Connacht's sense of injustice will last through the summer months and into next season. Two highly contentious decisions by French referee Romain Poite cost them a win over Gloucester in yesterday's play-off at Kingsholm and with it a one-off deciding game for a place in next year's European Champions Cup against Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground next Sunday.
Pat Lam’s side were leading 25-18 and had possession with less than a minute to go when John Muldoon took the ball into contact near half-way. He was tackled by Tom Palmer of Gloucester, who then did not roll away, but Poite instead penalised Muldoon, very quickly, for not releasing.
Robbie Henshaw imploringly pointed to Palmer and even the entire BT commentary team agreed it was a blatantly incorrect decision which was also utterly in keeping with Poite’s erratic refereeing throughout the game.
With Gloucester attacking off the ensuing lineout maul, their centre Billy Meakes then danced through a wilting defence to touch down by the posts. Although Poite went to his TMO, compatriot Herve Dubes, to check for blocking – and the cameras clearly showed that Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees blocked and also held Connacht's Andrew Browne by the arm – Poite awarded the try after just one viewing.
Although a second try by the outstanding Matt Healy, Connacht's fourth, put them back in front in extra time, two late Gloucester tries sealed a 40-32 win, with Connacht a man down after Dave Heffernan's sin-binning, one of three yellow cards Poite handed Lam's side.
Gutted “Absolutely gutted,” said Lam,
who viewed those two decisions like most others. "That's exactly what we saw, that Palmer had come on to our side and we would have thought a penalty was coming our way. If you look at the video, both Robbie [Henshaw] and Ian Porter highlighted that, but unfortunately that penalty went against us.
“And then certainly when we saw the blocking in front of the ball and remonstrated about that, and then when we saw it on the replay with the TMO, we were giving out the messages to prepare for the penalty to us. So we were surprised when that was given as a try. Unfortunately, we’ve just got to live with those decisions.”
It was a particularly cruel way to end their season – so much effort for so little reward. “We had 16 boys unavailable and we have the smallest squad, but we have a culture in this group and a lot of young players are coming through. These lads work hard for each other and with the management group there is such a strong bond there.
“It was a tough week, and we’re pretty battered and bruised. The boys went for 100 minutes toe to toe, and we should have closed that game out and we should be preparing for a final back at the Sportsground. We can’t describe how gutted we are.
“I feel for the boys. I’m absolutely proud of them. They just don’t know how to give up and they keep working hard and when we went to extra time – and it was devastating what had happened – we regrouped and talked about belief, and fair play we scored a great try, but with four minutes to go we should have finished it off.”
Poite’s errors have significant repercussions. To begin with, they denied Connacht an additional home game against Bordeaux-Begles next Sunday at the Sportsground, which would have been worth an even split of an estimated €125,000 gate, as well as the possibility of competing in next season’s European Champions Cup and enhancing their chances of a world-class recruit.
Revised their rules
Instead, this defeat ended their season and condemned them to next season’s European
– the competition Gloucester won this season to earn a place in the play-offs after tournament organisers revised their rules.
“I think when we sit down and look back after a week or two, the bottom line is that it’s been Connacht’s most successful season,” said Lam, “and so many guys have worked hard for that. We had three objectives setting out. We want to be playing Champions Cup rugby and we missed out by a whisker but that’s what we want to continue to fight for because we want to be seen in the top echelon of northern hemisphere clubs.
"We also want more players coming through to play for Ireland. And the third thing is, we want to ensure that more indigenous Connacht players come through. Those objectives won't change. From last season to this season we've gained and I think probably what sums it up most is someone like Jack Carty, who was outstanding today.
“He’s taken quite a bit of flak. We’ve looked at number 10 and asked can we afford a world-class 10, and if we can’t then we have to build one of our own. I’ve always said that game time for the young guys is an opportunity for development, and Jack has had a lot of game time this season.
“ That pretty much sums up what we have to do with our grassroots, and while this was gutting we’ll get over it, come back for pre-season in four or five weeks and build on what we’ve done and try and get in the Champions Cup.”