Sunday 22 April 2018

Connacht hold on for victory in dramatic battle against Toulouse

Connacht 23 Toulouse 21

Bundee Aki, centre, of Connacht is congratulated by teammates Tiernan O’Halloran, left, and Ultan Dillane, right, after scoring his side's third try
Bundee Aki, centre, of Connacht is congratulated by teammates Tiernan O’Halloran, left, and Ultan Dillane, right, after scoring his side's third try
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Two years is a long time without Champions Cup rugby but Connacht ensured that it was worth the wait as they wrote the latest stunning chapter in the club’s history.

It was all the more fitting that it came against Europe’s most successful side and although Toulouse are not the force they once were, their powerhouse pack posed problems throughout.

In the past, Connacht have had to rely on others to seal their passage to the tournament but the Pro12 champions earned the right to be back amongst Europe’s elite and they announced their return with a two-point victory that will be forever remembered in these parts.

When Toulouse last played in Galway, they arrived as French champions and left with a resounding victory but this time around they left licking their wounds and wondering where it has all gone wrong.

Bundee Aki of Connacht scores his side's third try
Bundee Aki of Connacht scores his side's third try

As expected, they came to bully Connacht and although they did have the upper hand in the scrum throughout, their opponents’ guile and precision was too much for them to handle.

Trailing 21-10 at the break, Pat Lam’s side launched a gutsy second half comeback that saw them get their campaign off to an ideal start before they play Zebre next week.

Bundee Aki has been a favourite out west since he arrived and he popped up with another reminder of why he is so valued.

It was Aki’s try 12 minutes from the end that allowed Craig Ronaldson the chance to kick a difficult touchline conversion that claimed the famous victory.

It was no more than Connacht deserved as they clinically saw out the closing stages that ended with a roar that shook to Sportsground to its very core.

Nights like this are becoming more common in this province but last night felt different. After a poor start to the season, questions were asked of Lam’s side and they once again came up with the answers.

Yann David of Toulouse scores his sides first try against Connacht
Yann David of Toulouse scores his sides first try against Connacht

Quinn Roux was a late withdrawal and his replacement Ultan Dillane was a colossus all evening. The forecasted rain never arrived and Connacht thrived in the dry conditions.

They did lose their way at the end in a ragged five minute spell late in the second half and Toulouse took full advantage with two soft tries that will have infuriated Lam.

Toulouse’s powerhouse pack signalled their intent early on and won three penalties from their first three scrums.

Sebastien Bezy was on target with two penalties while Florian Fritz fired over another from the halfway line to punish Connacht’s indiscipline at the scrum as Toulouse opened up a nine point lead inside the opening 15 minutes.

Connacht struggled in the scrum and it was no surprise to see them moving Toulouse’s heavy pack around the pitch.

The home side never panicked and stuck to the game plan that has served them so well and gaps weren’t long in opening.

Jack Carty was the first to test Toulouse’s resolve and his half break create an opening that ended with Dillane being bundled into touch wide on the touch line.

Cian Kelleher was the next to dance his way passed a couple of defenders as the pressure began to mount.

The warning signs were clear for the French side but they were powerless to stop Connacht scoring what will be one of the tries of the season after 20 minutes.

Dillane brilliantly stole a Toulouse lineout inside the Connacht 22 and the ball was quickly spread wide. Ronaldson linked well with Aki who stormed his way through the Toulouse defence.

Aki played the ball back for his centre partner Ronaldson who was stopped just short of the line but the support play was quick to arrive and Tiernan O’Halloran spread the ball wide for Niyi Adeolokun to score a sensational try in the corner.

Carty’s touchline conversion sailed just wide but he made amends a couple of minutes later with a penalty that cut the deficit to a single point (8-9).

Toulouse were looking ragged and when they were pinged for offside, Carty’s penalty put Connacht into the lead for the first time.

Toulouse won a fourth scrum penalty and although Bezy was wide with his shot at goal, worse was to follow for the hosts when Yann David somehow found a way over in the corner to silence the home crowd after 33 minutes.

Toulouse got over for their second try in five minutes when out-half Jean Marc Doussain capitalised on a scything Yoann Huget break.

Bezy’s conversion lefty Toulouse 21-11 to the good at half time as Lam was left scratching his head at why his team lost their way.

Both kickers lost their radar soon after the restart. Carty was first to snatch a penalty and Bezy did the same from right in front of the posts shortly after.

It felt like a crucial miss from the Toulouse scrum-half and so it proved as two minutes before the hour mark, Connacht got over for their second try.

Connacht’s success last season was largely based on their sublime skill set and just like their try in the first half, it was on show again in this instance.

Finlay Bealham made the initial break and brilliantly offloaded to Carty. Aki bulldozed his way through the middle before another sumptuous offload found Adeolokun.

Connacht remained patient and spread the ball wide where O’Halloran didn’t need a second invitation to screech clear and score.

Connacht lost their try scorer to injury a couple of minutes later but they continued to pound at the Toulouse wall.

Their patience was again rewarded when man of the match Aki stepped up to the plate and after a bruising 68 minutes, somehow found another burst of acceleration to dive over the line.

A hush fell over the dark Galway night sky but it was soon lit up when Ronaldson kept his nerve and bisected the posts to claim the famous victory.

Connacht - T O’Halloran (S Ili 65); N Adeolokun, B Aki (S O’Leary 78), C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade (K Marmion 46); F Bealham (R Loughney 68), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 55), C Carey (JP Cooney 52); U Dillane (L Stevenson 73), A Browne; E McKeon (S O’Brien 55), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).

Toulouse - M Medard; Y Huget (G Fickou 49), F Fritz (capt) (T Flood 68), Y David (G Fickou 22-25), P Perez; JM Doussain, S Bezy; C Baille (K Vasil 41), C Tolofua (J Marchand 47), C Johnston (A Dorian 47); R Gray (G Lamboley 30), J Tekori; F Cros, P Faasalele (T Gray 55), C Axtens (E Maka 69).

Ref - L Pearce (England)

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