Pat Lam’s men fight like lions to take down Toulouse

Connacht 23 Toulouse 21: Another entry into the list of incredible performances by Connacht in Europe, holding one of the most famous clubs in France scoreless in the second-half of a rip-roaring contest at the Sportsground.

Toulouse may be the only side to be champions of Europe four times and they have the biggest playing budget in France, but all of that counted for little even against an injury-ravaged Connacht side.

Pat Lam maintained throughout their run to their historic Pro12 success last season that the name on the teamsheet really doesn’t matter, that the next man had to step in and do the job without the team suffering.

There were times, especially in the opening half on Saturday, when that didn’t stand up to scrutiny when the absence of Tom McCartney and Denis Buckley in the front, coupled with the late withdrawal of Quinn Roux in the second row, was severely felt as Toulouse turned the screw in the scrum.

That yielded a 9-0 lead to the French giants as twice Sebastien Bezy and then Floran Fritz landed penalties as the home scrum buckled.

Toulouse, for so long the aristocrats of running rugby, have spent their millions on strength rather than speed and nowadays usually just bludgeon the opposition into submission.

They came to the wrong place to try that approach.

The only backward step Connacht took was in the scrum in the opening half and some of that damage was offset by getting on top in the lineout where Ultan Dillane, a late replacement for Irish colleague Roux, pilfered ball and was a general nuisance.

Toulouse, as seen in the Top 14 this season, prefer to just go down the middle, but they met resistance at every turn, with Bundee Aki showing a timely return of the swashbuckling form which made him the standout player last season.

Craig Ronaldson, who only returned last week prematurely from injury which had kept him out for half a year, was superb and aside from having a big input in all three tries, had the composure to land the match-winning conversion in the final quarter.

Even the weather obliged with the forecasted rain not hitting Galway until later that night, by which time the Connacht supporters were either in the pub or at home worn out by the sheer energy-sapping emotion of another great occasion at the Sportsgound.

The capacity crowd of 8,091 knew that unlike three years ago when Connacht did a number on Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon for one of the biggest shocks ever in Europe, there was a level of expectation this time on the shoulders of Lam’s men.

After all, Toulouse are no longer the force of old. They endured their worst campaign ever in Europe last season when losing five pool matches, while on Saturday they were trying to prevent losing on their travels for a fifth time in a row, something which never happened before.

And they looked like who meant business when they destroyed the Connacht scrum in the opening quarter. A try at that stage would probably have left the home sides with too much to do, but time and again they held their line.

Connacht needed to go wide at every opportunity if they were to stretch the Toulouse cover and the 2-4-2 system which brought them the Pro12 title last season, again yielded rewards.

Toulouse players in possession looked for the next man to bash but Lam’s philosophy of ‘attack spaces, not faces’, saw them get good go-forward ball and Ronaldson broke from deep, interchanged with Aki, before being stopped just short, superb full-back Tiernan O’Halloran was on hand to send Niyi Adeolokun over in the right corner.

Jack Carty was unable to convert from the touchline but another surge coughed up a penalty for him to make it 9-8, and he then edged Connacht in front for the first time after 29 minutes with another penalty.

Toulouse, though, hit back and crossed for two quality tries in less than four minutes, with Yann David finishing a good move in the left corner and then Jean Marc Doussain went in under the posts to lead 21-11 at the break.

But it was all Connacht in the second-half and while Carty and Bezy both missed penalties in front of the posts, another break from deep by Ronaldson provided the opening which ended with Carty looping a pass wide for O’Halloran to race through and score as Cian Kelleher ran a good decoy outside him.

That try left Connacht trailing by five going into the final quarter and the pressure paid off when Aki, now wearing a distinctive red scrum cap after being split open, capped another fleeting move to score in the right corner.

Ronaldson stepped forward to steer the the conversion from the right touchline with his left foot between the posts with 13 minutes left.

The home fans feared the worst when Toulouse piled forward in the closing minutes but once Connacht turned it over, they went through nine phases outside the 22 to wear down the 90 seconds remaining on the clock and wrap up the win. Exactly what you would expect from Pro12 champions.

Connacht have arrived at a new level.

Scorers for Connacht:

Tries, N Adeolokun, T O’Halloran, B Aki; Con, C Ronaldson; Pens, J Carty (2).

Scorers for Toulouse:

Tries, Y David, J M Doussain; Con, S Bezy; Pens, S Bezy (2), F Fritz

CONNACHT:

T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, A Browne; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon.

Replacements:

K Marmion for Blade 47 mins; JP Cooney for Carey 52 mins; S Delahunt for Heffernan 56 mins; S O’Brien for McKeon 56 mins; S Ili for O’Halloran 65 mins; R Loughney for Bealham 69 mins; L Stevenson for Dillane 73 mins; S O’Leary for Aki 74 mins.

TOULOUSE:

M Medard; Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, P Perez; J Doussain, S Bezy; C Baille, C Tolofua, C Johnston; R Gray, J Tekori; F Cros, P Faasalele, C Axtens.

Replacements:

G Fickou for David 22-26 mins (temporary); G Lamboley for Gray 31 mins; V Kakovin for Baille 41 mins; J Marchand for Tolofua 48 mins; D Aldegheri for Johnston 48 mins, G Fickou for Huget 50 mins; T Gray for Faasalele 56 mins; T Flood for Fritz 69 mins; E Maka for Axtens 70mins.

Referee:

Luke Pearce (RFU).

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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