EDINBURGH’s faint hopes of clambering back into the URC play-off places evaporated at last as they went down to an eighth defeat in nine league outings this afternoon.
With two regular-season games still to go, Mike Blair‘s side can – in theory – climb close to the top eight from their lowly position of 14th. But, as the eighth-placed Sharks and ninth-placed Benetton play each other in the next round, at least eight teams will be on or above Edinburgh’s maximum possible total of 43 points. And tournament rules say that if two teams finish on the same number of points, the one that has won more games is placed higher: both the South Africans and Italians would finish above the Scots on that criterion.
But it was no more than academic nit-picking, in any case, to talk of Edinburgh’s chances. On current form, they are simply not in the shape to get anywhere close to challenging the tournament’s big guns.
At least they scored four tries at the Sportsground in Galway, meaning they flew home with a bonus point. But that was no more than a slight consolation after a match in which the home side were too strong for them physically and too smart for them mentally.
Connacht have now won their last five games – their best run of results since they won the title back in 2016. And that winning streak has come at exactly the right time, propelling them into the top eight.
There is no magic formula behind their revival, just a lot of hard work and self-belief, allied, of course, to a whole lot of talent. Both Connacht and Edinburgh were without some of their senior internationals in the wake of the Six Nations, but the home side proved far more capable of dealing with those absences.
The first five minutes or so, in which Connacht opened the scoring and Edinburgh fluffed a good chance to hit back, summed up the contest. Cathal Forde got the try, and a soft one it was too, as he bounced off a Boan Venter tackle, went outside Emiliano Boffelli then scored in right corner as Blair Kinghorn failed to get properly to grips with him.
Barely 60 seconds later, the visitors mounted a promising attack, and when awarded a penalty sent it to touch. They were then turned over in the maul – far from the last time in the match that the home team would punoish poor ball-protection.
David Hawkshaw stretched his team’s lead with a penalty, then converted Conor Oliver’s close-range try to make it 15-0. Edinburgh hit back late in the half through Lee-Roy Atalifo, and Boffelli converted, but Caolin Blade ran in an interception try – the first of a hat-trick for the captain – to make it 20-7 to Connacht at the break.
A converted try by Jarrad Butler stretched that least early in the second half. Bill Mata hit back with his team’s second try, and when Glen Young touched down to make it 27-19, the comeback looked on.
Two yellow cards for the home side gave Edinburgh further hope for a while, but they could not capitalise. When Boffelli was sent to the bin, Connacht showed how to make use of the extra man, running in two tries, both from livewire scrum-half Blade.
It could have got worse inside the final ten minutes, but substitute Nathan Sweeney – making his debut as a professional – got back to deny Connacht a try after Tom Daly had kicked ahead.
Darcy Graham, who was playing his first game of the year after completing his recovery from a knee injury, was well policed by the defence for most of the game. The winger did have a threatening run and kick ahead with minutes left, but Daly mopped up the danger.
Then came the brightest moment of the game from the visitors’ point of view: a piece of quick thinking by Kinghorn, who saw that the ball was out as Connacht tried to clear their lines, and dotted down for the bonus try.
Apart from that, and the cameo appearance from Sweeney, there was little for Edinburgh supporters to enjoy. Damien Hoyland played well, always looking for work and being alert to a gap in the defence, and Mark Bennett was also lively at times. In general, though, it was a game best forgotten, towards the end of a season which is coming to merit the same description.
With little or nothing to play for in the remaining league games against Ospreys and Ulster, Edinburgh’s season now depends on the outcome of their Champions Cup last-16 tie at Leicester on Friday night. They should have Scotland quartet Jamie Ritchie, Pierre Schoeman, Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe back for that game, but they will have to be at their best to have a chance against the Tigers, who beat Bristol 46-24 yesterday.
Connacht: O McNulty; D Kilgallen (S Jennings 49), T Farrell, C Forde, J Porch; D Hawkshaw (T Daly 61), C Blade (K Marmion 68); P Dooley (J Duggan 54), D Tierney-Martin (D Heffernan 55), J Aungier (D Robertson-McCoy 55), O Dowling, N Murray (D Murray 53), C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler (S Hurley-Langton 60).
Edinburgh: E Boffelli; D Graham, M Bennett, J Lang (C Dean 64), D Hoyland (N Sweeney 64); B Kinghorn, H Pyrgos (B Vellacott 61); B Venter (L de Bruin 61), S McInally (D Cherry 55), L Atalifo (W Nel 39), S Skinner (M Sykes 63), G Gilchrist, B Muncaster (G Young 49, M Sykes 56-62), C Boyle, V Mata.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
Connacht: Tries: Forde, Oliver, Blade 3, Butler; Cons: Hawkshaw 2, Daly 2; Pen: Hawkshaw.
Edinburgh: Tries: Atalifo, Mata, Young, Kinghorn; Cons: Boffelli 3.
Scoring sequence (Connacht first): 5-0; 8-0; 13-0; 15-0; 15-5, 15-7; 20-7 (h-t) 25-7; 27-7; 27-12; 27-14; 27-19; 32-19; 34-19; 29-19; 41-19; 41-24; 41-26.
Yellow cards –
Connacht: Oliver (48 mins), Dowling (55 mins)
Edinburgh: Boffelli (59 mins)
Attendance: 6, 056.