Never-say-die spirit and challenging conditions to keep Connacht snapping at Toulouse heels
THERE is an old saying, popular in rugby circles, which claims that "it's not about the size of the dog in the fight, it's about the size of the fight in the dog".
Toulouse are the big dogs of European rugby, Connacht the snappy mongrels who suddenly find themselves being paraded at the main show -- throw in the venue for today's Heineken Cup showdown, which features a greyhound track running around the pitch, and there is a distinctly canine feel to it all.
There were still frantic preparations yesterday to get Connacht's home ready in time, embracing extra terracing, a big screen, hospitality facilities on the back pitch and handling the logistics of a media influx beyond anything Connacht has experienced heretofore.
The Sportsground promises to be a memorable inclusion on the Heineken Cup circuit, with a packed 9,000 attendance including the Taoiseach and new Irish President and weather forecasts suggesting a typically robust wind sweeping over the exposed surface, with the possibility of rain to go with it.
The hope in Galway is that these surroundings will prove unsettling for Toulouse's galaxy of superstars, but the truth is that these are players well used to dealing with hostile, old-school grounds in the French championship, where the likes of Castres, Perpignan and Bayonne operate out of bases not too dissimilar to Connacht's.
Nonetheless, Toulouse can be guaranteed a fiery welcome and have selected accordingly, with a squad containing internationals and household names everywhere you look.
Their backline, in particular, makes for daunting reading -- Clement Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard, Florian Fritz, Yannick Jauzion, Vincent Clerc, Lionel Beauxis and Luke Burgess are players who would walk into most international sides -- while the forwards include the World Player of the Year, Thierry Dusautoir, and one of the world's finest hookers, William Servat.
Connacht have no frontline internationals to go up against them for a match that feels, in FA Cup terms, like Shrewsbury Town taking on Manchester United.
Eric Elwood makes one personnel change to the side that rattled Harlequins last week and it is something of a surprise, with Dave Gannon coming into the second-row, Mike McCarthy switching to the back-row and Ray Ofisa dropping to the bench.
Ofisa picked up a knock last weekend but the word is that Gannon has been brought in to strengthen the Connacht line-out, which takes on a powerful Toulouse unit, spearheaded by their athletic captain Jean Bouilhou. It is a tactically sound call with regards to the aerial battle but requires John Muldoon slotting in at open-side, not the Portumna man's natural position.
Ofisa carries considerable bench impact, along with Frank Murphy, Niall O'Connor and Henry Fa'afili, but Toulouse are hardly wanting in this regard, being able to call on players of the calibre of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Romain Millo-Chluski, Yannick Nyanga and Luke McAlister.
Much will depend on the Toulouse mindset. The assumption is that they will not have worried themselves too much with analysing the Harlequins match, expecting a routine victory in a match where, if Toulouse play to form, they would be expected to win comfortably.
It is up to Connacht to make this a far-from-routine encounter and if Toulouse show any signs of complacency, Elwood has men to make them suffer. It looks like an occasion made for Michael Swift, Muldoon and the excellent George Naoupu, while McCarthy will be their main source of possession at line-out time and a major ball-carrying presence.
Out wide, Eoin Griffin, David McSharry and Tiernan O'Halloran have an opportunity to build on promising progress -- if they get ball to run on to.
The big issues are whether Connacht can cope with the power of Servat and Co in a scrum that, even without Springbok enforcer Guthro Steenkamp and Daan Human, is still a giant outfit, and whether their defence can answer questions they have will not have been asked before.
Connacht cannot afford to be overawed by the occasion or by the calibre of their opponents. They can draw encouragement from their performance at Harlequins, their display against Toulon in 2010, and the memory of seminal victories over Munster and Leinster at the same venue.
Logic decrees a handsome Toulouse victory, with Connacht and their supporters reduced to storing up the souvenir memories from their 100th match in European competition.
However, Connacht are a team that, for its entire professional existence, has been waiting for this opportunity to show what they are about and prove their status in Irish rugby. It is a day of validation for Connacht rugby and Toulouse could get a game they will remember on an evening when a bit of mongrel could go a long way.
Verdict: Connacht to beat the handicap (+11)
CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, D Gannon; M McCarthy, J Muldoon, G Naoupu. Reps: E Reynecke, R Loughney, D Rogers, T Anderson, R Ofisa, F Murphy, N O'Connor, H Fa'afili.
TOULOUSE -- C Poitrenaud; M Medard, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, V Clerc; L Beauxis, L Burgess; Y Montes, W Servat, C Johnston; G Lamboley, Y Maestri; J Bouilhou (capt), T Dusautoir, L Picamoles. Reps: G Botha, J Poux, J Falefa, R Millo-Chluski, N Vergallo, Y Nyanga, L McAlister, G Galan.
REF -- G Garner (England)
Connacht v Toulouse,
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