The reigning Guinness Pro12 champions won’t be defending their crown at Murrayfield next weekend after Glasgow produced an indisciplined, sub-standard performance at Galway’s tight little Sportsground for the second time in three weeks.
Glasgow’s confidence was undermined after finishing second here two weeks ago and their self-belief took another dent when losing two key players, Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson, inside the first minute. Flanker Simone Favaro also limped off in the first half.
This was the biggest match in Connacht’s history and their players responded with manic enthusiasm. They were aggressive and intelligent and simply would not be denied on the day. The scoreboard scarcely reflected the control exerted by the home team who saw two “tries” wiped off by the television match official.
Connacht kicked off and matters went downhill rapidly for the visitors. When Fagerson and Russell both threw themselves at Connacht’s outhouse of an inside centre, Bundee Aki, they smashed into each other. Both Glasgow men went off, Russell on a gurney surrounded by medics before being taken to hospital with an injury to his face. Neither man returned to the action. The clock was stopped at 59 seconds and the twin loss undoubtedly hurt the visitors’ cause. Connacht almost scored when play was eventually resumed, Kieran Marmion finding a huge hole in the Glasgow line.
Glasgow had first use of a handy wind and they needed it, pinned back in their own half for long periods with the only relief from the Alamo-style onslaught coming from the boot. Glasgow’s defence was stressed and the proof was in the penalties. Referee Marius Mitrea was talking to Jonny Gray about the penalty count with the match just 15 minutes old and how Glasgow kept all 15 players on the pitch is a mystery. When Glasgow did finally flex their muscles and win a five-metre lineout the throw missed its mark and Connacht cleared their lines thanks to... yet another penalty.
All over the pitch Glasgow were losing those little battles that decide the war. The set scrum was solid enough but the lineout was scratchy. Glasgow were ragged in defence, ineffectual in attack and, worst of all, bullied mercilessly in the contact zone. Rarely has Duncan Weir been asked to make quite so many tackles and rarely has the stand-off looked less enthusiastic about the task.
AJ MacGinty made several clean breaks in the No.10 channel. Robbie Henshaw and Aki ran riot in the midfield, the latter employed on occasion at No.8 from the set scrum to pick and drive. Matt Healy came off his wing and skinned Peter Horne who then threw a horrible pass that was snapped up by Aki who then guddled the ball forward when collecting it, much to Glasgow’s relief, otherwise flanker Eoin McKeon would had claimed the first try of the match.
The Connacht faithful hadn’t long to wait. The twin kickers had already exchanged penalty kicks when the speedy Niyi Adeolokun latched on to Aki’s clever kick in behind the Glasgow line and benefited as Henry Pyrgos and Weir tackled each other rather than the Nigerian-born winger who sped away to touch down under the posts just before the half-time break.
Having played into a handy wind, Connacht took a 10-3 lead into the half-time sheds but only after Leone Nakarawa had been held up over the Connacht line with the last play of the half.
If Glasgow were to stage an unlikely comeback they would have to score quickly, which is exactly what they did. Nakarawa made the initial break on the right-hand side of the pitch, Mark Bennett made ground up the middle of the field and when Glasgow were stopped short the ball was moved quickly left for Nakarawa to score a try which dragged Glasgow to within two points; which is where they stayed after both kickers swapped penalties.
If they were worried, Connacht hid it well. On the attack the home side won three successive penalties and, defending a two-point lead, kicked every one into the corner. Glasgow repulsed every attack but the home fans will wonder how Glasgow didn’t see yellow because they certainly deserved it.
Gregor Townsend went to the bench, or what was left of it, on the one-hour mark, only to see Ryan Grant cough up another penalty at the very first scrum and MacGinty eased Connacht’s lead out to 16-11 with 15 minutes left to play.
Connacht dominated most of them, pinning Glasgow inside their own half. Adeolokun was denied a second score and Rodney Ah You was yellow-carded for a high tackle as Glasgow ran the ball from behind their line as desperation set in. It was tense stuff with Glasgow just one converted try away from the final, but it never looked like coming.
connacht: Try: Adeolokun. Con: MacGinty. Pens: MacGinty (3).
glasgow: Try: Nakarawa. Con: Weir. Pen: Weir.
connacht: O’Halloran, Adeolokun, Henshaw, Aki, Healy; MacGinty, Marmion (Cooley 60); Loughney (Ah You 60), MaCartney, Bealham, Dillane (Browne 60), Muldowney, McKeon (O’Brien 55), Heenan, Muldoon (captain).
glasgow: Hogg, Seymour, Bennett, Horne (Naiyaravoro 60), Lamont ; Russell (Weir 1), Pyrgos (Hart 74); Reid, Brown (MacArthur 60), Fagerson (Rae 1)(Grant 60), Gray (captain), Nakarawa, Wilson, Favaro (Ashe 28), Strauss (Seymour 67).
referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR).