Grenoble 33 Connacht 32: Heartbreaking, but scintillating. Connacht and Grenoble produced an epic European Challenge Cup quarter-final that upped the profile of this second tier European competition and dazzled the 14,876 fans present on Saturday night.
But at the end of pulsating 80 minutes, ‘Fields of Athenry’ from the huge contingent of Connacht fans was drowned by the relentless drumming from the rapturous home fans — a massive achievement for this proud rugby enclave in the Alps who are forging a future and culture under Bernard Jackman to rival the more illustrious and big-spending French clubs.
Pat Lam would undoubtedly be happy if he had Jackman’s budget, but his young side still produced the tries of the evening. However, Grenoble were not to be outdone either with three tries of their own.
But it was the accuracy of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski that proved pivotal, scoring 23 points and ensuring his side crept back twice from the brink.
If Denis Buckley’s yellow card in the 62nd minute was one key moment, and there were a couple of errant kicks from out-half Shane O’Leary, starting in only his second match this season, it was the the unerring excellence of Wisniewski, who fired over the drop goal in the 75th minute to seal the match.
The home side is now hoping it motivates the dwindling rugby public in this mountainous area, with the lure of a home final in neighbouring Lyon. Connacht can now concentrate all their efforts and resources on a final Pro 12 push — it is what both fans and neutral observers believe they deserve.
Connacht, having enjoyed a flying start, led by 19-3 after 41 minutes. They signalled their intent in the early stages when attacking from deep with captain John Muldoon and Bundee Aki always in the thick of it.
In what has becomes a feature of their game, Connacht opted to use the width of the park with Niyi Adeolokun touching down for the opener. It stemmed from good ball retention, initiated from Sean O’Brien, while Aki was once again at the fulcrum. From his long skip pass, fullback Matt Healy scorched upfield before sending Connacht’s fastest man through for the first try after 10 minutes, which O’Leary converted.
It would get better. Healy found Adeolokun who bagged his second try, with O’Leary adding the extras for a 3-19 lead.
Such was the breathless nature of this contest, that Grenoble were back in the opposition 22 within minutes, and it took three determined Connacht players, led by leading tackler Finlay Bealham to shunt Lucas Dupont into touch. However the home side reaped the reward for a poor exit kick, and from a line-out and drive Grenoble’s man of the match Wisniewski escaped four Connacht defenders to claim their opening try, and convert. With their tails up they finished the half with another six points from his boot, profiting with superior opening 40 minutes a penalty count two to close the gap to three at the break, 16-19.
Grenoble’s first rolling maul after the restart was a portent of more to come, but when Aki seized on loose ball, Connacht struck for their fourth try. Fionn Carr found Healy, whose electric pace once again left his defenders behind, bursting in from the 22. O’Leary added the conversion for a 16-26 lead.
The former Grenoble player added a three-pointer after good work by tackler Fionn Carr, but Connacht came under increasing pressure from mistakes.
The home side were able to disrupt Connacht’s set piece, and from a penalty to the corner they went for the jugular. It resulted in Connacht losing Denis Buckley to the sinbin, and sensing the turning tide, drumming decibels rose when Dupont exploited the stretched cover to touch down, with Wisniewski converting.
With the extra man on the field, Grenoble sought the killer blow. It took seven minutes. Chris Farrell and Gio Aplon were instrumental attackers for the home side, and despite the best efforts of replacements and Quinn Roux and John Cooney, Diaby was awarded the right corner try by TMO. As expected the right-footed Wisniewski nailed the touchline conversion to put his side ahead for the first the first time.
Cooney slotted a penalty three minutes later to retake the lead, but the home side, with themomentum, had the composure to set themselves up for the winning drop goal, denying Connacht a first away quarter-final win and a fourth European semi-final.
G Aplon; T Nemani, C Farrell, N Hunt (F Estebanez 68), L Dupont; J Wisnieskwi, C McLeod; S Taumalolo (F Barcella 54), L Jammes, D Edwards (R de Klerk 54); B Hand (capt) (M Marie 70), P Kimlin; S Setephano, M Diaby, R Grice (F Alexandre 27).
M Healy; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman (F Carr 38); S O’Leary (P Robb 67), K Marmion (J Cooney 64); D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 72), F Bealham (JP Cooney 75); U Dillane (Q Roux 61), A Browne; S O’Brien (G Naoupu 71), J Connolly (R Loughney 61-71), J Muldoon, capt.
Matthew Carley [RFU].
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