Connacht vow to lay marker in Europe
WHILE there is undeniably a touch of 'after the Lord Mayor's show' with the focus switching to domestic club duty post-World Cup, there is plenty to stir blood also as Irish rugby looks to kick on from the disappointment of a quarter-final exit.
As the next four-year cycle gets under way, young players are scrutinised with extra intensity to judge if they have the capacity to bolster Ireland's next World Cup challenge for England 2015. And, although it is hard to banish Ronan O'Gara's observation in Queenstown last month that the Heineken Cup is "limited compensation" after World Cup failure, there is still much to be enthusiastic about, with regards to the impending European campaign.
Not least the fact that Connacht are making their long-awaited debut in the competition and to top it off, are facing European aristocrats Toulouse in their first home match in a few weeks' time.
Even the eternally shabby Sportsground is being tarted up (with a much-needed media upgrade ready to impress visiting scribes) and though there are two Pro12 matches to negotiate before European action gets under way with a trip to Harlequins, anticipation is building out west.
"Is there a tingle thinking about Toulouse? Yeah, of course there is," admits forwards coach Dan McFarland.
"People will write us off saying we have a 'happy to be here' vibe in the Heineken Cup -- you can get rid of that straight away. We want to demonstrate the kind of club we are and what we have to offer.
"We fully understand that it is an extremely difficult prospect, we would be silly not to recognise that, but we relish that. If anything is worth doing, it's got to be hard, it can't be easy. Stuff that's easy isn't worth anything to anybody.
"We'll stand in front of that challenge and rise up to it. We want to perform, we want to show people what we can do and if that means winning games, terrific, that's what we'll be going for."
However, for all the excitement ahead of their European challenge, McFarland stresses the need to focus on their league duties in the build-up and the desire to build on a solid start to the season that has yielded three wins out of six.
While Connacht have won both their home fixtures, their performances on the road (beating Treviso and pushing Edinburgh, Ospreys and Leinster close) have been especially encouraging given their historical difficulties away from Galway.
Cardiff are next up at the Sportsground on Saturday and then comes the vital trip to Belfast to face Ulster, and Connacht are seeking two victories to springboard their European assault.
"Anticipation is definitely building for Toulouse but we have meat and drink as well," said McFarland. "We have got 13 games in a row, like all the teams in the RaboDirect, and what we keep saying is that they are all very important. We will approach every game with that focus.
"That's not to say that there isn't an extra buzz surrounding the Heineken Cup -- our first Heineken Cup match against Harlequins will be massive and there will be a massive buzz around the province when Toulouse come to town -- but Cardiff at home this weekend is a huge fixture, as is Ulster away the following weekend, and that is the way we have to approach every game.
"It has been a decent start to the season. We've played some nice rugby, right up to the last 40 minutes against Leinster when we played very poorly and let a good opportunity slip.
"If we had played with a little more composure in the second half we could have been four (wins) and two (losses) and in the top four of the league, which would have looked much rosier."
The fallout from the World Cup has once more raised the issue of Ireland producing their best performances when written off -- something Connacht can readily identify with -- but McFarland does not believe the underdog mentality applies to the national side and says it is something Eric Elwood and the rest of coaching staff are seeking to eradicate at the Sportsground.
"I don't think there is an underdog mentality in Irish rugby," he said. "I know it is something we have drawn on down here for a while but we are trying to move beyond that.
"Munster drew on it when they were starting out in Europe, but they certainly don't draw on it any more; Leinster don't draw on it in any shape or form and Munster and Leinster make up the majority of the Irish side so it should not be a factor. They should be confident in their own ability -- they are very good players.
"For Connacht, it is something we can still use. When we play Toulouse in the Heineken Cup, we will be underdogs and to say anything else would be ridiculous. However, we will relish the opportunity to play against one of the greats in Europe, which is fantastic.
"The way we see it down here is that we have a very, very important role in Irish rugby.
"We represent one in four of the provinces and a good section of support down here. We provide a geographical area of rugby that is very important to the nation and an area that is very passionate about their rugby.
"In terms of supporting the Irish team, we would like to think we have got a good track record here in terms of producing representative rugby players. Players coming down here are getting exposure and will be playing in the Heineken Cup this year.
"We like to think that we fill an important role within Irish rugby, fully supported by the IRFU."