Thursday 22 March 2018

Johnny O'Connor: Top six may be beyond Lam's side

Difficult run-in could scupper hopes, but play-off spot is no disaster

Pat Lam keeps a watchful eye on Connacht training Picture: Sportsfile
Pat Lam keeps a watchful eye on Connacht training Picture: Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

Connacht find themselves on a whole new footing after three wins in a row in the Pro12. And they will blitz Zebre at the Sportsground this evening, which means they enter the break with a job well done.

Three weeks ago, before they came into this block of games, Connacht wanted to get a minimum of 16 points and they are well on track to get a big haul from it already. 

In the long-run it's going to be hard to reach the top six, because Glasgow Warriors are sixth and once they get their internationals back in action they won't suffer too many slip-ups. But seventh place and a Champions Cup play-off might be Connacht's best bet and it's well within range.

You never say never, but it's going to be a really tough run-in and Connacht have to win everything, and pick up as many points as they can along the way. There is absolutely no room for error from here on out because there won't be too many more opportunities if Connacht do lose a game.

If Connacht pick up the maximum from the Zebre game, they put themselves in with a really good chance of getting into the Champions Cup next time around. Connacht got a bonus point against Treviso last weekend, and they played well so they need to be happy with that.

They've got the players back now, and with Bundee Aki back on the field it's a huge boost to the morale of the entire group. He was missing for a long time and it's great to be able to call on a big character like that for the run-in.

The win at Stadio Monigo last weekend showed that Connacht had learned the lessons from the Dragons fixture in the previous round. To be fair to Dragons, they nullified Connacht's threats after that opening quarter. But then you look at last weekend and Leinster put 54 points on them.

Connacht are building a bit of momentum now and hopefully they can turn that into something special. They weren't great against Dragons, but they got the win, and they backed that up against Treviso with a five-pointer which was crucial.

Now whatever Zebre present them with tonight, they need to win these games and find a way to get over the line. Connacht just need wins and if they don't get them the season is done.

smart And it's a great time to get Zebre. Connacht should run riot against them but they need to be smart at the start of the game and build a score before they open them up.

There's no top four place on the line at this stage, but having Champions Cup rugby in Galway will affect the province greatly over the coming years. When you are playing with the big boys you are going to get better. 

Playing in the Champions Cup pool stages is the nearest thing to international rugby. So to lose that opportunity would be a slight setback for a team like Connacht right now. 

Every game Connacht have now it is like a cup final. If Connacht get the four tries against Zebre and move on to the bigger games after the break with momentum, they could really make something of this season.

Glasgow will have a few of their internationals back by the time that Connacht travel to Scotstoun towards the end of March, but a confident Connacht outfit are capable of anything.

In terms of the Six Nations, Ireland had a good win last weekend. France were going to come out of the blocks in the first 20 or 25 minutes and they did that. But Ireland hung in there, created a scrum opportunity, there was a great clear-out by Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray had the hole to go through. 

It was nice to see Ireland pin France back with the variation of their kicking and Ireland had much more to work with than just one-off runners in attack. The conditions certainly didn't make it easy but Ireland coped with it and they looked really good. 

They kicked to the corners; I would have preferred to see them build a score early on but so be it. Their whole ploy was to tire France out and that worked. It's all set up for the England finale now, as long they can negotiate Wales in Cardiff.

Irish Independent

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