Connacht hearts broken at the death again by Stade Français

Friend’s side fail to see out another Champions Cup game but progression is assured

 

Stade Français 37 Connacht 31

Connacht had nothing to lose, but a lot to gain in Sunday’s final Heineken Champions Cup pool fixture.

Although having already qualified from the group stages for the last 16, a victory would have advanced their seedings for the next stages. Now, having lost a game well within their grasp, it is expected they will face fellow Irish province Leinster in the two-legged knock-out stage.

Having achieved their primary ambition to become the first Connacht team to advance from the pool stages is a worthy feat. Having ploughed for so many years in Challenge Cup, Connacht have come a long way, but they will be kicking themselves that they failed to see out the game when they had the French outfit 11 points in arrears after 60 minutes. They will also have to look at their Achilles heel - the scrum - which too often has proved their undoing.

However, Connacht senior coach Peter Wilkins, while acknowledging the scrum was a significant factor, says resources were stressed.

“We lost three of our four props from that Leicester game and another two this week, so that would put a strain on anyone’s resources.

“In terms of the lads who stepped up, it was a terrific challenge for them and a great opportunity, and that was the way we approached it. We knew regardless of our personnel, Stade would come hard in that area, it wasn’t surprising, but it was about us doing good stuff in between and imposing our game and stopping the threats they had in general play.”

Stade at home was always going to be a tough ask for Connacht, but with six changes to Andy Friend’s starting XV, several enforced through injury, a win was always going to more challenging. The nature of the task was exacerbated by the absence of talisman Bundee Aki, Shane Delahunt was the only regular front row player on duty, and props Greg McGrath and Jordan Duggan had made only eight appearances between them this season. Also missing from the sideline was coach Andy Friend who had been unable to travel due to being a close contact of positive Covid case.

However, the win was well within their grasp on the back of a perfect start when Alex Wootton secured a cross field kick from Sam Arnold, who was quick to pick to up a loose ball in the seventh minute. And they could have added to the score, but were denied for crossing in the midfield, after Blade had touched down.

But in the see-saw nature of this game, Connacht were kept on their toes as the home side, also happy to run the ball, utilised the strength of their pack when needed. After Connacht were penalised in the scrum, Stade outhalf Nicolas Sanchez opted to kick the penalty to put their first points on the board after 17 minutes. It was then their forwards started to take control with a third penalty on the trot after as Connacht struggled at the breakdown. From touch, flanker Ryan Chapuis took control before finding Adrien Lepegue with an inside pass, and he was able to break through tackles to score in the left corner, with Sanchez adding the extras.

In this tit-for-tat opening 25 minutes, Carty drew the sides level when Stade were pinged for not rolling away in what was becoming a real battle in every position on the pitch.

However, it was the home side that enjoyed a period of dominance - their pack delivering the platform for their backs who struck for what should have been their second try after 32 minutes.

Having built momentum through several phases, and two advantages before Barre touched down, the try was overturned when TMO evidence showed a shoulder clear-out on Shane Delahunt. It helped Connacht to finish the half with a 17-10 lead, capitalising on two penalties in quick succession - the second kicked to touch. Oisin Dowling set up a maul before Caolin Blade had the wherewithal to duck inside the cover and touch down.

Stade were quick out the blocks after the resumption. Running from deep, Sanchez was the instigator, breaking through two props before New Zealander centre Ngani Laumape was on hand to finish in the right corner - the conversion just wide. It signalled a response from Connacht as they ramped up their line speed in defence and attack. When Tolu Latu was red carded after a second yellow for backchat to the referee, the result was a try from Tom Farrell with Carty extending the lead to 15-24.

The French outift, despite a man down, responded almost immediately when fullback Dylan Hamdaoui took advantage of some porous Connacht tackling to reduce the deficit to 20-24, but as the contest continued to oscillate, the hardworking Jarrad Butler was rewarded with Connacht’s fourth. The number eight was in the thick of the all action in both both defence and attack, and running some superb lines, he helped Connacht to a 31-20 lead with Carty’s conversion.

While Connacht pride themselves on their relentless attitude, the home side also demonstrated a similar determination, and when Conor Oliver was yellow carded for persistent infringements, Stade capitalised with Lapegue adding his second try and replacement Joris Segonds converted.

Four points down, Stade then staged a winning attack - their pack again providing the penalty sent to touch. Although halted, Stade sent the ball wide before left wing Lapegue stepped inside Tiernan O’Halloran to score. With the conversion added, the hosts’ self-belief increased and Connacht conceded two late penalties. Segonds was well wide with the first, but Connacht will ask themselves how they immediately conceded a second ,which was well within range for the replacement French outhalf.

Although it ensured Stade bagged their first win, Connacht still gained two valuable bonus points.

“Not the win and obviously that is tremendously disappointing,” admitted Wilkins after the game. “I think that was very much the feel in the dressing room from the coaches and the players.

“There are similarities to last week - we had taken a lead into last 20 minutes and were not able to either sustain or build on it again, so in terms of it happening back to back, it adds to the disappointment. But at the same time there is a different context to it. Last week we were our own worst critics in terms of shutting up shop and giving up possession, today we kept playing.

“It was important we kept firing shots and in the end it was that bit of accuracy that let us down, and obviously a penalty count that gave Stade the platform to get down the field and back into the game - so similar to last week but at the same time different in the context in how it played out.

“I think there was an enormous amount of pride in our achievements this season, but also an understanding of the journey we have been on, leading up to this and some of the foundations that have gone in place. At the end of the day we are competing in the Champions Cup this year because of the hard work that went into the programme last year from coaches, players and support staff. In that sense it is not just about the outcome from the group stages this year, but everything that has gone into it and the growth of this team and this group of people.”

Scoring sequence: 6m Wootton try, Carty con 0-7; 17m Stade pen 3-7; 19m Lepegue try, Sanchez con 10-7; 22m Carty pen 10-10; 37m Blade try, Carty con 42m 10-17; HT 10-17; 42m Laumape try15-17; 48m48m Farrell try, Carty con 15-24; 52m Hamdaoui try 20-24; 60m Butler try, Carty con; 68m Chapuis try Segonds 27-31; 74m, Lepegue try, Segonds con. 34-31’ Segonds pen 37-31.

Yellow Card: Connacht,C Oliver (68m); Stade Francais, T Latu (35m).

Red Card: T Latu (second yellow) (46m).

Stade Francais: K Hamdaoui; T Veainu, K Laumape, L Barre, A Lepegue’ N Sanchez, W Percillier; C Castets, T Latu P Alo Emile; M De Giovanni, P Gabrillagues; C Francoz, R Chapuis,T Gray (cap).

Replacements: J Hall for Percillier (41m),L Da Silva for Gray (43m for yellow card), M Alo Emile for Castest (50m), N Roelofse for P Alo-Emile ( 59m), J Van der Mescht for Gabrillagues (59m), M Kremer for Gray (59m), J Hall for Percillier (41m), J Segonds for Hamdoui (9 mins, HIA), P Champ for Hamdoui (66m).

Connacht: T O’Halloran; A Wootton, T Farrell, S Arnold, M Hansen; J Carty (capt), C Blade; J Duggan, S Delahunt, G McGrath; O Dowling, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.

Replacements: D Heffernan for Delahunt ( 50m), S Illo for McGrath (75 m), L Fifita for Dowling (63m), P Boyle for Prendergast (66m), C Reilly for Blade ( 71m), C Fitzgerald for Carty (79m), D Kilgallen for O’Halloran (75m).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU

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