Sale Sharks 20

Connacht 10

Murray Kinsella reports from AJ Bell Stadium

CONNACHT CRASHED OUT of the Challenge Cup with a dispiritingly poor quarter-final performance away to Sale Sharks and injuries to out-half Jack Carty and tighthead prop Finlay Bealham only added to the disappointment.

Head coach Andy Friend rotated his team for this fixture, handing opportunities to his wider squad, but Connacht failed to deal with a first-half onslaught from the Sharks and couldn’t muster a strong enough response after half-time.

The end of their European campaign means the Pro14 is now Connacht’s sole avenue to secure Champions Cup qualification for next season and the fitness of Carty and Bealham could be crucial in that regard.

Connacht struggled in the face of an aggressive Sale defence. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Ireland international out-half sustained a bicep injury late in the first half doing his best to slow rampaging Sale centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and though he reappeared after the interval, he was called ashore just four minutes later in apparent discomfort. 

Carty’s fitness is pivotal for the closing stages of this season, with Connacht currently in position to claim Champions Cup qualification through the Pro14 but under intense pressure from Cardiff Blues.

With Aussie out-half David Horwitz and academy prospect Conor Fitzgerald both on the sidelines at present, the importance of Carty being fit is all the greater. Though centre Kyle Godwin has stepped up at out-half recently, losing Carty would be a major blow.

And in the closing minute of the game, Ireland international tighthead prop Finlay Bealham – himself a first-half injury replacement for Dominic Robertson-McCoy – left the pitch in agony with an arm injury, appearing to vomit in pain as he departed.

Friend’s men will look back on this evening’s Challenge Cup quarter-final as a frustrating missed opportunity.

Sale, guided by former Connacht out-half AJ MacGinty and Springboks scrum-half Faf de Klerk, were superb in the first-half as they built a 20-3 lead at the break but eased off thereafter and went down to 14 men with a James Phillips yellow card in the second-half.

Connacht left it too late with their comeback bid, however, Godwin crossing for a converted try in the 68th minute, and they will head home wondering what might have been. Their error count was simply too high on this occasion.

Jack Carty nearly gave Connacht the perfect start. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

All eggs are in the Pro14 basket now, with a visit to Zebre, a home tie against Cardiff Blues and an inter-provincial trip to Munster awaiting – Connacht’s destiny is still in their hands.

Friend’s men nearly had the perfect start in the third minute at AJ Bell Stadium when Carty intercepted a Sale pass in his own 22 and sprinted all the way into the home side’s 22 only to be stopped 10 metres short by the hard-working and quicker-moving Denny Solomona.

Carty looked to offload inside to Godwin but the ball went to ground and the Connacht centre agonisingly knocked-on with the tryline beckoning.

Carty did open the scoring from the tee soon after Sale when were caught offside but it was Steve Diamond’s men who were first over the tryline with a clinical score by left wing Byron McGuigan in the 10th minute.

A choke tackle on Eoghan Masterson had handed Sale a scrum platform and they carried over the gainline before slick handling shifted the ball wide for McGuigan to finish in the corner, MacGinty converting smartly for a 7-3 lead.

A powerful scrum penalty allowed Sale back into the Connacht 22 in the 15th minute and more battering carries from the likes of Sam James and Josh Beaumont got them on the front foot before MacGinty floated a beautiful pass wide right to Solomona in space to finish.

The Sale out-half converted superbly again and, soon after Carty missed a shot at goal, added a further three points when hooker Rob Webber earned a turnover penalty in front of the sticks.

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Former Connacht out-half AJ MacGinty was in superb form for Sale. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With Connacht’s lineout struggling and their attack failing to make any dent in the Sale defence, MacGinty was able to further extend the lead before the break, Eoghan Masterson pinged for being offside.

With the explosive van Rensburg doing damage with every carry, Connacht were perhaps even a little lucky to trail only 20-3 at the break.

Despite losing Carty to that bicep injury early in the second half, Connacht managed to build some early momentum until Godwin – taking over the touchfinding duties – aimed for the left corner and instead found the deadball line. 

Connacht were handed another lifeline heading into the final quarter when Sale second row James Phillips lazily and dangerously led with the elbow into a tackle on Godwin, earning himself a yellow card from referee Mathieu Raynal.

They did manage to score in that 10-minute window, with Godwin showing power to cross from a 10-metre scrum and fullback Darragh Leader converting, but there was to be no turnaround.

Leader attempted a late long-range penalty to further close the gap but with Bealham being helped off in distress and the game ending in ill temper, this was a bad night for Connacht.

Sale scorers:

Tries: Byron McGuigan, Denny Solomona

Conversions: AJ MacGinty [2 from 2]

Penalties: AJ MacGinty [2 from 2]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Kyle Godwin

Conversions: Darragh Leader [1 from 1]

Penalties: Jack Carty [1 from 2], Darragh Leader [0 from 1]

SALE SHARKS: Luke James; Denny Solomona, Sam James, Rohan Janse van Rensburg (HIA – Cameron Redpath ’6 to ’16), Byron McGuigan; AJ MacGinty (Cameron Redpath ’80), Faf de Klerk; Ross Harrison, Rob Webber (Curtis Langdon ’60 – yellow card ’80), Joe Jones (Alexandru Tarus ’60); Bryn Evans, James Phillips (yellow card ’60) (Josh Strauss ’70); Jono Ross (captain), Tom Curry (Ben Curry ’49), Josh Beaumont.

Replacements: Tom Bristow, Will Cliff, Arron Reed.

CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Niyi Adeolokun (Stephen Fitzgerald ’54), Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Cian Kelleher; Jack Carty (Tom Daly ’45), Kieran Marmion (Caolin Blade ’60); Peter McCabe (Denis Buckley ’63), Tom McCartney (captain) (Dave Heffernan ’60), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Finlay Bealham ’26 (Tom McCartney ’80)); James Cannon, Gavin Thornbury (blood – Joe Maksymiw ’42 to ’48); Eoghan Masterson (Robin Copeland ’54), James Connolly, Paul Boyle. 

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR]. 

– This article was updated at 10pm to clarify that Jack Carty suffered a bicep injury.

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