Peter Jackson: Connacht fall foul of old family curse

Nobody knows what the Irish ever did to upset the Wisniewski family but whatever it was, they’re still at it — still putting the boot into the Greenshirts after all these years.

Whatever the sport and wherever Ireland’s finest come from, whenever there’s a Wisniewski standing between them and a semi-final it only ever ends one way. Soccer or rugby, north or south, World Cups or European Challenge Cups, Irish teams make the same heart-breaking exit when the other side contains a goal-scoring Wisniewski.

Connacht will find no consolation in the strange fact that what befell them at the Stade des Alpes on Saturday night had happened before. As the late Yogi Berra, almost as famous for his mangled English as for his baseball, would have said: “It was déjà vu all over again.”

Once upon a time, in the magical summer of 1958, Northern Ireland went all the way to the last eight of soccer’s World Cup. In an era when the tortuous rail journey from Derry to Dublin would have driven Marco Polo round the bend, never mind Boxcar Willie, the northerners somehow managed to follow their star by boat and plane all the way to Sweden.

A draw with the defending champions, West Germany, and a win over the Czechs, strengthened the suspicion that Peter Doherty really did take communion with the saints. The North’s manager found an answer to everything until his team ran into France in the quarter-final.

And that was when the footballers with the Polish name first put a stop to their little game. Maryan Wisniewski, whose family settled in a mining town north of Paris before the Second World War, ended the fairytale with the first goal, opening the floodgates for three more without reply.

Almost half a century later it would be reasonable to assume such an old ghost had long been laid to rest. Fast- forward to Saturday in Grenoble and another quarter-final, another Irish team in another part of the continent, another Wisniewski.

For so much of a captivating match, the result looked as though it would be different as the shape of the ball. Connacht did more than fly the flag of the embattled PRO12 with pride and panache.

Twice, at 19-3 and 29-16, they stood on the cusp of a victory greater perhaps than even Pat Lam could have imagined.

Matt Healy’s outside breaks from full-back ought to have left Grenoble and their Irish coaching-cum-management nowhere to go but out. Twice Connacht allowed themselves to be reeled in, but without losing faith in their collective ability that when push came to shove, theirs would be the knock-out blow.

How galling, then, to discover it came instead from old Maryan’s great nephew, Jonathan Wisnieski. There must have been a crueller goal than the one he dropped five minutes from time, but they will search a long time through the fields of Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Leitrim to find one.

The drop goal will not be a lost art as long as Wisniewski is around. There were still almost five minutes on the clock when his footballing archery sent the ball flying like an arrow above the crossbar.

Old Maryan will have watched its flight with admiration just as he would have watched with mounting trepidation Fionn Carr’s solo impersonation of a Grand National jockey separated from his horse — a wondrous diagonal dance through Grenoble’s broken fences until someone somehow tripped him up.

Connacht, handicapped by so many injured fly-halves (Jack Carty, Craig Ronaldson, AJ MacGinty), had by then lost a fourth, Shane O’Leary. That cleared the way for John Cooney, the reserve scrum-half, to put his team ahead for the last time at 32-30 with the first penalty of his senior career.

Still Connacht kept going, on and on through multiple phases far into stoppage time until Bundee Aki’s frenzied desperation to keep possession left him on the wrong side of the referee.

Instead of being free to concentrate on staying in their lofty PRO12 position, Connacht ought to have secured a semi-final in London against Harlequins as due reward for making Ireland’s last stand in Europe such a heroic one.

That they out-tried their Alpine opponents 4-3 made it all the harder to take. That Grenoble stole it spoke volumes for Wisniewski’s ability to pick a pocket or two along the way, whether through scoring a try of his own or never missing off the tee.

Losing by the narrowest margin despite scoring 32 points and four tries away from home, is tough enough at the best of times but Connacht must somehow wipe it from their minds, tout de suite.

They have some bigger fish to fry in Galway this week — Munster at the Sports Ground on Saturday afternoon.


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