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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 16 April, 2014

Quarter final spot up for grabs Connacht can repeat history

Home wins over Toulouse and Zebre would set Pat Lam’s men up for a tilt at Sarcens for knock-out glory.

Connacht's Craig Ronaldson with Robbie Henshaw after the victory over Toulouse.
Connacht's Craig Ronaldson with Robbie Henshaw after the victory over Toulouse.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland

THERE WAS UNDERSTANDABLE talk of quarter finals and wins over Saracens following Connacht’s remarkable away win over Toulouse last Sunday.

Caught up in the hysteria of defeating the four-time European Cup champions on their home patch, it was easy to forget that Connacht’s win was only their third in 12 games. A week before came apologies from coach Pat Lam and then-captain John Muldoon after a 43-10 thumping in Edinburgh.

Connacht are always capable of producing once-off performances of genuine class and guts. They humiliated Leinster early last season and shocked Biarritz at the Sportsground two months later. They cost Harlequins a quarter final spot the season before when they ended a 16-match losing streak with a 9-8 triumph in Galway.

The difference with Connacht this season is that their performances were looking consistently better while the results continued to suffer. They played their best game of the season against Leinster at the RDS but followed up rousing moments of class with individual errors and were beaten in the closing stages.

When Lam bemoaned system errors after losing to Leinster it seemed as if he was clutching at straws. He may have been on to something.

One of the most important factors in Connacht’s heroic win over Toulouse last Sunday was the faith the players placed in their defensive systems. They held the French side at bay for long periods with disciplined defence. When the game ticked into the final 10 minutes and fatigue surely setting in, the players got into position, held the line and trusted each other.

It would have been so easy to panic or to commit an all-or-nothing tackle but Lam’s words, and those of new captain Craig Clarke, may finally be taking hold. The other pleasing element was the daring gameplan of getting Dave McSharry, Fionn Carr and Robbie Henshaw in and behind the Toulouse midfield.

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Craig Clarke made 18 tackles against Toulouse last week. INPHO/Billy Stickland

There were increased interview requests this week, with Gavin Duffy and Frank Murphy taking to the national airwaves to re-live the province’s best ever win. A flu virus stopped by the camp midweek and a dozen senior players sat out training. The team named by Lam on Friday suggests that the kitchen staff must make a mean bowl of chicken soup out west.

Toulouse, and their coach Guy Noves, were also under the media spotlight this week. The French media were relentless and the former France boss, and his highly-paid charges, were accused of taking the Irish team lightly.

Grenoble scrum-half James Hart played with many of the current Toulouse team at U16 level and reports that Noves ‘is not the kindest when his teams are not playing well’. The light at the end of the former champions’ latest tunnel is their standing in Pool 3. An away win over Connacht this evening will set Toulouse up for a home clash with Saracens.

Connacht will be cheered on by a sell-out crowd, however, and will require each one of their unsung heroes to go to the well again.

*Kick-off at the Sportsground is 6pm and TheScore.ie will be liveblogging in Galway from 5pm.

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