have been left to reflect on a
season of extremes. From producing the season’s biggest upset with a victory over Toulouse in France,
the province recorded its poorest result when crushed by Saracens in the final pool game in Allianz Park on Saturday.
The pre-match script suggested it would be a bruising battle in which the bigger-budgeted premiership leaders would prevail, but few expected this 11-try rout. Motivated by a third successive quarter-final, the power and pace of Mark McCall’s Saracens on home turf was too much for Pat Lam’s side.
It was a far cry from Connacht’s disciplined performance in France that, together with a bonus-point from Saracens’ visit to Galway in round one, and two subsequent wins over Zebre, had enabled the province to entertain hopes of qualifying for the first time.
"It had shown what Connacht can do when we play as a team," said Lam on this year's campaign. "We don't have the
€30million-odd budgets of everyone else, but everything we are trying to do is about teamwork. The highlight was Toulouse when she showed that as a group we can achieve. The lowlight was Saracens. We were just destroyed . . . and that was the extreme. In between we have had some good bits . . . We keep learning and move on.”
Connacht is not the only team Saracens have demolished this season at the north London venue. They dished out a 51-10 drubbing to Scarlets and a 49-10 to Leicester, but there was much more riding on this game. Having escaped with a narrow 23-17 victory at the Galway Sportsground in round one, McCall had adopted the perfect game plan, which the players produced and outhalf Charlie Hodgson directed.
Although the visitors had lived with the English premiership leaders for most of the first half, there were warning signs. Hodgson utilised big men like the Vunipolo brothers to punch holes close to the gain line and open up space out wide for David Strettle, Chris Ashton and company. They restarted deep, disrupted the Connacht lineout, bullied the breakdown and were fast on their feet. While Connacht held their shape, they had some chance of keeping the score low and capitalising on chances, but after the break, and with Nathan White in the bin, they disintegrated.
Connacht outhalf Dan Parks had kicked a 6-5 lead within 20 minutes, during which time England winger Chris Ashton had opened Saracens’ try account. Hodgson’s provided the flat inside pass to Mako Vunipola who made the hard yards, before Hodgson supplied the England winner in the corner. David Strettle capitalised from a quick throw-in and to attack up the blind to grab the first of his hat-trick. And the turning point came a minute before the break when hooker Schalk Brits touched down from a rolling maul for an 18-6 half-time lead.
Connacht had their chances, but were forced into making too many errors. And within eight minutes of the restart Saracens put the game beyond doubt when porous defence allowed Strettle and fullback Alex Goode to run from deep and score.
Connacht's Gavin Duffy says the province will bounce back: "We lost our shape . . . but we look to our nearest and dearest, Munster, Ulster and Leinster, and the consistency they have and that's what we aspire to. Until we get that, we have a long way to go"