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Connacht out-gunned by Gloucester in crazy Challenge Cup quarter-final

The western province refused to lie down as they shared eight tries with the Premiership side.
Mar 31st 2018, 3:35 PM 14,626 25

Connacht 28

Gloucester 33

Sean Farrell reports from The Sportsground

THERE WERE MOMENTS, thrilling flashes of brilliance in afternoon Galway sunshine, that made it feel like this might just be one of those classic Connacht days.

Matt Healy scores a try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That familiar pace from Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun chasing inviting grubbers gave rise to a hope that there could yet be a Challenge Cup semi-final, or even the trophy itself, to put a silver lining on this problematic season at the Sportsground.

Instead, the western province didn’t have enough ammunition to survive an eight-try shoot-out and so they exit Europe. Gloucester go and look forward to a semi-final against Newcastle, while Connacht must prepare to be back in this Challenge Cup again next season with the back door to the Champions Cup now closed to them.

This was Connacht fourth time meeting Gloucester and their unwanted history against their English rival was extended by a contest that was high on heroism, tries and comeback spirit, but also on errors.

Ross Moriarty celebrates with John Afoa Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Gloucester’s early set-piece issues were a welcome lunchtime treat for the 8,129  crammed inside the expanded Sportsground. Yet four minutes in, the cheer that greeted a stolen line-out turned quickly to groans as the ball hit the deck hard and bounced over the head of Denis Buckley to invite hooker James Hanson to charge towards the try-line.

The response from Connacht was emphatic. John Muldoon, bidding to extend his career by a European game or two, directed penalties to the corner and so a powerful maul was followed up by a pick-and-go to make space for Jack Carty to have a cut at the posts. The out-half was caught, but immediately popped his pass to Kieran Marmion and the scrum-half used Bundee Aki as a dummy while arcing the long way round to touch down.

Despite the mild, dry weather in Galway, it wasn’t good day for either goal-kicker. On top of the first four conversion attempts going awry, Carty’s accuracy from hand was inconsistent. Still, the overall intention and attitude were good; Adeolokun cemented Wales and Lions back row Ross Moriarty with a tackle on the left wing and the visitors looked rattled when Ben Morgan was punished for a high tackle on Tom Farrell with a sin-binning.

The home side made their personnel advantage count. With Pat Lam watching on as a pundit, his former team produced a sensational try that undoubtedly stirred some pride in the Bristol boss. Buckley popped up a risky offload in midfield and Tom McCartney stormed through the gap. O’Halloran raided on the right and Connacht looked in rampant mood. Carty beautifully delayed his pass to the left and stepped through a gap just far enough to hand McCartney the ball. The hooker in turn fed Bundee Aki and the Grand Slam-winner was unstoppable on his charge to the try-line.

Unfortunately, that was as good as the half got for the hosts. Morgan came back to the field with Gloucester already building pressure and the score-line became 10 – 10 soon after his return as Gloucester zipped the pill wide off a right-hand scrum, punishing Adeolokun and O’Halloran for biting in and Tom Marshall cantered in unopposed.

The pressure kept coming in pink waves from the visitors and there were sighs of relief when Ed Slater’s touchdown was chalked off for a forward pass and roars of intent when McCartney forced a turnover penalty on his own line. But there was a hammer blow to come before half-time as Henry Trinder danced his way past Quinn Roux to score.

Owen Williams notched the first conversion of the day to rub salt in the wound and Gloucester had a 10 – 17 lead that would be chipped at, but never relinquished.

Niyi Adeolokun scores a try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The second half began with Williams extending the visitors’ lead, but this was a day on which Connacht refused to let any lead look safe. Adeolokun once again brought the crowd into raptures as he chased after a Marmion grubber, winning the race and clamping two hands on the ball to remind Gloucester on 48 minutes that there was still a long way to go.

The contest was punctuated by errors and a lack of structure, and it was Gloucester who looked more capable of keeping steady in those stop-start circumstances. Former Ulster prop John Afoa silenced the crowd with rampaging run over the try-line with 55 minutes on the clock to make the scoreboard read 18 – 27. Williams and replacement out-half Craig Ronaldson traded penalties and Connacht, to their credit, continued to attack the Premiership side with belief that they could turn what looked an inevitable outcome on its head.

The improbable became possible again thanks to Aki.

Taking the ball to the line after a dangerous high tackle by Josh Hohneck went unpunished by referee Romain Poite (an earlier hit from Ludlow did earn a yellow card), the centre angled a grubber kick through for Matt Healy to hare after, and the prolific wing didn’t disappoint once he collected the ball while cutting inside the last defender and putting himself under the posts.

The flames rose from the pyrotechnics in celebration, Gloucester did well to keep their head despite their lead being down to just two points with the hostile home crowd looking at a 28 – 30 scoreline. Replacement Billy Twelvetrees was a steady hand at the tiller and Connacht openside Jarrad Butler saw yellow for a tired hand blocking down a pass that allowed the England international to extends Gloucester’s lead a final time.

John Muldoon and is clapped off the pitch Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This was a tough task with 15 men, with 14 men at the finish Connacht rallied and pushed forward, mustering whatever energy they could pump out of the well, but they found themselves overpowered and the great John Muldoon has just three more occasions to pull on that Connacht jersey.

Scorers

Connacht

Tries: K Marmion, B Aki, N Adeolokun, M Healy

Conversions: J Carty (0/3) C Ronaldson (1/1)

Penalties: J Carty ( 1/1)  C Ronaldson (1/1)

Sin-bin: J Butler

Gloucester

Tries: J Hanson, T Marshall, H Trinder, J Afoa

Conversions: O Williams (2/4)

Penalties: O Williams (2/2) B Twelvetrees (1/1)

Sin-bin: B Morgan, L Ludlow

Connacht:  Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki,  Tom Farrell, Matt Healy,  Jack Carty (Craig Ronaldson ‘ 57),  Kieran Marmion: Denis Buckley (Peter McCabe  ’68),  Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan ’57), Finlay Bealham (Conor Carey ’68),  Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux (Ultan Dillane ’58), Eoin McKeon, (Eoghan Masterson  ’71),  Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon.

Gloucester:  Jason Woodward,  Charlie Sharples,  Henry Trinder ( Billy Burns  ’71), Mark Atkinson,  Tom Marshall,  Owen Williams (Billy Twelvetrees ’71),  Willi Heinz (Callum Braley ’78):  Val Rapava Ruskin, (Josh Hohneck ’50), James Hanson (Motu Matu’u  ’68).  John Afoa,  (Fraser Balmain  ’68),  Ed Slater, Jeremy Thrush (Tom Savage ’71),  Ross Moriarty (Ruan Ackermann, 55)  Lewis Ludlow, Ben Morgan.

As it happened: Connacht v Gloucester, Challenge Cup quarter-final

‘Saracens is the ultimate test for us. Are we ready? It’s hard to say’

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Sean Farrell

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