Sport Connacht Rugby

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Italian trip gives us chance to get back into battle for European spot

Gloucester beat Connacht in the Challenge Cup before going on to win the competition
Gloucester beat Connacht in the Challenge Cup before going on to win the competition

Robbie Henshaw

It has been a pretty long season, but with two games to go we are still in the thick of things and are in with a chance of climbing the table.

It's funny, last week after the Glasgow game the body felt a bit tired, but it's amazing what a difference a week makes.

We didn't go too hard at it last week and then we had a long weekend off. By Monday morning there was a noticeable step up in the intensity from everyone at training ahead of tomorrow's game with Zebre.

We did a lot of our prep work last week - the video work and analysis of our recent games with Zebre - so it meant that first thing Monday morning we were ready to hit the ground running.

The field sessions have been really good. The lads are fired up about the challenge and we've put those recent poor results behind us.

Much of my weekend was spent chilling out on the couch with the remote control never too far away from me. It was a sports fan's dream, channel-surfing from rugby, to soccer, to boxing, to GAA, to golf, to snooker and back to rugby again.

Because I finished off my exams on Friday I went out with a few mates in Galway so I could only follow the Challenge Cup final on my phone. It seems Gloucester did well and were deserving winners.

It's not much solace to us to know we were knocked out by the eventual winners.


The Champions Cup final is always a game not to be missed so on Saturday I tuned in. With two French teams playing in Twickenham I thought it might have been a strange enough kind of setting for Europe's biggest game.

There was one or two gaps in the crowd, but not as many as predicted, so the atmosphere looked to be lively enough.

It was a brilliant game. Both teams went at it from the start: it went one way then the other and Toulon did really well to pull clear at the end after Clermont pushed them all the way. Drew Mitchell's try was pretty sublime and deserved to be the winning score.

Right at the end it looked like Clermont had come back again and they were going to take them with a late try in the corner. They'll have to wait another year now, but they have been a great team all year too.

Just looking at the TV when they were naming out both teams the talent on show was incredible. Toulon especially, nearly every player in the match day squad has over 30 or 40 international caps and who's to say they won't win four in a row next year?

We're down to the business end of the season too and the last week of games in the Pro12 is always choreographed to kick off at the same time across the continent, but this week is still a normal round of games for everyone. With that in mind, a lot of things can change in the next 48 hours in the battle for six, seventh and eighth.

Tonight Edinburgh face a very difficult trip to take on Dragons at Rodney Parade. At the best of times that is a difficult game - just ask Ulster and Leinster and they'll attest to that - but because of their Challenge Cup commitments Edinburgh have had to play a game for each of the last six weeks.

We saw it here this week, the value of an extra few days off to recharge is priceless, and so I can only imagine that the Edinburgh lads are a bit fatigued. We'll all be watching that game pretty closely to see what happens. If Dragons can do us a favour it would really put the ball back in our court for tomorrow.

In that instance, a win in Italy would really get us right back in the fight for at least a play-off spot. If we can get a good win, the pressure would be straight back on Scarlets ahead of their derby with Cardiff Blues on Sunday.

You are always supposed to focus on your own game, but once it gets to this stage of the season, what other teams achieve or don't achieve really does affect you.

Scarlets did well the last day to take a bonus point win against Dragons in their big 'Judgement Day' derby at the Millennium Stadium so I'm sure they are buzzing ahead of this weekend.

If results go their way they could clinch a spot in the Champions Cup with a win on Sunday, but similarly they could end the weekend back in a fight with one week to go.

But to just look at our own challenge, it'll be a very tough game for us. At home Zebre have been impressive of late.

Like every other team in the league Zebre have continued to improve all season and they've shown that through their performances in Parma especially.

Scarlets just squeezed past them last time with a late, late penalty from Rhys Priestland and Dragons were beaten in the previous home game. It's clear that they are fighting hard to get ahead of Treviso in their own personal battle for Champions Cup spots.

For both teams there is a huge amount up for grabs, so we are certainly not going to write them off and expect an easy challenge.

One thing is for sure, we'll know a lot more on Sunday evening: where we stand and what our challenge is; if we still have something to play for or not. All we can do is focus on performing in Italy.

If it's enough it's enough and we'll live to fight another day.

Irish Independent

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