'People thought we'd lost it, but we knew it was fixable'
Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30
For Kieran Marmion, Toulouse hold mixed memories. On one hand, he was the try-scorer in Connacht's most famous win back in 2013; on the other he spent the following week sick, needed a drip before kick-off and oxygen at half-time to get through 80 minutes of a 37-9 defeat.
That was Connacht then. Capable of brilliance one week and mediocrity the next. The bug may have laid waste to the squad, but before the Pat Lam revolution took hold fully, a big win was rarely followed by another.
Three years on and Marmion is battling a calf injury and hopeful that he'll be able to take the field in better nick than he did that December night.
He is part of a team that has achieved consistency and tasted real success, yet the memories of the bad old days meant that a sluggish start to Connacht's season had some questioning whether last season was an anomaly and if opponents had figured their game-plan out.
Wins over Edinburgh and Ulster have quietened the criticism and the Ireland scrum-half reckons the slow start was down to small, fixable mistakes rather than an overall regression.
"It just took time to click. People on the outside were saying we're not the same team we were, that we'd lost it, but we knew that it was just little things that were making the difference and they were easily fixable," he explained.
"We're starting to click a bit more. That game on Friday just gives us huge confidence.
"A lot of that confidence comes from the training that we do, even in the first few games when we were losing we were training well; but I guess it wasn't coming off in the games.
"The confidence was still there, now we have two wins in a row it just takes it to a whole new level."
This is Connacht's first time to have qualified for the Champions Cup on their own merits, after previously making the big stage on the back of Leinster's success.
The big difference is the consistency of their performances across the board.
"Beating Toulouse was a huge moment for Connacht. The week before we'd lost heavily to Edinburgh," Marmion recalled. "We trained hard that week and everything just clicked when we went over there.
"Everyone put their bodies on the line and bought into what we were trying to do. It was a big turning point from when Pat came in to where we are now.
"Consistency is a big difference now. We get a big win and we get back up with another big win. Before, we'd get maybe one or two big wins in a season so our mindset has changed. We believe we can win every game."
Despite his injury, Marmion was in Carton House for last week's Ireland training camp and with Eoin Reddan finally retired he is hoping to move up Joe Schmidt's pecking order.
Conor Murray is an automatic pick, but the 24-year-old leads the chasing pack.
"I want to get more game-time and I've to play well for Connacht to get in there," the Mazda ambassador said.
"Conor is one of the best scrum-halves in the world, so it's going to be a tough ask to get up to him but I want to prove myself that I can play at that top level."
Although the All Blacks are looming large after last weekend's 57-15 win over the Springboks, Marmion said Schmidt is keeping the focus on Ireland's own strengths ahead of next month's clashes with the world champions.
"We look at our own game, the accuracy of our game and how we can challenge them," he said. "They're the best team in the world at the moment because of how they can score tries, they put 50 points on South Africa.
"You've got to pressure their skills and ask questions. Everyone knows it's going to be tough, but there's a belief in the squad that anything can happen if we all buy into it."
To get there, he knows it is all about performing against the big guns in Europe. Toulouse is a good start.