“The best front five in the world at the moment,” exclaimed Eric Elwood of their opponents. “It’s a huge team, particularly the front five. They are stronger than the side that played against us in Galway.”
It is no less than Elwood expected. Toulouse, having unexpectedly lost at home to Harlequins, start today’s game at the 18,000 seater Stade Ernest-Wallon seeking a bonus-point win and, to that end, they have made six changes to the star-studded starting XV that played at the Sportsground in the opening round
In comes the illustrious former All Black outhalf Luke McAlister to partner former Wallaby Luke Burgess, while French international Yann David is named in the centre. Up front Springbok Guthro Steenkamp joins William Servat and Census Johnston in the front row, and Yoann Maestri and Patricio Albacete form the second row.
Elwood, with 10 players unavailable, has no such luxuries with his limited squad. He has made three changes for this afternoon’s daunting first foray in Toulouse. Paul O’Donohoe replaces the injured Frank Murphy, and will partner Niall O’Connor, who returns to the starting XV, taking over from Matthew Jarvis. Also back from injury is Ray Ofisa at openside with John Muldoon moving to the blindside at the expense of Mick Kearney.
It is a truly a case of “little Connacht”, as assistant Dan McFarland described the scenario this week, up against the European legends — 15 internationals, four of whom are World Cup finalists, including World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir, one Fijian World Series Sevens player, a Samoan World Cup player, and a Tri-Nations trio.
Despite losing 26-10 in the Sportsground in round two, and now facing the European giants with a sting in their tail after their earlier loss, Elwood says he has arrived in France still “smiling”.
“We know what we are up against. This fixture was always going to be difficult. The key for us is to play to our maximum — we need to do that and there is no doubt the players will have to perform from minute one to 80.
“Obviously our case has not been helped by Harlequins beating them here last time out so they are now playing for a bonus win. These final two games will decide which team automatically qualifies — hence they have named their strongest team and are not taking any chances.”
Under the cosh in the Sportsground, particularly in the first-half when the visitors led 22—3 at half time, Connacht denied Toulouse an expected bonus point. This time round it will also be a case of damage limitation.
“The challenges here are immense — the physicality, pace, intensity, and speed are going to test our experienced players, never mind our youngsters. I have told the players that when they return to the dressing room after this match that if they can look at themselves in the mirror knowing they gave 100%, shake each others’ hands knowing they gave 100%, and shake my hand knowing they gave 100%, then I cannot ask for anything more.
“We are going to be tested physically and mentally. Some players will hopefully go on to play at international level, but for others this could well be the biggest game of their rugby careers so they must embrace the challenge.”