By Tadhg Peavoy
The giant leap from Amlin Challenge Cup to Heineken Cup is upon Connacht this year and head coach Eric Elwood is relishing the prospect of pitting his wits against the very best European rugby has to offer.
"We're looking at this as an opportunity on and off the field. As a coach, I want to compete against the best and the players want to compete against the best," Elwood said.
"It's a huge opportunity. We have three huge challenges in the teams we’re playing, but it's a huge opportunity. It's where we want to be.
"Harlequins are top of the Premiership in England; Toulouse - their record speaks for itself; and Gloucester are one of the bigger teams as well."
Elwood has also stated that he doesn't want to lay down markers and set goals – at least publicly – but instead wants his team to be competitive in all six Pool 6 matches, at a minimum.
"I'm not going to have any huge expectations in that 'We're going to do this, or we're going to do that'. We want to be competitive in every game. I'm very happy that it’s a tough group and to have someone like Toulouse coming to Galway."
The former Ireland out-half was also keen to emphasise that the Westerners do not have the luxury of rotating squads, as Munster and Leinster do.
"We don’t have the luxury of being able to make seven, eight, nine changes a week. Or rest players for that matter. We have a squad of 29 players and some academy boys. They're the facts. So, for us to be competitive, we’ll be picking our strongest teams every week.
"It is difficult, but it is what we have. We're not in the business of making excuses. Our priority as professional athletes and coaches is to go out and win every game."
Connacht's squad has changed considerably since last season and Elwood also realises that this change in squad togetherness may affect his team.
"We lost 15 players last year. Some guys left, some guys' contracts weren't renewed. Yes, it is tough; we've got 15 new players in and it takes time for those 15 players to gel. What hurts us most with the small squad is when we pick up injuries we lose depth. Ideally, we would like to have more players because it does help in a very competitive pool."
The challenge ahead of Connacht is huge, but Elwood's attitude highlights the excitement of hosting European giants at the Sportsground.
"For us, Toulouse are the Manchester United of the ERC [European Rugby Cup]. I'm competing against Guy Noves - the Alex Ferguson. The boys are playing against some of the best players in Europe. That’s the challenge.
"It's like the old FA Cup: Crawley Town playing Man U. Nobody expects us to beat Toulouse but that’s the challenge. Sport - as we all know – can be unpredictable. We relish that challenge."
Connacht back rower John Muldoon feels that drawing four-time European champions Toulouse is the perfect tonic for Connacht and allows the province to test themselves against the cream of rugby-playing talent.
Muldoon commented: "I think everyone was secretly hoping that we would get Toulouse.
"People would look at you and say 'Why would you want Toulouse?' I answer that 'Why wouldn't you want Toulouse?'
"They've got probably forty names you could roll off that have 20-plus caps for their county and they probably have about 60 players in their squad, so why wouldn’t you want to play against a team like that.
"For them to come to Galway, for our players to play against them, and for our supporters to see them, what more can you want?"
Connacht open their Heineken Cup campaign against Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday 11 November, kick-off 8pm.