Pat Lam: Arduous trips great for building team spirit
This week, we took off on our 11th away trip of the season. Travelling and playing games away from home are a big part of professional rugby and while it can be challenging at times and tough being away from family, it is also an extremely beneficial time for the team.
We have to travel via Dublin airport for most of our journeys and this week was no different. We had a7am flight this morning to Milan so we stayed up in Dublin last night.
Due to available flight times, we are not back in Dublin until 10pm on Sunday night so it really is a long four-day round trip for us. You could look at that and dread it - all the buses, hanging around airports and hotels - but we have learned to embrace and make the most of that time together.
Being away as a group and living in such close quarters is great for building relationships. For a team like us who have a lot of younger academy guys stepping up to the side, it can be a very important time for players really to get to know each other.
For example, when Rory Parata came on his first away trip with us at the start of the season, he shared a room with his midfield partner Bundee Aki. That time getting to know your mates is invaluable when it comes to performing on the pitch.
During tough times and when you're under pressure you need to be able to connect with your team-mates.
We always refer back to our delays and week-long stay in Russia as one of the best learning curves as a group. So many challenges were thrown at us but we came through it as a unit and believe it has epitomised so much of our season in terms of overcoming obstacles.
When it comes to playing Zebre, we understand that many people will expect us to go over there and take five points off them without much trouble, but that's certainly not the case.
Yes, we have always come out on top against them but I believe that is down to the respect we have shown them and the work we've put into our analysis and preparation.
Some teams can make the mistake of underestimating the Italian sides, especially when going to their own back-yard.
Zebre will be hurting from their big defeat to Leinster last week but we expect a different side to turn up here in Parma. Back in Round 1, they were hammered by Cardiff by 60 points. They followed that up with victories at home over Edinburgh and Cardiff.
We prepared for Zebre the same way we would have had for an interpro. We don't view it as a chance to give players a rest or change up the team.
Now that we've come through the 16-week block, it's about picking the best team from those available and who we believe can go out there and perform in order to take the points on offer. I don't believe in the idea of 'bringing your A game' some weeks and not others - it's all about 'bringing YOUR game' to every performance and preparing accordingly.
And that's what we want to see against Zebre tomorrow afternoon. They may well have some of their internationals back in the side as the Six Nations takes a break, so that will give them a boost for sure.
Zebre are always tough up front and extremely physical. So if we don't manage that challenge on defence and at the breakdown, then the game can get loose and it becomes a real dogfight.
For us, getting the win is the number one priority. If we stick to our structures, and everyone does their job, then the opportunities will come for scores and the try bonus point will take care of itself.
There is a lot of talk around the Pro12 table and all the permutations. It is extremely tight around the top but there is certainly a split coming, with a lot of the top teams to play each other in the coming weeks.
With so much of the season still to play, we don't get caught up in the table. For us, all we focus on is getting the points on offer each week. There are nine, maybe ten, teams that can make the top six so every game and every point is crucial.
In this block of four games, our only match at home is to Ospreys next week and it's a big goal of ours to come back to the Sportsground and give our supporters something to shout about, with four wins behind us and still sitting high up in the table.