It’s amazing how quickly something can turn for a player and when Conor Fitzgerald was let go from the Munster academy 18 months ago the last thing on his mind would have been lighting up the home of Toulouse with an awesome display in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Fitzgerald put the Munster rejection behind him and followed his brother Stephen up the road to Galway and after making an impact in the academy, Andy Friend threw him into the senior side in the Challenge Cup a year ago.
The 22-year old blossomed. Three starts and six of the bench last season and transformed into six starts and one sub role so far this term as the former Limerick minor hurler made the most of Jack Carty’s World Cup absence.
“We have been talking about him all year,” said Friend.
“He has been a brilliant find for Connacht, coming through the academy and he has got his opportunities.
“He is going very, very well. We know how special Jack Carty is, and what Jack did last year.
“And it’s the same at scrum-half, Caolin Blade playing his 100th game there so that is a real special moment for him, and scoring again. Kieran Marmion is sitting there watching that thinking I want to get back out there.”
Unfortunately, the display wasn’t rewarded and an end result of five match points to nil was harsh, with former Connacht centre Pita Ahki added further woe when he snatched a bonus point for Toulouse at the death.
Now the focus switches to the back-to-back clashes against Gloucester and Friend believes the depth which is clearly available in the squad in an injury crisis augurs well to still have a crack and making it out of the pool for the first time.
“You have got to win your home games and you have got to definitely get a win away from home if not two. That is a crucial double-header,” he added.
Tom Farrell crowned a fine display in the centre with the opening try after eleven minutes following a break from Ultan Dillane, which stunned the home support in the crowd of 15,100.
Toulouse hit back with a try from scrum-half Sebastien Bezy and five points from the boot of full-back Thomas Ramos but they struggled to break down a superb defence.
And then a break from flanker Colby Fainga’a set up Blade for Connacht’s second try after 25 minutes before a yellow card for Fainga’a inevitably led to a Toulouse try which was scored in the corner by Yoann Huget to lead 15-14 at the break.
“I was really proud of the display,” added Friend. I just thought they never stopped trying. When they got their opportunities, they took them in the first half certainly. A lot of things were stacked against us.
“We can take a lot of pride out of that.” Fitzgerald edged Connacht back in front with a 50th minute drop goal but Jerome Kaino got Toulouse’s third try which Ramos converted to put eight between them before Ahki twisted the knife with a try with the clock in the red to seal maximum points.
Scorers for Toulouse:
Tries: S Bézy, Y Huges, J Kaino, P Ahki; Conversions: T Ramos (3); Penalties: T Ramos (2).
Scorers for Connacht:
Tries: T Farrell, C Blade; Conversions: C Fitzgerald (2); Drop-goal: C Fitzgerald.
T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, L Tauzin, M Médard; R Ntamack, S Bézy; C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; R Gray, J Tekori; A Placines, R Elstadt, J Kaino.
P Ahki for Ntamack (30, HIA), Ntamack for Ahki (40), T du Toit for Baille (50), F Cros for Placines (50), J Marchandt for Mauvaka (52), D Aldegheri for Faumuina (55), R Arnold for Tekori (55), Baille for du Toit (64), Ahki for Tauzin (66), S Tolofua for Elstadt (68), P Pages for Bézy (71).
M Healy; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, K Godwin; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy; U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, C Fainga’a, R Copeland.
S Delahunt for Heffernan (50), M Burke for McCabe (50), F Bealham for Robertson-McCoy (50), P Boyle for Copeland (51), P Robb for Daly (58), J Carty for Farrell (63), J Maksymiw for Dillane (70), A Lloyd for Blade (70).
Karl Dickson (England).