Connacht must take next step with belief
CONNACHT will try to take a step further tonight and show they are capable of more than just the isolated big performance.
Their general form this season has been sufficiently impressive to suggest they could break new ground by achieving back-to-back victories over top-class opposition when they play Biarritz in the Heineken Cup in France.
Last weekend's win was arguably their greatest one-off achievement. They were magnificent against the French aristocrats. But time and rugby waits for no man. Connacht must now take on and defeat a French side who will be embarrassed at losing to the minnows of Irish rugby.
Biarritz felt they could afford to start last week with Imanol Harinordoquy on the bench. The French superstar won't need his tracksuit tonight.
Biarritz trail Connacht by three points. Harlequins have an unbreakable strangle-hold on the pool. Their 14 points see them six points clear of the Westerners.
The pool is theirs. Biarritz are playing for pride tonight, which makes them a very dangerous animal. And they are playing for new employers. The sacking of their coaching staff by Serge Blanco during the week will either galvanise or demoralise them.
Either way, they will be a very different proposition this time round, something Connacht's injured scrum-half Frank Murphy says was emphasised all this week.
"Players like Dan Parks have played in Biarritz's ground before and have helped prepare the team as to what to expect," says Murphy. "At this stage of our development, the fear barrier about going to these places is gone. We are now at a stage where we have to be aiming to win these type of matches.
"And that's what the team are aiming to do tonight."
It is, of course, a big task, especially at the end of what has been a very traumatic week for Connacht.
The news that Robbie Henshaw, who starred against Biarritz last week, has signed a new two-year contract is a boost for the province, but it is tempered by the imminent departure of their only current senior Ireland international.
The courting of Mike McCarthy by Leinster has left a bad taste with Connacht, but Murphy insisted that it won't distract the players from what is potentially their biggest ever achievement.
"Players come and go. That's the nature of professional sport. Connacht, I'm sure, did their very best to hold on to Mike. He made his decision and that's it. He will be a very big loss, but all teams lose players.
"Connacht are continuing to evolve and the onus is on us to make sure that, in the future, players are confident that they can achieve their career ambitions with Connacht," he says.
"And we're certainly getting there, as results like last weekend are proving."
Tonight could be another step along the road for the westerners. It represents an opportunity to achieve under the weight of expectation.
The Connacht crowd have started to really believe that anything is possible.
"You could sense the surge of self-belief among the supporters last weekend. And the players really responded to it. It will be harder without them, but what a magnificent chance this represents," Murphy adds.
While allowing for the feel-good mood that has engulfed Connacht this week, it is hard to predict anything other than a home victory.
Biarritz have too much quality and the effect of the brewing civil war with Leinster over the transfer of McCarthy cannot have gone unnoticed in their locker-room.
Nothing is impossible, but it is going to be exceptionally difficult, with the first 20 minutes the key. Biarritz are surely going to start at 100mph in the belief that an early onslaught will break Connacht's spirit.
If Connacht keep their defensive line intact in what promises to be a frenetic first quarter, then it could have the reverse effect. And if the Biarritz crowd grow disillusioned with their team and turn against them, Connacht might well be in a position to capitalise.
It is a lot of ifs and buts, though Connacht have travelled to France with determination in the soles of their boots. They have made just one change to the side, with Johnny O'Connor replacing Willie Faloon in the back-row.
As expected, Biarritz have recalled their captain Harinordoquy. He will lead the French resistance from his usual spot at the base of the pack.
He is just one of a number of changes Biarritz have made to their side.
Last weekend's centre pairing have paid the price for their part in the defeat, with recalls for Jean Paul Barraque and try-scoring machine Damien Traille, which is bad news for the Connacht defence.
In the pack, Raphael Lakafia moves from No 8 to openside to accommodate Harinordoquy's return, while Pelu Taele is in to partner Erik Lund in the second-row in place of Thibault Dubarry.
Biarritz are clearly hurting after last weekend's loss. Worrying for Connacht is the fact that in their last nine games, Biarritz have followed up a defeat with an emphatic victory.
That is the challenge facing the Irish province. They can do the one-off victories, but how ready are they for the next step in their evolution?
BIARRITZ – I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, J Barraque, D Traille, A Brew; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; F Barcella, B August, F Kodela, E Lund, P Taele, W Lauret, R Lakafia, I Harinordoquy (c). Reps: J Genevois, W Blaauw, T Synaeghel, T Dubarry, M Lund, Y Lesgourgues, S Burotu, M Bosch.
CONNACHT – R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (c), K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney, M Kearney, M McCarthy, A Browne, J O'Connor, E McKeon. Reps: E Reynecke, D Buckley, N White, D Qualter, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, M Jarvis.
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