The last time Connacht played Toulouse in France, they secured their first ever win on French soil with a hard-fought 16-14 victory in the old Heineken Cup.
A second half try from Man of the Match Kieran Marmion was ultimately the difference between the two sides as Marmion’s close range effort lifted Connacht over the four-time European champions.
It was a landmark win for Connacht and a result that really helped launch the Pat Lam era in Galway, as Ireland’s perennial easy-beats upset European rugby’s aristocrats.
Marmion may have been the player who scored the try, but there was no denying who the creator was, a 20-year-old Robbie Henshaw who burst through the Toulouse line before finding winger Fionn Carr with a brilliant flick pass to send Carr racing towards the line.
Marmion quickly capitalised on Carr’s momentum and scored Connacht’s only try with a quick pick and drive from a metre out.
It was a pivotal moment in Connacht’s rugby history but it was the class and touch of Henshaw that ultimately created the opportunity.
Fast forward three years and Connacht were once again faced with a pivotal trip to Toulouse in Europe’s premier rugby competition.
Once again, the Westerners were placed in a precarious position where their European future was on the line.
Lam’s side still had Marmion, they still had their instrumental captain in John Muldoon, but there was no Henshaw.
The 20-year-old fullback had matured into a 23-year-old centre and one of the finest prospects in European rugby, but he had swapped the tranquility of Galway for the bright lights of Dublin and Leinster.
His presence was missed on Sunday, but so was his touch as Connacht still played with the same fight, grit and determination as they did in December 2013 – they just missed the quality.
Henshaw and the injured Bundee Aki were instrumental to Connacht’s Pro 12 success last year, and the duo formed one of the most threatening midfield partnerships in Europe, but they were sorely missed in a Connacht side that just lacked that final touch of class.
Connacht’s midfield partnership of Craig Ronaldson and Peter Robb aren’t of the same calibre of their predecessors; they’re cut from different cloth, but both Ronaldson and Robb still had value against Toulouse.
Ronaldson’s kicking game set up a second half fightback after the Eagles’ inside centre chewed off some monster metres with a touchline kick that ultimately led to a John Muldoon try, while Robb was a reliable defender, but the pair were outclassed by the Toulouse midfield of French internationals Gael Fickou and Yann David.
Fickou was outstanding and terrorised the Connacht defence throughout the contest before sealing the match-winning turnover, while David consistently pressed and probed, and while Toulouse ripped through Connacht’s soluble defence in the first-half, the visitors refused to die in the second.
It’s been a recurring theme of Lam’s sides: that they fail to throw in the towel. It’s not within their make-up to give in or give up. The Samoan has cultivated a culture within Connacht that they will fight and fight until the bitter end, but at some point execution has to matter.
Connacht have been revered over recent seasons for their expansive style of play and their ability to transfer the ball at great speed in the wider channels, but on Sunday they had trouble executing the most basic of fundamentals as the visitors turned the ball over 15 times, following a weekend where they had turned the ball over 17 times against Zebre.
Of all their turnovers against Toulouse, one play in particular summarised Connacht’s troublesome afternoon.
With Toulouse on the backfoot, and with Connacht pressing towards their line, fly-half Jack Carty floated a speculative pass towards the left wing that was ultimately mishandled by Matt Healy who coughed the ball up as he headed towards the line.
The legitimacy of Carty’s pass was questionable, while Healy’s timing was definitely awry, but the play summed up Connacht’s afternoon in that good intentions were often negated through poor execution.
Connacht fought bravely and courageously until the very end against Toulouse, but execution is what separates the contenders from everyone else, and unfortunately once again Connacht are piled in with everyone else, or the other twelve teams that will be watching the knockout stages from afar.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
In this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, we speak to the Pro 12 Communications Manager Adam Redmond, who outlines how the league will evolve in the coming seasons.