Wasps sting not fatal but Connacht need to find antidote
When Jack Carty lined up the 60th-minute penalty that would have drawn his Connacht side level, there was a real sense at the Ricoh Arena that the visitors might just pull off something special.
Wasps 32 Connacht 17
The out-half connected well, but the effort stayed right. A chance to seize momentum passed and, within minutes, Joe Launchbury was scoring under the posts and the game was up.
There was much to admire about the Pro12 champions' efforts in Coventry, but ultimately their execution was off and they paid the price.
They turned down kickable penalties, but their lineout malfunctioned badly and they failed to protect the ball at pivotal moments. A series of backline injuries undermined their efforts and against a quality, if slightly under-firing, Wasps side, that all adds up to a bonus-point victory for the hosts.
The five-point swing gives Dai Young's team control of Pool 2, and Connacht's quarter-final hopes rest on their ability to beat the English side in Galway this Saturday.
Even with Toulouse away to come, this was the most difficult fixture on their itinerary and they can take heart from their competitiveness, but Kieran Marmion was frustrated with their inability to execute.
"Around 50 or 60 minutes, we were fairly confident we could push on and win the game," the scrum-half said. "We put ourselves in a good position, it was just the last 15 minutes it got away from us a little bit.
"We let ourselves down especially in their 22, we certainly had enough chances. "We need to try and fix it for next week. There is big confidence there that we can definitely take them next week.
"A few lads took knocks and a few lads had to play on with those knocks, and the lads showed great heart to keep fighting through.
"A losing bonus would have put us in a good place; but we didn't get that and we'll have to go forward and put it into training this week."
Pat Lam's game-plan involved his team hogging possession and tiring out the hulking home forwards, while forcing penalties.
For it to work, they needed scores on the board. Despite all of their good play, they went into the final quarter 20-17 down, and Wasps pulled away in the end.
Wasps are contenders for the overall prize and, while they never hit the heights the star names on their team-sheet suggest they can, they did enough.
They started strongly and Kurtley Beale scored a try with his first touch, but a harsh yellow card saw the Australian sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Niyi Adeolokun, and Marmion got over from a John Muldoon scrum pick to keep his side in touch.
With no recognised caller in the second-row, Connacht's lineout struggled but their scrum kept them in the game on a difficult afternoon for Marty Moore.
Again, Wasps made the faster start after half-time through Nathan Hughes' try, but Rory Parata picked off a Jimmy Gopperth pass to cancel it out.
As the hour-mark approached, it was all to play for but Carty's penalty sailed wide and, as Connacht visibly tired, former Leinster out-half Gopperth sent Launchbury through a big gap to score before combining well with Beale to put Josh Bassett over to secure the bonus.
"We had a lot of obstacles to overcome in the game, Connacht being the big one," said Wasps coach Young. "They played some great stuff and put us under lots of pressure right through the game.
"It was nothing we didn't expect, because you don't win a championship in any league without being a really quality team.
"We knew that they would really test our defence, we knew that they wouldn't kick too much, and that they would challenge us from all areas of the field. I thought our boys pretty much stood up to the challenge really strongly.
"Going into 60 minutes, we were something like 70pc territory and possession against us. We didn't really have enough ball in the right areas to fire too many shots of our own. When we did have opportunities, we were pretty clinical and took them.
"Coming into 60 minutes, it was nip and tuck. In fairness to the other boys, they found another gear and that was important."
His skipper Launchbury, who was outstanding and unlucky to lose out on the man of the match award, is expecting a difficult afternoon in Galway next Saturday.
"We talked all week about their attacking style, their threats and how dangerous they can be," said the second-row.
"They definitely showed that at times and we'll expect more of the same back in Galway next week. We're really pleased with parts of our game - in defence I felt we shut them down in certain areas - but playing them at home will be a different challenge for us.
"We'll have to contend with the atmosphere, the crowd, and all that comes with that. It's exciting building up to that, which is going to be a great challenge for us next week.
"They play a great brand of rugby and hopefully people watching today saw two teams trying to play with ball in hand, trying to offload, trying to play to the wide channels.
"They, like us, have dangerous runners out in the wide channels. We knew the danger of their back three and hopefully it was good for the neutral. They do play a good brand of rugby."
Connacht will need to add more execution to their brand if they are to get the result they need in Galway, however.
They face a coach who knows the Celtic scene well, while the three former Leinster players in the Wasps squad will be fully aware of what the Sportsground has to offer.
If they can improve their accuracy, Connacht will have a chance.
They left Coventry frustrated, which is a reminder of how far they've come, but if they want to go further in this competition then they'll need to reverse this result.
WASPS - R Miller; C Wade, A Leiua (B Macken 50), K Beale, J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson (J Simpson 61); M Mullan (T Bristow 74), T Taylor, M Moore (J Cooper-Wooley 54); J Launchbury (Capt), K Myall (J Gaskell 67); A Johnson (A Rieder 74), T Young (G Thompson 67), N Hughes.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran (M Healy 47); N Adeolokun, S Ili, B Aki, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley (JP Cooney 74), T McCartney (D Heffernan 67), C Carey (F Bealham 47); U Dillane, Q Roux (S O'Brien 61); N Fox-Matamua, J Heenan (E McKeon 47), J Muldoon (capt).
Ref - A Ruiz (France)