Making Connacht’s task all the more difficult against the European superpower was a flu virus which had swept through the squad and hampered their preparations for the visit of the French aristocrats.
On this occasion the result went according to form book: the visitors’ ambition evident from the first whistle with devastating speed and precision in attack, particularly from the returning French international Maxime Medard.
Connacht, as always, were competitive and were in touch until the 54th minute when Louis Picamoles scored Toulouse’s fourth try to wrap up the bonus point and keep them level pegging with Saracens in Pool 3.
Pat Lam’s side enjoyed sufficient possession, and even edged the territorial stakes, but in a reverse of last week’s game, they struggled to break down an aggressive Toulouse defence.
“We probably played too much rugby in that middle part of the field,” admitted Lam. “We’re disappointed and we gave away points that left us chasing the game against a pretty massive team.”
Turnovers resulted in two first-half tries with Medard benefiting from two precise kicks from out half Lionel Beauxis to give Toulouse a 22-9 lead at the break. Lam continued: “We talked about the fact that they were going to kick, and we fell out of system . Those are the things we are disappointed with because we knew it would come but we didn’t cover it off and both those tries came from our turnovers.”
Lam however heaped praise on his men after the flu virus disrupted training and obviously affected key players, including scrumhalf Kieron Marmion who had been hospitalised
“No doubt Toulouse are a good side, but I am so proud of my team after the week they have had. We had Kieran Marmion on a drip 48 hours ago in hospital and then Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donoghue went down so at one stage we had no half back. To get 80 minutes from Kieran was unbelievable, Dave McSharry was unbelievable. Right throughout the team the heart was unbelievable.
After Parks and Beauxis exchanged early penalties, Toulouse struck after 12 minutes from a Connacht turnover and, with a comfortable overlap and kick ahead, Medard sprinted home for the first try.
Parks scored a drop goal with a penalty pending before both kickers missed efforts. However, in an almost replica move, Medard struck again with a precision crossfield kick from Beauxis.
Connacht continued to create opportunities and after a series of drives close to the line, Parks nudged home a second drop to trail by six (9-15).
Crucially, however, another poor restart from Connacht gifted Toulouse possession and they capitalised with hooker Christopher Tolafua going over. Picamoles put the game beyond reach on 54 minutes and replacement centre Gael Fickou wrapped up the points with a fifth try at the death.
Connacht on-field captain Craig Clarke said his side was “off the boil” in their defensive physicality. “Toulouse had obviously made some serious changes in their game. They were physical, they carried hard, they had line speed.
“We certainly had chances early in the game and we chipped away and got some points, but we were probably a little bit inaccurate as well, a little bit off the boil in terms of physicality in defence and made some little errors that let them build pressure.”
He added: “Sure our week was affected by it (the flu). We didn’t do as much on our feet, some guys did nothing at all. But we had 23 guys who stripped and were given a job to do. I don’t want to make an excuse of it — it may have been a factor, but to be fair I don’t think we would have won if we were fully fit anyway because of the way we played.”
Thus the biggest crowd at the Sportsground this season, 7,661, did not get the rewards of the 200 hardy fans who travelled to France last week, but Clarke will have fond memories of the night.
“For the size of the crowd related to the noise it makes, it must be one of the best in the world. The crowd are so vocal and so passionate. A team that’s 30 points put on them, the home team, and the crowd are still clapping you off and cheering for you. I don’t understand how it works, but I appreciate it and we all do. It makes us really want to perform for these people.”
CONNACHT: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt), J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon.
Replacements: S Henry for Harris-Wright and D Buckley for Wilkinson (51m), D Parks for Ronaldson (53m), D Leader for Ronaldson (54m), JP Cooney for A You and A Browne for Clarke (60m), G Duffy for McSharry (63m) G Naoupu for Kearney (67m), A Browne, G Naoupu.
TOULOUSE: C Poitrenaud, Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, M Medard, L Beauxis, JM Doussain, S Ferreira, C Tolafua, C Johnston, R Millo-Chluski, Y Maestri, Y Nyanga, T Dusautoir (cpt), L Picamoles. Replacements: G Fickou for David (56m), C Ralepelle for Tolafua, G Steenkamp for Ferreira, Y Montes for Johnston and J Tekori for Meastri (all 61m), H Gear for Medard (65m), S Bezy for JM Doussain (70m).
Referee: L Hodges (Wales).