European rugby giants Toulouse arrive in Galway today in preparation for Connacht’s biggest competitive fixture at the Galway Sportsground - their pool six Heineken Cup second round clash on Saturday (6pm ).
The four-times European champions, nicknamed the “Red and Blacks” travel to the west for what will be an historic occasion. Some 9,000 supporters will pack the Sportsground for the first time in its history for what is Connacht’s 100th European match. Understandably Connacht coach Eric Elwood says it is a match “that has it all”.
“There has been huge anticipation for this fixture since the draw was announced. There will be 9,000 in the stadium for this first home Heineken Cup game against the European aristocrats - buzz, nervousness, drama - it has it all,” he says. “Playing in the Heineken Cup for the first time for whose who have waited for so many years and for it to be Toulouse, well it is fantastic.” To understand the enormity of the task facing Connacht, a quick look at the stats provides evidence. The current French champions have won more titles than any other team in France - 18 times. Ditto the Heineken Cup with four. Rugby is glorified in the Garonne, producing such legendaries as Fabien Pelous, the most-capped player in the history of French rugby, Guy Novès, coach since 1993, Emile N’Tamack, Jean-Pierre Rives, and Jean-Claude Skréla to name a handful. Today’s squad “enough to boast two teams of quality players - something we can only dream of”, according to Elwood, boasts the International Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir; warhorse hooker William Servat; Vincent Clerc, joint top try scorer at the World Cup; Yannick Nyanga, France flanker since 2004; line-breaker with 73 France caps Yannick Jauzion; Australian scrumhalf Luke Burgess (described by Connacht backs coach Billy Millard as a serious player who adds a new dimension to their game ); Lionel Beauxis, known for his big boot; former All Black Luke McAlister; versatile fullback/centre Clément Poitrenaud - and so on.
Yet such a formidable line up does not “faze” Connacht, rather it excites. “Everybody wants to play against Toulouse,” says Elwood. “ Everyone is well aware of their quality - so many quality players they are always going to threaten and that’s the challenge, but we are in the business of looking to win rugby matches, we fancy our chances at home, which is our biggest opportunity to get wins, and we are going in with that frame of mind.”
Elwood selects his team today, but is unlikely to make any changes, barring injury, after Connacht’s opening night cup joust with Harlequins, when they pushed the English league leaders all the way. That heartbreaking 25 - 17 defeat, courtesy of two late penalties from another former All Black Nick Evans, confirmed what the players always believed - Connacht’s ability to take their place among the big boys in Europe. Elwood and his coaching staff addressed that defeat earlier in the week, an 11- 6 penalty count that will always be punished by a quality goalkicker, and unnecessary turnovers “an area we have to improve on because we know we will be challenged by Toulouse”.
“You cannot deny it is important to give them the respect they deserve,” says Elwood, “but you cannot stand off them either. It is important for us to play our game, to bring the physical side of the game as we did last week against Harlequins and look to make life difficult for them here.” Backs coach Billy Millard has enjoyed several jousts against Toulouse during his coaching time with Cardiff. “They can play poorly for 65 minutes and then score four tries off the cuff. They train a lot of off-load touch, they play open game, so there will be a lot of pressure on the players to adapt on the night.”
However Millard says it is an exciting time for Connacht Rugby and particularly some of the youngsters like Dave McSharry (only his third match with Connacht ), Eoin Griffin, and Tiernan O’Halloran.
“ They are great kids with nothing to fear. They have shown they have the talent as well as the attitude to test the top teams. We have to go out with an attacking mind set. I think naturally in the big games, attitude and physicality will not be an issue, it will be two-on-one, giving an offload when you can, making a good read in defence - it will be those little things that are crucial. That’s what I like about this backline, there is no nerves or fear, they just want to rip in.”