Positives give us hope for a difficult French test
Despite defeat to Exeter Chiefs last Sunday, there are still plenty of positives to take from the weekend. We played some good rugby, we are still in second place in our group, and we can still qualify for the quarter-finals with a big performance and win tomorrow in La Rochelle.
It took a bit of number crunching after the game at the weekend to discover exactly what we need to do tomorrow, but it's pretty clear now. We need a win at least, and a bonus point if possible to make it through to the last eight.
Looking at the positives from the game, I was very happy with how we executed to score our four tries. We showed exactly what we can do when we play some really good team rugby. It was a mix of good play from the forwards and backs in the lead-up to all four tries, so we are pretty happy with that facet of our game.
On the other hand, we were disappointed with some of our play, especially the first 20 minutes after half-time where we conceded 20 points in a row. We had issues keeping the ball, we turned over possession too often, and our kicking was off the mark at times. We gave possession and territory away too easily and allowed them to put pressure on us with their runners in attack. In the end that took its toll.
Leading at half-time, we had talked collectively about the importance of the next 10 minutes and applying pressure, but straight away we let our standards slip which was frustrating for all. For every good thing we did there was another intercept, turnover, or penalty given away which caused us to chase the game instead of pulling away.
After the game there was a lot of disappointed players in our dressing room, but we assessed that a lot of what went wrong was quite easy to fix. We have focused hard on that this week.
While there was a lot to mull over afterwards, I must say we were all impressed with how Matt Healy bounced back in the team. He was left out for a couple of games, but right the way through he was determined to continue to work on areas of his game that had not gone so well for him. His reward was his best 80-minute performance for Connacht Rugby, nailing his 'work-ons'.
As a coaching team all you want players to do is be honest and self-aware with their preparation and performance. But the key to greatness is how you deal with adversity when things don't quite go how you planned. Straight away you are faced with two choices - blame someone, make excuses and sulk or ask for help and work through it with a positive determined attitude. Matt certainly chose the latter and found the benefits.
Despite picking up a knock to the ankle, I thought Robbie Henshaw continued to show that he is a world-class player. He fought hard for the team and the full 80 minutes. A lot of what he does on the field is not a fluke. He spends plenty of time practising his skills during the week so he has the confidence to do it in the games. He won't be with us in France tomorrow and his focus now turns to representing Ireland at the Six Nations and we wish him and the other boys selected all the best. It is a great honour to play for your country and we are all behind them.
While we are hit again with injuries, we have been boosted by the return of Nathan White to the squad. Last week's Connacht Eagles win against Leinster A certainly helped him along the way. That game was crucial for a lot of guys who haven't had much game time together. It's important that we can complement the game time they get with their clubs with minutes in the Connacht shirt. Jake Heenan and Tiernan O'Halloran also came back to full training this week and will feature for the Eagles team at the Sportsground tomorrow.
For certain, there is never an easy game away to a French team, but the most important thing for us is that we go there with belief and a positive frame of mind knowing we are good enough to make it through to the quarter finals.
Come tomorrow night, if we are in the last eight of the Challenge Cup and we are sitting in sixth place in the Pro12 it is not a bad first-half to the season and it will set us up nicely going into the break.
A win last week would have been ideal, but the bonus point we picked up could be the difference. This week the guys have been very focused on tomorrow's game and they know what's needed. We're ready for a big performance.