CONNACHT’S proud tradition in Europe took a beating in Italy on Saturday night, falling to tournament newcomers and underdogs I Cavalieri Estra.
For a second time in European Challenge Cup history, Connacht failed to live up to expectation, their form, and their favourite’s tag, and left Stadio Lungobisenzio in Prato humbled.
I Cavalieri Estra, playing Serie A rugby two seasons ago, boast ambitions to become the provincial side representing Tuscany, and although they entered Europe for the first time more in hope than expectation, they played with a pride and enthusiasm that was once the hallmarks of Connacht.
Captain John Muldoon, who played 50 minutes on his return to action after fracturing his arm in New Zealand, said Cavalieri were able to turn the table on Connacht as Catania did five seasons ago. “Catania has been mentioned a couple of times during the week and, as a result, one thing we said was ‘don’t let them build their energy and enthusiasm’. But as the game went on that’s exactly what we did – gave them soft scores, didn’t take our chances, and their enthusiasm and belief grew and they deserved to win. We know from experience that if you don’t respect a team they can be turned over, and today we didn’t respect them. We were nowhere near the races.”
Connacht, favourites to win and with five points, were a poor shadow of their recent form, and from the set piece to their attacking game, they were less than clinical. They made hard work of it despite taking an 18-3 lead early in the second half, and in failing to dent the home side’s energy, particularly at the breakdown, they found themselves on the back foot.
Ian Keatley had grabbed a 30th minute try, and two penalties in the opening half, but it was marked by the failure to convert three first-half chances and build possession through the phases on a narrow pitch which hampered expansive rugby.
When Bernie Upton drove over from a forward drive shortly after the restart, Connacht looked secure to go on and take the points, but they allowed the home outfit to wrest the initiative and the result was a first European try for right wing Nicolo Tempestini with fullback Rima Wakarua adding the extras to his first-half penalty.
Backed by some 2,200 supporters they added another two penalties within eight minutes to cut the deficit to two. Connacht, however, were rewarded with a 70th minute and looked set to scrape through until disaster struck. The unfortunate Frank Murphy, whose direction had added impetus to Connacht, particularly at the breakdown, attempted a long overhead pass over Woulter Moore and the 6’8” lock scampered in with Wakarua converting to scupper Connacht’s expectations. With two minutes remaining Connacht attacked with the necessary urgency, and Keatley had the chance to sneak it. His attempted drop goal hit the upright bringing the curtain down on a poor day for Connacht.
Connacht now face French outfit Bayonne at the Galway Sportsground on Friday needing to resurrect their campaign, and Elwood has no doubt his side will recover.
“We were expected to win and win with five points – that was the pressure, and we didn’t deal with it very well. We have a proud tradition in Europe, and unfortunately we have lost a bit of credibility among ourselves and our supporters, and it’s just not good enough,” he said.
CAVALIERI PRATO: R Wakarua; N Tempestini, D Majstorovic, S Rodwell, F Vezzosi; A Chiesa, P Patelli; L Poloni L Giovanchelli, G Bocca, L Beccaris, W Moore, L Petillo, F Cristiano, N Soqueta.
Replacements: D Stefani for Bocca (48); A Lewis Pratt for Rodwell (53); N Belardo for Soqueta and G Marino for Poloni (67); A Neri for Giovanchelli (76); A Goti for Vezzosi (77).
CONNACHT: T Nathan; D Fanning, N Ta’auso, M Nikora, F Carr; I Keatley, C Willis; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Sweeney, M Swift, B Upton, A Browne, J O’Connor, J Muldoon.
Replacements: R Loughney for Wilkinson and B Fa’amausili for Sweeney (HT); M McCarthy for Muldoon (47); D Murphy for Flavin (50); F Murphy for Willis (59); M McComish for Brown (66).
Referee: M Raynal (Fra).
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