Connacht fail to fire
Elwood focused on positives as Toulouse show no mercy
BRILLIANT occasion -- pity about the contest.
The Sportsground made a memorable Heineken Cup debut for Connacht's clash with Toulouse, with a 9,120 crowd creating a wonderful, rollicking atmosphere that was as relentless as it was cacophonic.
However, the prevailing feeling of pride among home supporters afterwards was diluted by a sense of regret that their team could not give Toulouse a better game in a match where Connacht were second best from first whistle to last.
Even allowing for the vast budget disparity, and the collection of proven internationals in the Toulouse squad versus Connacht's collection of hard-working yeomanry, the home side will look at the video and know they did not play their best -- looking like a team that let the occasion get to them.
Like Irish athletes at the Olympics, when victory is unrealistic, you look for personal bests -- optimum performance on the big stage -- and Connacht were a level below their performance against Harlequins the week before.
There was no questioning their desire or effort, nor the pressure that Toulouse consistently placed them under, but Connacht are a better side than they showed on Saturday evening when many of their errors smacked of nerves and over-eagerness.
"We are disappointed with our performance," admitted forwards coach Dan McFarland. "Whatever about the occasion, we really didn't do ourselves justice. Yes, we were beaten by a very good side, but we could have been better.
"I don't know about stage-fright but we didn't get ourselves into the game -- whether that was due to the occasion or due to Toulouse squeezing the life out of the match ... but we just needed a break. We needed a break in that first 15 minutes that was going to get us into the game and we didn't get that."
Head coach Eric Elwood paid tribute to the Connacht crowd whose support never wavered, reaching a crescendo when the home side benefited from an injection of energy off the bench in the second half, leading to Connacht's best period of constructive play and culminating in a penalty try that belied the pressure the home scrum was under all evening.
"I said from day one that it's really important to recognise that these games in the Heineken Cup are opportunities," said Elwood. "Not just what we do on the park but off the park as well. A great credit has to go to the people that came here, there was great colour, the ground was transformed into what looked like a sporting arena, so that was encouraging.
"People made themselves heard and the lads did their bit, so it was that whole inclusive package we wanted to sell that makes us feel we can grow. It's the key; I have great respect for the core supporters who used to come in the old days when we were playing on cold, windy nights.
"Everyone wants to go to the Toulouse match, and everyone wants to support a winning team," added Elwood. "But we're trying to build something here and I hope people keep believing in what we're trying to do on the pitch.
"Obviously the growth off the pitch is important, too, and we want people to buy into it, it's about people coming up every Friday, every Saturday, no matter who we are playing."
Toulouse assistant coach Yannick Bru, while treading a diplomatic line when assessing the Connacht challenge, did not hold back in expressing appreciation for the Galway welcome his team received.
"I thought it was fantastic," said Bru. "We felt the passion in the city before the match and the welcome was fantastic: the people have a lot of respect and are polite and full of emotion. That's why we play rugby, and I think Connacht and the crowd here gave a very good impression of rugby here and I wish them all the best for the future."
From the first kick-off reception, Toulouse were in the ascendancy, coming onto the ball from depth throughout, dominating the tackle and the breakdown and benefiting from the direction of Luke Burgess and Lionel Beauxis at half-back. The fact that Connacht denied Toulouse the four-try bonus they obviously expected should serve as some solace, but Guy Noves' side should have no problems qualifying from this pool and looked like they had another level in them at the Sportsground.
Connacht captain Gavin Duffy can reflect on an excellent performance from full-back, in front of Ireland coach Declan Kidney, running hard and producing some spectacular high fielding -- although that these catches came from Connacht restarts told its own story.
"I suppose that's kind of the bread and butter," said Duffy modestly. "It's a high ball and you catch it as a full-back and at kick-offs; if that's the ploy then it's up to the chaser to get it back. In fairness to Miah Nikora, he has to put it in the right place and if it is, I'll keep backing myself to catch it."
For Duffy and his team, it's back to the routine of the Pro12 with home games against the Ospreys and Treviso over the next two weekends. There will be nothing like the same attention or hype for those clashes, but Connacht will hope Saturday's experience will bring the casual supporters back for more.
"Next week, in terms of a result, is more important for us than this week, full stop," said McFarland. "We need four points and we need to build on this experience. The first season I was here we played Beziers and there were less than 200 people here. Here we were in front of 9,000 people and they are loving their night, what more can you ask?"
CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy, E Griffin, D McSharry (H Fa'afili 67), T O'Halloran; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe (F Murphy 52); B Wilkinson, A Flavin (E Reynecke 50, yc 76), R Ah You (D Rogers 50), M Swift, D Gannon (R Ofisa 54), M McCarthy (yc 29-39), J Muldoon (TJ Anderson 64; A Flavin 76), G Naoupu.
TOULOUSE -- C Poitrenaud (L McAllister 51); M Medard, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, V Clerc; l Beauxis, L Burgess (N Vergallo 62); Y Montes (JB Poux 69), W Servat (G Botha 51), C Johnston (J Falefa 51), G Lamboley, Y Maestri (R Millo-Chluski 56; Y Nyanga 68), J Bouilhou (capt), T Dusatoir, L Picamoles (G Gallan 60).
REF -- G Garner (Eng).