Toulouse 32 Connacht 17
No spoils, but some solace. Connacht, written off before the game against the French aristocrats, delivered a performance deserving of more than this defeat at Stade Ernest Wallon.
It was tit-for-tat until the final 10 minutes – Toulouse muscle versus Connacht athleticism and speed. Add in the integrity of Andy Friend’s side, and Connacht kept this team of internationals on their toes until the death in Saturday’s Champions Cup round two joust.
“At the end of the day the scoreline does not reflect the game,” said Friend. “If anyone was ever in doubt as to whether Connacht belonged in the Champions Cup, you can erase it now. We do belong here, and we are looking forward to the rematch in the Sportsground.
“We put up a great fight. At half time 15-14 was a fair reflection, and we come out [in the second half], got three points, but I wish we had got that additional kick, which would put the pressure on.
“The weather seemed to turn nasty in the last 10/15 minutes, and when you are chasing the game, which we were at that stage, we gave up easy possession. That is what a championship side will do – Toulouse managed to grab that possession and get the bonus point with more internationals coming on. They are a quality side – that is why they are Top 14 champions.”
No denying Toulouse were deserving winners – their superiority at the set piece was pivotal – but Connacht, despite a 9-1 first-half penalty count against them, and Colby Fainga’a in the sin-bin, were still only a point behind at the break.
Certainly Friend will be hoping he can employ some more heavyweights for the return encounter. Denis Buckley, Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler were key late withdrawals on Saturday, in addition to Kieran Marmion, Niyi Adeolokun and Darragh Leader nursing injuries. And on the long-term list are Tiernan O’Halloran, Paddy McAllister, Gavin Thornbury and Eoin McKeon and Tom McCartney.
“There is a culture of belief and giving people opportunity,” said Friend. “There are other young players out there playing at a new level, who came on and delivered – Mattie Burke, Dominic Robinson-McCoy again delivered, Johnny Porch always looked dangerous – and there are good young footballers there, and they will continue to grow and get better.”
“There was a lot of energy expended, but we have nothing to show for it, other than the true belief we belong in this competition.”
Connacht, struggling at the set piece against Toulouse heavyweights with a 17-kilos weight advantage, may have been undone in the end, but they certainly kept them on their toes for the entire match.
Toulouse established domination through their scrum and maul; Connacht employed a strategic kicking game to establish territory. And it was Connacht who opened the scoring when Ultan Dillane made the initial surge before strong-running centre Tom Farrell tore through a bemused French defence for the first try, Conor Fitzgerald converting for a 7-0 lead.
Toulouse, however, replied almost immediately, breaking from midfield with fullback Thomas Ramos supplying scrumhalf Sebastien Bezy, who finished under the sticks – the fullback adding the extras to level the scores.
The dominance of the home side’s scrum started to dividends with a 19th minute penalty before Fainga’a set up Caolin Blade for a try to mark his 100th cap, the conversion putting Connacht into a14-10 lead.
However, when Fainga’a was sent to the sinbin for a tip tackle on outhalf Romain Ntamack, the Top 14 champions took a 15-14 lead into the break. Connacht once again turned the tables – Farrell leading the way to win super relieving penalty before a Fitzgerald drop goal edged Connacht back in front again, 17-15.
However, after Connacht missed a penalty, Ramos was on target for Toulouse, who without the trophy for a decade and undergoing something of a renaissance, posted two tries in the final 20 minutes – the fourth on the whistle to claim the bonus point.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 10 mins: Farrell try, Fitzgerald con 0-7; 12: Bezy try, Ramos con 7-7; 18: Ramos pen 10-7; 24: Blade try, Fitzgerald con 10-14; 33: Huget try 15-14. HT 15-14; 49: Fitzgerald drop goal 15-17; 50: Ramos pen 18-17; 63: Huget try, Ramos con 25-17; 80: Ahki try, Ramos con 32-17.
TOULOUSE: T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, L Tauzin, M Medard; E Ntamack, S Bezy; C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; R Gray, J Tekori; A Placines, R Elstadt, J Kaino.
Replacements: P Ahki for Ntamack (28-41 mins); T du Toit for Baille, F Cros for Placines (both 50); J Marchand for Mauvaka (53); D Aldegheri for Faumuina, R Arnold for Tekori (both 56); T Ahki for Tauzin (67); S Tolofua for Elstadt (68); P Pages for Bezy (71) .
CONNACHT: M Healy; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, K Godwin; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy; U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, C Faingaa, R Copeland.
Replacements: M Burke for McCabe, S Delahunt for Heffernan, F Bealham for Robertson-McCoy (all 50 mins); P Boyle for Copeland (53); P Robb for Daly (59); J Carty for Farrell (64), A Lloyd for Blade (70); J Maksymiw for Dillane (70).
Sin bin: Faingaa (29 mins).
Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU).