Connacht can beat a blinged-up French side – they’ve done it before

Stade Français rocking into Galway for the Champions Cup will bring out the intensity

The current academy players weren't yet born. The younger senior players were infants. A patchwork of families, players, boys and girls called Friends of Connacht Rugby took to the road to march on the IRFU's offices in Dublin. Just short of 20 years ago Connacht faced an existential crisis.

A crowd of 600 had met in the Radisson Hotel in Galway in January 2003, where passion and emotion were the currency of the day. People who had given their lives to rugby in the province spoke about an intransigent IRFU making their problems in a changing professional landscape into a Connacht rugby catastrophe.

Cash-strapped, the IRFU wanted to terminate the professional game in the province.

But the supporters acted. A protest march took place to Lansdowne Road and since then Connacht, who were, at the time, left by Leinster, Ulster and Munster to deal with the crisis alone, have retained a particular allure. They are like the precious child that was almost lost.


There is little that brings out similar fervour and intensity in Connacht. But one thing that does is adversity and a blinged-out French side rocking into Galway for the Champions Cup.

History says aristocratic Stade Français will have done their homework. They need only look at other French clubs who have come and gone. While Andy Friend may well sell his players the idea that the French see them as low-hanging fruit, Stade will be aware of the deep notches on the goalposts around the Sportsground. And beside those are the resonant names of Biarritz, Toulouse and Montpellier.

Fighting back

Connacht’s spirit of fighting back and the buy-in to representing much more than the players on the field has brought them to good places against French teams, with their first significant scalp coming against Biarritz in December 2012.

In the seismic upset of that Heineken Cup season and just Connacht's third victory in the competition after previous wins over Harlequins and Zebre, they completely overturned form to beat the twice finalists 22-14.

That Friday night Fetu’u Vainikolo grabbed Connacht’s only try when, moving the ball wide on the halfway line, Biarritz centre Marcelo Bosch threw a careless pass to his midfield partner Charles Gimenez.

The ball was spilled and snapped up by Dave McSharry. He managed to get his hands free through the tackle to release Vainikolo, and Connacht’s Tongan wing accelerated untouched for 45 metres to the try line.

Former Scotland pivot Dan Parks practically earned himself the freedom of the city that night with one conversion, two drop goals and three penalties.

"My initial reaction was sheer delight," said Connacht coach Eric Elwood after the white-knuckle ride. "I felt that something special was going to happen. We had a shaky first half but I had the feeling if we took our opportunities and moved them around the park, we could win."

Connacht travelled to France the following year with Robbie Henshaw playing at fullback and a Toulouse side studded with stars. Louis Picamoles, Thierry Dusautoir, Clément Poitrenaud, Yoann Maestri and Gurthrö Steencamp were all in tow.

Few expected Connacht to stun again. The four-times champions hadn’t been beaten at Stade Ernest-Wallon that season or in the Heineken Cup since 2009.

Still, Connacht were able to turn that into the greatest European upset of the season with a remarkable 14-16 win, their first on French soil in the European competition.

Losing streak

Connacht came into the contest on the back of a four-match losing streak and having only beaten Italian whipping boys Zebre all season. At the end of the match they may have been outscored two tries to one but Toulouse, who led in the match for only five minutes, could not find a way to break down an immense Connacht defence in the closing stages.

In 2016 Toulouse were again drawn in Connacht’s pool. Playing in the top tier of European rugby for the first time under their own steam after winning the Guinness Pro12 title, the Galway side were again primed to make a statement.

The French giants with their powerful pack and running backs looked like they were going to steamroll the home side and opened up a 21-11 interval lead.

Little did they know that was as many points as they were going to get as Connacht found another gear. Closing in on the hour mark, Tiernan O’Halloran, cutting inside Gael Fickou, finished off Jack Carty’s long pass before a grandstand finish.

Connacht kept grinding their way up into the Toulouse 22 and, with Ugo Mola’s side looking sluggish, Bundee Aki surged over thanks to a big hand-off on Talalelei Gray.


The raucous home crowd erupted when Craig Ronaldson curled over a peach of a conversion, Connacht then holding on in breathless fashion for the win.

By 2019 giant-slaying had become, if not a regular occurrence, familiar to Connacht, with the vagaries of the Sportsground weather testing the most disciplined and professional of sides.

So, what better way to mark their first top-tier game in two seasons than for coach Andy Friend and his team to welcome Montpellier. While the game didn’t start out so smartly for the home side, with Aaron Cruden bagging a try after 70 seconds, Connacht again rose to the challenge.

First-half tries from Paul Boyle and Tom McCartney gave Connacht the lead at half-time, with Caolin Blade adding a third. Those scores and a late Conor Fitzgerald penalty delivered the most recent plucky win.

“I heard a commentator saying that no one has ever got out of their pool to the quarter-final if they lost their first game at home. I was very aware of that,” said Friend afterwards.

With just a four-match pool this season, welcome to Galway Stade Français.

Connacht wins against French Teams

2012-13 beat Biarittz 22-14 (H)
2013-14 beat Toulouse 14-16 (A)
2016-17 beat Toulouse 23-21 (H)
2019-20 beat Montpellier 23-20 (H)

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times