Bonus points Connacht’s Achilles heel in Europe

Connacht, for a team which has won almost 45% of its matches in the Heineken Champions Cup, still has a lot to learn how to compete in Europe’s premier tournament.

Bonus points Connacht’s Achilles heel in Europe

Connacht, for a team which has won almost 45% of its matches in the Heineken Champions Cup, still has a lot to learn how to compete in Europe’s premier tournament.

Statistics, of course, can be misleading. Six of Connacht’s 12 wins in the tournament have come against Zebre but the victories over Toulouse (home and away), Wasps, Harlequins, Biarritz and Montpellier are something the other three provinces would be proud of.

But as Munster, in particular, and the others have shown, pools are regularly decided by the ability to pick up bonus points, particularly in defeat. Connacht just have not mastered that. They have lost 15 times in the competition and only three times have they managed to salvage losing bonus points.

Two of those, ironically, were picked up in their maiden season in the competition home and away to Gloucester, but their failure to garner anything from Kingsholm on Sunday leaves their interest in this season’s competition hanging by a thread.

Team captain Jarrad Butler and coach Andy Friend said after Sunday’s 26-17 loss that a five-point haul in the return match next Saturday at the Sportsground is now the requirement.

But to achieve that Connacht will need to buck the trend. Only twice have they managed to add the extra point in their dozen wins in the competition.

Both of those maximum hauls, unsurprisingly, came in facile wins over Zebre. That was the last time they played in the competition in 2016-17 after winning the Pro12 when they won 66-21 in Galway and 52-7 in Italy when Pat Lam was in charge.

But as Lam, on television duty on Sunday for the game in Kingsholm, pointed out, four wins that season were still not enough to get them out of the pool with Toulouse, who also finished on 18 points, pipping them to the runners-up spot behind Wasps.

The absence of bonus points in successive away losses to Toulouse and Gloucester this season leaves Connacht floundering at the bottom of Pool 5. Toulouse lead the pool on 13 points, with Gloucester now on seven points, Montpellier next on five and Connacht on four.

Only once since the system was introduced in the 2003-04 campaign has one of the other three Irish provinces failed to pick up a bonus point in the pool with Leinster failing to qualify in the 2007-08 season despite winning half their games.

“It was a really frustrating afternoon as we felt we were there or thereabouts so to come away with not even a losing bonus point was more frustrating again,” said captain Butler. “But all we can do now is park that and get back to the Sportsground.

“It’s all about putting all the pieces together. We have been good for patches but that only gets you so far, especially when you are away from home.”

Only once, when Toulon won five of their six games, has a team secured a qualification spot finishing second without a bonus point but the reality of this competition which Connacht has yet to crack is that the small extras make all the difference.

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