiff, Dragons, Zebre, Treviso, Zebre.
"There is no doubt we have got to win all of those to get us back hunting around that top six and see what happens."
Connacht returned home via Dublin last night filled with regret.
With several players recently returned from injury in the team, their cohesion was sorely lacking and they found themselves on the back foot from the off.
Although Cyril Baille was held up over the line by Denis Buckley, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan, the French side kept attacking and worked a big overlap for Gael Fickou to score.
A brilliant second score gave the western province more work to do as Yoann Huget broke outside Peter Robb and sent winger Arthur Bonneval over, with Jean-Marc Doussain converting to give his side a 14-point lead.
At that stage the bonus point win that would ensure Toulouse would qualify looked inevitable but despite losing Quinn Roux to the sin-bin Connacht pulled back a penalty through Craig Ronaldson.
Joe Tekori crashed over for Toulouse's third try, but after that the Irish side grew into the game and dominated much of the closing stages.
John Muldoon's try got them within range, but try as they might they couldn't get the score they needed.
When they reflect on their campaign as a whole they'll regret leaving the fourth try behind them at home to Toulouse as well as their second-half collapse away to Wasps, but they still had it in their own hands and couldn't get the job done.
"The last 15 minutes against Wasps, that was frustrating," Lam said. "We were right in that game and we made errors. And this game here.
"Besides that, to beat both those shows how far we have come, but we had a realistic chance to win this.
"Many teams, giving away 14 points. . . I'd say there are lots of people at home, the neutrals, thinking 'this is gone, they are going to get their four tries'.
"But the way the boys ground it out. . . unfortunately we are a team that has to play as a team. Dropped balls, errors, wrong system, things that will hurt us badly and it has been doing that for the last four, five weeks for our team.
"Again, the guys coming in, it's all learnings.
"I arrived in my first year in Connacht and we were in the Champions Cup (because Leinster had won the competition the previous season). We had no chance of getting out of our pool even though we won here.
"To where we are now, we worked hard and there was a genuine chance right up until the last play, and that shows you how far we have come.
"Earning the right to be top seeds, and then almost getting there. . . that is the frustrating bit at the end of it but I am pretty proud of how far we have come in Champions Cup Rugby.
"I am determined and so are the players, to make sure that Connacht Rugby is here next year, even if I'm not."
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).
Ref - W Barnes (England)