Toulouse are bracing for hard, streetwise, and direct rugby from Connacht this weekend, their insider-in-the-camp Pita Ahki has said.
They are also ready for whatever the weather can throw at them — traditional west-of-Ireland rugby conditions rain and a stiff breeze are forecast for tomorrow afternoon’s fixture.
“The obvious thing to expect is the rain and the wind,” the centre joked.
Rather than the early January climatic conditions in Galway, the prime concern of Toulouse is the clear and present threat posed by their hosts. “I told the boys before the first match that Connacht are going to be a hard, gritty team. They love contact,” explained Ahki, who had a short stint at the Sportsgound before joining Toulouse.
“They’re real direct. They’re hard and they’re smart — and they know how to play rugby. They know where to put themselves position-wise.
“They’re real tough, especially at the Sportsground and they’ll come out firing.”
Connacht’s European record supports Ahki’s expert opinion. They have won their last six Champions Cup home games. Four of those victories have not been for fainthearted fans, however, finishing with scores that were a nailbiting three points or closer.
One running record or another has to give this weekend though.
Toulouse have won five of their last six on the road in Europe, and have beaten Connacht in five of their seven meetings.
But, they know to expect a tough afternoon out west. Any lingering misconceptions they may have had regarding their Irish opponents were dispelled back in November, when the two sides met at Stade Ernest Wallon.
Although Toulouse picked up a bonus-point win in the end, it was no easy victory. Connacht went ahead early in the second half, and only gave up that lead with less than 20 minutes remaining, and were still in the hunt as the seconds ticked down.
“In the first half they put us under pressure,” said Ahki, who scored Toulouse’s crucial fourth try after the regulation 80 minutes were up. “We started off quite well, but they just absorbed everything. They were brilliant. And they scored a couple of quick first-half tries through Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade.”
Ahki had a five-month stint at the Sportsground in the 2017/18 season, after being brought in from Mitre 10 side Waikato by then-coach Kieran Keane as cover for Bundee Aki, who had been selected for Ireland for the first time. He left the club in the summer of 2018, at the end of that single short-term contract to join Toulouse, but has fond memories of his brief spell.
“I loved my time at Connacht and in Galway. The Connacht clan always get behind the boys and I loved the atmosphere there. Hopefully I’ll get a warm welcome — but we’ll see.”
Now, however, with a win guaranteeing Toulouse a quarter-final place, he is plotting Connacht’s downfall, as the French champions aim to go unbeaten in Pool Five, with Gloucester at home following the week after Toulouse’s Ireland trip.
“We’ve gone at it this week,” Ahki said.
“If we win, we’re in the quarter-finals — but I think Connacht have an outside chance of making the quarters if they win their last two games, so it’s going to be difficult — but we want to top the pool and make top-two to, if we win the quarter-final, we then have a home semi.”
Connacht would need to pick up two bonus-point wins in their final two matches, against Toulouse at home and at Montpellier, to finish on 18 points — and still hope results elsewhere go their way to reach the last eight. Stalling Toulouse’s march will be uppermost in the minds of coach Andy Friend’s side right now. It’s far from impossible. The French side lost the last time they travelled to Galway, in 2016/17, and have lost their last six on Irish soil, though their record after their last trip to the Sportsground reads an impressive 12 wins and one draw from the last 15.
Recent form, however, is a concern for Toulouse. They head into the match with just one win from their last three Top 14 outings. They were well beaten by a Stade Francais outfit rejuvenated under interim coaches Julian Arias and Laurent Sempere last time out, and were held to a draw by Toulon at home just after Christmas.
The loss to Stade was ‘very tough’, Ahki, who was subbed off after 52 minutes, admitted. “We came up against a team that wanted to play. For myself, it was a pretty bad day at the office. But we’re looking forward to this weekend, and have been training well.”
The 27-year-old needed a little time to settle in after moving to the Pink City, but then became a firm favourite with the fans courtesy of a string of strong performances in the heart of the Toulouse midfield. “It was tough at the beginning last year, gametime wise — but Toulouse has been good,” Ahki said. “The city is nice. My family love it here and the club has got a good bunch of boys who make it feel a lot like home.”
He has clearly been good for Toulouse, too. Good enough that the club offered him a two-year extension to his initial one-year deal. He is midway through the first season of that deal, and he insists he’s in no rush to decide on what’s next. “I’ve no idea what the future holds,” he said.
He is, however, certain of one thing. “We want to stay on this side of the world, but wherever we end up, we’ll take it one step at a time.”