Elwood soothed by team’s spirit

CONNACHT coach Eric Elwood has vowed that a heartbreaking late loss to English Premiership side Gloucester will not break his side’s spirit.

The western province, deservedly leading their hosts 19-16, were denied a first Heineken Cup victory four minutes from time when replacement Jonny May escaped a tackle and swept over the line at Kingsholm on Saturday.

Elwood admitted: “Unfortunately the better team lost, but I thought our performance was magnificent. Our guys are learning every week to play in Europe, and hopefully these performances will stand to us. We have two derby matches against Munster and Leinster [in the RaboDirect Pro12 League], and that is the next challenge. We are losing ball games, but it has not broken our spirit.

“Small margins cost you in big games and that’s what happened tonight. It’s heartbreaking.”

It was the most bitter pill for Connacht to swallow, particularly having upped their game from last weekend’s Sportsground effort in which they also claimed a losing bonus point.

Connacht travelled to Gloucester intent on regaining the form they displayed against Harlequins in the opening round and to improve on their set-piece display which cost them dearly last week.

The first scrum came under pressure and yielded a penalty which led to Gloucester’s first try, but thereafter it stood firm. Connacht repelled the Gloucester forwards, stymied their driving maul, while a secure lineout provided the platform for their young backs.

Out-half Niall O’Connor played with authority, directing the game and providing the early touch kicks to the corner that had the home side under pressure. And with the ball in hand, they dominated proceedings, but again failed to get over the winning line.

Gloucester out-half Tim Taylor had opened with a penalty in front of the posts, but Connacht’s reply was a try for Tiernan O’Halloran. Frank Murphy’s intercept from Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu instigated the move which saw Gavin Duffy, Murphy again, and George Naoupu handle up the left wing before O’Halloran crossed on 12 minutes, with O’Connor adding the extras.

Within minutes O’Halloran saved a certain try at the other end on the TMO’s ruling, but from the resulting five-metre scrum Connacht could not stop Taylor from touching down.

Full-back Olly Morgan and Mike Tindall’s presence in the backline kept Connacht’s defence on its toes, but it was the visitors who finished the half the stronger.

O’Halloran, Duffy, and replacement Kyle Tonetti showed their attacking prowess which led to the equalising penalty from O’Connor, and he added another just before the break.

Connacht maintained that momentum throughout the second half with O’Connor edging his side 16-10 in front. Gloucester’s first chance came in the 58th minute when replacement out-half Freddie Burns closed the gap, but it was still Connacht creating the opportunities. Although they failed to convert, they kept their noses in front as both out-halves exchanged penalties. However, a last attack from Gloucester yielded the try which keeps their faint hopes of qualification alive.

Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath said Connacht did “everything right, especially for 60 minutes”.

He added: “It’s tough for Eric. It is tough on his budget to compete with the other provinces. But he should be proud of his side. They will bitterly disappointed because they had an opportunity.”

Elwood vows Connacht must take the positives and move on.

“Part of our learning curve and experience, particularly at this level, is how to close out games and win them. The good thing is we are competitive. We are asking questions of teams supposedly far superior in terms of budget and quality. It is important to take the positives and move forward.”

Scorers for Gloucester: Tries: T Taylor, J May. Cons: T Taylor, F Burns. Pens: T Taylor, F Burns (2).

Scorers for Connacht: Try: T O’Halloran. Con: N O’Connor. Pens: N O’Connor (4).

GLOUCESTER: O Morgan; C Sharples (J May 67), M Tindall, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; T Taylor (F Burns 41), N Runciman (R Lawson 48); D Murphy (N Wood 55), S Lawson (M Cortese 76), R Harden (S Knight 64), P Buxton (W James 67), J Hamilton, B Deacon, A Hazell (A Qera 48), L Narraway (c).

CONNACHT: G Duffy (c); M McCrea (K Tonetti 25), E Griffin, D McSharry, T O’Halloran; N O’Connor, F Murphy (P O’Donohoe 58); B Wilkinson (D Rogers 78), E Reynecke (A Flavin 55), R Loughney (R Ah You 58), G Naoupu, M McCarthy, D Gannon (E McKeon 52), J O’Connor, J Muldoon (M Kearney 67).

Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).

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