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Connacht on the brink of European exit after losing to Bristol

Pat Lam’s team win 27-18 in the Sportsground leaving Connacht effectively out of the Champions Cup.

Siva Naulago tackles Bundee Aki.
Siva Naulago tackles Bundee Aki.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Connacht 18

Bristol 27

WHEN IT IS night and the floodlights are on, the Galway Sportsground shines with an intensity that you can only get from a blazing sun. Perhaps it is the hilltop location that exaggerates its glare, something beckoning about the lights for those walking through the city, looking to the sky.

In any other year, the walkers would be making their way up that hill, filling these stands, generating an atmosphere that Bristol wouldn’t have enjoyed. Instead, this game was played against a backdrop of silence, interrupted only by the shouts and hollers of the players whenever a small victory was won.

By the end Bristol had registered a major victory, getting a bonus point as well, which keeps their interest in this competition alive for another month at least. For Connacht, this season’s Champions Cup dream is effectively over.

In successive weeks, they have been immersed in second-half comebacks but they have found a way to lose each time. Their big regret this time stems from the yellow card Bundee Aki got just after the break. Connacht were 5-3 down when Aki went off, 17-3 in arrears by the time he re-appeared. They rallied, scored a couple of tries, but at no stage did they have the lead. Their bruises this morning will be emotional as well as physical.

The opening 20 minutes were shambolic, error following error, each team coughing up possession from their own line-outs, Connacht appearing as if they had an edge when Sean Masterson won an early penalty at the breakdown – but they couldn’t retain possession for long enough periods to build on that moment.

Not that Bristol were any better at this juncture. On one of the few occasions their line-out did not malfunction in that opening quarter, they managed to march Connacht down the field with their maul, setting up possession deep inside the 22. Then, inexplicably, they coughed up possession and a grateful Kieran Marmion carried then kicked to relieve the pressure.

There was a tasty head-to-head here of opposing scrum-halves, Harry Randall and Marmion. The latter nearly scored a breakaway in the 23rd minute, a gorgeous outside break from a maul, and just when he had drawn a couple of Bristol defenders, he passed outside to Alex Wootton, the try line beckoning. Callum Sheedy would stop Wootton from getting there but from subsequent phases, Aki got closer, before a brilliantly timed pass from Finlay Bealham gave Carty the chance to release John Porch.

Again, Bristol’s defence held its line.

They survived that mini-crisis and also the subsequent Connacht attack in their red zone, Sheedy again ripping the ball free when Dave Heffernan raced to the line. Following up, Steven Luatua snatched the ball and then booted a huge kick clear.

Luatua would come to the fore again, when Bristol got the only try of the first-half, claiming the line-out that led to Brian Byrne touching down following a fine, driving maul.

Pat Lam will have enjoyed that moment; Andy Friend less so. In fact, the current Connacht incumbent must have been irked by the way the first-half  panned out. It was a case his men struggling to get a return from their entries into the Bristol 22, struggling to get much decent ball from their set-piece, but hoping to make every scrap of it count.

As it was, they went into the break with just a penalty – scored by Carty on 40 minutes – to show for their efforts, their future in this competition hanging in the Galway air.

Something better was needed.

Something worse arrived, Aki sent to the bin on 42 minutes when he was caught tugging at Piers O’Conor’s jersey. Worse again, from a Connacht perspective, Sheedy kicked accurately to the corner and Bristol had great field position to attack Connacht’s 14 men.

bundee-aki-leaves-the-field-after-being-yellow-carded Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They hadn’t factored in Heffernan’s positional smarts, though – the Connacht hooker getting his body in the right place to win a turnover as Nathan Hughes edged closer to the line.

The giant Fijian-born No8 would soon get the chance to make amends, though, taking Randall’s pass on the left wing, timing his offload to Ed Holmes perfectly, then watching the second row creep to the line. Sheedy nailed the conversion and added a second kick on 51 minutes after O’Conor had scored Bristol’s third try, Tiernan O’Halloran buying the dummy.

That made it 19-3. Remember it was 5-3 when Aki decided to impede O’Conor’s path, the costliest jersey tug of the season.

There and then you just couldn’t see Connacht coming back. They did try, though – Friend’s decision to make key switches, Caolin Blade for Marmion, O’Halloran for Wootton paying off on 57 minutes when a period of sustained pressure finally led to a Connacht try, Blade with the final pass, O’Halloran with the brave, powerful finish.

Carty converted, the gap was down to nine and you remembered what Munster did in Clermont yesterday.

Could that happen here?

You began to wonder when Connacht won their first scrum penalty of the day on 61 minutes, having coughed up four penalties in this department to Bristol up until then – Kyle Sinckler giving Denis Buckley a torrid evening.

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By the time Bristol were getting a taste of what life with 14 men was like - Siale Piutau shown yellow for a block on O’Halloran after he had kicked forward – the tide appeared to be turning. Carty kicked the subsequent penalty. Suddenly there were six between them.

Hughes, Sinckler and Attwood, so influential in the third try, had been quietened and the door seemed to be ajar and then Ioan Lloyd went and slammed it shut, scoring Bristol’s foruth try on 72 minutes, earning them a bonus point in the process.

There was still time for a second Connacht try, John Porch scoring it in the right corner after O’Halloran had delivered the final pass. But Carty missed the conversion – the significance of that felt when Sheedy landed a 77th minute penalty to put Bristol 27-18 ahead.

That was a bridge too far for Connacht. To their credit, they ended the game on the front foot but also ended it knowing they are effectively out of a quarter-final spot.

Worse again, the decision not to take a penalty in front of the posts denied them a losing bonus point which may also come back to haunt them in terms of getting a place in the Challenge Cup, via a top-eight finish in their pool. It is one more regret on a lengthy list.

  

Scorers

Connacht

Tries: T O’Halloran, J Porch

Conversions: Carty 2/3

Penalties: Carty 2/2

Bristol

Tries: B Byrne, E Holmes, P O’Conor, I Lloyd

Conversions: C Sheedy 2/4

Penalties: Sheedy 1/1

Connacht: J Porch; A Wootton (T O’Halloran ’49), A Arnold, B Aki, M Healy (T Daly ’70); J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 55′); D Buckley (J Duggan 55′), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 52), F Bealham (J Aungier 52); E Masterson, U Dillane; S Masterson (J Butler ’49), C Oliver (C Prendergast ’72), P Boyle (capt).

Bristol Bears: M Malins; S Naulago (N Adeolokun ’70), P O’Conor, S Piutau (A Leiua ’76), I Lloyd; C Sheedy, H Randall (T Kessel ’79); J Woolmore (M Lahiff ’60), B Byrne (W Capon ’60), K Sinckler (J Afoa ’54); D Attwood, E Holmes; S Luatua (capt) (J Joyce ’70), B Earl, N Hughes (D Thomas ’60).

 

Referee – M Adamson (Scotland)

 

 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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