IT WAS NOT supposed to end like this. A crowd of 5,200 Connacht supporters filed into The Sportsground on Saturday night for their team’s final home game of an up and [mostly] down season.
The revamped European Cup looked a bridge too far but there was still hope of achieving a best ever league finish of seventh. There were also some Connacht stalwarts to thank and wave goodbye to. Eight names were announced for retirement, transfers, and culling, in midweek with Gavin Duffy, Dan Parks and Frank Murphy the stand-outs. All three came off the bench in the second-half but could not halt a dangerous slide.
Having led 15-3 with 30 minutes to play, Connacht shipped 19 unanswered points and lost 22-15. They travel to Ospreys next week with nothing to play for but eight spot and pride. Empty as the result left them, the majority of the Connacht supporters remained after the final whistle to give their departing players a rousing send-off. Included in that was Galway native Eoin Griffin, who is off to London Irish in the summer.
There were plenty of tears as doughty rugby men acknowledged the end of their playing careers, while others said goodbye to their home from home and a rugby family that has been through lows [Edinburgh and Saracens away] and highs [Toulouse away and a four-game winning streak].
Lam told TheScore.ie, post-match, that Connacht had looked in control, with an attacking line-out in the Blues half, before the wheels came off and two tries were conceded in two minutes. “We turned the ball over at the breakdown,” he said, “then there’s the discipline, errors and the little things that have been hurting our game throughout the season. That and quick-fire tries.”
Lam had no issues with the refereeing of the game despite losing two men [Aly Muldowney and Eoin McKeon] to the sin-bin in the final 15 minutes as his side were trying to claw their way back into the game. ”I keep going back to it but our discipline was poor at crucial times and [audible sigh]… extremely frustrating.”
The New Zealander was pleased with certain attacking elements of his team’s game, particularly the training ground move that led to Matt Healy’s try. He commented, “When I look back on the season, when I arrived here, I didn’t know any of my coaching staff and players — except for Jake Heenan — when we started. From where we started, and that foundation, we’re certainly not going to be starting there next season. Now, everybody knows the lay of the land.”
The rebuilding at Connacht Rugby has already begun. With the new European Cup qualification rules now established, Lam is targeting a top six finish next season. The westerners are determined to stand on their own two feet. There is little doubt that the departing players will be following their results closely next season.
– Additional reporting by Aaron Turner @ConnachtClan