Repeating Toulouse trick a tough task, warns Pope
WITH the words of their legendary coach Guy Noves still ringing in their ears, Brent Pope believes a stung Toulouse will prove too strong for Connacht on Saturday.
The Westerners will make a bold bid for a quarter-final spot if they can beat the French aristocrats back-to-back after their heroic win at the Stade Ernest Wallon, but the New Zealander reckons that the six-day turnaround and the Top 14 side's reaction could prove too much for the Irish province.
That said, the pundit wasn't writing Pat Lam's side off by any means during this week's Heineken Star Predictor independent.ie video alongside Tony Ward and comedian Mario Rosenstock. Having shown their teeth once, he believes that Connacht should again show no fear at the Sportsground.
The men in green have beaten Harlequins and Biarritz on their home patch in recent years and came within inches of downing Saracens this season.
Had they managed to get over the line in the frantic final moments against the English side, they would be on top of the pool, unbeaten after three games.
"The Sportsground is not an easy place to go," says Pope. "Certainly not for a French team. Toulouse have proven over the years that they are one of the better travellers, but there is still a psychological barrier with French sides performing away from home.
"Very rarely in the Heineken Cup have French sides performed well away from home, but I think that because they have been dragged into the changing rooms on Monday, Guy Noves will have the stars out -- although he had them last week -- and they will be told in no uncertain terms: 'You're on a budget of €35m, unless you pull up your socks here and don't lose again, you can give up'.
"So, it will have been a real kick in the tail, but Connacht will go out and believe again. Psychologists will say, 'why not?' But, they are going to face a backlash -- it's about how they start. People forget that, realistically, they should be leading this pool. If you watch the last few minutes of that Saracens match in the Sportsground, they were camped on the Saracens' line for the last few minutes and were unlucky not to win.
"That would have been a tale of a team beating Saracens and Toulouse in the one season.
"Fingers crossed. Everybody will be tuned in and I'm delighted for Connacht, who have had to suffer as the other provinces prospered."
Gift Grub's Rosenstock may be more renowned for his impersonations of Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, but the TV and radio star was touched by what Connacht achieved.
"Every so often, something happens in sport that goes beyond sport and people in general, who might have no interest in rugby, are talking about it," he says. "The win has put them on the world map, people in rugby-obsessed New Zealand will be talking about it -- 'did you hear Connacht beat Toulouse?' It will register on the Richter scale of rugby, give them a new confidence -- they've arrived.
"They'll now have to learn that thing -- not that I'm a rugby expert -- they'll need to stop being a one-off team, to making these results more of a regularity than a freak."
Rosenstock provided some light relief when outlining his Star Predictor tips, revealing a more than sneaking admiration for our very own Tony Ward, who presents the video.
"I kind of have a bit of an almost encyclopaedic memory when it comes to recalling sporting moments from my youth and Tony would be very much part of that," he explains. "We're talking about one of the most gifted out-halves in Ireland. His rivalry with Ollie Campbell was absolutely amazing and to watch him as a player -- there was something glamorous, almost European about him.
"He was brilliant and it is a pleasure for me to meet him through my work."
Watch the video at www.independent.ie/heinekenvideo