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Sometimes miracles happen in sport and right now Connacht need one

The Irish province start their URC run-in at Benetton today knowing they need to win their concluding four games to have any chance of making the play-offs.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

YOU KNOW THINGS are tough when the first thing you ask for in the Last Chance Saloon is a tab.

That’s just the way things are now for Connacht. With four games left, including today’s game in Benetton (kick-off 12pm, RTE, Premier Sport), they need four wins to reach this season’s URC play-offs, never mind next season’s Champions Cup. We could cry foul over this, point to the injustice of Connacht having to face the league’s three best sides, Leinster, Ulster and Munster twice, while everyone else has that discomfort just once.

You aren’t going to get too many sympathetic ears, though.

Even if Glasgow and Edinburgh were dealt the luckiest hand (the fixture list presenting them with two games each against Benetton and Zebre) they’re not chasing a home quarter-final for that reason alone. Glasgow are now 22 points clear of Connacht and cannot be caught by Andy Friend’s side. The same can be said for Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

That doesn’t leave too many teams left to chase. The Sharks is one. But they defeated Dragons last night to open up a 13-point gap over the Irish province. Each side has four games left; three of Sharks’ games are at home; three of Connacht’s away. Connacht, remember, has won just once on the road this season.

That’s not the sole reason they’re in this predicament, however. No, that stems from a number of other factors, the balance sheet being one.

Deprived of the finances to shop in Brown Thomas, they’ve had to make do with trips to Aldi. To be fair, you can get good products off the shelf there, Mack Hansen is one, John Porch another. But in a season when they were hit by injuries, they didn’t get enough value out of Leva Fifita or Abraham Papali’i while stalwart, Ultan Dillane, has been off-form.

mack-hansen-and-kylan-hamdaoui Hansen has been a bargain buy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

These are the kind of issues that teams like Leinster can cope with, Leo Cullen just needing to whistle down the corridor for another ready-made pro to come along and fill a gap in his roster. But Friend doesn’t have that luxury.

All in, he has about 27 players who are good enough to trouble any side and we have seen the evidence of that, their wins over Bulls, Ulster and Stade Francais being three of the stand-out performances by an Irish province this season.

By their own admission, though, they’ve searched for more than that, stating their ambition is to not just be in the play-offs but to progress through them. But this has been a season when inactions have spoken louder than words.

They know how to build a lead. In eight of the 11 games they lost this season, they were up on the scoreboard, blowing an 18-point advantage against Leicester in the Champions Cup, an 11-point cushion over Stade Francais a week later.

You could say these are the sort of things that can happen to any side; that rugby is a game of ebb and flow, momentum shifts and quirks.

But when you hold an 8-7 lead on 51 minutes against Leinster and then find yourself 26-8 down just 10 minutes later en route to a 37-point defeat, you have to ask questions, especially when you had an 8-0 lead in your previous game against Edinburgh before conceding 21 points in nine minutes, finishing that evening 56-8 in arrears.

jack-carty-dejected-after-the-game Jack Carty was dejected after last week's Leinster defeat. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

If you fight your way back to tie a home game against Glasgow approaching the final quarter, and you then watch your opponent score 22 unanswered points in the last 21 minutes, you may begin to notice a trend.

That’s not just because of what happened late on against Stade Francais away and Leicester at home; it’s also because they had a 20-12 lead against Leicester at Welford Road but then coughed up two tries in six minutes before losing 29-23.

A similar story was told away to Leinster, when they led 12-7 approaching half-time prior to the concession of three tries in 10 minutes. That one ended 47-19. Cardiff away was a mini-disaster; a 20-18 deficit on 66 minutes was followed by two yellow cards for Hansen and Jack Carty and then two tries for the Welsh side in the five minutes that followed. Cardiff won 33-21.

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The Dragons also won their only URC game of the season amid a flurry of tries, Connacht blowing a half-time lead by gifting two tries in five minutes early in the second half, then two more in four minutes after a mini-comeback stalled.

That’s been the story of their season, hopeful starts replaced by mid-game panics or last quarter meltdowns, the flash of a red card against Leinster reminding you of the yellows they coughed up against Stade and Leicester in Europe and Cardiff in the URC.

That’s why they’re here, needing a win not just over Benetton but then in South Africa against the underrated Lions and Sharks. Even at that, at least one bonus point is needed from those trips, because 17 match-day points from four remaining games would leave Connacht with just 45 for the season. Sixth-placed Sharks already have 41; seventh-placed Stormers have 38, followed by the Bulls on 37.

Sometimes miracles happen in sport. Connacht need one now.

Benetton: Andries Coetzee, Edoardo Padovani, Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Monty Ioane, Giacomo Da Re, Dewaldt Duvenage (CAPT), Thomas Gallo, Giacomo Nicotera, Nahuel Tetaz, Irnè Herbst, Federico Ruzza, Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri, Toa Halafihi

Replacements: Tomas Baravalle, Ivan Nemer, Tiziano Pasquali, Niccolò Cannone, Manuel Zuliani, Callum Braley, Leonardo Marin, Joaquin Riera

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Farrell, Sammy Arnold, Mack Hansen, Jack Carty (CAPT), Kieran Marmion, Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Niall Murray, Leva Fifita, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle

Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Greg McGrath, Tietie Tuimauga, Gavin Thornbury, Abraham Papali’I, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Sean Masterson

Referee: Pierre Brouset (FFR, league debut)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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