The Heineken Cup has always brought out the best in Connacht, and there is nothing to suggest tomorrow’s battle in Stade Ernest-Wallon will be any different.
Though massive underdogs, coach Pat Lam has made only three enforced changes to the side that crashed to a 43-10 loss in Scotland.
“Last weekend the team, as a group, fell well short. Except the three players who had injuries and could not train, we decided it would be right to give the same squad another chance to prove themselves,” says Lam.
John Muldoon replaces Aly Muldowney on the blindside; prop Brett Wilkinson is in the front row for Ronan Loughney while George Naoupu is named in place of Eoin McKeon at No 8.
Connacht have done considerable soul searching this week ahead of tomorrow’s challenge to ” get themselves and their minds right”.
The mood, Lam says is “focused”.
“That focus has come from within. It has been generated by the players and particularly the senior guys. The lads have wanted to make sure there is more focus on everyone knowing and doing their jobs — ticking all the boxes. “Everyone knows the challenge we face — it’s a massive one against Toulouse in their own back yard. There is big difference in budgets and the number of international players between us, but we understand that.
“We have to be focussed on the job we have to do. It is about creating opportunities and finishing them off. Toulouse have players who can create something out of nothing, so we need to be really clinical and, if we can create one or two chances, then we need to take them to give us any sort of chance.”
Few expect Connacht to win against the four-times champions of Europe, led by the doyen of coaches Guy Noves. But Lam isn’t throwing in the towel yet.
“This is about being one team, like when we played Saracens, but this is a bigger challenge. Yet that is what sport is about, that is why we play, because every time a David goes out against a Goliath, more often than not Goliath wins, but that one day it could be yours. The Heineken Cup is the opportunity to challenge yourself against the best in Europe.”
Lam points to New Zealander Jake Heenan, the young openside who has been forced to line out every week in the absence of the injured Willie Faloon.
“His first time in the competition this year, and now he’s up against Thierry Dusautoir — former World Player of the Year. For Jake it is very exciting to test himself against the best in the game, and there are many others like him throughout the squad.”
Of the Connacht starters only Muldoon, Dave McSharry, Brett Wilkinson and George Naoupu were involved in Connacht’s first Heineken Cup foray against Toulouse two years ago. That dominant scrum remains one of their big weapons and it saw them over the line against Saracens in London to top pool three with nine points. Gurthro Steenkamp and Census Johnston are still in situ, as are Yohann Maestri, Dusautoir, and Louis Picamoles in the pack, while Yann David and Florian Fritz continue to form the midfield partnership.
Connacht’s set piece has been one of Connacht’s most reliable sources of possession this season, but turnovers and goalkicking has let the side down, and Connacht will be punished if that trend continues.
“Everyone is looking to step it up this week — there is a real determination, but it does not matter what I say, it will only come down to the actions on the pitch. ”