Johnny O'Connor: A Connacht win this weekend will be huge in playoff race
Henshaw exit will not affect squad
Published 19/02/2016 | 02:30
Connacht are now an established top-four side in the Pro12. When Ospreys beat Munster last weekend I didn't look at it as Ospreys being back in the race for top six, I thought about Munster losing valuable ground in the play-off race.
The win in Dragons last week proved that Connacht know how to win ugly in this campaign: it was by no means the complete performance, but it showed they can grind out victories against good sides away from home.
Dragons had already beaten Munster and Leinster there this season, so the way Connacht came back in the second half showed that there is a lot of belief in the squad.
The news about Robbie Henshaw's departure was all over the airwaves this week, but I don't think that's going to have any effect on this bunch of players.
They seem so focused on their end goal, and Henshaw has only played a handful of game for Connacht this season anyway. Bundee Aki has been the real star in midfield and Craig Ronaldson has stepped up to the plate too.
Henshaw was on international duty again last weekend and it was difficult to watch Ireland slip to a narrow defeat like that in Paris, and effectively end their hopes of retaining the Six Nations again.
It just looked like a bridge too far for this side, because they had all of the chances and should have come away with the win, but mentally they weren't quite there. France are by no means the finished article and they won't win this tournament either.
Ireland had so many chances, especially in that first half, and they need to start scoring more tries. Penalties aren't enough to win matches anymore, and Ireland used to be able to convert at will in the opposition 22.
They don't have that same fluency this term; there are a number of injured absentees, and you could call them a team in transition, but they still have the ability to beat France on their day.
As expected France played the gung-ho rugby, without a real game-plan. They flung the ball around and just hoped for the best. And it was only their replacement props that won the game for them in the second half.
A year is a long time in rugby. Ireland were the best team by far in the last Six Nations and they were heading into a World Cup looking to win it, but that defeat in France will have left a huge dent in their confidence.
Going to Twickenham. things could get a whole lot worse, or if they were to win it could be the start of a revival towards the latter end of the championship. But who knows how much they can recover in the intervening period?
Meanwhile, Connacht seem to have come through their tough times, and hopefully - Henshaw news aside - they can build again towards the end of the season, and the must-win the games away to the Italians.
Zebre were hammered 52-0 by Leinster at RDS last weekend but they are a different side in Parma, and they will be aiming for a big scalp in beating Connacht. But I have full faith in this side.
I believe Connacht will go there and win, and they could potentially get their fourth four-try bonus point win in a row too. It would send shockwaves through the Pro12 with other teams likely to slip up this weekend.
Ospreys play Edinburgh, Glasgow host Munster and Ulster are at home to Scarlets, so there will be points lost there. Connacht can take a huge step towards the play-offs with a win this weekend.
The five points could be crucial come the end of the season, especially with the inter-pros just around the corner.
After Zebre it's Ospreys and Edinburgh, but then there's the three inter-pros in a row, and if Connacht don't go into those games full of confidence it could be catastrophic.
On the flip-side of that Connacht could be in the top two with two of their fellow provinces coming to the Sportsground. They also have the Challenge Cup quarter-final to look forward to.
It will be an exciting end to the season, and a win in Zebre would be the perfect precursor.