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Lam's Connacht lose after extra time in thrilling Champions Cup play-off

There was high drama in Kingsholm this afternoon.

Gloucester 40

Connacht 32

PAT LAM’S DREAM of guiding Connacht into next season’s Champions Cup is over after a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to Gloucester in Kingsholm.

Bundee Aki is tackled by Greig Laidlaw Bundee Aki barrels forward. Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

It was a cruel result for the westerners, who delivered a brilliant Jack Carty-inspired performance, with the decision-making of referee Romain Poite certain to come under serious scrutiny.

Connacht led 25-18 with a minute of normal time remaining, before Poite’s breakdown highly-debatable penalty against the Irish province allowed Gloucester to save the game with a Billy Meakes score and bring it into an additional 20 minutes.

A stunning try from Gloucester sealed their win in the closing minutes of extra time as England wing Jonny May started a sweeping move inside his own 22 and then finished at the other end after some high-quality passing and offloading from his teammates.

Carty was superb for Connacht in the 10 shirt, while the likes of John Cooney, Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney, Matt Healy and Robbie Henshaw were exceptional too.

A poor start to the game from Connacht had seen the English side regather the kick-off after George Naoupu spilled and eventually that possession allowed Ross Mariarty to go over at the back of a TMO-confirmed maul try.

Laidlaw converted, but Connacht responded with a superb John Cooney try. A smashing read and hit from impressive wing Healy on Charlie Sharples forced the knock-on, with scrum-half Cooney scooping up and sprinting clear from 50 metres out.

Carty converted that score, having already been successful with a penalty after Denis Buckley hammered John Afoa at scrum time.

Gloucester produced a scintillating try of their own for Sharples heading towards the half-hour mark, Billy Meakes slipping James Hook through with a gorgeous pass and the Welshman then feeding Sharples to burn clear.

Laidlaw – who had struck with a penalty of his own after 19 minutes – missed with the extras, and Connacht again conjured an immediate answer as they created a try for Carty. The out-half sent Fionn Carr into a half gap and then took a lovely offload from the wing to dart under the posts, allowing for an easy conversion.

John Cooney runs in his side's first try Cooney races clear for his try. Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

Referee Poite sin binned both Afoa and Buckley heading towards the break as he became frustrated with their scrum battle, but Connacht retained their lead at the half-time whistle.

A penalty from Laidlaw nudged Gloucester in front just after the interval, but Connacht continued to be fiercely competitive in all aspects of the game as lock Aly Muldowney led the charge up front.

The travelling Connacht support had to wait until the 60th minute to see their side back in front, Carty dinking an inch-perfect diagonal kick over and behind the Gloucester defence for Healy to run onto and gather without the ball bouncing.

Remarkably, that try came with Connacht down to 14 men after Eoghan Masterson had been binned for failing to roll away at a ruck.

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Carty was wide with the conversion, then fullback Tiernan O’Halloran injured himself making a spectacularly good try-saving tackle on Jonny May in the left corner. The loss of McCartney for a concussion test was a further blow.

But Lam’s men were utterly resilient in delivering a closing 15 minutes of huge work rate, an intercept from captain John Muldoon and then a clearing kick by Healy eventually leading to a penalty under the Gloucester posts with two minutes left.

GIF 3 Healy's superb second-half try. Source: BT Sport

That appeared to be the winning of the game, but a controversial penalty decision from Poite allowed Gloucester into position to launch one final attack. With advantage being played, Meakes darted through Connacht’s tiring pack to score, Laidlaw converting to bring the game to extra time.

The first half of that additional 20 minutes was almost scoreless, but a penalty decision from Poite allowed James Hook to hammer over a 54-metre penalty for a 28-25 lead just before the break.

Connacht’s response was exceptional again, though, as Healy burst through to score under the posts. The TMO confirmed that Robbie Henshaw had not knocked on just before Healy darted clear, with Carty adding the conversion.

The high drama continued as replacement Dave Heffernan was yellow carded for kicking the ball out of a ruck on Connacht’s tryline from an offside position, Gloucester then firing up their maul to score through Darren Dawidiuk.

Laidlaw missed the conversion, leaving Connacht with the hope of building one final score in the last three minutes of the game, but May kick started and finished the most stunning of tries to seal the deal.

Gloucester scorers:

Tries: Ross Moriarty, Charlie Sharples, Bill Meakes, Jonny May

Conversions: Greig Laidlaw [3 from 4]

Penalties: Greig Laidlaw [2 from 2], James Hook [1 from 1]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: John Cooney, Jack Carty, Matt Healy [2]

Conversions: Jack Carty [3 from 4]

Penalties: Jack Carty [2 from 2]

GLOUCESTER: Charlie Sharples (Dan Robson ’65); Jonny May, Bill Meakes, Billy Twelvetrees (capt.), Henry Purdy; James Hook, Greig Laidlaw; Nick Wood (Yann Thomas ’65), Richard Hibbard (Darren Dawidiuk ’60), John Afoa (YC ’33) (Shaun Knight ’88); Tom Savage, Tom Palmer; Jacob Rowan, Dan Thomas (Lewis Ludlow ’65 – Moriarty ’88)), Ross Moriarty (Elliot Stooke ’71).

Replacements not used: Billy Burns, Rob Cook.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran (Shane O’Leary ’65), Fionn Carr (Miah Nikora ’75), Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, John Cooney (Ian Porter ’65); Denis Buckley (YC ’33), Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan ’70 – YC ’94), Rodney Ah You (Finlay Bealham ’54); George Naoupu (Andrew Browne ’54), Aly Muldowney; John Muldoon (capt.), Eoghan Masterson (YC ’55), Eoin McKeon (James Connolly ’71).

Replacements not used: JP Cooney.

Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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