With a €20m boost in funding for their Sportsground redevelopment project in the bag, Andy Friend’s Connacht need to secure victory against French champions Toulouse to keep their hopes of reaching the Champions Cup quarter-finals alive.
The promise of the final €20m towards the €30m Sportsground redevelopment — €10m comes from the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund, with the other €10m topped up by extra Government funding — means work can commence on Connacht’s new stadium. The province had already secured €10m of their own through provincial funds and bank loans.
“There is huge excitement in Connacht Rugby and throughout the province, at the announcement that €20m in state funding is being allocated to the redevelopment of the Sportsground,” said Connacht CEO Willie Ruane.
“The allocation of state funding is critical to the Sportsground’s redevelopment and today’s announcement means that we can now immediately move forward with complete certainty towards delivering this transformational project.”
With work off field back on track, all focus can turn to Connacht’s Champions Cup ambitions. In a winning run that stretches back to 2014 Connacht are looking for a seventh straight home victory in the competition, but significant improvements will have to be made to keep their hopes of knockout rugby alive.
Connacht worked their magic against Toulouse over the years and Pat Lam teams won at home (2016) and away (2013) against the French side, but this generation must make its own mark.
Connacht still have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time, but they must defeat the exciting French outfit to carry that ambition into next weekend’s final pool game in Montpellier.
A win for Toulouse will see them into the last eight as Pool 5 winners — in 2013 they were the last team to beat Connacht in the competition in Galway — but until all hope is gone Friend is not quitting.
“On the 80th minute, on the whistle we will make a call on that one. We are still alive in the Champions Cup, that is the important thing. When you are still alive in the competition have a go at it,” said Friend.
“There is some really good quality there and experience coming back in.”
It has been a catastrophic Christmas and new year period for Connacht with losses against Munster, Ulster and Leinster coupled with a lengthening injury list.
At least the pressure has eased in that latter department this week with Jarrad Butler, Colby Fianga’a, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane back to bolster the pack, while Bundee Aki and Jack Carty are also available following their breaks.
Caolin Blade will start on the bench for the first time in ten games, with Stephen Kerins set to start his first Champions Cup game, while fit again Matt Healy — Connacht’s record try scorer — is back on the wing.
Logic and statistics suggest Connacht are unlikely to be able to win their third home game of the competition, but despite the opposition the province has conjured plenty of shock results in the past.
Toulouse are an exception to the cliched ‘poor French travellers’ rule and today they are chasing a sixth away win from seven. They are the epitome of attacking rugby and are second in the standings for carries and offloads, but they also kick more than anyone else in the competition.
They are also one of the most disciplined teams in the Champions Cup and have yet to earn a yellow or red card.
The French side named a strong 23 for their Sportsground outing, and while Romain Ntamack and Yoann Huget have been kept in reserve there is a return to Galway for Pita Ahki, while Cheslin Kolbe and Jerome Kaino also start.
It’s a tough ask for Connacht, but Friend says they are capable of delivering a significant display.
"Against a quality side, we know we are going to have to be on our game.
"Our target and our focus is on making sure we perform in those 80 minutes.”