Pat Lam rues decision not to go for the drop goal as Connacht bow out
It wasn't meant to be.
Connacht's European dream has come to an end after a 19-10 defeat to Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon.
The westerners went into this game knowing that a losing bonus point would be enough to gain them entry to the quarter-finals for the very first time.
Toulouse made their intent known almost immediately when they opened the scoring through Gael Fickou after five minutes on the clock. Connacht's defence admirably held the home side at bay for a number of phases before Toulouse went wide and dotted down in the corner.
A scything break from Johann Huget after 17 minutes led to Toulouse's second try of the game. Huget made huge ground before firing out a pass to the onrushing Arthur Bonneval who went over in the corner. Jean-Marc Doussain added the extra's and the game was in danger of getting away from Connacht.
Connacht did their best to get back into the game after succumbing to two early scores but a flat attack and individual errors hampered any potential momentum.
The game could have been all but over after 28 minutes when Toulouse made yet another linebreak but the final pass to the supporting runner was poor and a knock on was the outcome.
A third try seemed on the cards soon after but some excellent defensive efforts from the away side eventually led to a turnover at the breakdown and a Connacht penalty was awarded to relieve the pressure.
Denis Buckley, like so much this season, made a great turnover after 33 minutes which handed his side an opportunity to get on the scoreboard. Craig Ronaldson lined up the penalty and made no mistake.
As if the task of coming back from a 12 point deficit wasn't difficult enough, Quinn Roux received 10 minutes in the bin for deliberate foul play at the base of the ruck. Toulouse did miss the ensuing penalty to leave them off the hook but Connacht knew they were to begin the second half with only 14 men.
Connacht came out firing in the second half, winning a crucial turnover from Nepia Fox Matamua but unfortunately Ronaldson was wide with his kick at goal.
Fickou continued to be a thorn in this Connacht side with another scintillating line break but Connacht were able to clear their lines after a knock on from the home side.
After a series of lineout infringements from Connacht, Toulouse eventually made Connacht pay after Joe Tekori went over from close range after a Toulouse maul. The conversion was wide and Connacht found themselves 19-3 down with a mountain to climb.
The response was imminent, Connacht won a penalty which was kicked to the corner after a crossing infringement from the home side. A scrum was awarded to Connacht after a deemed knock on from Toulouse in the line out. Connacht went wide from the scrum and Muldoon barreled over from close range. Ronaldson added the conversion to make it 19-10 and it was game on.
Connacht kept the pressure on as the game neared the 60th-minute mark and a crucial lineout turnover handed Connacht possession within 10 metres of the Toulouse try line. Unfortunately for Connacht, McCartney found himself in an offside position but Toulouse, rather remarkably, couldn't even find touch from the penalty.
Connacht had them rattled.
The game broke down for a while thereafter with Toulouse looking dangerous through yet another line break from the marauding Fickou but like so much throughout this game, Connacht won a penalty at the breakdown after a great poaching effort from Finlay Bealham.
With the game entering the final 10 minutes, Connacht knew they only needed three points to get them a losing bonus point. Connacht won a scrum deep inside Toulouse territory. After a number of phases, Matt Healy couldn't hold on to a pass and Toulouse won a penalty at the ensuing scrum.
Huge chance missed and the decision to not to go for the drop goal was beginning to look criminal.
— Sarah (@SarahMc2811) January 22, 2017
Surely one of the Connacht lads can kick a drop goal?? Come on.
— jayod (@jason_donoghue) January 22, 2017
#TOUvCON would Connacht have been better placed trying for drop goal there, in front of posts, really would have put pressure on Toulouse
— Eoin Curran (@eoineenc) January 22, 2017
Discipline alluded Connacht in the game's final minutes which allowed Toulouse to set up shop in the Connacht 22'.
A late turnover from Connacht brought them up to the half way line as the clock entered the red but Toulouse won a penalty at the breakdown and Connacht's Champions Cup journey came to a devastating end.
Ronan O'Gara summed up how the Connacht players will be feeling.
They will be sick on the flight home.. should be in the 1/4's.. #Connacht
— Ronan O Gara (@RonanOGara10) January 22, 2017
Muldoon spoke to Sky Sports after the game and spoke about the decision not to go for the drop goal.
"At the time, no, because we knew how long 10 minutes can be and I wanted to get the score. As we ran back, I said to Jack, "Next time we go up, you drop in the pocket for the drop goal."
Pat Lam was also speaking afterwards and when quizzed on whether the decision not to go for the drop goal cost his team in the end, the New Zealander replied:
"Well obviously it did, when your two points short it's a killer."
Unfortunately, for Lam and Muldoon, they will now have to solely concentrate on the Pro12 campaign as they aim to ensure the province are playing in this competition again next season.