But as Connacht departed Bloemfontein yesterday for the journey back to freezing Ireland, there was little cause for celebration as Cheetahs struck for a last-gasp winner to deny Kieran Keane’s men a deserved success.
Keane said afterwards that the ‘gut-wrenching’ loss would harden his men and while the loss all but puts paid to their ailing PRO14 hopes, the performance will boost them as they prepare for their Challenge Cup quarter-final at the end of the month against Gloucester.
The performance of flanker Sean O’Brien, who only returned recently after being out since September with a shoulder injury, was a huge boost and the promising 23-year old from Galway could have a huge finish to the season.
The outcome was cruel on a Connacht side who battled superbly in the heat and thin air of the Highveld.
“At half-time we spoke about how fresh we were,” noted winger Matt Healy, whose two tries helped Connacht recover from a poor opening when they fell 10-0 behind after just ten minutes.
“We were right in the game,” said Healy, after the sides turned around with Cheetahs lead 16-15.
Jack Carty edged them in front for the first time shortly after the restart and then sent Eoin Griffin through to score as Connacht led 25-16 after 58 minutes.
But Cheetahs, beaten only once at home this season in the PRO14, rallied and a try from replacement winger Sibhale Maxwana reduced the gap before Niel Maraise slotted the match-winner with a penalty in the final minute.
“The one thing I know about this group is that we will learn from it,” said Keane.
“We have got plenty of other games to play for. We have got plenty of other things to aspire to. We will just let the cards fall as they may.
“We have had a great tour, apart from losing a game in the 79th minute. It’s been good for us,” added Keane, whose side return to Ireland after a tour which saw them win 22-19 in Treviso and pick up a bonus point in Bloemfontein.
They outscored the Cheetahs by three tries to two but just couldn’t close out the deal. “We didn’t come here to make the numbers up. We came here to give our best and do our best. Probably 95 percent of the time we did and then we lost in the last five minutes.
“It’s gut-wrenching for everybody to come that far and fall on the last hurdle,” said the Connacht coach.
: Cassiem, Maxwane;
: N Marais (4);
: N Marais (2).
: Healy (2), Griffin;
: Carty (2);
C Blommetjies; C Barry, F Venter, N Lee, L Obi; N Marais, Z Mkhabela; O Nche, T van Jaarsveld, J Coetzee; J Basson, R Hugo; P Schoeman, H Venter, U Cassiem.
S Maxwane for Obi (19), C Marais for Nche (49), T Botha for Coetzee (53), O Mohoje for H Venter (53), T Meyer for Mkhabela (53), R Bernardo for Hugo (59), J du Toit for van Jaarsveld (70).
T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, E Griffin, P Ahki, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; S O’Brien, J Butler, J Muldoon.
C Ronaldson for Griffin (27), Griffin for Ronaldson (38), D Robertson McCoy for Bealham (49), G Thornbury for Cannon (51), N Adeolokun for Kelleher (56), E Masterson for Dillane (71), S Delahunt for McCartney (75), C Ronaldson for Ahki (75).
Stuart Berry (South Africa).