Connacht’s much anticipated European semi-final has finally arrived. This evening Connacht take on a red-hot Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final at the Sportsground. Three weeks since they nailed down their third European semi-final with a nail-biting 23 - 20 win over another French side Bourgoin, Connacht have been gearing up for what is billed as their most important challenge of the season. It is once again David versus Goliath; joint top in the French league against the bottom Magners League outfit; an expensively assembled squad up against Ireland’s Cinderella province with one-seventh of the French side’s budget. But with the fixture already a sell-out, some 8,000 supporters will be baying for French blood come 7.45pm. Connacht are well used to being underdogs, but they will need to be on top of their game against Toulon whose extravagant budget and star-studded line-up has been well documented.
“Toulon are very formidable opponents. They finished joint top in France, but I suppose there is no better preparation than having Leinster and Munster come here in the last couple of weeks,” says Connacht coach Michael Bradley. It will be that performance against Leinster not their 58-10 fall to the Scarlets last Sunday - that will act as Connacht’s benchmark. Likewise Connacht’s display against Bourgoin in the quarter-final.
No one doubts that Connacht will be up against it. Toulon demolished the Scarlets in the quarter-finals by 38-12, outscored their Welsh opponents by five tries to nil.
“They have an extremely strong squad,” says Bradley. “They brought in 17 players last summer - all quality. Right through the side they have quality and that’s the reason they have done so well. The French 14 is a punishing league, extremely physical, and you need a huge squad to survive. Themselves and Perpignan have done that, Clermont are third and Toulouse fourth.”
Having studied Toulon closely, Bradley and his management team of Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland will ensure they have a game plan that can counteract Toulon’s physicality. Much will be demanded of them in defence and at the breakdown. The tight five have set a steady platform throughout the campaign, allowing the backs to work with good ball, while John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor and George Naoupu have led at the breakdown, showing the value of their experience. Niva Ta’auso is dangerous in attack and sure on defence. Fionn Carr has finished several chances in good style this season, grabbing seven tries to be second top in the campaign and one ahead of Toulon’s Gabi Lovobalavu, while Gavin Duffy and Troy Nathan have been in outstanding form.
“This is a cup game,” says Bradley. “ Anything can happen in these one-off situations - the bounce of a ball, referee’s decision, and that’s just for starters. The Sportsground is a difficult place – it has very unusual surroundings for a professional side to come to. We have the crowd who are very knowledgeable and have backed the side exceptionally well. Wayne Barnes is refereeing the match - he speaks our language. These are all positives. So it is a good position for us to be in. “We see it as a huge game - a great opportunity for us as a team to continue our good form in Europe. We are unbeaten in Europe to date so it could be an historic season for us if we get to the final.”
Connacht squad: G Duffy, T Nathan/B Tuohy, N Ta’auso, A Wynne, F Carr, I Keatley/M Nikora. F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, M McCarthy/B Upton, J Muldoon (cpt ), J O’Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements, A Flavin, R Loughney, M McComish, C O’Loughlin, R Morris/C Higgins.