Friday 24 November 2017

Connacht know there is no room for error - Denis Buckley

Denis Buckley
Denis Buckley
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It's not some sort of complex, but Connacht are acutely aware that they have always needed a helping hand from others when it came to dining at Europe's top table.

They even needed a helping hand from Leinster last weekend to ensure they got to this point, even if Pat Lam recoiled at the suggestion. However, if they can beat Gloucester tomorrow and go on to beat the seventh-placed French team in Galway a week later, then no one could deny their achievement.

For a local boy like Denis Buckley, the significance of Champions Cup rugby coming to Galway is clear and the loosehead prop is desperate that the recent loss of momentum does not cost them their Holy Grail.

Automatic qualification slipped through their grasp, but they remain in the hunt.


"I know that no Connacht team has ever gotten into the European Cup off their own back, we needed Leinster to win before," he said gravely.

"That by itself would be a brilliant achievement, as well as the fact that we put so much into this season, that it's our highest ever finish and we've got such a big opportunity now to go over there and win this weekend.

"Then we'll take the seventh-placed French team back to the Sportsground, it's massive for us and we're ready and focused. We know what we need to do and hopefully we can go and get the win."

Standing in their way are Gloucester, the team that ended their European dreams for this season in April.

That night in Kingsholm will live in infamy for other reasons, but for the squad it is a reference point from which they can draw comfort.

For 40 minutes they allowed David Humphreys' men walk over them and went in 14-0 down at the break. After half-time was a different story.

"It's a great opportunity to maybe right some of the wrongs from that last weekend," Buckley enthused.

"Going over, we can be a bit more confident that we know the set-up, we know what the crowd's like, the pitch, the stadium, the changing rooms, etc. It just gives us more of a relaxed feeling going over. We know that we have to play better than we did the last time. In the first half the last time they had something like 75pc possession and we can't give them that with the players we have.

"I don't think we exited that well the last time, so that's a big focus this week and like any game you want to have a strong set-piece."

Robbie Henshaw is Connacht's poster boy, but Buckley is another ringing endorsement for the province's Academy and an example of their 'grass roots to green shirts' programme coming to fruition.

Making his way from Creggs RFC in Roscommon to being named in the Emerging Ireland squad with the help of the renowned Blackrock College finishing school, he was named in the Pro12's team of the season last week.

If he had remained in Dublin after finishing his schooling, he might not have gotten his chance but at Connacht the former Ireland U-20 has played 68 times for his home province, with 22 starts this season.

In another era, he'd probably have a cap to go with it but the stocks at loosehead prop are brimming for Joe Schmidt. "The best way to improve is game time and experience in the bigger games," said Buckley.

"Some of the opposition you're playing, the majority of players have international caps so getting reps against those players is the best way to improve.

"You can only do so much in training, out in the gym to prepare. But it's all about getting game time and minutes.

"I'm pretty happy with how my season has gone so far, there's obviously room for improvement and some performances could have done a bit more but it's gone well for me.

"The key thing is that I've had a really good crack at the No 1 jersey this year and, when you get a lot of reps at this level and you build some confidence at this level it's easier to repeat that performance then."

It has been a fine campaign for the player and his team, but a horrendous run of fixtures and an injury list to match has cost them automatic qualification.

Throughout that run, a tendency to give up big first-half leads and then try and reel teams in has been a recurring trend. Buckley doesn't feel it's a timing issue, rather a need to tighten up the concentration levels.

"When you're playing against opposition of the calibre that we've been playing against over the last couple of weeks, we've seen that one lapse in concentration gets really punished," he explained.


"Before you know it you find yourself seven, 10, 14 points behind and we've given ourselves a fair amount of work to do.

"In fairness to the lads in the squad, we've come out fighting once we have gone behind. The key for this weekend is to have a high level of concentration from the start, to not give up any easy scores and keep applying pressure to them throughout the whole game - not just the second 40 minutes.

"We started quite well the last day, but it's just one or two mistakes got punished. It's about starting well and then keeping the concentration and focus.

"We all prepare well during the week, but hopefully we can impose ourselves on Gloucester and get a big win."

That would set up the grand finale Connacht's season deserves, but they know that that's not the way it works.

"We've found out the tough way over the last couple of weeks that there just is no margin for error," is how Buckley summed it up.

Tomorrow afternoon, we find out if they've learned their lesson.

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