Avenging Toulouse too clinical for Connacht
Struck by a flu virus just 48 hours before kick-off, and then to be hit by a vengeful Toulouse, Connacht could not repeat their previous heroics in this second of the back-to-back on Saturday evening.
Such was their devastating speed and precision in attack, particularly from returning French international Maxime Medard, Toulouse ensured they reclaimed lost pride after their shock defeat in last week's third-round Heineken Cup fixture, and also their hopes of claiming a record fifth European crown.
Connacht, as always, were competitive and were in touch until the 54th minute when No 8 Louis Picamoles scored the fourth try to wrap up the bonus point and keep them level pegging with Saracens in pool 3. Pat Lam's side enjoyed sufficient possession, and even edged the territorial stakes, but in a reverse of last week's game, they struggled to break down an aggressive Toulouse defence in the Galway Sportsground.
"We probably played too much rugby in that middle part of the field," admitted Lam. "Today we’re disappointed and we gave away points that left us chasing the game against a pretty massive team."
Turnovers resulted in two first-half tries, while Medard benefited from two precise kicks from outhalf Lionel Beauxis and had the pace to finish off, giving Toulouse a 22-9 lead at the break. They almost grabbed another in the second half but for a massive covering effort from Eoin Griffin.
"We had talked about the fact that they were going to kick, and we fell out of system. Those are the things we are disappointed with because we knew it would come but we didn't cover it off and both came from our turnovers."
Lam, however, said he was more proud of his players than he was after their victory in France, particularly after the flu virus disrupted training and obviously affected key players, including scrumhalf Kieran Marmion who had been hospitalised
"No doubt Toulouse are a good side, but I am so proud of my team. Their heart was probably more than last weekend after the week they have had. We had Kieran Marmion on a drip 48 hours ago in hospital and then Frank Murphy going down, so then we put Paul O’Donoghue back and then he went down too, so we had no half back. To get 80 minutes from Kieran after that was unbelievable, Dave McSharry we only saw today, unbelievable. Right throughout the team the heart was unbelievable.
"The guys stayed positive and that is why I am so proud of them. We didn't train once together as the team that went on the filed, but the guys who went out there gave it everything and you can’t ask more than that."
After Parks and Beauxis exchanged early penalties, Toulouse struck after 12 minutes from a Connacht turnover and, with a comfortable overlap and kick ahead, Medard was clean through for the first try. Parks scored a drop goal with a penalty pending before both kickers missed efforts. However, in an almost replica move, Medard struck again with a precision cross field kick from Beauxis. Connacht continued to create opportunities and after a series of drives close to the line, Parks took the opportunity to post a second drop, closing the gap to 9-15. Crucially, however, another poor restart from Connacht gifted Toulouse possession and they capitalised with hooker Christopher Tolafua going over. Picamoles put the game beyond reach on 54 minutes and replacement centre Gael Fickou wrapped up the game with a fifth try at the death.
Connacht on-field captain Craig Clarke said his side was "off the boil" in their defensive physicality.
"They had obviously made some serious changes in their game. They probably got a bit of a serve during the week and they were physical, they carried hard, they had line speed and were physical in defence. We certainly had chances early in the game and we chipped away and got some points, but we were probably a little bit inaccurate as well, a little bit off the boil in terms of physicality in defence and made some little errors that let them build pressure."
Clarke believed the flu virus would not have affected the result.
" Sure our week was affected by it. We didn’t do as much on our feet, some guys did nothing at all. But we had 23 guys who stripped and were given a job to do. I don’t want to make an excuse of it - it may have been a factor, but to be fair I don’t think we would have won if we were fully fit anyway because of the way we played."
Thus the biggest crowd at the Sportsground this season, 7661, did not get the rewards of the 200 hardy fans who travelled to France last week, but the former double-winning Super 15 captain said the atmosphere was "awesome".
"For the size of the crowd related to the noise it makes, it must be one of the best in the world. The crowd are so vocal and so passionate. A team that's 30 points put on them, the home team, and the crowd are still clapping you off and cheering for you. I don't understand how it works, but I appreciate it and we all do. It makes us really want to perform for these people."
Connacht Rugby: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt), J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon. Replacements, S Henry for Harris-Wright and D Buckley for Wilkinson (51m), D Parks for Ronaldson (53m), D Leader for Ronaldson (54m), JP Cooney for Ah You and A Browne for Clarke (60m), G Duffy for McSharry (63m) G Naoupu for Kearney (67m), A Browne, G Naoupu.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud, Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, M Medard, L Beauxis, JM Doussain, S Ferreira, C Tolafua, C Johnston, R Millo-Chluski, Y Maestri, Y Nyanga, T Dusautoir (cpt), L Picamoles. Replacements, G Fickou for David (56m), C Ralepelle for Tolafua, G Steenkamp for Ferreira, Y Montes for Johnston and J Tekori for Meastri (all 61m), H Gear for Medard (65m), S Bezy for JM Doussain (70m).
Referee: L Hodges (Wales).