Pat Lam: Our dream is still alive but we face huge test
Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30
Even though last weekend's game may have had an end-of-season feel to it, with goodbyes to players and our annual awards ball, our season is far from over and with a play-off game at Gloucester on Sunday, our goal of Champions Cup rugby is still very much alive.
Of course we were very disappointed not to achieve our ultimate goal and finish top six. With those losses against the top four sides in recent weeks, we left it too difficult for ourselves and as other results transpired, even a bonus-point win against Ospreys at the weekend wouldn't have been enough.
But we believe we have a lot to be proud of from the season so far. We finished seventh - the highest position in Connacht's history - and we scored a record number of points, 15 more than last season.
Out of 29 games played so far, we've won 14 and drawn one so there have been a lot of improvements there year on year.
We won two of the three home interpro games - against Leinster and Munster - compared to none the previous year. The goal is to keep improving in all those departments.
In terms of players, 39 of our 40-man senior squad featured in games this season and eight academy players were capped across the two competitions, gaining invaluable experience at the top level.
One of those academy players, Eoghan Masterson, has earned a place on the Emerging Ireland squad. This is a great opportunity for Eoghan and the other seven young Connacht players named for the Tbilisi Cup.
Again this season, we had a record number of five players training with the Ireland team. Our vision of Grassroots to Green Shirts is something very real to us.
In the shorter term, we have a big job to do against Gloucester. It's another huge test, and essentially a cup semi-final for us.
Having been to Kingsholm a few weeks ago, we know what to expect. They will certainly have the advantage in terms of the atmosphere and their home crowd.
They also rested their big name players last weekend, so there'll be a level of freshness to their game.
We've spoken about our lapses in concentration and how they cost us against good teams like Gloucester, who will punish any mistakes.
We've also had a good look at our exit and kicking game that let us down the last time against Gloucester. We simply cannot afford to be playing in our own half for long periods of time away from home. If we do that, there's no doubt that we'll struggle.
Decision making is always a big focus and it will be crucial again on Sunday. Throughout the season, we're always looking for ways to improve and help the players become more rounded in their approach to the game.
One of the initiatives we trialled this year was weekly sessions with Actualise Neurofeedback Clinic. Actualise have been working with six of our players in the last number of weeks.
Essentially, it was a series of scientific sessions that work towards making your brain work more effectively and efficiently.
Their work with us has had a very positive impact and we believe they have helped these players to take their performance to the next level.
We are very thin on the ground in terms of injuries and unfortunately there is no-one ready to return.
All the players fit and available, including many of the academy players, were on alert this week that they could be playing so there was a lot of competition for this game.
It was great to see Michael Swift come on the field last weekend and do so well.
It's incredible the work he put in to work his way back from injury and against all the odds, get another game at the Sportsground. He really deserved that and I know the fans and especially his mum were delighted to see him out there.
Hopefully it won't be the last time we play in front of our home crowd this season.
Win this weekend against Gloucester and we'll be at home the following Sunday against the seventh placed Top 14 team.
As it stands that would be Racing Metro - it could be Jonny Sexton's last game with the French side - but there's another round of fixtures to go, so we'll see how it ends up and hopefully it will be Galway they'll have to come to!