Toulouse came and predictably conquered, but they did not grab all the spoils.
In this long-awaited first Heineken Cup fixture for Connacht at home, the hosts won all the plaudits, but one - the scoreboard. The 36 - 10 result was a fair reflection of Toulouse's dominance on a perfect night for the game. But as an occasion it boasted all the razzmatazz one usually attributes to Connacht's bigger Irish partners.
On Friday night, the Galway Sportsground shook off the old-hat denigratory remarks of being a dog track and blazed in green. The Connacht Branch organisers in many ways bettered their interprovincial counterparts, knowing this 100th European game for the province needed to be celebrated with gusto, and there was a lot at stake. Having come such a long way since Connacht supporters marched on Lansdowne Road to avoid being dissolved, Connacht pulled out all the stops to showcase their capabilities of hosting a major sporting event, and the maximum 9,120 supporters answered the call.
The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, along with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, provided the occasion with a deserved sense of national importance. Artists and singers including Cois Claddagh, y Tree, and drummers reinforced Galway’s cultural prowess, and the full house lapped it up.
The terraces steadily filled even before the 4pm deadline at which College Road was closed to vehicles - and save for a couple of brief electricity blips - probably due to the unusual overload for the occasion, Connacht Rugby pulled off the occasion with aplomb.
This well-executed programme of entertainment, colour, fireworks, and dignitaries had the fans singing and chanting from the terraces well before the 6pm kick-off and it continued throughout.
In the end there was no giant killing, no David slingshot to kill off the Toulouse Goliath, and no fairytale finish. But there were victories from this experience, both on and off the field, from which Connacht can take huge satisfaction.
Connacht coach Eric Elwood summed up Connacht’s first Heineken Cup match at home as “A proud night for Connacht Rugby”.
“So much work has gone in, on and off the park. There were so many new elements to it. The colour was just amzing, and these are the things we have to take out of it. People saw us us in a different light and hopefully we have changed people’s perception of us,” Elwood said.
The experience was “huge”, and it perhaps affected Connacht’s opening half when Toulouse notched nine points - two penalties and a drop goal from Lionel Beauxis. It got worse for the home side when Mike McCarthy was sinbinned for a high tackle on World Cup finalists Vincent Clerc - for which the Connacht lock has been cited.
“ I do believe we gave them too much respect at the start, but we also acknowledged we had to step up a level. When Toulouse did that with their offloads, their physicality, and their skill, they took us apart, particularly in the first half.”
With 19 internationals in their match-day squad, Toulouse took no chances, and with a budget of more than €30 million, it emphasised the gulf between the two sides.
“I said to the boys, and it’s not being disrespectful, that they have a huge budget and with a huge budget you can buy what you like. We had some guys that played in the biggest game of their careers, guys who had never experienced anything like that before, guys who have never experienced anything like that.”
Toulouse, always the professionals, had done their homework, attacking Connacht’s breakdown to stop quick ball which they had enjoyed against Harlequins. But it was also the scrum that proved troublesome, with most of Toulouse’s scores coming from that set piece.
Leading 22-3 at halftime, with flanker Jean Bouilhou touching down, Toulouse could have expected to push on and grab the bonus point. But they were denied by an immense Connacht effort in the second half, although Elwood said it was of little consolation.
His side's biggest reward was a penalty try after their pack shoved the French eight back towards their try-line.
"I think we grew into the game, and we had a much better second half," he said. "But I am disappointed with the last score they got because at 29-10 we had a bit of momentum and we just overplayed the ball, and then they get another score which put a bad reflection on the scoreline.
"If they hadn't got that score (from Yannick Nyanga ), we would have won the second half on the scoreboard."
Although Connacht enjoyed their share of possession, too many errors proved costly and Elwood acknowledged that the relentless pressure from Toulouse took its toll.
“It is a pity we didn’t get a good start. They got a nice cushion, diffused our ernthusiasm and that of the crowd. But we finished the game strongly, and deprived them of a bonus point which they were not happy about.”
Elwood, proud of his teams’ efforts, said it was also important to acknowledge the occasion.
“The game was part of the whole occasion. I am glad it was a nice evening even thought it was perfect for Toulouse. Yes, if it had been bucketing sheets of rain and there was a gale force wind it might have been closer, but we may not have got the same spectacle, that match-day experience, and the crowd.”
Connacht: G Duffy; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, D Gannon; M McCarthy, J Muldoon, G Naoupu. Replacements: E Reynecke for Flavin 49; D Rogers for Ah You 49; R Ofisa for Gannon 50; F Murphy for O’Donoghue 50; R Loughney for Wilkinson 64; TJ Anderson for Muldoon 64; H Fa'afili for Griffin 67.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; M Medard, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, V Clerc; L Beauxis, L Burgess; Y Montes, W Servat, C Johnston, G Lamboley, Y Maestri, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir, L Picamoles. Replacements: G Botha for Servat 50; J Falefa for Johnson 50; L McAlister for Poitrenaud 50; R Millo-Chluski for Maestri 54; G Galan for Picamoles 60; N Vergallo for Burgess 62; Y Nyanga for Millo-Chluski 68; JB Poux for Montes 69.
Referee: Greg Garner (England ).