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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 8 April, 2020

'I don’t think we panicked' - Connacht come up short in quarter-final bid

The westerners must now make sure they are in the Champions Cup again next season.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Ernest Wallon

WATCHING THE ENDGAME in Toulouse yesterday, it appeared that Connacht weren’t quite certain of exactly what they wanted to do.

There were visits into the home side’s defensive territory in the closing 15 minutes, but it seemed as though Connacht were tangled up in indecision. Go all out for the try or attempt to build a drop goal chance? Or simply keep the ball until a penalty arrived?

James Cannon and Tiernan O’Halloran dejected after the game Tiernan O'Halloran and James Cannon after the defeat in Toulouse. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Pat Lam’s were caught somewhere in between the three options and instead delivered more of the crippling errors that ultimately meant they missed out on grabbing a first-ever quarter-final.

“We knew,” said fullback Tiernan O’Halloran afterwards when asked what the communication had been like in those final stages, when three points would have earned Connacht a knockout tie.

“A few of the key guys sat down with Pat last night and knew the situation and what would happen in the last five minutes. The big thing was not letting them score another try because if they did we were in big trouble.

“The first focus was on our defensive mentality to keep them out, but the other thing was to try and get our opportunity for three points. It didn’t happen for us that time in their 22, but I don’t think we panicked.

“Even if we’d got the three points we would have had to exit again and they might have got another opportunity. That’s just the way it was but there was never a case where we didn’t know what was happening. We were in control of what the situation was. We just didn’t execute it.”

While the nature of the near miss for Connacht naturally means focus on yesterday’s game, they will have other regrets from their campaign.

With Zebre also in Pool 2, it was always liked that two sides would come out of the group and into the quarter-finals, but Lam’s side slipped at crucial points.

The westerners’ head coach looked back to the 32-17 defeat away to Wasps in round three with regret, his side having failed to notch even a losing bonus point in a “frustrating” match.

Jack Carty dejected after the game 22/1//2017 Out-half Jack Carty at the final whistle. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We were right in that game and we made errors,” said Lam. “And this game here. Besides that, to beat both Wasps and Toulouse shows how far we have come, but we had a realistic chance to win this.

“Dropped balls, errors, wrong systems, things that will hurt us badly and it has been doing that for the last four, five weeks for our team. It’s all learnings.”

Connacht will be tormented by yesterday’s underperformance for a few days yet, but they do see the positives in their European performances this season – namely those wins over Wasps and Toulouse – and took pride from being there thanks to their own efforts.

“Mul [John Muldoon] spoke there about taking the positives from it,” said O’Halloran. “It’s the first time we came near qualifying for the knockout stages and after qualifying in the first place ourselves and not having someone like Leinster doing us a favour, it’s something we take a bit of pride in.

“It’s also a benchmark now. We’ve set a mark and that’s where we need to be year in, year out. We’re in a tough position in the league and it’s back to that for us now. What’s done is done here.

“We will take a lot from those wins against Toulouse and Wasps and we need to up our league form now and hopefully during the Six Nations period we can capitalise on that and hopefully start crawling up the table again.”

Indeed, ensuring a rise up the league ladder is necessary for Connacht if they want to be back in the Champions Cup next season.

The western province’s non-international players will enjoy a week off now, but when they return they resume their campaign eighth in the league and 12 points off the top six.

“We have got to make sure we earn our right to be back in this competition next year,” said Lam.

Pat Lam before the game Lam and his men now much rise up the Pro12 table. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We have a week off now, boys can recover, and then we have got five big games on the trot – Cardiff, Dragons, Zebre, Treviso, Zebre. There is no doubt we have got to win all of those to get us back hunting around that top six and see what happens.”

Niyi Adeolokun was the only new injury concern to arise from yesterday’s game in Toulouse, having failed a HIA after two heavy blows in tackles on the steamrolling Joe Tekori.

Otherwise, Lam is looking forward to welcoming a few more players back from injury before the Pro12 resumes.

“There is a whole lot of players that are busting to play again that are out injured and they can’t wait to get back,” said Lam. “Since Dave Ellis left, I have been working with all of the injured guys on their skill work and they are buzzing.

“They actually probably get the best skills session, those guys, because they are so keen to get back in there.

“That is the hardest thing. We just needed to… if we could get through to April we had a whole flood of guys coming back, it would have been ideal. But it’s gone now, so those guys are going to have to come back in the Pro12 and they are all keen to get back playing again.”

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‘We’ve only got ourselves to blame’ – Lam frustrated by Connacht’s near miss

Connacht agonisingly miss out on quarter-finals with defeat in Toulouse

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Murray Kinsella

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