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SBW at the Sportsground and Connacht's other European knock-outs

We take a trip down memory lane to recall the westerners’ past efforts in the Challenge Cup.

CONNACHT WILL FEATURE in their first European knock-out game since the 2009/10 season on Friday evening, when they take on Gloucester in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.

Robbie Henshaw Robbie Henshaw will be involved as Connacht look to make new history. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Pat Lam’s men will hope to upset the odds at Kingsholm, although David Humphreys’s Premiership outfit have been treating the Challenge Cup as crucial to their season and will prove a difficult proposition.

As Connacht get set to renew their acquaintance with the knock-out stages of European competition, we look back on their history in these ties.

1997-98

After recording five wins from six in a pool that also contained Northampton Saints, Bordeaux-Bégles and Nice, Warren Gatland’s men advanced into the quarter-finals with some confidence.

Their reward for such excellent pool form was a trip to France to take on Agen, who were still in the top division domestically at that point.

Warren Gatland Connacht 11/10/1997 Warren Gatland was in his final season as Connacht coach. Source: © INPHOLorraine O'Sullivan

Captained by Graham Heaslip, brother of current Ireland number eight Jamie, Connacht were beaten 40-27 at Stade Amandie in November of 1997 by an Agen team that included Marc Dal Maso, Abdelatif Benazzi and Cedric Heymans.

Scrum-half Conor McGuinness, prop John Maher and replacement Russell Southam all scored tries for Connacht, while the reliable Eric Elwood kicked 12 points from the tee.

Conor McGuinness Connacht v Northampton 11/10/1997 Scrum-half Conor McGuinness scored against Agen. Source: © Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Among the notable names in the Connacht team that day where Mervyn Murphy [now Ireland's technical analyst], current Ireland U20 coach Nigel Carolan and Willie Ruane, now the CEO of Connacht.

It was a disappointing end to the European season for the westerners, and Gatland moved on to the Ireland job just over three months later.

Connacht (v Agen): Willie Ruane; Nicky Barry, Pat Duignan, Mervyn Murphy, Nigel Carolan; Eric Elwood, Conor McGuinness; John Maher, William Mulcahy, Michael Finlay; Graham Heaslip (capt.), Mark McConnell; Shane McEntee, Junior Charlie, Barry Gavin.

Replacements: Russell Southam, Bernard Jackman, Martin Cahill, Rory Rogers.

2002/03

Connacht had to wait another four seasons to play their next knock-out game in the Challenge Cup, which underwent a restructuring for the start of the 2002/03 season.

Instead of pool stages, the competition was played on a knock-out basis from the very start, with direct head-to-heads fought out on a home-and-away basis.

Head coach Steph Nel guided Connacht past Mont-de-Marsan in Round 1, winning at home and away, before they squeezed past Narbonne on a 50-49 aggregate scoreline to set up a quarter-final meeting with Welsh side Pontypridd.

Eoin Reddan and Shaun James Eoin Reddan dives for possession against Pontypridd. Source: ©INPHO

The first leg was played at the Sportsground and proved to be a thrilling encounter that ended in defeat for Connacht. Back rows Johnny O’Connor and Colm Rigney both scored tries, with wing Wayne Munn adding a brace and Elwood kicking 10 points.

But a Pontypridd side that included Sonny Parker, Ceri Sweeney, Gethin Jenkins, Rob Sidoli and Brent Cockbain, as well as Neil Jenkins off the bench, emerged 35-30 winners.

A week later in Sardis Road, Connacht managed only three penalties through Elwood to lose 12-9 and exit the tournament. The likes of Gavin Duffy, Eoin Reddan and Jerry Flannery would go onto greater things, but again there was disappointment.

Connacht (v Pontypridd, second leg): Mark McHugh; Gavin Duffy, Darren Yapp, Shane Moore (capt.), Wayne Munn; Eric Elwood, Eoin Reddan; Ronan McCormack, Jerry Flannery, Peter Bracken; Damian Browne, Rowan Frost; Colm Rigney, John O’Sullivan, Johnny O’Connor.

Replacements: Chris Keane, Marthinus Uijs, Dan McFarland, Michael Swift, Eric Peters.

2003/04

Connacht learned their lesson from the season before and went a step further in the Challenge Cup in 2003/04.

Having negotiated their way past Béziers and Pau in the opening two rounds, the province saw off Narbonne in the quarters on a 43-28 aggregate scoreline to secure a semi-final against Harlequins.

Michael Swift with Tani Fuga A relatively fresh-faced Michael Swift powers into contact. Source: INPHO

A late try from Will Greenwood added sheen to the English side’s win at home in the first leg of the tie, further scores from George Harder, Mel Dean and Ugo Monye helping them towards a 31-22 scoreline.

Flanker Matt Lacey score Connacht’s only try at the Stoop as Elwood kept the province in touch. However, it left Nel’s men with an uphill battle two weekends later in Galway.

Darren Yapp with Gavin Duffy Darren Yapp is tackled by former teammate Gavin Duffy. Source: INPHO

Ultimately, it was the kicking of Quins out-half Paul Burke - a former Connacht U20 cap – that undid the western province, while the presence of Duffy at fullback in the visitors’ team hurt too.

Darren Yapp and Elwood both scored tries for Bernard Jackman-captained Connacht, while Mark McHugh slammed over two conversion and two penalties, but a 23-18 second-leg win for Connacht wasn’t enough.

Quins snuck through to the final as 49-45 aggregate winners.

Connacht (v Harlequins, second leg): David Hewitt; Conor McPhillips, Darren Yapp, Mark McHugh, Wayne Munn; Eric Elwood, Michael Walls; Dan McFarland, Bernard Jackman (captain), Peter Bracken; Damian Browne, Andrew Farley; Michael Swift, Matt Lacey, John O’Sullivan.

Replacements: John Fogarty, Adrian Clarke, Mike McCarthy, Paul Neville, Conor O’Loughlin, Shane Moore, Ted Robinson.

2004/05

With the competition running in the same format as the previous season, 2004/05 saw Michael Bradley’s mean beat three French opponents again to reach the semi-finals, as they saw off Narbonne, Montpellier and then Grenoble.

Sale Sharks lay in wait in the last four, and got off to the perfect start to the tie with a 25-18 victory at the Sportsground as Sebastien Chabal and Mark Cueto [2] scored tries and Mike Hercus added the rest of the points.

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Eric Elwood 2/4/2005 Eric Elwood makes a half break in the first leg against Sale. Source: INPHO

Elwood popped over a conversion, drop goal and penalty, while captain Andrew Farley and flanker Lacey scored the tries, but the Irish province were left in a difficult situation before visiting Edgeley Park later in April.

The polished Sharks proved utterly clinical in dismantling Connacht on a 59-9 scoreline in that second leg to power into the final, which they won [as had Harlequins after beating Connacht the year before].

Jason Robinson is tackled 24/4/2005 Jason Robinson was part of the vintage Sharks side. Source: Jed Wee/Sportsbeat Images

Paul Warwick was preferred to Elwood at out-half for that second leg, while the likes of James Downey and current Connacht analyst Conor McPhillips attempted in vain to stem the tide.

Connacht (v Sale, second leg): Matt Mostyn; Conor McPhillips, Mark McHugh, James Downey, Ted Robinson,; Paul Warwick, Chris Keane; Ray Hogan, Bernard Jackman, Peter Bracken; Christian Short, Andrew Farley (capt.); Michael Swift, Brendan O’Connor, John O’Sullivan.

Replacements: Stephen Knoop, Michael Carroll, Paul Neville, Michael Walls, Eric Elwood, David Slemen.

2005/06

With the Challenge Cup having returned to a pool format followed by single-leg knock-out ties, Connacht earned their quarter-final by finishing as runners up in a pool that contained Worcester, Catania and Montpellier.

Bradley’s side were drawn away to Rob Andrew’s Newcastle in the knock-out stages. Despite the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, the Falcons proved far too strong for Connacht and won 23-3 at Kingston Park.

Indeed, it was out-half Toby Flood who inspired Newcastle with a superb first-half try, while Mike McCarthy’s score [the flanker/lock had spent the '03/04 season with Connacht before moving back to England] did further damage.

Mark McHugh gets past Matthew Burke Mark McHugh on the attack against the Falcons. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Jamie Noon, Colin Charvis, Geoff Parling and Matt Burke were all part of the victorious Falcons XV.

Connacht’s sole score was a Warwick penalty, the Australian having now replaced Elwood as the province’s out-half. John Muldoon got a taste of European knock-out rugby in the back row, while Tongan international Andrew Mailei featured at centre.

Connacht (v Newcastle): Mark McHugh; Matt Mostyn, Andrew Mailei, Keith Matthews, Conor McPhillips; Paul Warwick, Chris Keane; Ray Hogan, John Fogarty, Stephen Knoop; Dave Gannon, Andrew Farley; John Muldoon, Matt Lacey, Colm Rigney.

Replacements: Joe Merrigan, Adrian Clarke, Christian Short, Michael Swift, Tom Tierney, David Slemen, Gavin Williams.

2008/09

After two seasons of third-placed pool finishes, Connacht once again returned to the knock-out stages in the 2008/09 campaign, still under the stewardship of former Ireland international Bradley.

Second place behind London Irish in a pool that also featured Dax and Rovigo was enough to secure a quarter-final, again away to strong English opposition.

Northampton’s intimidating pack proved far too efficient for Connacht at Franklin’s Gardens, sending the Premiership side on their way to a 42-13 success in which three Connacht players were sin binned.

Ian Keatley and Troy Nathan Ian Keatley and Troy Nathan were powerless in Franklin's Gardens. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Gavin Duffy, Johnny O’Connor and Brian McGovern all saw yellow, as Ray Ofisa’s try and eight points from out-half Ian Keatley did little to stem the tide. Irish back row Neil Best was among the try-scorers for the dominant Saints.

Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr and Frank Murphy all featured in a Connacht side captained by John Muldoon, but the defeat was comprehensive.

Connacht (v Northampton): Gavin Duffy; Fionn Carr, Keith Matthews, Niva Ta’auso, Liam Bibo; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Ronan Loughney; Andrew Browne, Andrew Farley; John Muldoon (capt.), Johnny O’Connor, Ray Ofisa.

Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Brian McGovern, Michael Swift, Colm Rigney, Conor O’Loughlin, Andy Dunne, Troy Nathan.

2009/10

And so we come to Connacht’s most recent foray into the knock-out stages of the Challenge Cup, and one that very nearly proved to be their most successful of all. Having reached the semi-finals in 2004 and 2005, Bradley’s final season saw them reach the last four again.

Topping a pool that included Montpellier, Worcester and Olympus Madrid was vital, as it handed Connacht a home quarter-final against French side Bourgoin.

Miah Nikora celebrates after kicking the winning drop goal Miah Nikora celebrates his dramatic winning drop goal. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

A huge crowd at the Sportsground saw Michael Swift and John Muldoon run in tries in a 23-20 victory, but it was the 78th-minute Miah Nikora drop kick that won the game for Connacht.

Keatley had converted both tries and added a penalty, before Nikora entered the fray to kick a penalty and then clinch the game in dramatic circumstances. Connacht’s reward was a home semi-final against rising French power Toulon.

In their second season back in the Top 14 – where they were on their way to a semi-final – Mourad Boujellal’s club brought names likes Jonny Wilkinson, Joe van Niekerk, Sonny Bill Williams, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Irishman Tim Ryan to the Sportsground.

Sonny Williams is mobbed by fans after the game Sonny Bill Williams was among the Toulon replacements. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Connacht fought superbly against the French side, scoring four penalties through Keatley, but a Mafi Kefu penalty and 14 points from Wilkinson were enough to send the Englishman into his first-ever European final after a 19-12 win.

Bradley departed at the end of the season and Connacht have not featured in a European knock-out game since. That will change on Friday evening in Kingsholm.

Connacht (v Toulon): Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Aidan Wynne, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan; Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy; John Muldoon (capt.), Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.

Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Conor O’Loghlin, Miah Nikora, Brian Tuohy, Robbie Morris.

- All teams and scorers courtesy of EPCR.

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Murray Kinsella

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