Monday 26 June 2017

Player Diary: Heroes who did double over Saints can be our inspiration 20 years on

Muldoon: It’s been good to see Finlay Bealham back in the touring squad. Picture: Sportsfile
Muldoon: It’s been good to see Finlay Bealham back in the touring squad. Picture: Sportsfile

John Muldoon

It's a huge weekend for the province as travel to Franklin's Gardens looking to make another big step forward for Connacht Rugby. It's been a tough period for us, but hopefully we are out the other end of that now and we can focus on a bright future.

We know what's at stake and we will cope with the expectations. We have to perform or this will be our last game of the season - and none of us want that.

The last few weeks have absolutely flown. When you get past the Christmas period, and the break in January, the end of the season comes around very quickly. Obviously it's not where we would like to be in comparison to this time last year, but we have to build on where we are now.

It really didn't make much of a difference who we faced tomorrow. Northampton Saints and Gloucester are both excellent teams. Northampton have a lot of England internationals and a few Lions in their team, and likewise with Gloucester.

We knew the challenge was going to be tough regardless of where we go; both Kingsholm and Franklin's Gardens are tough places to visit, with very good home support in both stadiums.

Known

We have played in Kingsholm a couple of times recently so we would have known that ground a bit. But a few of us like myself, Andrew Browne and Ronan Loughney went to Franklin's Gardens the last time Connacht played against the Saints. And it's James Cannon's old team as well.

We played them in a Challenge Cup quarter-final when Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland were in charge in 2008-09; we lost that game 42-13. The Saints were very strong in the Premiership at that time.

It was a tough game, but we were in the fight for long periods. They had a big pack with Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati in the front-row. They wore us down eventually, but the scoreline didn't really reflect the game.

We had them under pressure, but they pulled away, with a few scores just before and after half-time.

Connacht had played there before that too - it's 20 years ago since we had those famous back-to-back wins over Northampton. It would be the ideal time to go emulate that great success.

In the last two or three games we made a lot of changes to our squad, and that gave a lot of lads opportunities to stake a claim for their place in the team, guys who hadn't played for a long time. We had lads coming back from injury out there too, and now they have much needed game-time under their belts, which is crucial at this stage of the year.

Clearly we made a lot of mistakes in our last two games, especially against Munster. You would hope we would be sharper now, and we won't make the same errors again.

It's a huge opportunity for Connacht to get back into the Champions Cup for next year. It's basically a cup semi-final, and if we win we get to come back to the Sportsground. If we don't win then we will be really disappointed at not being able to play in the top tier again.

We have had flashes of really good play this year; that was mixed with some errors, but hopefully we can cut them out this weekend. There is a carrot at the end of this and a home game against Cardiff Blues or Stade Francais would be huge for us.

For me personally I will treat this game like any other. Over the years we have shown that there are a lot of leaders in the team. Tom McCartney is injured but he has been captain this year. Tiernan O'Halloran has been captain, Andrew Browne has been captain.

We are getting more and more leaders on and off the pitch, which is making my job a lot easier than it used to be. That is something that we have tried to build on in the last few years, making them more comfortable with the responsibility of it.

It's a big day for the club, but it's no different for me and it's not going to be any different to the final last year or any other game. We will treat it is a one-off game. It's a huge chance to get back playing Champions Cup.

To bring the final back to the Sportsground would be an exciting prospect.

We know how big an advantage it is to play at home in a game like that. But we will worry about that after this game. All we are thinking about is getting the win this weekend. Of course we want an improved performance over in Northampton and if we can get that, we know we can get over the line.

There will be a small shift in mindset when it comes to just getting the result and being in a position to win the game, which we haven't done recently.

Another thing about this week is Connacht are celebrating the inclusion of a few new internationals into the Ireland touring squad for the summer. It's great to see Dave Heffernan and John Cooney make the step up now and I'm delighted for the five lads with Tiernan, Kieran Marmion and Finlay Bealham back in there too.

They have been brilliant all year for us and it's fitting that Joe Schmidt has recognised those performances.

They are all players with big futures in the game, and it's a great boost for us ahead of this massive game in Franklin's Gardens.

Irish Independent

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