Our young guns have the ability and are now showing the consistency
Our winning run came to an end last week and the injuries countiue to mount, but nothing has changed at the Sportsground.
There is huge confidence and we just went back to our processes to prepare for the big challenge that a side like Newcastle will bring in the Challenge Cup tonight.
It’s a massive game for us. They are not doing so well in the Premiership so they are coming here to prove a point. And maybe they want a springboard to bring with them back into their domestic form. But we also have our own agenda, we want to wrestle back that momentum and defend our home record.
I’m not involved tonight after a tough outing in Cardiff where I picked up my 200th Pro12 appearance and also a bit of a knock to my calf. It was a fantastic honour to become the first player to reach 200, and I’m sure in years to come I’ll appreciate it that bit more. But I would have traded all of that for a win at Cardiff Arms Park.
We didn’t do a whole lot wrong, but at the same time we knew we didn’t perform to the levels we have been in recent games. We were on a great run and while we know it can’t last forever, we were really disappointed.
Negativity is a dangerous thing, and when you’re on a winning run, you’re playing against a side that you don’t have great record against and a few of your team-mates start to get injured, it can play on your mind. But we were happy that we kept our heads and nearly grabbed the win out there.
I really don’t like that surface though. Both times we have played Cardiff on the 4G pitch we have come away counting the cost. I have played four times on the artificial surface – away to Cardiff in the league twice, at Saracens in the old Heineken Cup, and in a pre-season friendly away to Newcastle.
Anytime I come away from one of those pitches, my joints would be at me. It’s just not natural, scrummaging wise you need to be playing on it regularly to be comfortable. It gets into your head that you can’t afford to lift your legs, and that’s not a good mindset in a pressurised situation.
In the grand scheme of things, my calf injury is minor when you compare it to the injuries some of the other guys have. I should be fine for the trip to Newcastle next week or at the latest, the Ulster game after that. With the other injuries in the squad, it’s just really bad luck in most cases. The one thing that’s noticeable is that there’s very little by way of muscle strains, that would suggest guys are not being over-trained. It’s just the nature of the game we play and injuries are unavoidable in a long season.
So life goes on as normal. Lads are continuing with their rehab and itching to get back out on the field. But the fit players are doing the usual stuff and there’s a really confident bunch ready to unleash on Newcastle.
Pat always says if you’re good enough you’ll get your chance, and it’s on these younger guys to prove themselves now again. But it’s great to see them step up to the plate on every opportunity.
Peter Robb was fantastic when he got his chance again last week, following on from his exploits over in Siberia. He is a fantastic talent, as is James Connolly who continues to do brilliantly at openside. Then you have the likes of Rory Parata, Sean O’Brien and Caolin Blade so there’s guys there who are well able to step up.
But the important thing is consistency of performance, it’s obvious these guys have the ability and they have been training with us for over a year now. They have shown flashes of brilliance throughout their time with the senior squad.
However, if you really want to push for a place and become a first-team regular you need to keep the standards high on a regular basis. It’s like what Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion did when they first came through, and they are wonderful role models for these guys. But the younger lads are doing it now, and that’s why we have performed better as a team this season.
Going into this game it would have been nice to be top of the Pro12, but we’re still right up there and it’s good to have the change of emphasis with back-to-back fixtures against a Premiership side in the Challenge Cup. We will give guys their chance for these games, but those who come in know what’s needed from them.
Winning the Challenge Cup is another route to Champions Cup rugby next year, but the chance of silverware in 2015-16 is also something we’re really hungry for.
It’s great to have an English team for the back-to-back games, because there’s nothing quite like those Anglo-Irish contests.
There’s always a serious bite to the tackles and the fans know they are in for a massively competitive game.
Newcastle are coming to the Sportsground with a hugely physical side and they will want to win that facet of the game. But with our form in the Pro12 and knowing what’s at stake I believe the lads will do the business.
A win tonight would be a massive boost and put us in control of the pool and in a good position heading over to Newcastle next week.