A losing bonus-point was little consolation to Pat Lam’s men who could have been out of sight at half-time but for two decisions that went against them, before being denied by a 77th-minute Scarlets penalty.
In both cases referee Marius Mitrea went upstairs to TMO Paul Adams, and on both occasions the Welshman ruled against Connacht.
Lam said: “I am more disappointed, gutted after the game. It was certainly a game we could have and should have won quite comfortably, but we have to look at the things we can control and the things we didn’t do quite well. There was a lot of good play out there — a lot of try-scoring opportunities, and we didn’t quite finish them off. Jack (Carty) did great to get the kick over and we got ahead with three minutes to go, but disappointed to give it away at the end.”
Of the TMO’s decision on Eoghan Masterson’s try, Lam said: “I think we agree and everyone bar the TMO agrees [it was a try], but that’s part of the process that needs to go through and I am not involved in it. We just missed out on one more score — Matt Healy’s one was desperately unlucky — we needed that one more score to get daylight.”
While rueing those missed opportunities, having dominated both possession and territorial stakes, Connacht’s indiscipline resulted in two yellow cards — the first of which was issued after nine minutes to centre Bundee Aki for a shoulder charge on Scarlets’ influential centre Regan King.
King was once again the architect of the home side’s best attacks, but Connacht, propelled by some superb touch kicking from out-half Carty, not only weathered that early pressure, but took control. Quick-thinking No 8 Masterson appeared to have beaten prop Evans to score the opener, but somehow the try was not given.
However, when King also saw yellow on 23 minutes, Craig Ronaldson opened the scoring, and strong defensive pressure forced a turnover which resulted in left wing Healy running the length of the pitch to score in the 26th-minute. Ronaldson added the extras, and although Scarlets’ out-half Aled Thomas replied with a penalty, Connacht looked to have crossed the line again when Tiernan O’Halloran provided the attacking impetus for Healy to cross — his try denied for having lost the ball forward.
The Scarlets, let off the hook, opened the second half with intent, and were rewarded with a Thomas penalty. However it was a poor Connacht clearance that gave their opponents the opening they needed, and right wing Steff Evans burst through to give his side a 13-10 lead.
Connacht levelled with a Carty penalty, and thereafter Pat Lam’s men played a strong territorial game. But a superior Scarlets scrum provided the home side with the impetus, and King’s superb spacial appreciation sent full-back Michael Collins through for an 18-13 lead.
When Connacht regained the lead with two Carty penalties, it looked sufficient to end their three-game losing run, but, in the final act, Adams recommended a yellow-card for replacement lock Ronan Loughney for lifting a player illegally when clearing a ruck. The resulting penalty was converted bySteve Shingler in the 79th-minute, denying Connacht an important victory.
M Collins; S Evans, R King, H Parkes, DTH van der Merwe; A Thomas, A Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee, T Price, L Rawlins, A Shingler, J Barclay, M Allen.
S Hughes for King (67), S Shingler for Thomas (72), M Paulino for Rawlins (72), R James for Lee (75).
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion; F Bealham, T McCartney, N White, U Dillane, A Browne, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan, E Masterson.
A Muldowney for Browne (9), R Parata for Ronaldson (63), D Heffernan for McCartney, R Loughney for Bealham, and R Ah You for White (all 67), S O’Brien for Heenan (67), I Porter for Marmion (75).
M Mitrea (Italy).