Keane underwhelmed after uninspired draw
Worcester 24 Connacht 24
Qualifying for the Challenge Cup quarter-finals was surely target number one for Connacht at the start of their European campaign, yet despite achieving their primary goal, Kieran Keane was justifiably underwhelmed by the draw his team ended up with at Sixways.
"It is a bit like kissing your sister. That's how it feels to me. Not that I have got a sister," said Keane, after his side shared the spoils with hosts Worcester Warriors, which secured top spot in Pool 5.
The coach rightly believed that his side should have taken a fifth win of the campaign from this clash and as a result they have damaged their hopes of being top seeds. In the end a spirited second-half and Tiernan O'Halloran's brilliant try could not deliver the spoils, due largely to a slow start as part of a sloppy opening period overall.
Worcester scored two tries in the first five minutes as Connacht left their intensity in the warm-up, while yellow cards for Quinn Roux and Jarrad Butler meant they ended the first-half with 13 men and having conceded four tries.
"It's almost humorous the way things started, six minutes and we are down 12 points. We couldn't have come out faster backwards in any shape or form," said Keane.
"I am massively (positive), but the big issue is about how we dig these holes for ourselves and we are pretty good at it.
"We have had a few honesty sessions and had some chats and a lot of debate, and a lot of direction. The time for chats is probably over and we just have to get things right otherwise will make it too tough and probably lose."
It was only after the desperate opening 15 minutes and a 12-0 deficit that Connacht shook themselves to life. The comeback coincided with the sin-binning of Chris Pennell for a trip on the tryline-bound Kieran Marmion, and after choosing to scrum the penalty, John Muldoon picked off the back and scored under the posts.
But Connacht lapsed when Perry Humphreys scored his second, yet just before Pennell returned, Niyi Adeolokun pounced on a loose ball and showed stunning acceleration to score. Ronaldson, who landed four from four, converted to make it 17-14.
A rarity nowadays, there was no live television coverage from Sixways and therefore no TMO. Bundee Aki had a try ruled out in the first-half for stepping in touch and Conor Carey similarly late on, but referee Alexandre Ruiz was decisive in the 33rd and 35th minutes when he yellow carded Roux and Butler. With the duo on the sidelines, Warriors scored their bonus point try for a 24-14 half-time lead.
"The first instance in that second-half was chew up the minutes without giving away any points and without letting the opposition get into the game. That worked pretty well," said Keane, whose side got back into the game with a 54th-minute Ronaldson penalty, before O'Halloran stepped off the wing and seared over for the levelling score.
All of a sudden Warriors realised that the game points were not wrapped up and they attempted to lift their efforts, but Connacht had the upperhand on them at that point.
A brilliant jackal from Caolin Blade, a lineout turnover from Ultan Dillane and some great running lines from Aki and Tom Farrell were the standout plays for Connacht as they went in search for the winner, but they were unable to put the gloss on any of their strike moves.
Still unbeaten in this season's competition on the back of a first draw in 117 Challenge Cup games, Connacht are still favourites to land a home quarter-final, but it will take victory against Oyonnax next weekend to guarantee it. Finishing in the top two seeds will give them a guaranteed home semi-final should they get that far, so there is still plenty to play for.
Worcester Warriors - J Adams; P Humphreys, C Pennell, R Mills, D Hammond; J Shillcock, F Hougaard; E Waller, J Singleton, S Kerrod, D Barry, P Phillips, D Denton, S Lewis, GJ van Velze (c). Reps: R Bower for Waller (54), M Cox for Lewis (54), B Alo for Kerrod (59), M Dowsett for Hoogard (64), H Taylor for Phillips (72).
Connacht Rugby - T O'Halloran; D Leader, B Aki, T Farrell, N Adeolokun; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; P McCabe, D Heffernan, C Carey, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon (c). Reps: C Kelleher for Leader (51), C Blade for Marmion (54), D Coulson for McCabe (72), N Dawai for Masterson (72).
Ref - Alexandre Ruiz (France)