Shark attack sinks Connacht

Connacht’s focus for the remainder of the season will be trying to claim a knockout spot in the PRO14 and a place in next season’s Champions Cup but they will be disappointed to bow out of the Challenge Cup without firing a decent shot.

Shark attack sinks Connacht

Connacht’s focus for the remainder of the season will be trying to claim a knockout spot in the PRO14 and a place in next season’s Champions Cup but they will be disappointed to bow out of the Challenge Cup without firing a decent shot.

An understrength selection for a European quarter-final told its own story about where priorities lie at the Sportsground but Andy Friend would rightly have expected that his men would test a Sale Sharks that they beat in Galway two months ago.

But having failed to make early chances count, they were on the back foot for long periods and were well on their way to an eighth defeat in 11 Challenge Cup quarter-finals when they trailed 20-3 at the break.

They never gave up and came with a late rally which really only served to highlight this was a missed opportunity.

The loss also extended their dreadful run in England where they haven’t won in a decade and have returned triumphant on just two of 26 trips across the Irish Sea in the professional era.

Connacht, having rested several players, knew a big start was needed to make an impact but when the opportunity presented itself after three minutes, they bungled it. Jack Carty intercepted on his own 22 and almost make it to the line at the other end but winger Denny Solomona got back and when the out-half’s pass went to ground Kyle Godwin knocked on unchallenged a few metres from the line.

Connacht refused to be rattled by the miss and hit the front four minutes later when good pressure forced an offside and Carty duly obliged from 25 metres on the right.

But the Connacht scrum was in trouble from the outset the lineout creaked and Sale Sharks weren’t long making them pay.

AJ MacGinty, one of the heroes of Connacht’s Pro12 win three seasons ago, was back from injury for Sale and ran the game with the array of passing and kicking skills which made him such a crowd favourite at the Sportsground.

A penalty won by a rampaging scrum inside their own half gave Sale the initial platform for the opening try. They went down the line and when the ball was recycled, they quickly and easily created an overlap for Byron McGuigan to score in the left corner.

That was the foothold Sale, twice winners of this competition, needed and by the 16th minute they were 14-3 in front, the other winger Solomona scoring in the right corner.

Carty had a chance to reduce the margin but missed a penalty from close to the same spot where he had earlier opened the scoring and with Spirngbok Faf de Klerk superb at scrum-half, Sale pushed forward and MacGinty extended their lead to 20-3 with a couple of penalties.

A couple of crooker throws by hooker Tom McCartney summed up Connacht’s opening half display on a benign night in Salford where the large band of travelling fans had little to shout about.

Connacht’s night nosedived further when Carty went off with a shoulder injury which will be a cause for concern as they head into the business end of the PRO14.

Connacht’s form on the night was again illustrated after 49 minutes when Godwin kicked a penalty to the corner dead, just minutes after sending a clearance out on the full. It was that sort of frustrating and sloppy night.

Connacht were given a lifeline when Sale lock James Phillips was yellow-carded after 59 minutes for a shoulder charge on Godwin, but Connacht turned over the ball inside the 22 after going to touch with the penalty.

However, they got back in contention 12 minutes from time when Godwin scored after being set up by Caolin Blade following a scrum in front of the posts and Darragh Leader, one of Connacht better players on the night, added the conversion from the right to cut the gap to 20-10.

But that was as close as they got on a night that ended with tighthead prop Finlay Bealham also going off injured. They will need to be more clinical or their promising PRO14 campaign will go likewise but now they mist regroup for a trip to play Zebre next weekend.

Scorers for Sale:

Tries: B McGuigan, D Solomona; Conversions: AJ MacGinty (2); Penalties: AJ MacGinty (2).

Scorers for Connacht:

Try: K Godwin; Conversion: D Leader; Penalty: J Carty.

Sale Sharks:

L James; D Solomona, S James, RJ van Rensburg, B McGuigan; AJ MacGinty, F de Klerk; R Harrison, R Webber, J Jones; B Evans, J Phillips; J Ross, T Curry, J Beaumont.

Replacements: C Redpath for van Rensburg (6, HIA), van Rensburg for Redpath (17), B Curry for T Curry (49), C Langdon for Webber (60), A Tarus for Jones (62), J Strauss for Phillips (70), Redpath for MacGinty (80).

Connacht:

D Leader; N Adeolokun, K Godwin, B Aki, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; P McCabe, T McCartney, D Robertson-McCoy; J Cannon, G Thornbury; E Masterson, J Connolly, P Boyle.

Replacements: F Bealham for Robertson-McCoy (26), J Maksymiw for Thornbury (42), T Daly for Carty (45), Thornbury for Maksymiw (48), R Copeland for Masterson (54), S Fitzgerald for Adeolokun (54), D Heffernan for (60), J Maksymiw for (60), C Blade for (60), D Buckley for McCabe (63), McCartney for Boyle (83).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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