Stricken Connacht brought back down to earth
Bounceback triumph 'shows how bad we were last week' claims Toulouse skipper Dusautoir
THERE'S a story a Connacht man tells about a meeting a few years back to decide whether the province would be known as 'Connacht Rugby' or simply 'Connacht.'
Connacht 9 Toulouse 37
His dry response was that perhaps they should consider adopting the name 'meanwhile, Connacht' to reflect the precious little column inches they are usually afforded.
The Westerners were back in the big time for the past week or more and there was plenty of gallows humour in the Sportsground on Saturday night. When the Toulouse team sheet was a little late arriving to the media room, someone wondered aloud if after last week's humbling, the French giants had bothered to show up at all.
Outside, Connacht were ramping up the 7,661-strong crowd and doing a good job of it too. The fireworks that accompanied Pat Lam and his team onto the field built the noise to a crescendo, but over the next couple of hours, reality would bite.
Toulouse crossed three times before the break. The first two were as a result of turnovers as Connacht pressed hard, trying in vain to find a gap in the Toulouse defence.
They spilled possession and some clever thinking by Lionel Beauxis saw him kick to the space behind Fionn Carr, and Maxime Medard raced onto it to score.
The second try was from the same playbook with Beauxis' beautifully weighted kick leaving Medard with a simple task. It was an extraordinary piece of vision from the French outhalf, with his kicking from the hand much better than that from the tee as he left 10 points behind him over the course of the 80 minutes.
Connacht, however, managed a response to both of those tries. Parks landed a drop-goal after Medard's first try, and they showed real ambition after his second score. A rare visit to the red zone yielded a kickable penalty but Craig Clarke and Parks opted to kick for the corner. They battered at the Toulouse line but in the end, Parks took another drop-goal to bring them back to 15-9.
Had the half ended that way, Connacht would have had something to hold on to but as coach Pat Lam stated afterwards, his side were giving away height and weight in almost every collision.
And when Toulouse's pack got rumbling inside Connacht's '22', it was almost inevitable they would score and Christopher Tolofua's try along with the extras from Beauxis left the half-time score at 22-9 and essentially put the game out of the home side's reach.
At that stage, you feared it could get very ugly for Connacht, as before the game the full extent of the impact of the virus that hit the province had filtered through.
Frank Murphy was withdrawn from the match-day squad, meaning Kieran Marmion was forced to play the full 80 minutes, less than 48 hours after coming off a drip.
Lam revealed that Connacht never got their starting XV together on the training pitch at all during the week. Dave McSharry only joined up with the squad on match day, while back row Jake Heenan also put in the whole game despite being laid low earlier in the week.
Early in the second half, the home side were caught by some clever thinking when Toulouse took a quick line-out to send No 8 Louis Picamoles over in the corner almost untouched. That secured the bonus point and with a full 25 minutes to go, fans would have been forgiven for reaching for the abacus.
But Connacht remained largely intact for the rest of the game even as their resources were stretched to breaking point. Parks was replaced by Craig Ronaldson but he only lasted a couple of minutes before jarring a hamstring injury in a clearing kick, meaning young Darragh Leader, who replaced Murphy on the bench, was introduced.
But it was in this period that Connacht managed their first real line-break. Carr made initial inroads before Robbie Henshaw carried it on only to lose his footing at a crucial time, which allowed Toulouse to scramble and clear.
In the meantime, Guy Noves was emptying his bench, introducing among others a Springbok hooker, an All Black wing and in teenager Gael Fickou, one of the game's hottest properties. And it was Fickou who eventually broke the Westerners' resistance just as the clock ticked past 80 with the fifth try to give Toulouse a margin of victory they probably deserved.
"It was not easy to bounce back like this and win here in Galway," Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir said afterwards. "We took the bonus point which was very important for us, but it shows how bad we were last week. When we are able to play at this level, we (show) respect to our jersey and our club. Last week it was not the same team on the field, and I am very proud of the guys.
"When you play rugby you have to respect the team you are playing, even if it is a supposedly a small team. You (the media) spoke to me about the budget last week... that's not the point of rugby, you have to respect the (other) guys and get the spirit in the team right."
Toulouse's thoughts turn to Saracens in January and a place in the knock-out stages, but Connacht's priority must now be removing themselves from the foot of the Pro12 table, starting with the visit of the Dragons this Saturday.
Toulouse -- C Poitrenaud; Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David (G Fickou 57), M Medard (H Gear 65); L Beauxis, JM Doussain (S Bezy 70); S Ferreira (G Steenkamp 60), C Tolofua (C Ralepelle 60), C Johnston (Y Montes 60); R Millo-Chluski, Y Maestri (J Tekori 60), Y Ntanga, T Dusatoir (capt), L Picamoles
Connacht -- R Henshaw; F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry (G Duffy 64), M Healy; D Parks (C Ronaldson 54 (D Leader 56), K Marmion; B Wilkinson (D Buckley 52), J Harris-Wright (S Henry (52), R Ah You (JP Cooney 63); M Kearney (G Naoupu 67), C Clarke (A Browne 64); J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon
Ref -- L Hodges (WRU)