It has been a tough week for Connacht Rugby. After an “embarrassing” away defeat to Edinburgh in the Pro 12, Connacht now head to France to face one of Europe’s most decorated clubs, Toulouse, in the Heineken Cup.
The challenge for Connacht will be to park last weekend’s dismal result and lift themselves for an expected tough encounter against the French giants in this first of the back-to-back pool 3 fixtures.
Connacht have produced some of their best performances in this competition, and coach Pat Lam will demand and get a performance worthy of a Connacht jersey. The players need only to review last year’s visit to Stade Ernest Wallon to witness a performance that received plaudits from the doyen of European coaches, Toulouse’s Guy Noves.
Thus motivation will not be lacking, but what will concern Lam is Connacht’s continuing ability to spurn scoring chances and concede possession.
"We had a long review [after Edinburgh] to show the opportunities we missed. However even then it was not acceptable. So we need to focus on what we can improve on against a top team like Toulouse."
Lam has not been helped by another five players sidelined through injury. Danie Poolman, who injured a knee in training, will now be out of action for 12 weeks instead of the expected three weeks, while prop Ronan Loughney fractured his eye socket and will be sidelined for a month. All Ireland League action also took its toll with Tiernan O'Halloran damaging his knee, and Andrew Browne, in his first game back from injury, requiring a scan on his wrist. In addition Lam is monitoring Aly Muldowney (shoulder ) and Robbie Henshaw (ankle ), but is hopeful they will pull through.
Lam says the occasion will take care of itself, but Connacht have to get themselves and their minds right.
"Whoever we play, it is an opportunity, and it just happens we are going to a tough place where they do not lose often and it's a big challenge. But there will be opportunities for us to create chances - it is whether we are good enough to take them or good enough to stop them at what they do well, and that is what training is all about this week and about our mental approach.
"We have to get around the fact that we were well beaten at the weekend on the scoreboard in the end, but we did some good stuff and there are things we have to do better to give us a chance."
Assistant coach Dan McFarland says Connacht has often faced hard times, but he remains optimistic.
"The key is that we focus on what we believe in and what we are trying to do. I genuinely feel optimistic about what we are doing here, and the evidence suggests that we have put in place a system that will bear fruit. There are certain things that we need to work on, but it's not a crisis - it's a work in progress."
Anything but a French victory is unlikely, but Connacht have a huge motivation - none more so than to restore some pride after last weekend’s defeat. If they do that, take their chances and keep their defensive lines in tact, travelling supporters should be rewarded. Connacht have shown they have the talent, as well as the attitude, to test the top teams, and they do so again.
Laidlaw kicks 23 points
Against Edinburgh Connacht conceded three tries in the final eight minutes to help the Scottish outfit to a 43-10 victory.
Until the 60th minute, a victory was well within Connacht’s grasp, but Edinburgh made fewer mistakes and took their chances, led by returning international Greig Laidlaw, who kicked 23 points.
Connacht could have enjoyed a dream start when Parks' pinpoint penalty kick to touch gave the visitors their first opportunity to attack just five metres out. Mick Kearney, in his first start of the season, was driven over from the line-out, and although referee Leighton Hodges could not see the grounding, Connacht failed to make their positional dominance count in the face of staunch Edinburgh defence.
An offside error from Connacht provided Greig Laidlaw with the first of his five penalties and the Scottish international made no mistake from to open the scoring after nine minutes. However Connacht swiftly responded with an attack into their opponents' half and Dan Parks levelled with a drop goal. Then Robbie Henshaw, who scored his first try for the province at the venue in last season's victory, crossed in the corner. It was a well executed passage of play with Matt Healy and Dave McSharry injecting the necessary pace before Jake Heenan, from the floor, supplied Henshaw who finished off, with Parks converting from the left touchline.
However Edinburgh started to string passages together with influential Nick de Luca picking holes aided by forwards Ross Rennie, prop Willem Nel and David Denton, and Laidlaw closed the gap to 9-10.
Mick Kearney once again was just shy of the line following another piece of well-executed offloading, while Parks' 34th minute penalty hit off the upright. Crucially, however, Edinburgh crossed before the break to take a 16 -10 lead.
It did not get better for Connacht after the interval. Although Fionn Carr forced the Edinburgh knock-on and Henshaw from half way, Edinburgh’s man of the match Cornell de Preez managed the ankle tap just a metre short, and the in-rushing Healy could not control the pass.
While Parks had another effort hit the upright, Laidlaw extended the lead with two penalties.
Connacht staged a rally but two penalties to touch were snuffed out by an Edinburgh defence that dominated the breakdown and, as Connacht's frustrations intensified, it invariably led to mounting mistakes from which Edinburgh capitalised. They grabbed three tries in the last eight minutes as Connacht fell apart. Du Preez got his name on the scoresheet in the 72nd minute, De Luca and Nel followed, and Laidlaw kept his perfect kicking record intact to move his side up to eighth place.
Connacht: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, R Loughney, S Henry, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt ), A Muldowney, J Heenan, E McKeon. Replacements, J Harris-Wright for Henry, D Buckley for Lougheny, R Ah You for White (all 49m ), C Ronaldson for Parks (56m ),J Muldoon for Muldownet (60m ), G Duffy for Duffy (63m ), F Murphy for Marmion (65m ), M Swift for Kearney (67m ).