Academy prospects have key role to play
A week out from the start of the new season and our first game against Dragons and we're all raring to go.
While rugby may not have been at the forefront of most people's minds over the summer, we've been back training and preparing for the new season since the end of June, so we're really looking forward to getting started.
It's been a really successful pre-season programme and everyone has put in a huge amount of work from the players to the back room team of coaches, S&C team, medics and nutritionist.
We were very happy with the condition the players came back in after nearly four weeks off and it allowed us to get straight back into preparation for the new season.
It's my third year as head coach and most of the players are also in their third year or more so relationships are strong and we're able to build on what we've done the last two seasons.
We had three pre-season games in August and all against tough opposition: Grenoble, Castres and Munster.
Grenoble came away with a comprehensive win in Galway but we weren't too concerned about the result. Thirty Connacht players got game-time that day and we tried out a number of combinations.
We learnt a lot about where we were at and that set up the focus of our training sessions for the following week in Castres.
Last weekend, we were in Thomond Park for a great two days of rugby.
Connacht had a team in the Limerick World Club 7s for the first time and I was down early on Friday to watch the team of senior and academy players, coached by Conor McPhillips.
Of the 12-man squad named for the competition, only Shane Layden had any experience of Sevens rugby.
So we were all extremely impressed to see how the boys adapted to the game and in such a short space of time - they had only come together to train earlier that week!
I was so proud of the way Connacht came back to hold out Golden Lions in the play off and finish third overall in our debut in the competition. All of the guys played well and put their hand up for selection in the senior team.
To make our trip to Thomond even more worthwhile, we had a good pre-season game against Munster on the Friday night.
It was a good result for us but we won't be reading too much into it. The real test will be Dragons at the Sportsground this day next week.
It's great to see the young Academy players stepping up again this season. It's a long season and injuries are inevitable; we know we'll have to rely on everyone so we've said from the outset that we want to close the gap between the perceived first teamers and the younger, more inexperienced players.
We've integrated a number of Academy players into our pre-season programme and it's really helped them in terms of understanding individual and team roles.
Already, this month, Rory Parata from our Academy has had starts in the centre against both Castres and Munster and did well for us.
With Robbie Henshaw away with Ireland and an unfortunate knee injury to Api Pewhairangi, we are likely to be looking to Academy players Rory and Peter Robb early in the season as options in midfield.
At the Pro12 launch in London this week, myself and John Muldoon were asked a lot about our goals for the season. For us, it's simple - we want to qualify for next year's Champions Cup. That means finishing in the top six of the Pro12 or winning the Challenge Cup.
This week, we spent some time in the picturesque town of Belmullet, Co Mayo. Local rugby club Erris hosted us on Sunday.
The focus is on Dragons next Friday night and we really can't wait to be back playing in front of our supporters at the Sportsground.
The new players have heard a lot about the Connacht supporters and the unbelievable atmosphere on match nights but I don't think they'll understand it until they're out there on the pitch themselves.
Three years on I still get a thrill from the noise in the stadium and the wonderful support.
So I encourage all who can to get their season ticket and join us as we aim to make some special Connacht history and achieve our goal of Champions Cup rugby.