Heenan will be up against France international Dusautoir. ©INPHO/James Crombie
Mission Impossible?

Three key battles as Connacht look to upset Toulouse

Pat Lam’s side travel to France in the hope of causing a major upset against the Top 14 powerhouses.

AN AWAY WIN for Pat Lam’s side against Toulouse tomorrow [KO 15.00] would be a major shock, as well as the western province’s best-ever European victory.

Connacht’s poor league form means the odds are firmly against them, while Guy Novès’ side have achieved bonus point victories in six out of their eight home fixtures this season so far. But why would we even watch sport if the chances of an upset were non-existent?

Toulouse are not what they were as they powered to three Heineken Cup titles in the 2000s, and Connacht must believe in the unlikely. We’ve picked out three key match-ups ahead of the clash at the Stade Ernst Wallon.

Craig Clarke v Yoann Maestri

The Kiwi lock has rapidly developed into a key man at Connacht, assuming the captaincy ahead of official leaders Gavin Duffy, Michael Swift and John Muldoon. Clarke was accustomed to winning regularly with the Chiefs, so will be desperate to inspire his teammates tomorrow. The 30-year-old will also need to be muscular in the tight against a beefy Toulouse pack.

Maestri continues to grow as a second row, although his recent run-in with Tonga’s Sona Taumololo shows that he has not lost the aggressive edge that helps him to stand out. The 25-year-old has a way to go before reaching Bakkies Botha levels, but he excels in the ‘enforcer’ role for Toulouse. There are also strong technical elements to his game and he will be a handful.

Matt Healy v Hosea Gear

The All Black wing has settled into life in France comfortably, scoring four tries so far this season and demonstrating his power at every available opportunity. If Connacht give him time and space on the ball, Gear will make huge dents in their defence and on the scoreboard. In a back-line littered with ability, the 29-year-old is the most impressive athlete of all.

imageHealy has speed and power through contact. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne.

The same could be said about Healy behind Connacht’s scrum, at least in terms of sheer pace. The former Lansdowne RFC wing has scored three excellent tries this season and Lam will need him at his best in Toulouse. The main issue is whether or not the Connacht pack can provide enough possession for Healy to show his ability. Keeping Gear quiet will be a huge challenge for the 24-year-old.

Thierry Dusautoir v Jake Heenan

The Toulouse captain is well-known for his defensive work rate, but he comes up against an openside who operates in a similarly dogged way tomorrow. Heenan has much to learn in terms of subtlety [cheating] at the breakdown, but his tackle technique and fitness are already at impressive levels. The 21-year-old is a fantastic prospect, but hasn’t faced a test like this yet.

Dusautoir rarely fails to get into double figures with his tackle counts and his moody style of captaincy seems to work in France. A leader by example if ever there was one, the 32-year-old is perhaps showing glimmers of slowing down this season. He will be confident of out-smarting the energy of Heenan at the Stade Ernst Wallon.

Connacht: R Henshaw; F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White; M Kearney, C Clarke (Capt.); J Muldoon, J Heenan, G Naoupu,

Replacements: J Harris Wright, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Swift, E McKeon, F Murphy, C Ronaldson, G Duffy.

Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; Y Huget, F Fritz, Y David, H Gear; JP Barraque, J Vermaak; G Steenkamp, C Ralepelle, C Johnston; E Maka, Y Maestri; Y Camara, T Dusautoir (Capt.), L Picamoles.

Replacements: J Bregvadze, S Ferreira, Y Montes, R Millo-Chluski, C Tolofua, JM Doussain, L Beauxis, T Matanavou.

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