Tuesday 20 February 2018

West wide awake and ready to fulfil impossible dream

Hugh Farrelly

WE'RE not sure what pre-match music is played in the Connacht dressing-room (the Sawdoctors was one suggestion), but something by Destiny's Child would be appropriate ahead of tonight's Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon at the Sportsground (7.45).

Coach Michael Bradley spoke this week about the importance of being in control and if they lose to Toulon this evening, Connacht's destiny is out of their hands.

Last weekend's double-whammy -- which saw Connacht thumped by the Scarlets and Ulster leave Edinburgh with a bonus-point win -- has turned the Magners sour for the westerners and three routes to the Heineken Cup became two.

If Munster or Leinster lift Europe's premier trophy on May 22, Connacht will qualify by default for next season's competition but, given the strides they have made this season in adverse circumstances (the IRFU review), how much better it would be to book their own ticket for a maiden voyage into the Heineken Cup. Wishful thinking? The bookmakers certainly think so with Toulon a prohibitive 1/3 to make the final.

Those odds are backed up by a powerful line-up containing the household names of Jonny Wilkinson at out-half, Juan Fernandez Lobbe at No 8 and captain Joe van Niekerk on the blindside flank.

While Wilkinson, inevitably, supplies most of the points and, consequently, attracts most of the hype, Van Niekerk is the team's driving force.


A superb athlete, the 29-year-old is built in the image of legendary Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and if South Africa coach Peter de Villiers has any sense (and the jury's still out), Van Niekerk will be a key figure in their bid to retain the World Cup next year.

They have a couple of South Sea Island monsters in the front-row, with former Munster player Tim Ryan on the bench, and savage pace out wide in Fijian Gabriel Lovobalavu and Clement Marienval, a young man with a big future.

Toulon's strength is backed up by their achievements in the Top 14 this season, going into the play-offs as joint leaders with Perpignan, and, while there is an element of 'noveau riche' about the wealthy up-and-comers, there is unity and purpose among their all-star cast.

Coach Philippe Saint Andre is a man imbued with the best traditions of the game and the natural successor to Marc Lievremont as national coach of France.

He will not make the mistake of underestimating or disrespecting his opponents, although quizzical eyebrows will undoubtedly be raised when the Toulon players catch their first sight of the Sportsground.

Connacht will give it their all and Bradley has picked his strongest available line-up, which is full of settled combinations.

The back three of Gavin Duffy, Troy Nathan and Fionn Carr are in form and in the mood; Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy are well in tune as a half-back partnership (with Miah Nikora and Conor O'Loughlin able reserves); and the back row of John Muldoon, Johnny O'Connor and George Naoupu can catch their much-vaunted opponents unawares.


In the centre, Niva Ta'auso is a quality player ready to catch the attention of the Sky Sports pundits and he is capable of doing serious damage against Mafi Kefu and Tom May.

A home win would be a victory of resolve over resources given that Toulon are estimated to have nearly €15m more in their budget, but it is not completely beyond the bounds of all possibility.

Bradley outlined the glass half-full scenario on Monday, citing the importance of the home crowd (8,000), the unsettling nature of the Sportsground and Connacht's knowledge of referee Wayne Barnes.

All valid points but, for the Connacht dream to be realised, there are realities that must be addressed first.

Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin and the ever-improving Jamie Hagan must contain the giant Toulon front row; line-outs and restarts have to operate smoothly; and the penalty count can run no higher than single figures or Wilkinson will have a field day off the tee.

Crucially, the defensive effort has to be at the level achieved against Leinster last week when Michael Cheika's men could not find a way through despite completely dominating territory and possession.

Finally, Connacht need Toulon to produce a typical French away-day performance characterised by indiscipline and indifference as the Top 14 remains this team's primary goal.

Predicting a Connacht victory may be ill-advised, illogical and hopelessly romantic, but the premise is a side fighting for their future and dreaming of greater things.

And, as a wise man once noted: "Dreams are like stars -- you may never touch them, but if you follow them they will lead you to your destiny."

Verdict: Connacht

Irish Independent

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