Player Diary: Denis Buckley - Opposition never as tough as what we do to each other in training
Published 19/02/2016 | 02:30
Newport is the stereotypical 'tough place to go', so for us to leave Wales with a win and bonus point was a great day for us.
Dragons came into that game on the back of some great results. Before us they had beaten Munster, Leinster and lost to Ulster with the last kick of the game, so we knew what to expect.
Much of our success on the pitch in recent games has been built on things that we are getting right in training. When that transfers from the training park to the pitch it's very satisfying.
Our set-piece has improved in recent weeks and it has given us the foundation to get a few good results. In particular, I feel our maul attack has gone on to another level. At the start of the year our maul attack was pretty good - maybe not quite at the heights we'd reached last year - but we've really upped our game since Christmas.
We had a couple of misfires around that time and we got together and decided that we needed to do something different. Since then we have put the work in, and in training we have been doing live reps, going eight against eight to recreate match conditions and that has been crucial.
Every time we practise our maul, the starting team goes up against the other lads. When you go up against lads that know the calls and moves, it means you have to work even harder. As a result, when we come to matches, the opposition we are facing aren't as tough as what we've been doing to each other in training.
With guys back from injury, competition for places is at an all-time high. It gets heated, there is plenty of bite there in those sessions, but it has served us well. We've improved as a pack, we've all noticed it.
Pat always says we have to be able to play any conditions, any referee and any opposition. And I think that as the season has progressed we've shown that we can do that. We work out different scenarios for different teams on different days.
Gone are the days where an individual can take applause for a good scrum, it really is an eight-man effort - tactically and physically. As a unit, we've been going well, but you can't rest on your laurels.
Scarlets was probably our best scrummaging performance of the season, and in recent memory, Dragons did their best to negate that influence for us last weekend.
It was a pretty frustrating day: we really felt we were the dominant force in the scrum, but they had their work done. Maybe they were a touch illegal at times, but it's only illegal if they are penalised and you have to give credit to them.
Up next are Zebre, Ospreys and Edinburgh, who I regard as three of the best scrummaging teams in the league.
Looking at Ireland and France at the weekend we saw how crucial the scrum is in international rugby. I thought Whitey did pretty well holding things solid before he went off, but when France brought on their fresh props they did a good bit of damage on their own ball.
It's hard to know whether it was a tactic to keep their first-choice props on the bench to spring for the last 30 minutes, but it really is a huge gamble to take if that's the case.
It's not something that I've ever come across - obviously lads are rested from time to time - but to gamble like that in a huge Six Nations game is a strange one.
The scrum battle is like a game of chess, it can take some time to break down your opponent. Sometimes it might not be until the last 10 or 15 minutes of a game that we finally get the upper hand. To give someone 30 minutes to do a job is difficult, but who knows what their plan was?
The news this week that Robbie is leaving Connacht at the end of the season was obviously disappointing. He is a great player and a good friend of mine so I'll miss having him in our side. But that is professional sport and I wish him all the best.
The Connacht team will never be about one individual. We are all about the collective and believe that our strength lies in the work-rate of the team as a whole.
All of our focus is now on Zebre. We want to leave Italy with the win, but it's vital to remember that you have to earn the right to win games. We have come out on top against Zebre because we have always shown them the respect and prepared well for the game.
We went into Dragons 100pc knowing how good they are, and this weekend's game is no different.
We've done some great analysis on their play to come up with some plans on how to deal with their strengths and try to take advantage of their weaknesses. Zebre took us apart in the scrum over there last year so we expect another huge test.
Zebre may be near the bottom, but they have had some big results and performances this year. We're going into this game showing them a lot of respect and not taking anything for granted at all.
We know Leinster put 60 points on them last week, but any time that has happened to them this season they've bounced straight back with a big performance.
If we leave with the win and a bonus that's great, but the win is all that matters.