Connacht will be playing in the European Rugby Challenge Cup next season after missing out 21-15 in the Champions Cup play-off against Northampton Saints.
Harry Mallinder starred with 16 points – including a try with the game’s very first play – as Saints held a lead at the break.
Nic Groom added a second-half score, but Niyi Adeolokun scored in the first period before David Heffernan dotted down for a bustling finale.
But Saints held on to draw the Connacht season to an end as Pat Lam bowed out at the helm, set to move on to pastures new having guided his side to the Guinness PRO12 title last season.
Saints were on the board within a minute as Mallinder opened up his account for the afternoon, with beautiful skill from the backs seeing cleverly offload for the fly-half to touch down.
He was to convert his own kick but Connacht launched an immediate response in flying fashion through Adeolokun, finishing off a devastating attack to level up at 7-7 with just five minutes played.
That seemed to take the wind out of Saints sails, but they were next on the scoreboard through Mallinder again – scraping his penalty in off the upright after an infringement at the breakdown.
Keeping the scoreboard ticking over was the order of the day for the Aviva Premiership Rugby side, but Connacht more than kept heads above water in their bid for a second straight year in the Champions Cup.
Mallinder once again dissected the posts however, with Northampton opening up a 13-7 lead with 14 minutes remaining in the first half at Franklin’s Gardens.
The enthralling half was not done there though as Craig Ronaldson – who converted their game-levelling try early on – added a penalty to his scoresheet as Connacht halved the deficit at the halfway mark.
The second half continued to be a high-quality affair, though neither side troubled the scorers in the early stages as we remained with a three-point game.
But from there the Saints extended their lead once more, as a manful Connacht attack fell agonisingly short when Groom burrowed into the corner, a try confirmed by the TMO.
Yet Connacht showed why they were last year’s Guinness PRO12 champions – forcing themselves back in the game with 20 minutes left in the Midlands.
That came in the shape of Heffernan, the beneficiary of some strong, powerful work by the maul to leave the hosts with no chance of defending their line.
A thrilling finish was clearly in store from that point, but with ten minutes to go Mallinder once again proved deadly from the tee, kicking another penalty to extend the lead to six at 21-15.
But with just three minutes to go, the visitors sensed a chance to snatch victory from the brink as Northampton were reduced to 14 men with Jamie Gibson being sent to the sin-bin.
But despite playing through the phases, the Irish side were not able to force the decisive score, with next season’s European adventure to come in the Challenge Cup.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
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