Kelly’s joy as ‘aristocrats’ Toulouse face Connacht

CONNACHT chief executive Gerry Kelly believes Toulouse are the most glamorous side in Europe and has predicted that playing the French side in the Heineken Cup will encourage a whole generation of Galway youngsters to take up rugby.

Connacht’s first appearance in the competition has seen them drawn in a group against the reigning French champions, who have won the Heineken Cup four times, as well as English sides Harlequins and Gloucester.

It represents an astonishingly tough task for Connacht, who finished ninth in last season’s Magners League but qualified for the Heineken Cup thanks to Leinster’s victory in last month’s final.

But while Kelly is under no illusions about the size of the challenge facing Eric Elwood’s side, he believes it could provide a huge boost to rugby in the region.

And he says fans will flock to see the likes of Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Jauzion and Clement Poitrenaud.

“We couldn’t have drawn a better side than Toulouse in our first season in the Heineken Cup,” said Kelly, who was at Twickenham for the draw.

“I have to be careful what I say about my fellow Irish provinces but I think they are the biggest name in European rugby. They are like Barcelona, the aristocrats of rugby.

“They are the team that everyone wants to face and it is a huge boost to us that we will do so.

“It has already been pointed out to me that we will play the winners of the last four Heineken Cups this season as we will play both Munster and Leinster in the Magners, and you play professional sport to compete against those sorts of teams.

“Playing-wise it will be a very difficult pool, but we would like to think we will make life very difficult for anybody who comes to Galway.

“Last season Harlequins beat us by just two points in Amlin Challenge Cup, so we hope to be very competitive at home, and then you never know what will happen on the road.

“It will also help the development of the game, which is growing in the west of Ireland. We want that to continue, and a boost like this draw will help inspire every young player who has any notions of playing rugby to follow the game.

“It will bring a whole new fan-base to us as well. People who might not have come to a rugby game before will think about coming now as they will want to see the Toulouses of this world.”

And Kelly has welcomed being drawn against Amlin Cup champions Quins as it will allow Elwood a reunion with his former international team-mate Conor O’Shea, who is director of rugby at the Stoop.

He added: “We know Harlequins very well. Conor O’Shea and Elwood would have played together before at international level.

“We have played Harlequins on three occasions in the Amlin Cup or its predecessors, and on two of those occasions we were in the same pool as them and they won the competition in both of those years.

“I was telling Conor that they will probably expect to win the Heineken Cup now that they have drawn us again.

“We don’t know Gloucester as well, though we played them in pre-season a couple of years ago. We are just looking forward to every game in our pool.”

And far from cursing his luck at the prospect of a grim Heineken Cup pool, Connacht coach Eric Elwood expressed delight yesterday at having some of the elite visit Galway next season.

Elwood’s Connacht make their competition debut after years of toil, strife and just a little success in the secondary tournament, but the former Irish international out half isn’t remotely fazed by the prospects of entertaining Toulouse or either of the English teams at the Sportsground.

In fact, Elwood said the overall draw couldn’t have been better to help his side win more support for their efforts.

Concurring with Kelly, the coach declared: “The big one is Toulouse. Obviously that will be huge for us; in fact we were hoping to draw them and now we have we cannot wait for the game.”

Additionally, he is looking forward to renewing old rivalries with Harlequins and also to welcome Gloucester, famous for their dedicated supporters both home and away.

“The English clubs will bring huge crowds to Galway and I’m sure Gloucester will bring their famous shed (an area of their ground at Kingsholm) support with them too. They are well known for their boisterous fans so that will be a great occasion.

“These are the glamour fixtures we wanted and, for our fans, the away trips to England and especially Toulouse should be ones to remember.”

Connacht have played Harlequins several times in the Amlin Challenge Cup, but this will be the first time they will face either Toulouse or Gloucester.

“The lads will be very excited; they want to test themselves against the best, it’s our first time in the Heineken Cup and we’re looking forward to the competition,” said Elwood.

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