Improving injury list comes at the right time for Connacht

Try scorer: Tom Farrell of Connacht during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon in Toulouse. Photo by Alexandre Dimou/Sportsfile

Try scorer: Tom Farrell of Connacht during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon in Toulouse. Photo by Alexandre Dimou/Sportsfile

In a brief respite from European action, Connacht return to the Galway Sportsground for a key PRO14 fixture against the Isuzu Southern Kings on Saturday (5.15pm ).

It presents Connacht with an opportunity to nail another home win over fellow Conference B rivals from South Africa and maintain their push for a top spot.

It is also a welcome break from a demanding European schedule. After the disappointment of last weekend's loss to Toulouse, despite a hugely creditable effort against the French champions, Connacht will head into defining back-to-back fixtures with Gloucester next week.

Also welcome is an improving injury list, with six players of the 16 unavailable through injury against Toulouse in the Champions Cup returned to training this week. However, centre Tom Farrell has been ruled out after a minor fracture in his scapula. Although not as serious as first thought, he could be out from three to six weeks. It is a blow for the 26-years-old, who, in his third outing this season, opened Connacht's account last weekend against the French champions with a try.

However, international Bundee Aki, who did not travel to France due to a tight hamstring, is fit to go this weekend if needed, while others returning to full fitness are Niyi Adeolokun, who has recovered from a leg injury, captain Jarrad Butler, Denis Buckley, Rory Burke, and back row Eoin McKeon.

Connacht's backs coach Nigel Carolan says it is important to manage the squad over the next three weeks given these fixtures will have a major influence on the league and European competitions.

"This week is extremely important in the PRO14, and then the Gloucester game away is a pivotal game in the Champions Cup, so we are trying to manage the team as best we can," Carolan says.

"Next week is massive for us in terms of the Champions Cup because we really need to win the next two to give ourselves a shout. So although all our focus is on the Kings this weekend, which is important in the PRO14, next week we go to Gloucester. If we can win over there, they might be more disinterest from them the following week. So we have to fight on both fronts."

The Southern Kings may have only one win this season, but they are travelling to Galway after two weeks' rest, and as a result Carolan is cautious.

A team that loves to counterattack and play with ball in hand, Carolan says they have shown more appetite to include a kicking game.

"We are not going to change the way we play because it's the Kings. If we can deploy our defensive system to stop them from scoring, and if we work hard, that is what our focus is.

"It's about applying pressure by being disciplined, not just on the pitch, but in our preparation, and hopefully it will transfer on the pitch. It is about doing everything either as a coach or player to win this game.

"Despite the Kings not going so well, they have beaten Ospreys, had two weeks off, and are coming here pretty fresh. It's only a one-game tour so all their focus is solely on us, so we have to understand there is a danger and we need to be disciplined in our approach and in everything we do. That has been our focus, instilling those messages and making sure we carry through."

The fixture also provides an opportunity to get back to winning ways after the "extreme disappointment" with the 32-17 defeat to the French champions last weekend in Toulouse.

"We weren't a million miles away from arguably the best team in France, and for 60 miutes were put it up to them. Behind closed doors, I think we were the only ones who actually believed we could have won when going over there.

"We had a plan that we knew if we executed was going to beat them, and we did for a huge proportion of the game. But a lot happened in the second half - the weather, the penalty count started to mount up, and against the best team in France, they had the power to pick us off in the end. It certainly wasn't their ability to create in the game and we felt really in control.

"We went over with great belief, and yes, we are extremely disappointed not to have come out with a victory, but it gives you great satisfaction knowing everyone else had written us off, that we were on the right road and knew that our preparation and the squad we took over was there to do a job and came so close."

Certainly it was a performance deserving of more than this 32-17 defeat at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Tit-for-tat until the final 10 minutes, Toulouse eventually prevailed - their muscle edging Connacht's athleticism and speed.

"The scoreline does not reflect the game," said Friend. "If anyone was ever in doubt as to whether Connacht belonged in the Champions Cup, you can erase it now. We do belong here, and we are looking forward to the rematch in the Sportsground.

The TOP 14 champions and favourites to progress as pool winners, were deserving winners in the end - their superiority at the set piece was crucial.

However, despite a 9-1 first-half penalty count against them, and Colby Fainga'a in the sin-bin, Connacht were still only a point behind at the break.

Connacht, struggling at the set piece against Toulouse heavyweights with a 17 kilo weight advantage, may have been undone in the end, kept them on their toes for the entire match. While Toulouse established relied on their pack domination through scrum and maul; Connacht's strategic kicking game established territory.

Connacht had opened the scoring when Ultan Dillane made the initial surge before strong-running centre Tom Farrell tore through a bemused French defence for the first try, Conor Fitzgerald converting for a 7-0 lead.Toulouse replied almost immediately, breaking from midfield with fullback Ramos supplying scrumhalf Sebastien Bezy, who finished under the sticks - the fullback adding the extras to level the scores.

The dominance of the home side's scrum started to dividends with a 19th minute penalty before Conor Fitzgerald and Colby Fainga'a set up Caolin Blade for a try to mark his 100th cap, the conversion putting Connacht into a 10-14 lead.

However, when Fainga'a was sent to the sinbin for a tip tackle on outhalf Romain Ntamack, the Top14 champions took a 15-14 lead into the break. Connacht once again turned the tables when Tom Farrell led the way to win super relieving penalty, and Fitzgerald took advantage with a drop goal which put Connacht back in front again, 17-15.

However, after Connacht missed a penalty, Ramos was on target for Toulouse, and in the end they posted two tries in the final 20 minutes - the ourth on the whistle to claim the bonus point.

Toulouse: T Ramos, Y Huget, S Guitoune, LTauzin, M Médard, R Ntamack,S Bézy, C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina, R Gray, J Tekori, A Placines, R Elstadt, J Kaino (c ). Replacements: Ahki for Ntamack (28-41 ), DuToit for Baille and F Cros for Placines (49 ), J Marchand for P Mauvaka (52 ), D Aldegheri for Faumuina and R Arnold for Tekori (55 ), C Baillefor Du Toit (65 ), P Ahki for L Tauzin (66 ), S Tolofua for Elstadt (67 ), P Pages for Bezy (70 ).

Connacht: M Healy, J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, K Godwin, C Fitzgerald, C Blade; P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, C Fainga’a, R Copeland. Replacements: F Bealham for Robertson-McCoy, N Burke for McCabe, and S Delahunt for Heffernan (all 49 ), P Boyle for Copeland (52 ), P Robb forDaly (58 ), J Carty for Farrell (64 ), J Maksymiw for Dillane and ALloyd for Blade (69 ).


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