Worcester 24 Connacht 24
Connacht never seem to make it easy on themselves. Unbeaten and leading pool five of the Challenge Cup, a bonus-point win to give them the best possible chance of a home quarter-final and possible semi-final looked doable given their current European form. Instead they “couldn’t have come out faster backwards” at Sixways Stadium on Saturday, down 12-0 within five minutes, 24-14 at half-time, and then once again staged a recovery to pound the line, a la against Leinster. This time, however, they forced the draw, wrapped up pool leadership, but ultimately know they left three points behind.
Having survived a double sin-binning, taken control of the second half, and drawn level, while keeping Worcester scoreless, Connacht then failed to put their hosts away in the final minutes. Those three points could prove crucial when the Challenge Cup’s final round is complete, with Newcastle, Pau/Gloucester, and Edinburgh all sitting pretty.
"Disappointed not to nail it at the end, we had the opportunity," says coach Kieran Keane. "We dug a hole for ourselves, buried ourselves halfway up to the shoulders and then came out of it with a little bit of class. Pretty chuffed with how they finished, but disappointed they couldn't actually put the nail in the coffin.
“The big issue is about how we dig these holes for ourselves and we are pretty good at it. We’ve had a few honesty sessions and a lot of debate, but the time for chat is probably over. We just have to get things right otherwise we make it too tough and will probably lose.”
Alan Solomons’s Worcester bagged four tries in the opening 40 minutes – two within five of the start, cleverly kicking behind the cover and catching Connacht off the pace on a fast hybrid pitch. Connacht played catch-up thereafter.
“Ironic, because we had two focus points prior to the game in terms of attack and defence, and one of them was to get out of the blocks really quickly. Instead, six minutes and we are down 12 points. We certainly didn’t roar out of the blocks as planned.”
Right wing Perry Humphreys won the race from fullback Josh Adams's kick behind for the first and two minutes later former Osprey's flanker Sam Lewis bagged the second, profiting from a partial block down and another bounce of the ball.
Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion looked a likely scorer before being illegally felled by Chris Pennell, but from the resulting penalty scrum, captain John Muldoon burst from the base to touch down with Craig Ronaldson converting. Four minutes later Humphreys grabbed his second try, before Connacht countered when Niyi Adeolokun crossed, narrowing the gap to just three.
Yellow cards to Quinn Roux and Jarrad Butler forced the visitors on the hind foot again as they conceded a fourth try before the break.
However Keane's side turned around the break with a "different mindset", chewed up the minutes, took control, and played most of the rugby. Caolan Blade and Cian Kelleher's introductions added timely impetus, and both played their part as Tom Farrell and Bundee Aki started finding gaps before Tiernan O'Halloran produced some magic to post a 59th minute try. Ronaldson converted to level, setting up a real opportunity to win, but once again errors thwarted that plan.
Scoring sequence: 2 mins Humphreys try, Pennell con 7-0; 5 mins Lewis try 12-0; 17 mins Muldoon try, Ronaldson con 12-7; 22 mins Humphreys try 17-7; 26 mins Adeolokun try, Ronaldson con 17-14; 39 mins Adams try, Pennell con 24-14. Half-time 24-14; 53 mins Ronaldson pen 24-17; 59 mins O'Halloran try; Ronaldson con 24-24.
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. Replacements: M Cox for Lewis (53 mins), R Bower for Waller (53 mins), B Alo for Kerrod (58 mins), M Dowsett for Hougaard (63 mins), H Taylor for Phillips (71 mins). Yellow card: C Pennell (16-26 mins)
Connacht: 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. Replacements: C Kelleher for Leader (50 mins), C Blade for Marmion (54 mins), D Coulson for McCabe (71 mins), N Dawai for Masterson (71 mins). Yellow cards: Q Roux (32-42 mins), J Butler (34-44 mins).
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France)