Pain of Alps fall cuts to core as Connacht cliffhanger goes west

Former Connacht lock Christian Short, who had travelled from nearby Lyon, and another ex-player Keith Matthews, who had come from Limerick, mingled with the disappointed travelling fans at Place de Berulle late on Saturday night, weighed down by the result as much as if they had played in it themselves.

It was after midnight by the time the few hundred Connacht fans walked back into the centre of Grenoble from the splendid Stade des Alpes, the silence and the shaking of heads telling its own sorry tale. Matthews and Short knew what a win would have done for Connacht, as former players they had a lot of good friends playing in it and they knew the pain of this one would cut deep.

The new supporters just felt the harsh disappointment, the more seasoned ones knew this is the best rugby Connacht have ever played and just how close it had got them to the Holy Grail ... a home semi-final against Harlequins, a final against Montpellier or Dragons. All winnable even in the old days, these times you could nearly bank on the outcome. All that was needed was to get over Grenonble. At 19-3 in the opening half they were on their way; even when Bernard Jackman’s men hit back, Connacht pulled away again and at 29-16 they would surely hold out.

It was not to be. Grenoble, like Connacht, know how to throw it around and they fashioned a win, only going in front in the final ten minutes and then regaining the lead after John Cooney had kicked Connacht in front.

“I wouldn’t like to play against them again,” admitted Jackman. No more than Short or Matthews, he too as a former Connacht player knew what a win would mean to the visitors. “I’d rather they were on the other side of the draw and both of us could get to the final.”

He thinks they have the capability to have a right crack and the Pro12 but next Saturday’s clash against Munster at the Sportsground has really now become a must-win. And Pat Lam knows that Munster will be gunning for them after they turned them over in Thomond Park in November.

“We have now played so many games when teams are gunning after us and we have come through and we have just got to do this again this week. What gives us confidence is that when we beat them down in Thomond Park they had a full strength team minus Conor Murray.”

But Lam is confident they will deal with the challenge and now allow their season to fizzle out.

“This competition is now over, we can’t bring it back. We’ll dissect the game, take what we can from it and look forward to Munster. We’re looking forward to it in the Sportsground. We know we’ve got three games now to make the top four and we will get over this and get back into it.

“I think the big one is our support is just tremendous and we are feeding off each other. And it’s not just the Connacht supporters.

“This week I had a lot of messages from Leinster, Ulster and Munster supporters, it’s fantastic. We spoke about it before the game that Ireland was right behind us, and that’s a really good feeling.

“It’s just a shame that we didn’t have the semi-final to come at home. I think the number one thing is I’m glad people are enjoying it, but more important the boys enjoy the way we are playing,” added Lam.

There will probably be some relief that the sole focus now will be the league, their mounting injury list, especially in the backs, has really taken its toll with the sight of Robbie Henshaw at out-half really and replacement scrum-half John Cooney taking the kicks really summing it up.

Lam will assess the wounded and see what bodies he has available for Munster and then away to Treviso and at home to champions Glasgow on the final day.

For a long time at the weekend the 400 or so travelling supporters could see themselves back in Lyon next month for the final. It was within touching distance but tight margins don’t always go your way.

How could they score just seven points a few weeks ago and beat Leinster and 32 points is not enough to win in France? “It was bananas,” added Jackman. “I thought it was going to be a really open game, because both teams like to play and put attack before defence.”

Lam said that good weather would be a help in nailing a first ever Pro12 semi-final spot. But he’s long enough in Ireland to know you can depend on that. Instead, he has got his men to play a brand of speed rugby that is enthralling andrefreshing. It won’t always yield the desired result but nobody will ever fell short-changed and that was the one thought which kept the crowd merry in Place de Berelle into the early hours of Sunday morning.


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