Connacht prepare to step it up a notch in Toulouse

Connacht's Tom McCartney, with help from Robin Copeland, exemplify the excellence from the forwards against Montpellier, in the Heineken Champions Cup  at the Sportsground on Sunday. 
Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Tom McCartney, with help from Robin Copeland, exemplify the excellence from the forwards against Montpellier, in the Heineken Champions Cup at the Sportsground on Sunday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht can have a deserved pep in the step when heading to France tomorrow for round two of this season's Champions Cup.

When they take on French champions Toulouse on Saturday (1pm Irish time ), they do so on the back of one of their most significant wins in European competition, and with some key players returning to action.

It is not every day a Connacht team plagued by injuries topples a French side boasting a host of internationals, but when Connacht fought back from Montpellier's second-minute try in the Sportsground on Sunday, and then eked out a 23-20 victory in their opening cup fixture, they made a real statement of their continuing ambition to develop from pool props to contenders.

It matters little if Montpellier took the fourth Irish province for granted, as has been suggested. Connacht produced a performance that had the hallmark of resilience, utilising all their resources, individually and collectively, to deliver a remarkable win. Not perfect, as coach Andy Friend says, and there are still squad limitations, but it is another step in building a squad that can regularly stake its place in the upper echelons of European rugby.

However, Connacht and their enthusiastic supporters cannot get carried away, particularly heading to the hostile environment of Stade Ernest Wallon, but Andy Friend says his squad is heading to France with ambition.

To that end he will continue to use his squad system. Ruled out after round one are fullback Darragh Leader (calf ) and Cillian Gallagher (shoulder ), but with six players integrated into training this week - Irish players prop Finlay Bealham and lock Quinn Roux, hooker Shane Delahunt, and backs Tom Farrell, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Matt Healy - Friend says there is every chance they will be in action.

"When you have fresh bodies that because of injury haven't been able to play and who are eager to play, with a six-day turnaround you want to try to use them. So there is every chance some, if not all of them, will play."

Toulouse, of course, will demand more of Connacht than Montpellier, notably a spot-on defence, and Friend says it has to improve this week.

"Defensively I would go so far as to say it was one of the worst defensive efforts for a period we've had all year. We just opened up space and let ourselves down.

"The pleasing thing is we addressed it as the game went on and got better, but we left opportunities behind. It was only when we sat down and looked at it, how glaring they were. The good thing is they are fixable, and we own responsibility for both of those.

"It's our accuracy of execution. There is never going to be a perfect game, but we need to be better at knowing our stuff when it matters - whether it is taking that opportunity in attack or getting our spacing right and not opening opportunities for the opposition.

"If Toulouse have the football, they will ask a lot of questions. They did in Gloucester, who held out for a period of time, but 200 plus tackles does takes a toll, and they [Toulouse] will be better again being at home with a couple of World Cup players back in front of a home crowd.

"We have a great group of men here, and if we get knocked down, we get back up; and we get back up stronger, and we did this week. The never-say-die attitude to grind out the win [against Montpellier] was impressive, but we can do better and we know we are going to have to be better against Toulouse.

Better start

Connacht will also have to make a better start than they did against Montpellier, who also asked early questions of Connacht, running in a try in the first minute from former All Black Aaron Cruden. The ease with which the visitors had scored looked ominous for Friend's side, but there was a big response. Robin Copeland, who is expected to retain the No 8 jersey in Toulouse, produced a huge performance in his first game of the season, the front row withstood Montpellier's big men in the scrum, captain Tom McCartney was the leader of the breakdown, Bundee Aki demonstrated his tackling prowess.

Opportunities were created in the opening 20 minutes; execution let them down. Connacht's opening points came from a Jack Carty penalty on 15 minutes, but Cruden responded seven minutes later. More frustration followed after a super break from Aki came to nothing, but eventually the breakthrough arrived. Openside Cony Fain'gaa, another influential performer, mades the vital yards, and after a series of drives, flanker Paul Boyle stretched over the first of three tries. The second arrived shortly after. Connacht, having maintained a territorial stranglehold thanks to two penalties, gave the French a taste of their forward prowess, with McCartney completing a maul drive to score for a 13-10 half-time lead.

Those two tries turned the contest, increasing Connacht's self belief, which they needed in a close-fought second half when Montpellier levelled with a penalty. However, the home side grabbed control through a penalty to touch. The pack did the hard work before scrumhalf Caolin Blade spotted the gap, took advantage, and touched down, with Carty converting. Ten minute later, it was all square again with fullback Anthony Bouthier sprinting in, and Benoit Paillaugue adding the conversion.

Soon after replacement outhalf Conor Fitzgerald stepped up to send a penalty through the posts. In the end it would be enough to win the game. But in the final 10 minutes Connacht produced equal measures of composure and defensive prowess - Denis Buckley and Robin Copeland combining to win a breakdown penalty was a particularly big moment before Connacht cleverly ran down the clock to deliver one of the most meritorious wins at the Sportsground.

CONNACHT : D Leader; J Porch, K Godwin, T Daly, K Godwin; J Carty (C Fitzgerald 65 ), C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney (c ) (D Heffernan 74 ), D Robertson-McCoy (C Kenny 74 ); C Gallagher (J Maksymiw 9 (E Masterson 65 ) ), U Dillane; P Boyle, C Faing’a, R Copeland.

MONTPELLIER : A Bouthier; G N’gandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; A Cruden (H Immelman 57 ), B Paillaugue (c ) (Enzo Sanga ); M Nariashvili (GFichten 57 ), Y Delhommel (B Du Plessis 54 ), M Haouas (J Du Plessis 71 ); N Janse van Rensburg, P Willemse (J Du Plessis 51 ) ); K Galletier (Bardy 57 ), Y Camara (F Ouedraogo 74 ), Caleb Timu.

Referee : Matthew Carley [England].


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