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European heartbreak for Connacht as Wisniewski drop goal denies Lam's men

Stade des Alpes played host to a thrilling Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Apr 9th 2016, 10:09 PM 16,562 52

Grenoble 33

Connacht 32

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade des Alpes

THIS ENCOUNTER LIVED up to its billing and more. Connacht and Grenoble engaged in a frenetic, thrilling, dazzling and brilliant Challenge Cup quarter-final, with Bernard Jackman’s men just about emerging victorious.

Fabien Barcella celebrates at the final whistle Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A 75th-minute drop goal from superb out-half Jonathan Wisniewski proved to be the winning of the contest in a sensational endgame, but Connacht came through this tie with huge credit in the bank.

Their attack was once again stunning, with Matt Healy leading the way after being relocated to fullback by head coach Pat Lam. The problem was that Grenoble were equal to the visitors with ball in hand, backing themselves to recover from several ominous looking positions on the scoreboard.

Connacht scored four tries to Grenoble’s three, but Wisniewski was superb with the boot, as well as contributing one of his team’s five-pointers.

Lam will need his men to turn their attention immediately to the Guinness Pro12 after this unforgettable encounter, with Munster coming to the Sportsground next weekend. This defeat was heartbreaking, but once again confirmed the westerners’ status as the most exciting and incisive team in Ireland. 

Though they won’t take too much consolation from it, Lam’s squad was given a standing ovation as they left the pitch at Stade des Alpes. Certainly, this was a game to restore one’s faith in rugby.

The opening minutes were very much an indication of what was to follow, as both sides immediately displayed their frenetic attacking intent. Grenoble looked physically superior in the initial collisions, but Connacht counter-punched superbly.

Steven Setephano and Kieran Marmion Connacht were sublime in attack. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

One breakout from their own 22 saw out-half O’Leary, Bundee Aki and the brilliant Healy send Ultan Dillane powering down the left touchline, before he turned the ball back inside to Aki. The powerful centre hared into Grenoble’s 22, but was game up a turnover penalty as Gio Aplon and Lucas Dupont scrambled back.

Connacht’s first try came soon after, however, and it was wonderfully crafted. Kieran Marmion’s superbly-delayed screen pass allowed Danie Poolman to make the first inroads wide on the left, and then Lam’s men swept back to the other edge clinically.

Andrew Browne was the link passer in the middle of the pitch, finding Aki out the back door and the inside centre floated a sublime pass over Tino Nemani’s head to Healy. The fullback hit the accelerator, burning over 40 metres, drawing Aplon and feeding Niyi Adeolokun for a brilliant try.

O’Leary converted, but Connacht’s ambition to play from deep nearly cost them minutes later. A loose pass into touch in their 22 gave Grenoble a platform, from which they drew a penalty under the posts from Aki. Rather than pop over the points, scrum-half Charl McLeod quick-tapped and a try looked certain with numbers up on the right.

Aplon’s pass to Dupont was forward, with the wing spilling forward just to be sure Connacht survived. Just before the quarter mark, Jackman’s side thought they had their opening try, but the TMO correctly denied them.

McLeod’s wild offload in the build-up to a move finished by the powerful Mahamadou Diara was forward, but referee Matthew Carley brought play back for a Grenoble penalty – Tom McCartney having tackled off the ball – and Jonathan Wisniewski made it 7-3.

Connacht simply turned on their attacking magic in response. Again, Healy was a central figure as he skinned Nemani on the counter attack, scorched into Grenoble’s half and found Marmion in support. John Muldoon arrived for a big carry to within metres of the Grenoble tryline and then O’Leary provided a moment of class to allow the finish.

The former Grenoble man steadied himself and fired a superb cross-field kick wide to the left, where Robbie Henshaw was waiting to dive over. O’Leary was unable to convert.

Robbie Henshaw gathers the ball to score his sides second try Robbie Henshaw gathers Shane O'Leary's cross-field kick. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Grenoble’s next threatening attack ended with a crossing offence, before they lost excellent number eight Rory Grice to injury.

An excellent James Connolly turnover penalty approaching the half-hour mark saw Connacht kick to touch in the Grenoble half and launch yet another sensational attack. This time, Marmion looped from left to right on an intelligent lineout play, putting Healy one-on-one with Nemani and again the Connacht fullback bamboozled the wing.

He sliced through, drew Aplon again and sent Adeolokun over for this second, with O’Leary converting.

At 19-3 down, Grenoble needed a big response and produced it before the break, with out-half Wisniewski integral. First, he beat O’Leary, Connolly, Muldoon and Marmion with dazzling footwork to score under the posts, converting the try himself.

That opportunity had been afforded by a cross-field kick from O’Leary on his own tryline flying into touch, as Connacht refused to play it safe. Aki failed to roll away in the 37th minute and Wisniewski was on target with his second penalty.

Connacht needed to steady themselves, but O’Leary put his restart out on the full, with Grenoble then hammering the visitors’ scrum on the halfway line to win another penalty that Wisniewski slotted from 37 metres out, leaving Connacht 19-16 ahead at the break.

The second half started in very much the same fashion as the first 40 had been played and there was another stunning moment from Healy within three minutes.

Niyi Adeolokun scores his sides first try Niyi Adeolokun had a brilliant game for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Grenoble rumbled a maul powerfully into the Connacht half, but Charl McLeod’s pass from the back was loose and Aki snaffled the ball for the turnover. Lam’s men clinically found Healy on the right and the fullback simply burned Aplon on the outside to scorch in for a quite brilliant counter-attacking try.

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O’Leary converted for 26-16 and was able to extend that lead further after 53 minutes when Connacht won a scrum penalty from the Grenoble pack.

Grenoble faced a 13-point deficit but were undeterred by that gap. McLeod initiated their latest mini-comeback with a scything break off the back of a scrum, finding Dupont on his shoulder and bringing another breakdown penalty from Aki.

Grenoble went to the corner, from where their maul rumbled and Fabien Alexandre burst off the tail and drove for the line. Marmion halted him just short, but then Denis Buckley approached the tackle from a completely illegal angle.

Carley went to the TMO to check for possible grounding, of which there was none, and found cause to send Buckley to the sin bin.

Grenoble intelligently opted for the scrum with the subsequent penalty, meaning Aki had to pack down in the back row as Ronan Loughney came in for Sean O’Brien to provide a complete front row.

Jackman’s men shifted the ball to the left, where the excellent Hunt showed superb hands under intense pressure from the blitzing Henshaw to send Dupont racing over for the try, Wisniewski converting to bring Grenoble back to 29-23.

O’Leary kicked the restart over the deadball line and Lam made a brave decision to shift Henshaw into out-half as he hauled off O’Leary.

Robbie Henshaw gathers the ball to score his sides second try despite Chris Farrell Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Grenoble just kept coming and coming though, backing their attack and finding the breakthrough to finally take the lead with 10 minutes remaining. Chris Farrell – so impressive in midfield – burst through and offloaded to Aplon to carry deep into the Connacht 22.

The recycled ball was offloaded by Wisniewski and Dupont sent Diaby crashing into the right-hand corner. John Cooney and Quinn Roux did everything they could to stop the back row, but this time the TMO confirmed that Diaby had scored.

Wisniewski’s brilliant conversion from the right meant Connacht trailed 30-29, but Lam’s men won a superb penalty almost directly from Henshaw’s restart, Buckley with a typical jackaling win at the breakdown.

With no recognised place kicker on the pitch, replacement scrum-half Cooney stepped up to the mark and fired over the penalty with no fuss. 32-30 to Connacht with seven minutes remaining.

Still, there was more in this remarkable game. Grenoble powered back into Connacht territory, Roux making a despairing tackle on Fabrice Estebanez, but Jackman’s men retained possession.

They ground through the phases to find a central position and, with five minutes remaining, Wisniewski expertly slotted over a drop goal for a 33-32 lead.

A Grenoble knock-on at the maul gave Connacht a final chance in attack with a minute and a half left on the clock, Fionn Carr slaloming through the home side’s defence with a stunning linebreak to take them into the 22.

Connacht attempted to back their handling skills once again, but Grenoble’s defence recovered in thunderous fashion to hammer Ronan Loughney in midfield, counter ruck and force Connacht to go off their feet in desperation.

A thrilling conclusion to a thrilling game.

 Grenoble scorers:

Tries: Jonathan Wisniewski, Lucas Dupont, Mahamadou Diaby

Conversions: Jonathan Wisniewski [3 from 3]

Penalties: Jonathan Wisniewski [3 from 3]

Drop goal: Jonathan Wisniewski

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Niyi Adeolokun [2], Robbie Henshaw, Matt Healy

Conversions: Shane O’Leary [3 from 4]

Penalties: Shane O’Leary [1 from 1], John Cooney [1 from 1]

GRENOBLE: Gio Aplon; Tino Nemani, Chris Farrell, Nigel Hunt (Fabrice Estebanez ’68), Lucas Dupont; Jonathan Wisnieskwi, Charl McLeod; Sona Taumalolo (Fabien Barcella ’54), Loick Jammes, Dayna Edwards (Roussouw de Klerk ’54); Ben Hand (captain) (Mathias Marie ’70), Peter Kimlin; Steven Setephano, Mahamadou Diaby, Rory Grice (Fabien Alexandre ’27).

Replacements not used: Paulin Mas, Lilian Saseras, Fabien Gengenbacher.

CONNACHT: Matt Healy; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman (Fionn Carr ’38); Shane O’Leary (Peter Robb ’67), Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’64); Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan ’72), Finlay Bealham ( JP Cooney ’75); Ultan Dillane (Quinn Roux ’61), Andrew Browne; Sean O’Brien (George Naoupu ’71), James Connolly (Ronan Loughney ’61 to ’71), John Muldoon (captain).

Replacements not used.

Referee: Matthew Carley [RFU].

Attendance: 14,877.

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Murray Kinsella

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