Wednesday 11 December 2019

Connacht experienced enough to avoid prefab rout

Andy Friend: ‘The mark of a team is how you bounce back’. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Andy Friend: ‘The mark of a team is how you bounce back’. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Follow that. After the minor miracle against Montpellier, an even tougher French test awaits at the home of aristocrats Toulouse.

Five years ago this week, Kieran Marmion's try prompted a sensation in the Stade Ernest Wallon, ending a then five-year unbeaten home record in European competition. It might feel as if Connacht are stepping even further into the past this weekend when they return to the heartland of French club rugby.

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Construction work on the main east stand means that the dressing-rooms - so familiar to even the press corps thanks to France's liberal relationship with their media - no longer exist.

And so, while Toulouse will be billeted within hastily assembled facilities that will still be reasonably self-sufficient, the visitors will be shunted into a prefab.

Surroundings which, with all the historical resonances to their own ramshackle quarters of yore, might just be the final dollop of motivation required for underdogs coursing another famous setback.

Connacht's problem is that a prefab might be too lavish a space for their travelling crew as injuries persist in the aftermath of Sunday's stunning success with a weakened side hampered further by a trio of morning withdrawals.

All of which means that coach Andy Friend has sought to modify selection, partly with an eye to domestic fare but also a potentially winnable brace of fixtures against David Humphreys' Gloucester side this month, meaning Bundee Aki isn't in the squad and Jack Carty is on the bench.

A double in those back-to-back clashes would really give the Westerners something to play for after Christmas when, with a strengthened squad, they might fancy a real crack at things. Given their selection, a losing bonus point might be their best hope. Then again, cowed soothsayers said the same last weekend…

In the absence of newly re-signed Marmion, Caolin Blade will manage the fort more than capably; the 25-year-old from Monivea was man of the match in the opening round. He is joined by Conor Fitzgerald outside him, the ex-Limerick hurler and Munster Academy player whose audacious pass opened the door to the remarkable coup; his late penalty slamming shut any potential revival from the stunned visitors.

Connacht are boosted by the return of international lock Quinn Roux who will captain the side in the absence of Jarrad Butler. Roux will line up alongside Ultan Dillane in the second-row after the latter came through the Montpellier game unscathed after a recent back injury.

In the front-row, there are two changes, with Dave Heffernan coming in at hooker and Peter McCabe at loosehead.

Dominic Robertson-McCoy is retained at tighthead with Finlay Bealham named on the bench after a two-week lay-off with injury. In the back-row, the versatile Eoghan Masterson comes in at blindside with Colby Fainga'a at openside and a revived Robin Copeland packing at eight. There is a reshuffle in the backline, with Matt Healy slotting in at full-back.

Kyle Godwin and John Porch are on the wings while Tom Farrell comes into the midfield alongside Tom Daly.

"We were happy with the character shown against Montpellier but we know we will need to improve as we travel away to Toulouse," says Friend. "We have seen the quality they have in the past few seasons in this competition and winning the Top 14 in France.

However, we are travelling with a squad that has a huge sense of belief that we can win the game.

For the romantics out there, there will be no Cheslin Kolbe, alas, as the Springboks' shimmying World Cup winner continues to recover from ankle trouble while the devilish dervish, Antoine Dupont, is also marked absent.

But Toulouse still have veteran Yoann Huget in a back-three dripping with attacking intent.

Verdict: Toulouse

Toulouse - T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, L Yauzin, M Médard; R Ntamack, S Bézy; C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; R Gray, J Tekori; A Placines, R Elstadt, J Kaino (capt). Reps: J Marchand, T du Toit, D Aldegheri, R Arnold, S Tolofua, F Cros, P Ahki, P Pages.

Connacht - M Healy; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, K Godwin; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy; U Dillane, Q Roux (capt); E Masterson, C Fainga'a, R Copeland. Reps: S Delahunt, M Burke, F Bealham, J Maksymiw, P Boyle, A Lloyd, J Carty, P Robb.

Ref - K Dickson (RFU)

Toulouse v Connacht, Live, BT Sport Extra, 1.0

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