After a tough and testing campaign, Connacht Rugby’s debut season of Heineken Cup rugby ends when English premiership leaders Harlequins visit the Sportsground tomorrow evening (8pm ).
Connacht, drawn in one of the toughest pools, can reflect on a campaign in which they have attracted considerable plaudits and proved more than able for this elite competition. But it is a win Connacht Rugby and their supporters crave, and tomorrow night Eric Elwood will have his team primed for that task.
Harlequins come in confident hopes of grabbing a win and a bonus point, which should be enough to seal a runners-up spot in the quarter-finals if pool leaders Toulouse sign off with a victory in Gloucester. However it is not only Connacht supporters who will be backing a home win tomorrow. Should Connacht deny Harlequins, Ulster, currently with 19 points, would be expected to have sufficient points to qualify as a third Irish province for the quarter-finals.
To bag that much-craved for win, Connacht, lacking consistency this season, once again need to produce the type of performances they have displayed against Toulouse, Harlequins and Gloucester away. But that alone will not be enough. In addition to a 100 per cent commitment, they need to convert all opportunities created, maintain their discipline, and play smart rugby.
And while Connacht’s display against Toulouse was an immense occasion, assistant coach Dan McFarland says it would not have been enough to overcome tomorrow’s opponents, who beat Toulouse in France.
“Clearly we have to be better again,” he says. “We cannot afford to look gift horses in the mouth, so if the opportunities are given to us, we have to take them. We are looking for the same kind of intensity in our play, the same kind of passion, and hopefully convert any chances - that will certainly put us close to getting a result.
“For the next 18 months we may not see a Heineken Cup match in Galway and we want to win one. So we are coming home against Harlequins who we pushed very close over there and played some lovely rugby, and we now get to play in front of our own fans here. There is an excitement about playing tomorrow night.”
Connacht expect to welcome back Ronan Loughney at tighthead this week which will boost Connacht’s scrum which faces huge pressure against Toulouse, but Elwood is not expected to make any other changes to his starting XV.
Well organised, with considerable pace out wide and with former All Black Nick Evans directing operations behind the scrum and, crucially, capable of exploiting any Connacht indiscipline, Harlequins are deserving English premiership leaders under Eric Elwood’s former Irish colleague Conor O’Shea.
What will give Connacht great heart heading down College Road tomorrow is their performance against Harlequins on opening night, and the dedication of the Connacht supporters - some 600 of whom travelled to Toulouse last weekend.
“Connacht fans have gained the respect of our European counterparts,” says Eric Elwood, “and Friday represents a final opportunity to show all of Europe, the passion and rugby knowledge that exists across the province.”
It was the 600 plus Irish fans who prompted a rare sporting gesture at the intimidating Stade Ernest Wallon last weekend. The Toulouse players stopped in front of the visiting Irish support and saluted them some moments after Michael Swift had led the Connacht players to the same spot, acknowledging the fans' continued support for a team suffering a poor run of results.
This group had descended on Toulouse from various European countries - including seven medical students who resorted to a five kilometre dash along a motorway to make it to the game. And for periods of this Heineken Cup round five fixture they helped silence the 18,000 French supporters who were expecting a Saturday evening romp. That it did not happen was testament to a Connacht side that once again this season lifted itself to a new level, and coach Eric Elwood was justifiablyproud despite the 24 - 3 defeat.
"We did a lot of good stuff of which we can be proud. I told the players afterwards that I was proud of them and I thought the people who came here were proud of them. That's is what we wanted because we knew we were up against it.
While Connacht were forced to work their socks off, the giants of European rugby did what they needed to do, bagging the four tries to stretch their lead in pool 6. Yet Connacht, under severe pressure in the scrum, had limited the French champions to a 10 - 3 half-time lead. And had Connacht converted their chances, the end result could have been closer. Outhalf Niall O'Connor's opening penalty kick hit the upright, before an attacking overlap was also passed up when centre David McSharry opted for an inside line with fullback Gavin Duffy clear outside him.
" At half time we knew and they [Toulouse] knew they were in a ball game." said Elwood. "If David had given the pass with a two-on-one and Niall had kicked, which we could have or should have, then maybe the scoreline could have been better.”
Defensively Connacht had to be on top of their game and in that area they were not found wanting - epitomised by a thumping Ray Ofisa effort minutes before fullback and man of the match Maxime Medard crossed for the home side's second try after collecting a pin-point cross field kick from All Black Luke McAlister. Earlier Medard had similarly chipped through for Timoci Matanovou's opening try in the 20th minute. Tiernan O'Halloran and Fetu Vainikolo were lively and penetrating on the wings and Vainikolo was instrumental in setting up Connacht's first chance of the half from turnover ball inside the Connacht 22, and his run, chip and chase gave Connacht territorial position from which Connacht should have scored.
However it was the Toulouse scrum that dictated this result. Their front five simply had too much power and class for Connacht, and the continuous pressure told early in the second half when No 8 Louis Picamoles broke from the base five metres out to grab Toulouse's third try after 46 minutes. They sealed the bonus point when former Wallaby Luke Burgess burst through from a quick tap to set up the left winger for the bonus point.
"The key for us now is to do it against Harlequins. Away from home we have been excellent. We just have to finish our Heineken Cup as best we can at home and go into the break with a win."
Toulouse: M Medard, V Clerc, Y David, F Fritz, T Matanavou, L McAlister, L Burgess, G Steenkamp, W Servat, C Johnston, Y Maestri, P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir (cpt ), L Picamoles. Replacements, L Beauxis for Fritz (HT ), C Poitrenaud for David (60 ), G Lamboley for Maestri (60 ), D Human for Steenkamp (64 ), C Tolafua for Servat (66 ), S Sowerby for Bouilhou (68 ), J Doussain for Burgess (69 ).
Connacht: G Duffy (cpt ), F Vainikolo, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran, N O'Connor, P O'Donoghue, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, D Rogers, M Swft, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, E Reynecke for Flavin (61 ), S Maguire for Rogers (47 ), H Fa'afili for McSharry (61m ), D Moore for O'Donohoe and M Nikora for O'Connor (67 ), M Kearney for Muldoon (69 ), E McKeon for Naoupu (74 ), D Buckley for Wilkinson (75 ).