It is one of rugby's greatest upsets. Connacht’s giantkilling of European aristocrats in their own back yard will rank as one of the most significant in the history of the Heineken Cup.
Against all odds, including a difference of some €30 million in budget, the Cinderella of Irish rugby, currently bottom of the Magners League, pulled off a victory few would have expected. For the first time this season the four-times Heineken Cup champions, currently second in the Top 14 and the s the only French club to have taken part in all the editions of Europe’s elite competition since its creation succumbed in Stade Ernest Wallon.
It was the response Connacht coach Pat Lam had demanded on the back of a dismal league defeat to Edinburgh, but few, bar the players, expected it would translate into a pool three, round three victory. The date will be marked forever in Irish rugby annals - the second occasion since Harlequins two seasons ago that Connacht has pulled off a win in this elite competition against a big-budget outfit. It is a ringing of endorsement of Connacht's growing development, first started under Eric Elwood and now Pat Lam which, though not evident in the Magners League results, has finally born fruition in the rugby equivalent of France's Bastille.
In front of 200 hardy Connacht supporters, the visitors clung on to a slender 16 - 14 lead, having been denied a second try which would have put the game beyond doubt. And that final five minutes epitomised all that was good about Connacht - their belief in themselves, their huge heart, and confidence in their systems - led by a magnificent defence. Toulouse, with four minutes left on the clock, started to push forward a la the All Blacks against Ireland two weeks ago. It started just inside their own half, yet it finished a few just metres inside Connacht's - such was the ferocity of the visitors' defence that stunned the French aristocrats.
From the kick-off, Toulouse started with a flourish with a four-try bonus very much on their radar. Three penalties were conceded and each time Toulouse spurned kicks at goal, such was the confidence in their ability to both outpace and outmuscle their opponents. Somehow Connacht managed to survive, putting into practice their defensive systems that Lam had tweaked during the week, and it was the visitors who took an unlikely lead after 12 minutes despite seeing precious little ball in possession. Outhalf Dan Parks took the first opportunity when Toulouse were pinged for offside at the breakdown, and although the kick from half way was at the maximum of his range, the former Scottish international nailed it, giving his side a huge lift and a 3-0 lead. Three minutes later fullback Robbie Henshaw initiated one of his trademark counterattacks from defence and, in Connacht's first period of sustained attack on the left, Parks grabbed the chance to convert a drop goal from inside the 22 to stretch the lead to 6 - 0.
A superb tackle from Matt Healy on fullback Clement Poitrenaud was followed up by an immense turnover from John Muldoon before the pack swamped the 22-times Springbok Chiliboy Ratepelle forcing the turnover metres from the Connacht line. The tackles continued to be made, epitomized by a flying Dave McSharry effort as the visitors' relentless harrying and chasing started to force errors from the illustrious Toulouse. Critically, however, for a second week in succession Connacht conceded the lead just as the half-time approached when Toulouse grabbed their first points of the half through young outhalf Barraque. Hosea Gearonce again counterattacked from inside his half before the big boys took over. The bulky Census Johnson proved instrumental, sucking in the defence, before Barraque took charge, sidestepped Craig Clarke, and at pace, was able to cut inside Robbie Henshaw to touch down and add the extras for a 7 - 6 lead.
It was probably no more than Toulouse deserved for the amount of possession and positional dominance, but the Connacht defence, their ability to take chances, and a growing belief, saw them return after the break and regain the initiative. Once again the backs ran a great supporting line out wide, instigated by the influential Kieron Marmion, and net result was a third Parks' penalty after four minutes. The lively young scrumhalf, selected as Man of the Match, was again in the thick of the action, his delayed pass giving McSharry, Fionn Carr and Henshaw space to make huge yards up the right. Although halted just short, the cavalry arrived in the form of Jake Heenan and Eoin McKeon with the TMO awarding Marmion's try. Parks covnerted for a 16 - 7 lead after 48 minutes.
Toulouse, clearly ruffled, opted to kick a penalty three minutes later, and the 16,742 supporters missed another heart beat as Barraque's effort from the 10m line sailed wide. As Toulouse attempted to rally, Connacht's pressure continued resulting in a knock-on on which Connacht capitalised and so nearly broke the Toulouse defence for a second time. Parks was first to grab loose ball sending replacement Gavin Duffy down the touch-lineout, and when Marmion supplied Henshaw he was clean through for what looked like game complete for Toulouse. On this occasion the TMO ruled a Connacht hand was responsible for a knock-on following a first offence by the hosts, thereby disallowing the try. It was a cruel blow particularly when Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir led a rolling maul across the line, with the conversion closing the gap to two.
Once again it looked like Connacht could be heading for an agonising near victory as Parks missed a drop goal effort and a 76th minute penalty from half way. It signalled one last hurrah for Guy Noves' Toulouse, but Connacht's defence, magnificent all day, held firm. An occasion for the province and Irish rugby to treasure.
Connacht: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, E McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt ), J Muldoon, J Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements, J Harris-Wright for Henry (43m ), E McKeon for Naoupu (46m ), G Duffy for Healy (52m ), D Buckley for Wilkinson, R Ah You for White, M Swift for Kaerney (60m ), F Murphy for Marmion (70m ).
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud, Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, H Gear, JP Barraque, J Vermaak, G Steenkamp, C Ralepelle, C Johnston, E Maka, Y Maestri, Y Camara, T Dusautoir (cpt ), L Picamoles. Replacements, S Ferreira for Steenkamp and R Milo-Chulski for Maka, JM Doussain for Vermaak (all 48m ), L Beauxis for Barraque (53m ), Y Montes for Johnston and J Bregvadze for Ralepelle (74m ).
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy ).