Connacht 9 Harlequins 8: O’Shea's men face exit after Irish hold out in Galway gale
Harlequins are resigned to missing out on a Heineken Cup quarter-final place after they were ambushed in a stormy encounter on the west coast of Ireland.
As Gloucester were raising themselves to an epic victory over Toulouse, Conor O’Shea’s young side failed to capitalise on the unexpected opportunity to win Pool Six.
Having claimed fine victories in the West Country and the south of France, Aviva Premiership leaders Quins were blown away in a Galway gale by a side languishing in 11th place in the RaboDirect Pro-12 league.
Gutted: Harlequins players look dejected after their defeat to Connacht
The London club can still reach the knock-out phase if either Cardiff Blues or Edinburgh fail to win at home on Sunday. But they are already bracing themselves for the inevitability of a drop down to the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
‘We are out of it,’ said O’Shea, their despondent director of rugby. ‘We needed to win. I haven’t looked at the permutations but we will be going into the Challenge Cup and I can’t describe how disappointed we are to let so much hard work in the Heineken Cup go to waste.’
Quins trailed 9-5 at half-time after facing the wind in the opening period, so they turned around full of belief that they could make the weather advantage count. But a couple of try-scoring chances were squandered and after Nick Evans closed the gap to a point with a penalty, the former All Black missed his next shot at goal. According to O’Shea, that was the turning point.
‘When we missed that kick to go 11-9 up, that energised the crowd again and gave Connacht energy in everything they did on the field,’ he said.
‘We’d had all the possession and territory but we couldn’t finish it off. They never looked like doing anything in the second half but after that kick, we didn’t create another chance.’
Shock: Connacht players celebrate after their surprise success
This result is likely to mean that only one English club, Saracens, will make the quarter-finals. However, what it does do is give faint hope to Leicester and even Northampton, that bonus-point victories on Saturday might just be enough to see them sneak into the last eight. For Quins, who began the season with a record 14 successive wins, this was their fourth defeat in the last seven matches.
For their captain, Chris Robshaw, it was ideal preparation for the sort of leadership challenge which is likely to await him with England. The flanker is poised to be named as skipper of the national team, who begin their RBS Six Nations campaign at Murrayfield, where there is a strong chance that the weather will be similarly testing and the contest similarly tight and frenetic.
Connacht were left to savour their first Heineken Cup victory. Niall O’Connor’s early penalty put the hosts in front but Quins responded within minutes.
Chase: Chris Robshaw of Harlequins tries to tackle John Muldoon
From a lineout on the left, Matt Hopper stormed forward, Robshaw rumbled on and Mike Brown was stopped close to the line. From the ruck, Evans looped left and sent a long pass to Sam Smith, who crossed for a try. When Evans attempted to convert, the ball blew off the tee and his hurried drop-goal effort fell short.
Quins couldn’t hold the lead for long as they were swamped at the breakdown. The penalties duly came for the hosts and O’Connor landed the next two, giving his side a four-point lead at the break.
Quins soon established territorial dominance in the second half but were unable to convert pressure into points. In the 45th minute, Ugo Monye and Smith chased a kick through by Evans cut contrived to get in each other’s way with the line unprotected. Next, the visitors chose to take an attacking scrum from a penalty, only to lose the ball. Evans was on target with a penalty in the 60th minute, but the next shot hooked wide and his side couldn’t conjure another opening.