Plenty to build on for the run-in
In-form pack has helped confidence to return again
An assistant coach involved with Connacht a number of years back once spoke to us about how to beat the so-called big teams. He believed that due to our lack of international standard players at the time, for us to win these big games we needed a majority of selected players to have a seven out of ten, or above, performance to be in with a chance of winning.
Connacht's talent and resource pool is vastly different from those days and the number of internationals in the squad is in double figures for the first time. But the Christmas interprovincial games have shown that that same notion still proves accurate for Connacht and all teams: you need your big players to perform in big games to win.
Connacht had an excellent lead-in to the Ulster game, where they beat Brive in back-to-back games in the Challenge Cup, and they brimmed with confidence before they headed to the Sportsground on December 23.
This was Connacht's most complete performance of the season to date, in a game that saw their domination up front trickle into all other facets of the game as the night went on.
Off the back of this game, Connacht travelled to the Dublin looking for a first win at the RDS and a first victory over Leinster since 2002. A slow start left Connacht with a lot to do, and despite a strong second-half performance, they ran out of time.
It was an incredible Leinster defensive performance where they wound down the clock to secure a narrow win. Once again, Connacht's forwards looked dominant and the maul looked a serious threat.
Off the back of the previous two performances, Connacht's trip to Munster carried some expectation that they might repeat the achievement of two years previously. But despite a solid first-half display Connacht had no answer when Munster went up a gear in the second half and went on to a very comfortable victory.
Connacht finished the game with a much less experienced team and that experience was telling against a Munster team desperate to avoid a third defeat in a row. Munster's big players were clinical in a second half that saw them cross the try-line on four occasions.
Despite a very disappointing finish to the Munster game and a poor total points tally from the three games, relative to the performances, Kieran Keane should still have plenty of positives to take from the interprovincial derbies over the festive period.
In all three games Connacht's forward dominance was unquestioned. The scrum was excellent and provided a number of point-scoring opportunities as well as perfect platform for attack. The maul repeatedly revealed itself to be one of Connacht's most potent weapons, Ulster completely failed to deal with it, and the other two provinces threw extra numbers in to limit the damage. There was a much more consistent interplay between forwards and backs within the attacking system and we saw just how dangerous Connacht's outside backs are when playing off the back of a lightning quick breakdown.
It looked as though, for the first time this season, all the parts of the game-plan that Keane has introduced were unified and effectively executed for the majority of the game against Ulster and Leinster.
The squad rotation and blooding of young players continued and despite the end result the likes of Cillian Gallagher, Conan O'Donnell and Paul Doyle will benefit massively from the experience of playing in the pressure of an interprovincial match.
All in all, this squad has grown and developed under Keane's stewardship. They will now look to Europe to get back to winning ways. With their record so far this season in the Challenge Cup, you can imagine that players and coaches alike will be excited about returning to cup rugby and using the positives from the tough Christmas fixtures to build towards securing a home quarter-final over these next couple of games.
Consistency in performance and execution of the game-plan will no doubt be central to preparations for these important matches.