Connacht prepare to stage another European coup

Rugby: Champions Cup

Staying around: John Muldoon has signed on for another while with Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile

Staying around: John Muldoon has signed on for another while with Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile

Captain John Muldoon has announced another year in his tenure at Galway Sportsground on the week Connacht fight for a first Champions Cup quarter-final.

The 34-year-old may "not have made the decision lightly", but his timely announcement will certainly boost Connacht's morale ahead of Sunday's pool two decider with the four-times European champions Toulouse.

"To say we are going confident, absolutely. Is there fear? Absolutely, it's a mix of both. To say they are not the force of old, you might regret saying that.

"For us to be in with a chance of a home quarter-final is something a few years ago you would have to pinch yourself to make it real. Now we are up against one of the aristocrats of European rugby, who have a couple of stars over their crest and deservedly so. In the last few weeks we have seen a shift back to that French flair and it's no surprise they are playing beautiful rugby, winning games, and are looking dangerous again.

"It is a huge task we face this weekend, but it is something we have seen and been in front of before, so in that sense it's an opportunity for us, and it all leads up to the last weekend and one of the tightest group of the competition."

The talismanic Muldoon says committing to Connacht Rugby was a "no brainer", but his age and the 15 years already spent in a Connacht jersey were considered before agreeing last week to put pen to paper again.

"I am conscious that I've been around for a long time, and for me it's an honour to play on. We sat down last year and I decided to continue, but we agreed we would take it month on month and see how the body was holding up and also the form. I didn't want to stay on unless I was contributing, but missing just one game and starting 15 is not a bad return a young fellow like me."

With just a handful of players over 30, Muldoon says having someone whose "been around the block and knows the lads and this place" will also help in the transition following Pat Lam's departure.

"It can't do any harm. It is probably why Willy [Ruane] has been pushing it over the last few weeks to get me over the line, to keep that consistency here. Whether it's being captain or not, doesn't matter, but helping the transition and the new coach, and I'm glad to do that.

"But first and foremost I want to contribute as a player, as long as the body and mind [can], and that is the key - my mind is still good to go, and obviously the body as well. Speaking to a lot of people who have retired, it's either one the other that go, or both, and you need to be pushed out the gate quickly, but thankfully no one is throwing me out the gate just yet.

Muldoon is also looking forward to continuing his mentoring role with some of the youngsters.

"I can probably help more in the off-field side of it next year, help some of the young lads develop, and from my point of view probably end up playing less, which would be unusual for me. I have been here a long time, I know how the place runs, and I looking forward to a new challenge that the new appointment will bring."

Three seasons ago Connacht pulled off one of rugby's greatest upsets. Connacht's giantkilling of Toulouse in their own back yard still ranks as one of the most significant in the history of the European competition.

"We went with a game plan and and executed it perfectly," says Muldoon. "We saw an opportunity to beat them and may be they did not expect what was coming. It was around the time we had started to implement the changes in our game and that was the rocket launcher that got us going. I think it have us the confidence from there on to say ' this is what we can do, if we buy into it'."

Having claimed the Pro 12 two seasons later, and now on the cusp of a first Champions Cup quarter-final, some six players from that victory remain with Connacht today. Although Eoin Griffin is sidelined, and Denis Buckley is doubtful (foot ), hopes are high openside Jake Heenan will be fit to join Muldoon, Kieran Marmion, Matt Healy, and Eoin McKeon at Stade Ernest Wallon this weekend. Jack Carty, Nepia Fox Matamua, Quinn Roux, Ronan Loughney, Shane O'Leary and Peter Robb are all reintegrating into training this week, with Ultan Dillane "partial training".

While Connacht could advance without a win - there are several permutations that could go Connacht's way - assistant coach Conor McPhillips says the focus is to get the win.

"If we do that, we get to the quarter-final, but we will be aware of the permutations during the game. Toulouse are full of internationals, playing good rugby, have French flair so this is as close to test match rugby outside test match environment. Teams are fighting for quarter-finals, we are not a surprise package having beaten them away,and at home this year, so they will be gunning for it.

"We need to be pretty close to 100 per cent on our game and if we get that right, and execute well in training, hopefully we will get that win."

Connacht kept their qualification hopes alive, romping to a 66-21 victory over Zebre in the Galway Sportsground, and coach Pat Lam says a quarter-final spot is now in their own hands.

"We have worked hard to get into this situation. It's now all in our control. If we want to get the win in Toulouse, it's up to us, so we need to have a good week this week."

Although not their highest score in Europe - that belongs to a 75-8 win over Centransa in the 2005 Challenge Cup - Connacht posted 10 tries, eight of which were converted by John Cooney, the scrumhalf who made his debut at outhalf as a result of Connacht's injury crisis.

At half time they had racked up six tries from Matt Healy, Cooney, man of the match Tiernan O'Halloran, prop Finlay Bealham, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, and centre Craig Ronaldson for a 40-14 lead.

"The positive is that our goal was to have the five points from this match, and we got that," Lam says, but also "bitterly disappointed" with defence, allowing the Italian side to score two tries inside the opening 12 minutes.

"We had a goal not to let them cross our line, and we failed to achieve that, and I wasn't happy at half time - the way they got possession in the first place and the way we defended secondly, and guys out of system, it was a reminder of what has happened in the last few games, little moments that have killed us, so we still have a lot of work to do.

"Toulouse will punish us badly, if we don't get it right, so it is important to have a good week's training now.

"Our confidence always comes from the training we do and last week was the first time in five weeks the starting XV has completed all the training sessions, and that brought confidence."

Lam said heading to Toulouse not relying on other results was a positive.

"We we have worked hard right through this pool to get ourselves into a situation where we go out to win, so we do our work, we prepare, and whatever it takes to win the game is what we are after. Of course we are aware of other scenarios, but we have a mindset that is not about bonus points, but preparing to go into biggest game of Connacht's history. "

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