End of the road

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

Pat Lam’s men needed only three points, but couldn’t find them.

Toulouse 19

Connacht 10

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Ernest Wallon

CONNACHT WERE WITHIN three points of a first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final.

It was there for the taking, with Pat Lam’s men needing only a drop goal or a penalty to earn themselves a place in the knockout stages.

But lacking a drop-goal strategy and killing themselves with unforced errors and a dire breakdown performance, they left the gilt-edged opportunity untaken in Toulouse.

Quinn Roux and John Muldoon dejected after conceding a try 22/1//2017 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The westerners will be bitterly disappointed looking back at this game, after captain John Muldoon’s try had brought them back to within nine points of the Top 14 outfit with half an hour still to play.

Connacht had chances, even inside the final ten minutes, but out-half Jack Carty didn’t drop into the pocket on the first of them, while a bizarre lineout call saw Lam’s men look to target the blindside and get picked off with their final attack, when it made more sense to solidly build a chance for three points.

In truth, it would have been robbery for Connacht to grab the final place in the quarter-finals, given how poor they were throughout at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Instead, it’s Toulouse who can look forward to a trip to Thomond Park to face Munster in April, while Leinster will host Wasps in their knock-out tie. That we don’t have a third Irish team in the next round is a deep shame, and Lam and his players will surely lose sleep over the fact that they got so close.

It hadn’t looked like being the case that they would do so early on, with Connacht’s awful start to the game suggesting that Toulouse might even run away with it.

The French side were over the tryline after just four minutes, but Denis Buckley, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan combined to hold up French international loosehead Cyrill Baille following the initial midfield break from Gael Fickou, who left Finlay Bealham on his arse.

But Toulouse won a penalty from the subsequent scrum and the creative Sébastien Bezy quick-tapped to launch a series of tryline battering, eventually slipping a pass to Fickou to score as Connacht ran out of defenders wide on their right.

Doussain converted that try and also added the extras to Arthur Bonneval’s excellent 18th-minute score.

Toulouse struck from a scrum inside their own half, with fullback Yoann Huget burning Connacht centre Peter Robb on his outside shoulder, before drawing in Tiernan O’Halloran and firing a pass to Bonneval on his right.

Arthur Bonneval scores a try 22/1//2017 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Bonneval scores in the corner for Toulouse. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The talented 21-year-old fended Matt Healy wonderfully to give himself time and space to finish in the right corner, and Connacht are 14-0 down with less than a quarter played.

The French side almost had their third try on the half-hour mark, but Craig Ronaldson just managed to halt Yann David close to the Connacht line, with Toulouse then pinged for obstruction as they looked to maul over to the side of the ruck.

A big turnover penalty from Denis Buckley allowed Ronaldson to bring Connacht onto the scoreboard with three points from the tee, but the westerners simply could not hang onto the ball long enough to create opportunities or earn territory.

Quinn Roux picked up a silly and deserved penalty with 34 minutes gone for grabbing Bezy’s arm as the scrum-half looked to pass away from the base of a ruck. Roux was lying on the ground, out of the game, and Wayne Barnes’ decision was easy.

Doussain somehow missed from in front of the posts with the penalty, however, having knocked over the two difficult conversions and 14-man Connacht made it to the break trailing 14-3.

Ronaldson missed a chance to reduce the Top 14 side’s advantage two minutes into the second half, after a neck roll by Census Johnston, but his penalty shot was wide to the right of the posts. Those three points could have proven the difference in the end.

Down the other end of the pitch, the Toulouse juggernaut kept rolling.

Craig Ronaldson kicks a penalty James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht twice dragged down Toulouse mauls to concede penalties and then at the third time of asking – even with Roux back from the sin bin – they cracked. Joe Tekori thundered through a huge hole in the Connacht lineout defence to dot down.

Cracked, but not broken. A penalty against Toulouse for blocking finally allowed Ronaldson to kick Connacht down into the home side’s 22 and Lam’s men built some pressure.

Toulouse came in from the side of the first maul attempt, then knocked-on in the tackle on Connacht’s second attack. From the resulting scrum, we saw the clinical side of the western province that had been badly missed for the opening 50 minutes.

Robb made a powerful carry in midfield off the set-piece and captain Muldoon came thundering around the corner to accept Marmion’s pass and score through the weak tackle attempt of Bezy. Ronaldson converted for 19-10.

The try revived Connacht in terms of energy but their breakdown work remained poor and two promising attacking spells ended with Toulouse turnover penalties, while hooker Tom McCartney knocked-on to end another.

With Wasps notching their bonus point against Zebre over in Italy around the 60-minute mark, the message relayed by Connacht’s staff onto the pitch at Stade Ernest Wallon would have been that denying Toulouse another try and finishing within seven points of them would earn the westerners that first-ever quarter-final.

Yoann Maestri picked off the lineout on Connacht’s next visit to the Toulouse half, however, with the effective Tekori winning another breakdown penalty on the Toulouse 22 just minutes later.

John Muldoon scores a try 22/1//2017 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Muldoon's try brought Connacht back into the game. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Despite their shocking error count, Connacht continued to try and try. Some slightly panicked play from Huget in the backfield led to a knock-on from Bezy and Connacht had a fine attacking platform heading towards the closing 10 minutes.

Connacht went through several promising phases and it seemed to be crying out for Carty to drop into the pocket, but instead he lofted a pass wide left to Healy, who spilled the ball agonisingly forward and into touch.

With Toulouse clearly feeling the intense pressure, Connacht continued to get chances. And they continued to waste them.

They attempted a trick play down the blindside from a lineout, but Bezy picked off Muldoon’s pass to replacement scrum-half John Cooney. Surely this was the occasion to hit midfield and patiently build for a penalty or drop goal?

Two penalty concessions followed from Connacht and Toulouse were able to kick up into the western province’s half with four minutes left.

A last-gasp turnover saw Connacht roll the dice one last time, but again their breakdown arrival was late and Toulouse closed the door.

Toulouse scorers:

Tries: Gaël Fickou, Arthur Bonneval

Conversions: Jean-Marc Doussain [2 from 3]

Penalties: Jean-Marc Doussain [0 from 1]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: John Muldoon

Conversions: Craig Ronaldson [1 from 1]

Penalties: Craig Ronaldson [1 from 2]

TOULOUSE: Yoann Huget; Arthur Bonneval, Yann David, Gaël Fickou, Paul Perez; Jean-Marc Doussain, Sébastien Bézy; Cyril Baille (Vasil Kakovin ’66), Christopher Tolofua (Leonardo Ghiraldini ’68), Census Johnston (Maks van Dyk ’66); Richie Gray, Yoann Maestri; Joe Tekori (Gillian Galan ’68), Thierry Dusautoir (captain), François Cros (Piula Faasalele ’71).

Replacements not used: Talalelei Gray, Toby Flood, Alexis Palisson

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun (HIA – Danie Poolman ’63), Peter Robb, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’75); Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan ’65), Finlay Bealham (John Andress ’75); Quinn Roux (yellow card ’37); James Cannon; Nepia Fox-Matamua (Sean O’Brien ’63), Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (captain).

Replacements not used: JP Cooney, Naulia Dawai, Tom Farrell.

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

Attendance: 12,023.

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