Lam basks in glow of Connacht's finest hour
Toulouse 14 Connacht 16
The crowning glory on a perfect Heineken Cup weekend for Irish rugby came from the most unlikely source of all as a Connacht side rooted to the bottom of the Pro12 stunned Toulouse in their own backyard.
Indeed, the four-time Heineken Cup champions were fortunate to be still in the hunt in the closing minutes of a game where they never managed to deal with the ferocity of the visitors, especially at the breakdown and in the tackle.
Connacht's power and purpose was as surprising as it was unexpected, but there is no doubt they fully deserved their success as they slayed a European powerhouse to claim their finest ever victory.
Pat Lam's men seemed destined for a familiar hard-luck story when a try from Robbie Henshaw was whistled back for an apparent knock-on that few could see. A touchdown from the impressive full-back would have pushed Connacht 23-7 in front coming up to the hour mark.
Toulouse hit back for a try from their captain Thierry Dusautoir, and when Dan Parks saw a late penalty and drop-goal narrowly miss the target, most waited for Toulouse to come with the sting in their tail and snatch a last-gasp winner.
But Connacht wouldn't let them out of their own half. Tackle after tackle went in, penalties were not conceded and the visitors held on for a deserved win. When the initial euphoria wears off – and it will need to quickly – Connacht will realise that they have a chance of making it to the knockout stages, a notion which would have been laughed at prior to the kick-off yesterday.
After all, how can a team who have only beaten Zebre this season and who have been turned over regularly by understrength teams on their own patch suddenly go into a bastion of French and European rugby and turn over a side like Toulouse?
The secret to their success lay in defence. Connacht got their system right and held firm. Jean-Pascal Barraque did cross the line for the hosts, stepping inside Craig Clarke and around Henshaw to score a try which could have deflated Connacht on the stroke of half-time. But they simply would not lie down.
Connacht, having soaked up a lot of early pressure from a Toulouse side who kept going to the corners with penalties without success, opened up a 6-0 lead with a penalty from halfway and a drop-goal from Parks but still went in 7-6 down at the break.
It looked like a turning point, but it wasn't. Connacht got on top after the restart and forced another penalty, which Parks converted in front of the posts for 9-7. They never lost that lead, and never looked like losing it either.
"The belief has been there and we knew that this performance was not far away," said Lam. "No one has beaten Toulouse here this year, they have been undefeated at home. So to come here in a massive game with the side they put out is unbelievable, I am so proud of the guys."
Two years ago, Henshaw was preparing for his Leaving Cert when Connacht were playing Toulouse, but yesterday his class was obvious. A break down the right was followed by a superb one-handed offload to Fionn Carr in the corner. He was nabbed close to the line but the support was there to drive over, with man of the match Kieran Marmion getting the touchdown after the TMO was called into action.
Parks landed the touchline conversion to make it 16-7 and you could sense the worry in the stands.
Guy Noves, by now extremely animated on the sideline, emptied the home bench but it looked as if there was no way back for them when Gavin Duffy and Marmion combined from deep inside their own half to send Henshaw over for what looked to be the clinching try after 58 minutes, only to be whistled back for an apparent knock-on earlier in the move.
It seemed that Toulouse would make the most of the let-off when Dusautoir bundled over and Lionel Beauxis converted to leave just two between the sides with 15 minutes remaining.
"My worry was it was only two (points difference) and a drop-goal or penalty can change everything. But I did believe those boys would fight for it and they did," said Lam. Connacht seized the initiative again and owned the ball to the finish as they ran out deserving winners to claim their finest ever victory.
Lam had a difficult few days last week trying to sort out the mess left by the 43-10 drubbing by Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
He will have a big task this week as well, but one he will welcome as he tries to get them back to earth after a heavenly performance which could transform their season.
There could hardly have been a better way to round off what was a memorable weekend for Irish rugby than having your weakest side defeat a team which has won the Heineken Cup more often than anyone else.
Toulouse – C Poitrenaud; Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, H Gear; J-P Barraque (L Beauxis 53), J Vermaak (JM Doussain 48); G Steenkamp (S Ferreira 48), C Ralepelle (J Bredvadze 74), C Johnston (Y Montes 74); E Maka (R Millo-Chluski 48), Y Maestri; Y Camara (C Tolofua 46), T Dusautoir, L Picamoles.
Connacht – R Henshaw (C Ronaldson 75); F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy (G Duffy 53); D Parks, K Marmion (F Murphy 70); B Wilkinson (D Buckley 59), S Henry (J Harris-Wright 42), N White (R Ah You 59); M Kearney (M Swift 59), C Clarke; J Muldoon, J Heenan, G Naoupu (E McKeon 46).
Ref – M Mitrea (Italy).
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