Gerry Thornley: Connacht fall just short of prize
Pat Lam’s brave side miss out on quarter-final slot by smallest of margins
Toulouse players celebrate as referee Wayne Barnes blows the full-time whistle in the Champions Cup game against Connacht at Stade Ernest-Wallon. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Toulouse 19 Connacht 10
Brave, as ever, but no cigar. Regrets, Connacht will have many, after coming within a drop goal or penalty of reaching the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time. True to type, that never seemed to enter their heads.
On a grey, cold overcast day and on a gluey pitch, Connacht were often authors of their own problems with an array of knock-ons, missed tackles and poor decision-making, especially in a first half when they had only 25 per cent of the possession and 20 per cent of the territory, but they’ll rue some of their decision-making in the end game as Toulouse’s fitness levels seemed to wilt.
Connacht had the better of the game in the second half, but a mammoth Toulouse side, with a third lock in Joe Tekori accommodated in their backrow, also competed fiercely at the breakdown, and Connacht’s inability to shift an array of mountainous men contributed hugely to Wayne Barnes’s 16-9 penalty count in the home side’s favour.
All told, Connacht missed 26 tackles, to just five by Toulouse, and were often too lateral in their running game, while conceding 11 turnovers to four against a side that took comparatively few risks on the ball. Toulouse have long since stopped being easy on the eye.
As promised though, Toulouse were quick out of the blocks, taking the kick-off and going wide, and although Matt Healy did well to claim Sébastien Bézy’s box kick ahead of Arthur Bonneval, Toulouse manufactured a turnover at the ruck, quite possibly illegally.
In any event, they relentlessly went through the phases, Gael Fickou breaking the defensive line when beating Finlay Bealham. Eventually, Nepia Fox-Matamua held up Cyril Baille superbly over the line with a little help from John Muldoon.
But from a tapped penalty off a scrum, Toulouse pounded the Connacht line and the visitors ran out of numbers for Fickou to plop over from Bézy’s pass.
After barely a dozen minutes the tackle count was 46-1, with Connacht also missing four. Untypically too, Jack Carty kicked the first three ball that came his way as Connacht and when they went wide Tiernan O’Halloran’s loose pass eluded James Cannon on the touchline.
Then, from a scrum on half-way, the decoy runners held the Connacht drift defence for Yoann Huget to beat Peter Robb on the outside before finding Bonneval with a delayed long pass and the ex-French under-20 winger handed off Healy to score in the corner. Jean-Marc Doussain again converted and Connacht were already facing a mountainous mistake.
It would have been even taller but for Muldoon making a covering catch to Doussain’s chip, and after more knock-ons, missed tackles and turnovers, Bonneval was almost in again before Barnes pinged them for obstruction when attempting to maul over. Even then, O’Halloran was shunted over the touchline by Fickou as the fullback and Healy crossed wires. Connacht’s hangdog body language was not good.
Superb poaching and strength by Denis Buckley earned a penalty against Yann David for not releasing, and Craig Ronaldson landed a fine penalty. However Connacht went wide from the restart and Healy couldn’t hold a risky long pass by Ronaldson which died at his feet.
Worse, Quinn Roux was binned for impeding Bézy at the base with a silly flick of his hand when lieing on the wrong side; albeit Doussain, as is his wont, missed from almost in front of the posts.
Despite missing Roux, a strong scrum by Buckley and Bealham saw out the half but upon the resumption Ronaldson pushed a 45 metre penalty wide after a strong tackle on Tekori and poach. Instead, Thierry Dusautoir won a penalty at the breakdown and although Richie Gray knocked on after another big break by Fickou, twice Toulouse went to the corner and despite Roux’s return, Tekori was fed the ball from Dusautoir and ambled over the line untouched.
But when Barnes penalised Toulouse for crossing, twice Connacht went to the corner. Although held up, from another rock solid scrum, Robb trucked it up strongly and from the recycle Muldoon took Marmion’s pass to plough through Bézy’s tackle to score. Ronaldson landed a fine conversion to make it 19-10.
A lineout steal by Fox-Matamua enabled Carty to pin Toulouse back with a good touchfinder, and Roux stole the throw again. But Toulouse continued to maintain the pressure at the breakdown, as Baille couldn’t be shifted after a carry by Ronaldson.
Toulouse went in search of the fourth try that would have required Connacht to at least procure two bonus points of their own, and Niyi Adeolokun took a bang on the head when going low on the powerful Tekori, thus being replaced by Danie Poolman.
A dink by Carty was gathered by Paul Perez, and Fickou broke out again when Bealham shot up and missed him, before Muldoon poached for a penalty only for Toulouse to pinch Dave Heffernan’s first throw. But there were distinct sign of Toulouse tiring.
Connacht kept coming, Carty linking with Ronaldson off a long throw, and then a good chase to Healy’s grubber in behind earned an attacking scrum. Needing just a three-pointer to move to within seven and the bonus point they required, Connacht began forcing things when patience was required.
Entering the last 10 minutes Connacht pounded the Toulouse defence, but Healy couldn’t hold a long pass. Cue a big scrum from Toulouse. After another long angled kick by Carty, Connacht then went for an elaborate blindside move off a lineout, with Bézy picking off an intercept.
Instead, Toulouse kept it tight off a succession of lineouts and penalties, before Connacht had one last throw of the dice from deep. But when O’Halloran ran hard inside half-way, the support couldn’t shift Piula Faasalele off the ball. Like all his team-mates, he took some shifting. Barnes signalled another penalty for holding on and that was it.
A fitting if utterly frustrating ending.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 6 mins Fickou try, Doussain con 7-0; 18 mins Bonneval try, Doussain con 14-0; 34 mins Ronaldson pen 14-3; (half-time 14-3); 48 mins Tekori try 19-3; 54 mins Muldoon try, Ronaldson con 19-10.
TOULOUSE: Yoann Huget; Arthur Bonneval, Yann David , Gael Fickou, Paul Perez; Jean-Marc Doussain, Sébastien Bézy; Cyril Baille, Christopher Tolofua, Census Johnston; Richie Gray, Yoann Maestri; Joe Tekori, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Francois Cros.
Replacements: Vasil Kakovin for Baille, Gurthro Steenkamp for Johnston (both 66 mins), Leonardo Ghiraldini for Tolofua, Gillian Galan for Tekori (both 68 mins), Piula Faasalele for Cros (71 mins). Not used: Talalelei Gray, Toby Flood, Alexis Palisson.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Peter Robb, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham; Quinn Roux, James Cannon; Nepia Fox Matamua, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Seán O’Brien for Fox-Matamua (63 mins), Danie Poolman for Adeolokun (63- ), David Heffernan for McCartney (65 mins), John Andress for Bealham, John Cooney for Marmion (both 75 mins). Not used: Naulia Dawai, Tom Farrell.
Sinbinned: Roux (37-47 mins)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)