Although Connacht can take pride from a gutsy second half effort, the concession of two tries before the interval proved crucial as Gloucester advanced to the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup with a 14-7 win.
James Hook pulled the strings for Gloucester in the opening period, setting up converted tries for Charlie Sharples (21 minutes) and Bill Meakes (30) as David Humphreys’ men moved into a deserved 14-0 lead.
The Cherry and Whites capitalised on some indecision in the Connacht defence, and a series of other errors around the pitch – loose kicking out of hand and a misfiring lineout – made for frustrating viewing from the visitors’ perspective.
Pat Lam’s charges resumed in much better fettle, though, with the returning Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion providing the energy behind the scrum and Aly Muldowney leading a tireless display from the front five.
After Greig Laidlaw missed an opportunity to extend Gloucester’s advantage off the kicking tee, an extended Connacht lineout maul, joined by Henshaw, saw the Ireland centre crash over the line before referee Mathieu Raynal decided to award a penalty try.
Jack Carty’s conversion cut the gap to just seven points with 14 minutes remaining and it was game on for a grandstand finish. Connacht attacked from deep time and again and did well to retain possession, making it back up into the Gloucester 22. However, the hosts tightened up in defence and cut down the space as they held on to reach the tournament’s last-four.
Out-half Carty had a nervy opening, handing possession back to Gloucester with a couple of misjudged kicks. They also had to readjust after in-form lock Muldowney had a short spell on the sidelines, but a solid bout of scrummaging gave the westerners a good platform.
Errors from both sides saw play switch quickly between the 22s, with Connacht’s lineout issues causing concern. Impressive flanker Eoghan Masterson was prominent in defence, though, as the hosts failed to take advantage of a 70% share of possession in the first quarter.
That was until the 21st minute when Connacht played right into Gloucester’s hands. Danie Poolman’s clearance kick lacked the required distance, allowing Hook to counter. He evaded a tackle from Poolman on the right wing and with the province short on defenders, two quick passes released winger Sharples to go over for a simple try.
The conversion was added by Laidlaw who was now benefiting from quick ruck ball at scrum half, bringing his pacy outside backs into the fray. A harsh scrum penalty against the visitors sparked a promising spell of attacking from Gloucester and Hook’s deft grubber kick, on the half hour, sat up nicely for centre Meakes to finish off try number two from close range.
Henshaw and Darragh Leader, who came on for the injured Mils Muliaina, injected some much-needed pace into Connacht’s game, pressing from a turnover on the right wing. However, a subsequent attack saw Poolman’s poor pass knocked on out wide by Matt Healy and that summed up a disappointing first half display from the province.
The coaches’ half-time words seemed to work a treat as Connacht were far more cohesive and direct on the restart. Good work at the breakdown by Masterson won a penalty which sprung them forward, however a subsequent maul was successfully brought down by Gloucester and a second maul opportunity – on the opposite side of the pitch – saw the westerners pinged for ‘truck and trailer’.
Connacht had no points to show for 75% possession, but there were further positive signs from their reliable scrum and lion’s share of territory. Muldowney, Masterson and replacement George Naoupu carried strongly up front with Henshaw, who was joined by Craig Ronaldson in the centre, probing with the boot out wide.
Laidlaw pulled a kickable penalty wide after Healy lost his balance in attempting to launch a counter attack from his 22. The incident resulted in the Connacht winger going off injured and scrum half Ian Porter had to slot in on the left wing.
The visitors finally made the breakthrough when Carty launched a central penalty to touch in the left corner, Tom McCartney’s accurate throw set up the maul and with Gloucester coming in at the side as Connacht advanced up to the line, referee Raynal awarded the penalty try which Carty converted.
The province’s final push came via some strong scrummaging and a couple of key penalties won in defence. Connacht piled forward in search of the levelling seven-pointer, with young replacement James Connolly an eager carrier, and Marmion at the heart of a determined late surge which got them back into scoring range.
Lam hailed his ‘young side’s spirit and fight’ when giving his reaction afterwards, but ultimately they could not erase the damage done in the first half. A finale turnover from the gritty Gloucester defence was enough to see them through to the semi-final stage.