Wednesday 26 July 2017

Champions Cup berth almost in the bag - but this is only the start

Bundee Aki dives over to score Connacht’s third try against Edinburgh at Murrayfield
Bundee Aki dives over to score Connacht’s third try against Edinburgh at Murrayfield
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Five games ago we looked at our next five fixtures during the Six Nations period and targeted five wins and a return of 25 points. So to get 24 points in that period is pretty great, and it's put us in a great position for the rest for the season.

It was a bold target, but at that point we changed our mindset a little bit: we decided we were really going to go for it. We have confidence in our style of play, in our ability and we had won some big matches earlier in the year, so we set a high target.

But there was a belief that we were going to meet those targets once we set them.

We dropped one point against Ospreys; they have a pretty good defence and we weren't as clinical in attack as we have been, but we pretty close to getting the five points from that game too. It could well have been 25 from 25, and that knowledge gives us great confidence going into the Leinster game.

Our big goal for this year is top six and to get into the Champions Cup next season. Mathematically we are not quite there yet but it would take a strange sequence of events for us not to get there.

Looking at previous years, the points we have in the bag should nearly get us there, and a couple of teams would have to win all of their remaining games and for us to go on a shocking run to not get that now.

Encouraging

Nearly having that place almost wrapped up is really encouraging but we're not going to stop there. We are in a great position to go even further now but as we have been doing all season, we will take it one game at a time.

There is a lot of belief within the squad and absolutely, we believe we can achieve things that have never been done before. But there is so much rugby to be played before the season finishes and we have to focus on Leinster first up at the Sportsground on Easter Saturday.

There are plenty of reasons to be confident: we have scored the most points and tries, we're in a good run of form at the moment and we have massive belief in ourselves.

Our defence is something that we are constantly looking to improve on, and we have things like our exits and restarts to work on, but we're pretty happy to have that room to improve too. It honestly does feel like we are getting better every week and hopefully that continues to be the case.

The way we look at it is the five games we have left in the Pro12 - Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Treviso and Glasgow - are all against teams that have regularly played in the Champions Cup. We want to test ourselves and compete against Champions Cup sides. We need to raise our level another notch to compete with them, but I'm positive we have the ability to do that.

During the Six Nations a lot of teams are without players due to international commitments, but you have to remember we are in the same boat now too.

We have had five guys in the Ireland squad for the last few weeks and not all of them have been released back to us for all our games. We have picked up five wins in that period.

In Edinburgh we had a massive focus on our scrum and maul attack and I think it was crucial in us winning. On average Edinburgh win penalties about every second scrum on their ball. They have a real destructive scrum, but it went well for us against them, and I'd like to think we are up there with them as one of the best in the league in that regard. The scrum is their go-to when they are under pressure, but we managed to negate that and even dominate last weekend, which was really pleasing.

Eoin McKeon's try for the bonus point typified that for us. It might have looked like poor defence on their part that allowed Eoin to get in past their flankers, but it was the pressure that they were consistently under that forced them to commit all eight forwards to scrummaging.

They were worried that we'd go for a pushover, but the call from Mul and AJ was for quick ball to Eoin, and their back-row couldn't cover his quick pick-and-go. It's real pleasing to see moves like that coming off in pressure situations.

This week was lighter than usual, and after Monday when we came in to review the game, we had the rest of the week off to refresh and recharge a bit. We are back in on Monday for a week's training ahead of the Leinster game, which is massive for us.

We have a few days of a training camp up in Westport too, which we're looking forward to: it's always good to have some team bonding time, and ahead of such a huge game it might be crucial.

If we beat Leinster at home it's not just adding four or five points to us, it's also taking it from them. They are coming to the Sportsground where we have only lost once this season - we certainly don't want to lose there twice.

If they were to win their game in hand next week they will be top of the table and not us, so that's how important this game is.

It's a huge game - first against second - but we're confident that we can put a plan together to beat them. If we get the win against Leinster at home for what would be the third time in four seasons, I think it would really send out a message to everybody.

Irish Independent

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