Marmion: We can't afford slow start next year
A summer of change beckons in Connacht and Kieran Marmion wants the province to ensure that it extends to their pre-season regime.
As yet, new coach Kieran Keane's arrival has not been scheduled due to his commitments with Super Rugby contenders the Chiefs, so the players don't have their return date and schedules for the beginning of the next campaign.
The province's defence of their Guinness PRO12 crown was hampered before it got going when they played just one warm-up game before their season-opener. Given the seismic changes to their squad, it was unsurprising when they got off to a dreadful start.
Add in the shock departure of coach Pat Lam and an at-times ridiculous injury list and it has been a season largely to forget.
They did manage a realistic assault at the Champions Cup knockout stages and they remain in with a shout of qualifying for the top tournament again next season through a tough end-of-season play-off, but a likely eighth-placed finish sees them fall well below the standard they set last season.
In 2015/'16, they won 15 games to collect 73 points while scoring 60 tries during the regular season. This time around, with two rounds remaining, they have won nine times, scoring 44 tries and have amassed 44 points.
Defeats to Dragons and Zebre have been low points, but Marmion believes a place in the Champions Cup would rescue the campaign. To get there, they'll have to beat an English Premiership side - probably Harlequins or Gloucester - and the winners of the other play-off between Cardiff Blues and a French side. It won't be easy.
"We didn't start as well as we wanted to, we'd a lot of injuries throughout the season which didn't help," Marmion reflected. "We definitely aren't where we wanted to be at the end of the season, but I think if we can get into these play-offs and qualify for the Champions Cup we can call it a bit of a successful season even though we wanted to do better in the PRO12.
"Everyone did experience that high (of last season's PRO12 win) and we wanted that again, but we'd a few changes in players and there was a bit of disruption there.
"It took us a bit of a while to settle into the team together, the start of the season wasn't great and that was a bit of a reflection on changing it around and lads gelling together and getting into the groove of things.
"It's consistency. We've shown that we can get up for games with the Toulouse and Wasps games, we've shown we can beat these teams and it's just about putting a run of games together.
"We've slipped up a number of times this year against Dragons and Zebre, definitely they're games we feel we should be winning. We didn't go over there (to Parma) in the right frame of mind and that ended up happening.
"So, I guess the consistency this year hasn't been the same as last year and that's probably been a big factor in why we're eighth in the league now."
Marmion admits that Lam's departure did have a destabilising effect on some members of the squad.
"No one was really expecting it. When we went into the meeting no one had heard anything about it beforehand," he said. "A lot of lads were shocked, Pat's been professional about it. He's still going the same, his reviews are maybe even longer sometimes after those losses.
"It shouldn't have affected us too much but I guess it was a shock to lads and did rattle a few lads."
Marmion hasn't spoken to new coach Keane and says the players are still in the dark about his movements this summer.
"We just need to come back into pre-season and regroup again; just build the bond that we had when we won the PRO12 final," he said.
"Everyone was really close, everyone's still close now but we've to make sure that the guys who come in now join in and get to grips with everything.
"With a new coach, we'll have to learn what he wants from us; learn the new style that he wants to play.
"I don't know if he'll change it up much or what, but I guess it's getting to grips with that as quickly as possible so we're ready for the first few games.
"They (the Chiefs) play great rugby. "Everybody's pretty excited about what he can bring, Pat's left us in a good place and hopefully now we can push on again and get back to a good place.
"I haven't spoken with him at all, I think that's all left to Pat and Tim (Allnutt) who have been in touch with him.
"We're all just waiting to hear when he's coming in and what we're required to do in pre-season.
"I don't think everyone really knows what's going on there with the Chiefs who are probably going to qualify for the play-offs. I guess we're just waiting to know when we'll get back in and we start again."
Before then, Marmion will hope to build on his international progress in Japan after his successful first Six Nations start against England last month in which he proved that all is not lost if Conor Murray goes down.
"I really enjoyed it," he said.
"There were a lot of nerves going into it, but once you're out there it's just another game of rugby.
"I'm ready to go whenever I'm called upon. Hopefully I can keep building confidence in the coaches and take the opportunities I'm given."
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