Chief sniper has Gregor's Warriors right in his crosshairs
Ireland scrum-half ready to power into new campaign after last year's season to remember
Published 02/09/2016 | 02:30
The rabid intensity of support at the Sportsground last season had a huge part to play in Connacht clinching a first piece of silverware, and Kieran Marmion is keen to see that hunger for tries, hits, wins and points mount this season.
Some memorable nights were had on College Road last year: the bonus-point win over Munster; beating Leinster; and the back-to-back wins to bookend the campaign against Glasgow Warriors stand out. But first up tomorrow their unbeaten 2016 at the venue will get a severe test.
Gregor Townsend said his Glasgow players had never tasted heartbreak like they did after their semi-final loss in Galway last season, and they will be primed to the last for the season opener tomorrow evening.
But if he makes the matchday squad, Marmion and his 22 team-mates are ready to start where they left off on that memorable day in Murrayfield.
"This is a huge game for us. Playing one of the top sides at home, if we can get a good win against them confidence will be right up there again," he says.
"Getting off to a good start is really important to ourselves and the supporters as well. There will be a lot of excitement again if we can get off to a good start.
"I had never beaten Glasgow until that first game we beat them in the Sportsground. Getting that win was the key. That gave us the confidence going into the next week knowing that we could beat them; we knew we could back it up again to get to the final."
An 'us against them' mindset has always prevailed in Connacht. Munster, Leinster and Ulster regularly racked up inter-pro titles, and since the advent of professionalism Heineken Cups have followed for all three too.
For the first time in their history, Connacht can shed the yoke of failure and look down a different route to inspiration.
But that doesn't faze Pat Lam's side, says Marmion. He thinks they are ready to kick on to new levels again and meet the high expectations that are now theirs.
"It was a pretty good feeling the way the season went last year, but I guess it's a new challenge for us now," he warns. "It's probably a harder challenge to go out there with people expecting a lot from us. But that kind of challenge will be enjoyable to try and improve even more.
"The way we play is pretty different to a lot of teams in the league. Teams try and work us out and see how we are doing things that might be different.
"We think that people will be trying to work us out and the way we structure it, we want to stay ahead of them. Being one step ahead of them is the key."
Marmion has dipped in and out of Ireland match-day squads for a couple of years and has vied with Issac Boss and Eoin Reddan for game-time. His two rivals have now retired from the international scene, and consequently Marmion is firmly regarded as second choice scrum-half in Joe Schmidt's eyes - but still behind Conor Murray.
A summer tour of South Africa followed hot on the heels of Conancht's Pro12 final victory - he was joined by fellow tourists Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran for the first time - but to return home with just three minutes' action from the three Tests was a frustration.
"Obviously I was pretty disappointed only getting a few minutes, but I learned a lot at training over there, pushing on from before. I mean, getting more exposure at training was good, so hopefully I can kick on from there and get a bit more game-time in the future," he says.
"A few of the lads got called in late thanks to injuries. But it's always to have the Connacht lads in there, guys you know better. It makes what you do on the pitch all the easier."
That time spent in South Africa with Ireland meant Marmion was behind his peers when he came back to pre-season camp with Connacht. Like his fellow internationals, he was given four weeks' holidays, but that just allowed his provincial rivals to make up ground on him.
As with Murray at Ireland level, it will be hard to shift Marmion from the starter's shirt in Connacht, but he wants to keep developing his game.
He is seen as one of the brightest sparks around the edge of a ruck, has already scored 17 tries for Connacht, while his passing has always had a real crispness. But the 102 times Connacht-capped No 9 still wants to work on his kicking and all other areas of his game.
"I try to do both, I want to get my strengths even stronger and to be different to other players. With my weaknesses I try to get them as improved as I can to make myself as rounded a player as possible," he explains.
"I keep working on my basics, sharpening up my passing, my kicking and a few other things. It doesn't matter how sharp your skills are, the better they are the better it is for the team.
"After the tour we got time off, but that just meant we were starting our holidays when they were getting back in here at Connacht.
"We were a bit behind. We had to come back in and catch up. They have been back for nine or ten weeks and we only have four or five done. Trying to get back up to speed and catching the other guys up is the main thing for us."