This season Connacht played their first ever season of HEC rugby. This Friday that first HEC season draws to a close against a high-flying Harlequins side well used to the Sportsground.
Last weekend Connacht fans in their droves set off from Ireland to the south of France. Their destination was La Ville Rose, Toulouse, to watch Connacht play their first ever game in the Stade Ernst-Wallon, and the atmosphere those 700 fans created rivalled that which the 18000 strong home fans could muster.
The game itself was a mixed affair for Connacht fans. Against a side that would put most international sides to the sword Connacht delivered a massive defensive effort, yet failed to capitalise on their own brave advances into Toulouse territory. The Connacht scrum was sent packing, by a huge French pack but Connacht's lineout worked effectively all game. At times the ruck defense looked suspect, but Toulouse were forced to pound at Connacht right until the end in order to force the 4th vital try.
Overall though there was a sense of vindication. Some of the demons of the Aironi game were exercised, and the cathartic nature of it was obvious when the Connacht players went to meet their fans in the corner of the pitch.
This Friday Connacht will face their last test of their first HEC season, against a rival familiar to them from the Challenge Cup. After the reverse fixture, our first ever HEC match, Connacht fans felt much the same as after the Toulouse match, happy with the performance, but with a clear sense of having left something behind us. That night Tiernan O'Halloran, Eoin Griffen and Mike McSharry took their first steps on that stage, while Gavin Duffy and Johnny O'Connor returned for an encore. The entire team delivered a fantastic performance, but failed to take any points away.
Now with the memory of their efforts over this pool stage in mind, nothing to lose and the knowledge that they can compete with anyone in European rugby, Connacht can face into this match with a air of quiet confidence. No doubt that the ranks are thinned by injury, but look no further than the performances of Vainikolo and Tonetti, Fa'afili and Dave Moore, Eoin McKeown and Denis Buckley and you can see that Connacht have what it takes. This match will be a cracker. Do not miss it!