The 2016 Pro12 champions sorely needed the Challenge Cup last season. With renewed confidence this time around, they are well equipped to compete for a top-three place in their conference.
THIS TIME LAST season, Connacht were preparing to open their Challenge Cup campaign. And they badly needed it.
A trip to the mountains to meet, and comprehensively beat, Oyonnax was just what the doctor ordered for then coach Kieran Keane, not long removed from queries as to whether he was ‘fit to spit’.
Entering Europe on the back of defeats to Dragons, Cardiff, Scarlets and Ulster (one win from six all told), they found form on their visit to the Alps and in a home win over Worcester and duly enjoyed the bounce on their return to the bread and butter.
Suddenly, there was a look of momentum to their list of results as they beat Munster and Cheetahs while turning a dismal 1-5 record to 5-10.
That pattern would repeat itself to some extent throughout the campaign: the December back-to-back cruise against Brive was followed by a win over Ulster and a close-run thing at the RDS.
After the pool stage came to a close, the westerners claimed a February victory over Ospreys.
The change of pace, or maybe the reduced burden, of a new competition can be an incredibly welcome relief. But right now, Connacht have no need to chase results to pad out their collection of Ws.
In the long run, a physical relief for the western province front-liners could have greater benefits than simply a mental one.
So far, Andy Friend’s influence has been felt in only positive ways on Connacht. Though Keane did plenty right during his one year in charge, public statements like explaining away defeat to Zebre as “a head-scratcher” or declaring “you can’t coach courage” after a win over Cheetahs didn’t exactly send confidence sky-rocketing.
Under Friend, Connacht are a side brimming with purpose again, running Glasgow close on opening day, showing their full array of talent to beat Scarlets and shedding the weight of history by beating Ulster in Belfast.
They sit fifth in Pro14 Conference A, three points off second-place Ospreys. Short-term: Allen Clarke’s team, who Connacht travel to face on before the end of the month, should be the primary target. Long-term: this team is capable of qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup through their Pro14 form.
Obviously, there is a route to the Champions Cup that goes through this competition too. And the presence this year of marquee clubs like Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints, Stade Francais and La Rochelle makes it doubly tempting to pursue that route in the hope of claiming big scalps and, potentially, big gates along the way.
Yet big games, ones not overshadowed by the larger competition, can also be set up with a focus on league form. Connacht’s passionate supporters won’t find it hard to muster themselves into the spirit of 2016 if a playoff place comes their way.
Last season, Bundee Aki played five pool matches in the Challenge Cup. He is well capable of doing that and more again, but are Connacht better off spreading his talent and energy away from the league?
Friend’s team selection today will be revealing. It would be terrific to see Bordeaux met with a mixture of new combinations, players low on minutes and with an eye on investing in men such as Cillian Gallagher, Peter Claffey and James Connolly, or young backs in the mould of Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Joyce and Luke Carty.
Unleashing them all at once would be counter-productive, of course. But if the French rivals in Pool 3 are intent on focusing their resources on the Top 14, then Connacht have plenty of wiggle room to experiment in Europe and ensure they are nicely rested and reloaded when the Pro14 returns.
Because big games are coming. Immediately after EPCR rounds one and two, Friend’s men face Ospreys (a), Dragons (h) and a trip to face the Kings and Cheetahs in South Africa.
On the evidence of Connacht’s season so far, these are four eminently winnable fixtures — two of them against conference A rivals — before the December back-to-backs roll around.
And the next round of inter-provincial derbies won’t be long after that. They are the games that will define Connacht’s campaign.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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