Next season may be the first time that Heineken Cup rugby is played at the Sportsground, but it will not be the first occasion some of Connacht’s players have lined out in the competition.
Connacht’s Johnny O’Connor (London Wasps), Adrian Flavin (London Irish), Gavin Duffy (Harlequins), Frank Murphy (Leicester Tigers) and Mike McCarthy (Newcastle Falcons) have all played in the tournament during their time with other clubs.
Today’s draw for the pool stages of the 2011/12 Heineken Cup saw debutants Connacht join four-time champions Toulouse, familiar foes Harlequins and Gloucester, who reached this season’s Aviva Premiership semi-finals, in a quality-laden Pool 6.
Reacting to the news, the province’s head coach Eric Elwood said: “This is an absolute dream draw for us in our first season in the Heineken Cup – mighty Toulouse will be coming to Galway, you could not have asked for anything better.
“The Heineken Cup is the best club competition is Europe and we have been drawn with three fantastic teams, although it might have been nice to have a break from playing Harlequins and coming up against my good friends Conor O’Shea and John Kingston yet again!
“We have played Gloucester in a pre-season friendly in the past and while these three teams present great challenges, we also see it as a great opportunity now that we are finally in the Heineken Cup.”
The westerners’ hooker Adrian Flavin added: “It’s great to be in the Heineken Cup, it’s the highlight of rugby in the northern Hemisphere. Everyone wants to do well in it and we’ll be no different to that.
“It’s great to see Connacht being drawn against Toulouse, we (London Irish) were the only team to beat them in Europe when they won the cup in 2003 so I know what the atmosphere can be like playing against them.
“Playing down there is a completely different experience, the fans, the stadium, the noise – it’s a huge experience.”
Versatile forward Mike McCarthy, who passed the 100 cap mark for Connacht this past season, admitted: “It’s great to play in the top competition as obviously that’s where every team wants to be. You know you are playing against the best teams around.
“The difference compared to Amlin Challenge Cup or Magners League I would say is that it is slightly faster, more physical and every team you play will raise their game because they are playing in arguably the best club competition in the world.
“Having Connacht in the Heineken Cup means a lot to everyone not just in Connacht but the whole of Ireland.
“Obviously it is very special to all the players and management but we are very proud to be in it for our supporters and fans and we’re looking forward to giving them some big days out at the Sportsground.
“I suppose getting in is the easy part and now we must perform to the best we can. Obviously it’s been a long, long wait for Connacht getting into the Heineken Cup but we all feel we deserve our chance having finished above Benetton Treviso, Aironi and Glasgow Warriors in the Magners League whom are all in the Heineken Cup.
“Even though it’s been our best league finish for a number of years there were a good number of games which we really let slip so we know ourselves that we could have and should have had a better finish in the league.”