After a tough and testing campaign, Connacht Rugby’s debut season of Heineken Cup rugby ends when English premiership leaders Harlequins visit the Sportsground this 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 tonight. 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 tonight’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 tonight.”
Connacht expect to welcome back Ronan Loughney at tighthead this week which will boost Connacht’s scrum which face 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.
It was a display coach Eric Elwood had demanded and was justifiably proud.
"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.”