Connacht return to France with nothing to lose, but much to gain

Jack Carty of Connacht is tackled by World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe of Toulouse during the Heineken Champions Cup  match at The Sportsground in Galway.

Jack Carty of Connacht is tackled by World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe of Toulouse during the Heineken Champions Cup match at The Sportsground in Galway.

The disappointment was palpable and understandable. Connacht and supporters had high hopes of qualifying for the quarter-final of the Champions Cup this season, particularly on the back of a solid PRO14 start.

However, it was always going to be difficult in a pool that included French aristocrats Toulouse and English nemesis Gloucester. Add in a 13-week block of games in World Cup year, and it was always going to take toll. Yet, after the recent run of four defeats, three of which were against interprovincial rivals, the picture is not as grim as some may fear. Losing against the French champions is not the worst. And Connacht's apparent inability to convert chances is also not as poor as it may appear, says Connacht coach Andy Friend.

Thus Connacht now head to Montpellier, with nothing to lose in this season's European competition, but much to gain. They return to PRO14 action with a less encumbered picture of what they need to do - firstly to qualify for the Champions Cup. But, when adding in the new dynamic of €20 million to build the much-needed new stadium, Connacht's targets are understandably getting higher. With a new stadium befitting a professional team with ambition must come the results - the raison d'etre for all professional sporting bodies - and France is the ideal venue to reignite after the recent blip in an otherwise promising season.

Having reviewed Connacht's performance against the French Champions last Saturday in the Sportsground, Friend believes the performance was not as bad as the 21-7 defeat may have appeared.

"I thought on reflection our energy was brilliant. The more I looked, the more pleased I was with the effort, and sometimes that effort can be too much, and we probably got a bit excited with things which led to error."

While Connacht's inability to score when close to the line can be frustrating, Friend says forwards coach Jimmy Duffy has provided statistics which show Connacht are reaping rewards.

"Over 50 times in the season we've been in that zone, the war zone we call it, and out of that, we've got 12 tries. We've also got 19 penalties, and two yellow cards. We’ve had 12 or 13 turnovers in that period as well, So when you boil it down, during 75 per cent of our time there, while we may not be scoring, we are definitely getting a positive result, which is a yellow card, a penalty or a try. What we need to do is turn those 19 penalites into 19 scores."

However against recent big packs, players have failed to stick to systems, which he says it an easy fix. Now Montpellier will provide an ideal testing ground as a performance in the Hérault capital is crucial.

"We know we haven't been performing at our best. We know we need to perform better. We know we are coming into three massive PRO14 games post break which will define our season, so a performance is everything," he says. "We've got returning bodies, so it's a chance for them to get minutes, it's another opportunity to keep trying to build our game to get the performance we are looking for, so while there may be nothing in terms of the result, it won't count for anything, but still important for us to head into the break making sure our game is still building."

Good news is more players continue to return, including scrumhalf Kieran Marmion and centre Tom Farrell, as Connacht's injury crisis improves now the heavy 13 week schedule comes to an end - a tougher schedule than Friend expected.

"I always knew it was going to be tough, but again Ulster, definitely a better team this year; Leinster, continue to go from strength to strength, and Munster are solid, so we know in interpro games we have to make sure we are keeping up to the speed of their improvements," he says.

"Last year we played some good sides in the Challenge Cup - Sale and Bordeaux in particular - but Gloucester, Montpellier, and Toulouse are better calibre again, so that has definitely stretched us, and with the injuries again that we have had, it has really put a stress on us."

Marmion, who has been out of action for several weeks with a back injury, returned to full training last week, and Friend says he is in great form.

"He's has been brilliant in his rehab, working really, really hard. He has been working his backside off and you can see the energy, so I am excited for him to be back."

However, it is not so good news for Stephen Fitzgerald, who will undergo surgery this week on his ACL, ruling him out for the season. Also unavailable are Ultan Dillane, who took a knock to his hip against Toulouse, and Finlay Bealham with a quad injury. Conor Fitzgerald (ankle ), Peter Robb, and Conor Kenny are all available, as are up-and-coming second rows Joe Maksymiw and Niall Murray.

it will be a real boost for Friend's side to use Montpellier as a platform to reignite, particularly after failing to score against Toulouse after their opening try.

That came via the pack after winning a succession of penalties - Gavin Thornbury having secured the line out and Tom McCartney directing operations until referee Luke Pearce awarded the penalty try for collapsing the maul, with a resultant yellow card for Joe Tekori.

Connacht's Colby Fainga'a followed Tekori to the bin for a high tackle, and six minutes later Toulouse had tied the score through former All Black Jerome Kaino.

There were some big moments for Connacht in defence and some sparks of genius from Jack Carty, but the stalemate was broken just before the break after a- Kaino turnover was finished by hooker Julian Marchand for a 7-14 lead. Former Connacht player Pita Ahki bagged the easiest of scores after an attempted clearance from Carty was charged down, but Connacht kept their hopes alive. A delightful break from the outhalf provided Boyle with space, and the flanker burst his way through, but was tackled just shy of the line.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy, J Carty, S Kerins, P McAllister, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, G Thornbury, P Boyle, C Fainga'a, J Butler (c ). Replacements: J Maksymiw for Dillane (HT ), C Blade for Kerins (46 ), D Heffernan for T McCartney (46 ), D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (52 ), D Buckley for McAllister (57 ), E McKeon for Boyle (63 ), J Porch for Adeolokun (67 ), D Horwitz for Carty (76 ).

Toulouse : T Ramos, A Bonneval, S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kolbe, ZHolmes, A Dupont, C Castets, J Marchand, C Faumuina, F Verhaeghe, J Tekori, R Elstadt, J Kaino (c ), S Tolofua. Replacements: P Mauvaka for Marchand, R Neti for Castets, and D Aldegheri for Faumuina (all 50m ), S Bézy for Dupont, R Arnold for Verhaeghe, and Y Huget for Bonneval (63m ), A Placines for Tolofua (68m ), R Ntamack for Ahki (76 ).

* Three Connacht players have been named in Andy Farell’s firs Ireland squad. They are centre Bundee Aki, lock Ultan Dillane, and hooker Dave Heffernan.

Missing out are Jack Carty, who has been out of action recently, and Kieran Marmion, who has been injured.

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