Brian Walsh: Returning Ireland stars a huge boost for run-in
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
There was plenty of frustration after last week's defeat to Cardiff, but that has been left in the past now as we face a hugely physical test against Zebre at Thomond Park tonight.
At the Arms Park we got off to a great start on a fast pitch and that is something we wanted to do.
We were aware that our slow start in Glasgow ended up costing us, so it was great to see us quickly out of the blocks in Cardiff. We kicked a penalty and then ran in a good try for an 8-0 lead, but straight away we let them back into the game.
We conceded a penalty off the next scrum and a try shortly afterwards, so suddenly for leading by eight, we were down by two.
We had a great chance to score a try just before half-time when we had them under huge pressure, but after we kicked to the corner and the ball went wide, we threw an intercept pass and the chance was gone.
We ended up 10-8 down at half-time having played the better rugby. That was frustrating.
The second half was a real helter-skelter affair: they'd score a try, we'd reply with one as the game got a little bit loose, with mistakes coming from both sides. It was a yo-yo game, it's a pity it wasn't televised because there was a lot of good rugby from both sides - it was a very positive game.
It wasn't as error-strewn as the scoreline might look either. Cardiff have been unlucky in a few games recently, but they played for 80 minutes and they pipped us at the end.
But any time you score 28 points you'd hope to win, wherever the game was played. It is a very disappointing result, because in the main we played quite well but we were punished heavily for any mistakes that we made.
Certainly, losing our game in hand was tough to take. That would have pushed us well into the top four and now we are in a real battle after that defeat. But now all focus quickly changed to Zebre.
We have five games left, and a lot of teams above us play each other and we have to play a few of them too, so it is still very much in our own hands but we could be in a lot better position.
This weekend it's good to be playing at home again. We have been away quite a bit over the last while, but in our remaining five games we don't travel outside of the country for the rest of the season, which is a big bonus.
We have Zebre at home, then we travel to Leinster, we then go to Connacht - with a week off either side of that game - before we have Edinburgh and Scarlets at home to finish off.
Also we will be boosted hugely by having the six internationals back. Of our overseas players we are without BJ Botha, Gerhard van den Heever, Mark Chisholm and Tyler Bleyendaal through injury, and with those four lads and six internationals away recently, that's probably ten starting players that we have been without.
Then lads like Peter O'Mahony, Duncan Casey, Denis Hurley and Tomás O'Leary have also been injured, so that means you have to dig deep into your squad every week. To be fair those lad have played really well, but it certainly will be a big help to them to have some more experienced faces around the place in the coming weeks.
Tonight we face a serious challenge, though. When we played Zebre in January they were tough to break down over there, they brought a huge amount of physicality and we were lucky to get out of there with the win.
We expect more of the same from them this weekend. They are in their own battle with Treviso to be the top Italian team and to claim the Champions Cup qualification that follows on from that, so they will be well up for the game. It's cup final stuff for both of us.
They have a very good back-row, with a strong South African influence there. They have a good nine-ten combination and are a solid side. They are a real physical outfit now and are a much different side to the one they were at the start of the season. They are well organised, played good rugby and they will certainly give us a tough test.
A win for us will push us up the table again and give us a bit of momentum for the crucial games ahead. It's one we really have to win.