The Craggy Rugby podcast's Rob Murphy previews the final pool match for Pat Lam's side
Another thrilling European Champions Cup campaign concludes on Sunday afternoon and all eyes will be on Pat Lam’s Connacht side as they try to upset the odds and take their place among Europe’s elite clubs by reaching the last eight of the competition for the very first time.
The soon to be departed and highly regarded head coach has labelled the encounter with the mighty Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon (KO 3.15pm Irish time) as the biggest in the history of the province. Many would disagree with that assertion as the PRO12 triumph from last May really does seem to hold the edge in terms of significance.
Yet his wider point still stands. European rugby is always going to hold a higher status among Irish provinces, it dominated the calendar in the heady days of the last decade. Those involved in Connacht rugby will therefore look to this competition as a barometer when assessing whether or not they have made the most of the springboard they got from the Murrayfield triumph.
For Lam, the Champions Cup could end up defining his last season of four in the west of Ireland. He is well aware that his status as a rugby folk hero in the province is already secured thanks to last season but he is a highly competitive and driven individual and he won’t want his last few months in charge of this team to simply be a run of PRO12 fixtures and an end of season play off for qualification to next year's campaign.
It might not be the biggest game in Connacht’s history but it most certainly is a landmark fixture and the outcome could prove a major turning point for the province. The aim is to get out of the pool and the good news is that the men in green don’t necessarily have to win, a losing bonus point is likely to be enough to secure second and a place in the last eight.
That gives Connacht a huge psychological edge at a venue where they have performed well in the past, losing 24-3 in January 2012 in a game where they really had the home side rattled until the final seven minutes, while winning in 2013 under Lam 16-14. Lam’s overall record in France is three wins from four by the way. He and his squad won’t fear the test that awaits them.
The numbers stack up well for Connacht. They hold a four point advantage in the standings but should the sides finish level on points at the end of the pool stages, Toulouse will have the edge in the head to head and take second as a result. Connacht can still win the pool with a bonus point win but the more realistic scenario is a result that will give them second spot and one of the best runner up spots in the last eight.
As it stands than, a win without a bonus point or a draw will see Connacht secure second (presuming Wasps get the maximum from their trip to play Zebre). Even a defeat by a margin of seven points or less will be enough for Connacht as long as Toulouse don’t get a four try bonus point as part of the victory.
The psychology of the fixture could be fascinating as a result of all this. If Connacht are even within 14 points of Toulouse late on in the contest, they will be within striking distance of their target. The hosts will set out to put Connacht away early but if they fail to do that, ever score from the visitors will add to the pressure and create an edgy atmosphere.
Lam has been able to pick a strong side, for now at least, Denis Buckley looks to have recovered from his foot injury while Jack Carty, Nepia Fox Matamua, Jake Heenan and Quinn Roux all return with Peter Robb preferred at 13 instead of Rory Parata. New signing Tom Farrell will get another opportunity to impress at centre from the bench, the former Castleknock pupil has made the leap from Championship rugby to a European Cup game in Toulouse in just two weeks.
The hosts have an almighty scrum, a maul to match the best in the competition and an experienced and well constructed backline but while they sit fourth in the French Championship and boast some rock solid home form, three of the last five sides to visit their home venue have gone away from the venue with a losing bonus point. That has to give Connacht room for belief.
All in all, there’s every reason for the massive travelling army from the west to arrive in the south of France full of confidence. Lam’s squad of PRO12 champions have seen tougher hurdles in recent years and overcome them with poise and conviction. If they don’t, this isn’t a win or bust scenario because this project is too big and too far along for one fixture to derail things but you could call it a lose or boom scenario.