Lam's depleted ranks count cost of rare loss
Newcastle 29 Connacht 5
Connacht coach Pat Lam said that their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup remain firmly in their own grasp despite this heavy defeat at Kingston Park yesterday.
His massively depleted squad equipped themselves superbly in the opening half but it all went horribly wrong after the restart and Falcons dished out a big defeat.
The loss, their first in four pool games this season, continues a dismal run of results in England, where Connacht have still only won twice in 17 visits.
It looked like that would change in the opening half as Lam's patched-up side were superior but did not turn that advantage into scores.
But while the casualty list has increased with centre Peter Robb going off with a head injury in the opening half and was followed in the second half when Danie Poolman suffered a rib injury, Lam said their European hopes are in their own hands having won their opening three games.
"It is, we knew that. We knew that coming in, we had a bit of breathing space. So we park this competition now, we get back and hopefully we get a bit of a better injury run and we get over to Brive when we come back and we finish with Enisei-STM.
"It's still in our hands but like in everything, we have got to take the lessons out of this and the learnings. We spoke about that in the changing room," he said.
Connacht were in the hunt to win at this ground for the first time in three visits when they were level at 5-5 at the break, but the game changed after the restart when flanker Eoghan Masterson was harshly binned.
Falcons, without a win in the Premiership all season, didn't need another invitation and struck for a couple of tries to bury them.
And to compound matters, the defeat came with two more players being injured to further deplete Lam's options as he prepares for festive derbies at home to Ulster and away to Leinster.
Connacht had 19 of their European-registered players unavailable through injury for this clash, with just nine fit backs available for duty.
Not long after the hour mark that had been reduced by another two Poolman followed Robb into the casualty department as Lam frantically tried to rearrange players on the pitch.
"When you finish a game with (scrum-half) Caolin Blade on the wing, and (out-half) Jack Carty back at full-back, you just have to be grateful that we got through," added Lam.
The toll on Connacht just proved to be too much and having dominated the opening half, their challenge disintegrated after the restart when Masterson was binned and Falcons were awarded the first of two penalty tries.
Masterson was denied a try in the opening 30 seconds when referee Ben Whitehouse adjudged there was a double movement before he touched down in a blistering start.
That meant Connacht had to be content with a 5-5 scoreline at the break, despite being on top for most of it. But England sevens star Marcus Watson showed his sublime pace to score the opening try after 25 minutes.
Connacht hit back six minutes from the interval when Poolman, who scored their only try in the 29-10 win in Galway the previous week, finished a good move which started with a lineout on the left and was finished in the right corner.
But their hopes of making it four wins in the Challenge Cup were blown away as Falcons enjoyed a superb start to the second period.
"At the start of the second half we didn't use that wind well at all. We lost the ball right at the beginning and they came at us. And then penalty try, yellow card and then the momentum changed massively on the back of that," lamented Lam.
Falcons backed up the penalty try with a fine score from Argentine international Belisario Agulla.
Inevitably, they pushed on and got the bonus point from a second penalty try after 57 minutes after Connacht were penalised for bringing down a five-metre scrum.
Newcastle completed the rout when winger Watson got his second try of the game as Connacht were left counting the cost of only their third defeat of the season.
Now Lam faces a battle to get as many players as possible back from the casualty list as they prepare to entertain Ulster at the Sportsground on Saturday.
"We started well, we certainly scored a try, Eoghan Masterson. We put a lot of pressure on but we didn't just score points. And there were 20 minutes there that we didn't get over, even though we worked very hard. Our execution was out, and there were some tough calls. We just need to regroup for Ulster," added Lam.
Newcastle Falcons - S Hammersley (T Catterick 31-39); A Tait, B Agulla, C Harris (J P Socino 40), M Watson; C Willis (Catterick, S Takulua; A Rogers (R Vickers 51), S Lawson, J Welsh (T Vea 58); M Botha, S Robinson (C Green 58); W Welch, D Temm (R Mayhew 65), A Hogg.
Connacht - D Poolman (I Porter 63); R Parata, P Robb (J Carty 12), C Ronaldson, N Adeolokun; S O'Leary, C Blade (Porter 48-52); C O'Donnell (S Meunargia 71), J Harris-Wright (S Delahunt 57), R Ah You (F Bealham 54); D Qualter, A Browne (A Muldowney 65); S O'Brien, E Masterson, G Naoupu.
Ref - Ben Whitehouse (Wales)