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Dublin: 14 °C Friday 22 February, 2019
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Connacht close to quarter-final but huge evening awaits in Toulouse

Pat Lam’s men can still clinch a place in the knockout stages.

Murray Kinsella reports from Toulouse

EUROPEAN CLUB RUGBY history tells us that Toulouse will win well today and that Connacht will be denied a first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final.

The westerners are relative minnows in this competition, having won just 11 games to Toulouse’s 104 total victories before today.

Jake Heenan Connacht have a huge day ahead in Toulouse. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The French side have scored 4164 points in the European Cup so far, compared to Connacht’s 443. Toulouse have notched 448 tries to the Irish province’s 42.

And yet, Pat Lam’s men have done a fine job of bucking trends in recent times. They may be the underdogs at Stade Ernest Wallon this afternoon [KO 3.15pm Irish time, Sky Sports 4] but we know for a fact that they won’t die wondering.

This stadium was the venue for one of the milestone moments in Connacht’s history, their 2013 shock victory, and they have come a long way since that memorable day. No longer do they simply cling on through gritty defence and determination; they always come to play.

While they can still advance if they lose this afternoon, the formula is simple for Connacht in truth.

Win and Connacht are into the quarter-finals for the first time. That is what Pat Lam and his men should be targeting.

Nonetheless, they could still move into the knockout stages in defeat or with a draw.

Wasps begin the day on 17 match points and look certain to secure a bonus point in victory over Zebre, meaning they should finish the pool stages on 22.

Connacht are on 18 match points this morning, so a bonus point win on a 62-point margin would mean a home quarter-final.

Toulouse on 14 match points are, of course, still looking for a quarter-final themselves, with two teams to come out of this group. A Connacht defeat with two losing bonus points – ie. by scoring four or more tries and finishing within seven points of Toulouse on the scoreboard – would give the westerners a quarter-final.

Pat Lam Pat Lam said it was the biggest game in the province's history. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A draw would do the trick too.

Losing with a single bonus point and denying Toulouse didn’t notch a bonus point in victory would also give Connacht a quarter-final.

Losing with a bonus point and a Toulouse try-scoring bonus point in victory would see Connacht crash out, as the French side would have more match points from the ties between the two sides.

A Toulouse bonus-point win and two losing bonus points for Connacht would make things very interesting, as their match points from the two games would then be tied at 6-6.

In that case, things would come down to the aggregate points difference between Connacht and Toulouse over their two ties.

If they aggregate scores were tied in that case – Connacht are +2 this morning – it would then be decided on which team scored the most tries over the course of the two games. Connacht lead 3-2 on that front this morning.

So, there are a few permutations in deciding which two teams emerge from Pool 2. A fascinating afternoon awaits, and a great battle at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Toulouse have named a grizzled-looking pack that is full to the brim with sheer size. Richie Gray and Yoann Maestri make up an international-class second row, while Cyril Baille, Christopher Tolofua and Census Johnston will look for progress at scrum time.

Joe Tekori and François Cros provide ball-carrying ability in the back row, while 35-year-old captain Thierry Dusautoir battles on at blindside. He was excellent for much of last weekend’s draw with Wasps, but did miss a crucial tackle for Elliot Daly’s try.

The Toulouse backline is good too, with the France-capped Gaël Fickou, Sébastien Bezy, Yoann Huget, Jean-Marc Doussain and Yann David all included. David’s fine form has seen him recalled by les Bleus for the first time since 2009.

21-year-old wing Arthur Bonneval is one to watch, having scored five tries in his six starts so far this season. His brother Hugo is a France international and current fullback for Stade Français, while their father Éric won 18 caps back in the 1980s.

The return of Jack Carty to the 10 shirt is a timely boost for Connacht, even if John Cooney did a good job filling in against a pitiful Zebre side last time out.

John Muldoon, Jack Heenan and Eoin McKeon Connacht's pack will be tested in Toulouse. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Peter Robb should add some ballast at outside centre on his comeback from injury, and Ireland international Quinn Roux will look to do the same alongside lineout leader James Cannon.

It may prove that Cannon is a crucial figure in this tie, particularly given that he can fill the playmaking lock role in midfield in phase play. His calling of the lineout will also be key, with the westerners having struggled in that department at times.

Meanwhile, the fitness of Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan to start in the back row is important for Connacht in light of that powerful trio Toulouse have named in theirs. Captain John Muldoon and his pack will certainly have their hands full.

In Connacht’s backline, Craig Ronaldson may prove to be a key figure after his return against Zebre last time out. His kicking ability should take some pressure off Carty, while his defensive communication will be important with Bundee Aki missing.

And that’s a big miss for Connacht. The inspirational Aki is so often the central figure on their big days, so often the man who produces a big play to lift his team, so often the intimidator who pressurises the opposition.

If Pat Lam’s side are to earn their first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final, they will need others to step into Aki’s boots in Toulouse.

Toulouse:

15. Yoann Huget
14. Arthur Bonneval
13. Yann David
12. Gael Fickou
11. Paul Perez
10. Jean-Marc Doussain
9. Sébastien Bézy

1. Cyril Baille
2. Christopher Tolofua
3. Census Johnston
4. Richie Gray
5. Yoann Maestri
6. Joe Tekori
7. Thierry Dusautoir (captain)
8. François Cros

Replacements: 

16. Leonardo Ghiraldini
17. Vasil Kakovin
18. Gurthro Steenkamp
19. Talalelei Gray
20. Piula Faasalele
21. Gillian Galan
22. Toby Flood
23. Alexis Palisson

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Peter Robb
12. Craig Ronaldson
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Quinn Roux
5. James Cannon
6. Nepia Fox-Matamua
7. Jake Heenan
8. John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. JP Cooney
18. John Andress
19. Sean O’Brien
20. Naulia Dawai
21. John Cooney
22. Tom Farrell
23. Danie Poolman

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

This article was updated at 10.44 to correct Wasps’ potential finishing points total to 22.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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