Johnny O'Connor: Best squad in Connacht history can finish sixth
Competition for places will drive us to deliver the consistency that has been lacking
Published 05/09/2014 | 02:30
I like the positive messages coming out of the Connacht camp so far this season. They are all singing from the same hymn sheet and targeting a sixth-place finish.
It's a bold statement from the province - they are saying 'we want to get into the European Champions Cup on our own merit' and you have to respect that. However, it's a massive step to make and a number of improvements need to be made if they are going to achieve that goal for the first time.
One thing is for sure, though: there will be setbacks along the way. Sometimes in a league season you can fall short. At some stage every team loses a game, but the important thing is how you deal with that.
Traditionally Connacht have started off the season strongly and faded a little.
They've always picked up a handful of wins before the November internationals, but once the Christmas period and inter-pro games come along, it comes off the rails a bit.
Consistent performance and results are the number one requirement for this season.
It's always a buzz to see the first game coming up. But with their stated lofty ambitions it doesn't matter if they win the first game, or where they are at Christmas; it's all about being up there at the end of the season.
It doesn't matter about winning the first three or four games because people can get carried away with a couple of wins and then they don't know how to deal with a tough defeat. If Connacht attain consistent performances then they will be in contention at the business end of the season.
This is probably the best squad that has even been assembled by Connacht and they are right to be ambitious. There is competition for every position and that will push on those players to perform better to prove themselves. If it is in the right environment and people are allowed to compete, they'll thrive.
Just look at the No 7 shirt, where Willie Faloon and Jake Heenan will have to go head-to-head for a start. They are two quality flankers and through this battle they are going to drive each other to improve technically and physically.
There are plenty of other positions around the pitch where guys are fighting for their start. If they aren't sure of their position, they will have to give their all.
Another important marker for this squad will be the setting of internal targets. If guys have nothing to aspire to, how are they supposed to achieve greatness?
Everyone needs to buy into to what's going on in the club, and Pat needs to drive the importance of this across to the players. Individuals that don't buy into the style of rugby, the training or the working out will just get eaten up and spat out.
If you look at Leinster and Munster over the years, they have always have a group buy-in when they were successful. Everybody was going in the right direction and they were not afraid to confront any non-conformance. That's the way it has to be. There needs to be honesty and people can't be afraid to get uncomfortable.
Last year was all about learning the first steps of Pat Lam's plan but this season has to be about improving. In any project there has to be a phase when we see regular, gradual improvement and I think that will happen this season.
Facing Dragons at home is a good start to get - they haven't finished above seventh in the last ten years, so they'd be considered decent first opponents.
A bit like ourselves, they are still a solid outfit and when they have a good day they can really turn it on. They have some good backs who can play ball and some powerful ball carriers like Toby Faletau, Andy Powell and Netani Talei.
But at the same time I think Connacht are a better team and should get off to a winning start.
Honestly, I can see them finishing sixth or seventh, but it is going to be very tough. A winning culture takes time. I really hope it does work out for them for them this year and I think it will be a big, big year for them. They'll find it difficult to finish sixth, but if they play to their abilities it's possible.