Pat Lam’s search for a first derby win continues as Connacht slumped to another painful defeat in the RaboDirect PRO 12 against Leinster at the Sportsground on Saturday.
The Connacht manager was dignified in his post-match interviews but he was entitled to be incensed by some baffling officiating, which at the very least robbed the home side of a deserved losing bonus point.
Zebre recorded a rare win at home against Treviso over the weekend, and so leapfrogged Connacht, who are back at the basement of the league table after a dozen games. It’s hard not to grow weary of Connacht hard-luck stories, and unfairness.
But, despite the gloom that greeted the final whistle, and the prevailing sense of injustice among fans, there were many positives garnered from this 16-8 loss.
The set-pieces again were solid, as was Connacht’s doggish defence for the most part; and the young, all-Irish qualified backline, with an average age of just 22, showed ambition, courage and maturity against a Leinster outfit, who were jam-packed with seasoned internationals.
So while this season’s league is now effectively a write-off, Connacht is still in contention in Europe and a win this Saturday (3.40pm) against Zebre in the Heineken Cup, a third victory in the competition, would represent progress.
Before dissecting the match-turning decisions, a word about the Connacht Academy young guns. Both out-half Jack Carty, in his first senior start, and Darragh Leader, in his first start at full-back, acquitted themselves admirably. Carty, having settled well with a tasty kick to the corner and a decent defensive aerial catch, grew in confidence.
The 21-years-old’s performance belied his inexperience at this level – he passed well, gave Connacht go-forward momentum and was brave in defence. Leader also had a decent shift – he missed a couple of long-distance penalty kicks, but the 20-years-old Galway man, a versatile utility back, proved a safe pair of hands under the Garryowen and with clearance kicking.
Centre Robbie Henshaw was quieter by his standards but did show class and a turn of pace to set winger Fionn Carr on his way to Connacht’s try; and his kick to the corner set Connacht up for a penalty that Carty converted to give the hosts an 8-3 half-time advantage.
That was as good as it got, however, as Lam’s men didn’t build on the opening half promise: Connacht kicked poorly in the second half, struggled to keep hold of possession and they failed miserably to secure meaningful territory and break out of their own half.
But for all that, they were suckered by poor officiating. Leinster took the lead, 9-8, in the 62nd minute when it took three players to haul Jamie Heaslip to the floor but there was more than a suspicion of a knock-on by the number eight at the base of the scrum in the lead-up to that penalty.
Heaslip, the Leinster captain, was involved again in the lead up Gordon Darcy’s try under the posts but he should have been in the sin-bin because his high and late shoulder charge challenge on replacement out-half, Dan Parks, was reckless.
If Connacht’s number eight, Eoin McKeon, had carried out a similar dangerous manoeuvre on Ian Madigan, he would have been binned no question; and Parks must have been still dazed as he missed the resulting penalty.
Leaving aside that the officials bottled the yellow card decision, the final pass from Jimmy Gopperth to Darcy for the try looked forward. It just doesn’t seem fair.
“Obviously some of the calls were disappointing but our focus is what we can control and despite those calls we didn’t look after the ball and we couldn’t get out of our own half,” said Lam.
“We’re disappointed as a group. The thing we’re most disappointed with is the little mistakes, the little errors that are killing us. Whether it’s our kicking, whether it’s our goal-kicking or whether it’s not protecting the ball, those sorts of things continue to hurt us.
“I know they have so many internationals and we’ve got a lot of young players but for us, we’ve got our own standards, particularly in that last 20 or 30 minutes we didn’t have any sort of shape and it made it difficult for us . . . we were making too many errors at crucial times,” added Lam.
Bundee Aki to miss European play-off
Connacht centre Bundee Aki received a three match ban for misconduct this week which means he will miss Connacht’s final two league games and the European play-off game most probably against a French side.
Aki faced a Disciplinary Panel via video link after a Misconduct Complaint was made against him by the Disciplinary Officer of PRO12 Rugby.
The complaint referred to Aki’s behaviour to and remarks directed toward, referee Ian Davies, during and immediately after the Round 20 fixture between Connacht and Leinster.
Aki admitted to the charge of misconduct and the Panel gave him a sanction of a three-match suspension.
That means he will also miss Connacht’s final home fixture against Scarlets tomorrow or in the last game of the regular season against Munster in Thomond Park next week.
The player can return to play on Monday, May 22 which means he would be available to play in a final European qualifier should Connacht win the first one.
Disaster for Wegians as home loss sees Blues relegated
GALWEGIANS’ hugely disappointing All-Ireland League campaign came to a rather ignominious end when they were soundly beaten by their visitors Naas, who in the process secured second place with this victory and earn themselves a home semi-final in the promotion play-offs.
The Blues came into this game knowing that nothing less than a win would save them from the drop, and they were also counting on UL Bohs to do them a favour against Dolphin, so the motivational stakes could not have been higher.
Wegians started nervously and looked like a side bereft of confidence, and it was the Kildare men who dominated the opening quarter, threatening the Wegians line on several occasions. However for all their dominance, the Blues defence held sway and kept their line intact.
Wegians got a boost when an intercept by centre Rory Parata on his 10m line saw him race clear into opposition territory, and his clever kick ahead just eluded winger Alan McMahon. However Parata was impeded on his run which gave a chance for a shot on goal, and out-half Morgan Codyre made no mistake from in front of the posts to give the hosts a 3-0 lead.
With the aid of a stiff cross-breeze, the visitors kept up the pressure, and they finally managed to breech the Wegians rearguard just on the half-hour mark. It looked like Wegians would initially deal with an attacking threat, but when the ball went loose, Naas hooker Warren Larkin found himself unmarked with the line at his mercy and he dived over for the game’s opening score.
Cillian Dempsey scuffed the simple conversion to leave it at 5-3, and shortly afterwards a great hit by Parata on his opposite number Fionn Carr led to a penalty opportunity. Codyre again took full advantage to restore his side’s lead by the narrowest of margins at 6-5.
Arguably the turning point of the game came right on the stroke of half-time. With Wegians prop Martin Fox in the sin-bin, the ever-threatening Carr went on a sortee down the right flank. The ex-Connacht man easily brushed off three attempted tackles before feeding his winger Ben O’Connor who sauntered over unopposed for the simplest of scores. This time Dempsey converted to give his side a 12-6 lead at the break.
Wegians came out of the traps immediately on the restart, and when they were restored to 15 men and with the slight wind advantage at their backs, there were flickers of hope that they could regain their lead. They desperately needed the next score to keep themselves in contention, however the visitors dealt comfortably with the attacking threat and they soon took a stranglehold on the game, working their way back upfield.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.
Cian Kelleher debuts at full back in Connacht’s season-opener
New signing Cian Kelleher will make his competitive debut lining out at fullback for Connacht against Galsgow tomorrow (5.15pm). The 22-year-old is named in a back three with Niyi Adeolokun and Irish international Matt Healy.
Eoin Griffin has been handed the number 13 shirt for his return to the Sportsground after two seasons with London Irish. The 25-year-old from Galway will partner last season’s PRO12 Players’ Player Bundee Aki in midfield.
In the pack, Denis Buckley makes a welcome return to the front row after his lengthy lay off recovering from an ankle injury. Internationals Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane are also named and Nepia Fox-Matamua returns to start in the back row with Eoin McKeon and captain John Muldoon.
From the bench, Lewis Stevenson is in line to make his full Connacht debut and Kieran Marmion comes in as the replacement scrum half.
Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said:
“What an exciting game to kick off a new season at home where we have two teams who really like to express themselves. Games against Glasgow are always tough and uncompromising and with their impressive selection of international players, we expect that to be no different tomorrow.
“It’s a new season and a somewhat new-look side with just eight who started at Murrayfield in May lining out tomorrow. Today is the last time all 12 teams will be level on points. With five points on offer now our focus is on the process which will give us the best chance of winning.
“Starting the championship at home is a huge boost and we’re looking forward to experiencing the magical atmosphere here at the Sportsground once again come 5:15.”
Connacht team to face Glasgow Warriors, Saturday 3rd September, the Sportsground, 5:15pm
15 Cian Kelleher
14 Niyi Adeolokun
13 Eoin Griffin
12 Bundee Aki
11 Matt Healy
10 Jack Carty
9 Caolin Blade
1 Denis Buckley
2 Tom McCartney
3 Finlay Bealham
4 Ultan Dillane
5 Danny Qualter
6 Eoin McKeon
7 Nepia Fox-Matamua
8 John Muldoon (captain)
16 Dave Heffernan
17 Ronan Loughney
18 JP Cooney
19 Lewis Stevenson
20 James Connolly
21 Kieran Marmion
22 Shane O’Leary
23 Peter Robb
For a full preview of the match and Connacht’s season see this week’s 24 page souvenir supplement free with the Tribune