Against all the odds, including a difference of some €30million in budget, the Cinderellas of Irish rugby currently rooted to the bottom of the RaboDirect Pro12 League, pulled off a victory no one would have expected. For the first time this season the four-time Heineken Cup champions, currently second in the Top 14, were beaten in Stade Ernest Wallon.
It was the result Connacht coach Pat Lam had demanded on the back of a dismal league defeat to Edinburgh, but few expected it would translate into a Pool Three victory.
The date will be marked forever in Irish rugby as only the second occasion since Harlequins two seasons ago that Connacht has pulled off a win in this elite competition against a top-tire, big-budget outfit. It is a ringing endorsement of Connacht’s growing development, started under Eric Elwood and now Pat Lam.
In front of 200 hardy travelling supporters, the visitors clung onto a slender 16-14 lead, having been denied a second try which would have put the game beyond doubt. And that final five minutes epitomised all that was good about Connacht. Their belief in themselves, huge heart and confidence in their systems led by a magnificent defence.
Toulouse, with four minutes left on the clock, started to push forward a la the All Blacks against Ireland two weeks ago. It started just inside their own half yet it finished a few just metres inside Connacht’s such was the ferocity of the visitors’ defence that stunned the French aristocrats.
From the kick-off, Toulouse started with a flourish with a four-try bonus on their radar. Three penalties were conceded and each time Toulouse spurned kicks at goal such was the confidence in their ability to both out-pace and out-muscle their opponents. Somehow, Connacht managed to survive, putting into practice their defensive systems that Lam had tweaked during the week and the visitors took an unlikely lead after 12 minutes despite seeing precious little possession. Out-half Dan Parks took the first opportunity when Toulouse were pinged for offside at the breakdown.
Three minutes later fullback Robbie Henshaw initiated one of his trademark counterattacks from defence and, in Connacht’s first period of sustained attack on the left, Parks grabbed the chance to convert a drop goal from inside the 22.
A superb tackle from Matt Healy on fullback Clement Poitrenaud was followed up by an immense turnover from John Muldoon before the pack swamped the 22-times Springbok Chiliboy Ratepelle, forcing the turnover metres from the Connacht line. The tackles continued to be made, epitomised by a flying Dave McSharry effort as the visitors’ relentlessly harried and chased to force errors.
Critically, however, for a second week in succession, Connacht conceded the lead just as the half-time approached when Toulouse grabbed their first points of the half through young out-half Barraque. Hosea Gear counter-attacked from inside his half before the big boys took over. The bulky Census Johnson proved instrumental, sucking in the defence, before Barraque took charge, sidestepped Craig Clarke, and at pace, cut inside Henshaw to touch down and add the extras for a 7-6 lead.
It was probably no more than Toulouse deserved for the amount of possession and positional dominance but the Connacht defence, and their ability to take chances, saw them return after the break and regain the initiative. Once again the backs ran a great supporting attack up the touchline, instigated by the influential Kieron Marmion, and the net result was a third Parks’ penalty after 44 minutes. And the lively scrum-half was again in the thick of the action, his delayed pass giving McSharry, Fionn Carr and Henshaw space to make huge yards up the right. Although halted just short, the cavalry arrived in the form of Jake Heenan and Eoin McKeon with the TMO awarding Marmion’s try. Parks added the extras for a 16-7 lead after 48 minutes.
The normally unruffled Toulouse opted to kick a penalty three minutes later, and the 16,742 supporters missed another heartbeat as Barraque’s effort from the 10m line sailed wide.
Toulouse attempted to rally but Connacht’s pressure continued, resulting in a knock-on. They so nearly capitalised from it as they broke through the Toulouse defence for a second time. Parks was first to grab loose ball sending replacement Gavin Duffy down the touchline, and when Marmion supplied Henshaw he was clean through for what looked like game over for Toulouse.
On this occasion the TMO ruled a Connacht hand was responsible for the knock-on and the try was denied. And when Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir led a rolling maul across the line, with replacement Timici Matanavou converting the gap was reduced to two.
Once again it looked like Connacht could be heading for a moral victory as Parks missed a drop goal effort and a penalty from halfway on 76 minutes. It signalled one last hurrah for Guy Noves’ Toulouse, but Connacht’s defence held firm.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, E McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke (capt.), J Muldoon, J Heenan, G Naoupu.
Replacements: J Harris-Wright for Henry (43), E McKeon for Naoupu (46), G Duffy for Healy (52), D Buckley for Wilkinson, R Ah You for White, M Swift for Kearney (60), F Murphy for Marmion (70).
TOULOUSE: C Poitrenaud, Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, H Gear, JP Barraque, J Vermaak, G Steenkamp, C Ralepelle, C Johnston, E Maka, Y Maestri, Y Camara, T Dusautoir (capt.), L Picamoles.
Replacements: S Ferreira for Steenkamp and R Milo-Chulski for Maka, JM Doussain for Vermaak (all 48), L Beauxis for Barraque (53), Y Montes for Johnston and J Bregvadze for Ralepelle (74).
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).