Tiernan O'Halloran: Devastating to miss out but we can build on back of that effort
It was so disappointing to crash out of the Champions Cup at Stade Ernest Wallon last weekend. But it was a real character-building experience for Connacht Rugby, and to come within minutes of a European Cup quarter-final has given us lots of confidence going forward.
But it wasn't easy to contemplate that directly after the result. You could tell from the feeling in the changing room that we had missed a massive opportunity; to lose out by only one score, whether it was a penalty, drop-goal or try, is devastating.
We felt we had put ourselves in a position to secure a first ever quarter-final but we just didn't execute it when the opportunity was so tangible. That was the tough part of it, because the majority of the game, particularly the second half, went to plan.
Toulouse started strongly just like we had expected, and just like they did at the Sportsground last October. But our defence stood up manfully. And even after they scored their third try we knew we just needed to hold them to that and could still be on course for victory. A fourth try would have ended our chances in the competition but we still played with confidence.
Coming into the final ten minutes we felt we had them. If we kept ourselves within that one score, we knew we were in with a chance of a quarter-final, but unfortunately we just couldn't get those extra points at the end.
Breaking it down, with our ball-carriers, maybe we didn't carry efficiently enough. We needed to stay on our feet that extra split-second to give our supporting guys a chance to clear out. Because with Toulouse, their players are such big physical men, they are so strong over the ball, and if you give them a second to get over the ball they are very hard to move.
A good few times we were a bit slow with our support, or the ball carrier didn't do enough work on the ground. And at the end of the day it was unfortunate because they won a few clever penalties off us in that area and that cost us when it came to the crunch time.
But the positives outweigh the negatives going forward, and in the immediate future we may miss out on a Champions Cup quarter-final, but the experience of this campaign will stand to us.
And that was one thing that John Muldoon mentioned after the game, in the dressing room, that you have to take confidence from our performances in Europe this season.
If you compare where we are now, to a few seasons ago. If we were in a European Cup we might have won one or two games.
But we won the league last year and as a result we qualified off our own bat. And to win four from six games, and to come so close to qualifying was disappointing but it was very encouraging for us a group.
But the big thing now is that we have to raise our standards even further from now on, go after the league and ensure that this season has something at the end of it. We need to get top six, and we want to keep pushing for the latter stages of the Pro12 too.
There is absolutely no sense that any of the lads are going to think that the season is over. We are only past halfway in the league and we still have a game in hand to play away to Zebre.
It's very important now, because there are the couple of weeks before we play again, and there was this week off where the lads could just switch off and recharge and come back in next week with a massive focus on our next block of four games.
During the Six Nations period as well, we are aware that some teams are going to be missing a lot of their key players. You saw last year during the Six Nations, we capitalised so much and made a huge charge during that period.
It's crucial for us to pick up points during this time, and we need to win every game that we can.
We are down the table at the moment but we need to keep pushing to get back up into contention and we will do that.
I was delighted to get named in the Ireland squad this week, it has been a tough winter in terms of results with Connacht but this is a great shot in the arm. I was happy to get up here but I know as well that I have a lot of work to do.
So I will be up in camp and working on my own game all the time. I want to push my own standards every day while I am up here to train at the higher level.
Hopefully that will work its way back into Connacht when we get back there. If the few of us that are up here can train well, and take confidence from that, it will only work out better for the province too. It's an executing few weeks for us up here and we are looking forward to that.
This week is a full-on training week building into the Scotland game next week.
At the moment you are just putting your best foot forward in training, trying to impress as much as you can depending on what your job is, and then seeing where that takes you.
You focus on doing your role right and fitting into the team.
It's quite a big squad but there is serious talent all over the park. You are training with good lads, and the quality here is only going to make you a better player as well. You want to learn from that as much as you can as you go along.
It's an exciting time and it's always good to be pushing yourself with and against top players.