Toulouse 32 Connacht 17
Four-times European winners Toulouse are on the march in this season’s Champions Cup. Without a trophy since winning their fourth a decade ago, the French side are looking favourites to top their pool after this 32-17 win over Connacht at Stade Ernest Wallon.
The scoreline, however, does not reflect just how this game was in the balance until the final minutes. Toulouse, with a superior bench of five internationals, posted two tries in the last 20 minutes – the fourth on the whistle to claim the bonus point.
Connacht will take great heart from this display. Missing several key players, they struggled at scrum-time, and in the end they were undone by an experienced Toulouse team of internationals making a determined bid for European honours after falling to Leinster in last season’s semi-final. That Connacht kept this side on its toes for the entire match is a huge credit to their industry and application – a bonus point would have been a deserving reward.
It was a game of contrasting styles from the start – Toulouse using their heavier pack to establish domination through their scrum and maul, while Connacht employed a strategic kicking game for territorial control.
However, it was not long before the visitors found themselves under the cosh. A super try-saving tackle on centre Sofiane Guitone kept the home side at bay, minutes later centre Lucas Tauzin butchered a great scoring opportunity when knocking on with the line at his mercy, but Connacht continued to punch above their weight.
Despite all the early one-way traffic, they caught Toulouse napping soon after. Establishing territory, Ultan Dillane took a leading role, breaking through a couple of tackles to provide the Irish side with much needed front -foot ball. And when strong-running centre Tom Farrell took possession, he tore through a somewhat static and bemused French defence to score the opening try, which Conor Fitzgerald converted for a 7-0 lead.
It was short-lived, however, Toulouse replying almost immediately after breaking from midfield. Despite the chasing defence, fullback Thomas Ramos found scrumhalf Sebastien Bezy on his shoulder, who finished under the sticks, and the fullback added the extras to level the scores.
The domination of the home side's scrum made all the difference and right wing Yoann Huget capitalised when posting a 19th-minute penalty to edge the home side in front. However, they did not have it all its own way and Connacht's appetite for the chasing ball kept them in contention. They produced vital possession and made full use of it when Colby Fainga'a carved a gap through the cover in midfield before finding the supporting Caolin Blade, who finished off from 10 metres. Fitzgerald added to extras and it put Connacht into a 10-14 lead.
Fainga'a, however, was sent to the sinbin shortly after for a tip tackle on outhalf Romain Ntamack, handing the initiative back to Toulouse. And with three penalties in succession, and after spurning a certain try with poor handling, right wing Huget touched down in the corner for Toulouse's second try to push the Top 14 champions into a 15-14 lead at half-time.
Connacht went into the second half half knowing it would take a big effort to keep the home side at bay. And that they did – Farrell leading the way by winning a relieving penalty at the breakdown and after 48 minutes Connacht established a foothold. From the lineout, Quinn Roux, Blade and Farrell maintained the momentum before the quick- thinking Fitzgerald opted for a drop goal, giving Connacht a 17-15 lead.
The young outhalf had another opportunity after the home side were pinged for offside, but on this occasion the long kick was short and wide, while Toulouse were able to convert a similar opportunity minutes later to edge ahead by a single point.
The critical score came following a penalty to touch. Within five metres of the Connacht line, the defence held strong for several phases before former All Blacks number eight Jerome Kaino burrowed through, with Ramos pushing Toulouse into a 25-17 lead.
Connacht continued to create chances, Matt Healy just unable to control a kick that could have kept Connacht in contention. But in the end it was the power and experience of the French aristocrats that proved too much for Andy Friend’s brave side, and Toulouse added a fourth try, through former Connacht man Pita Ahki, at the death.
The first time these two teams met was in 2013 when Connacht produced a sensational victory over the four-times champions. Despite the uneven odds again, there were real moments when Connacht looked capable of repeating that historic win, but on this occasion Toulouse were too strong.
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).