Second win on tour is the target
Squad will be lifted by Benetton comeback after shock Zebre loss
After the final whistle blew against Zebre, I spent a little bit of time lamenting the inaccuracy of the prediction I had made the previous day in this column: for Connacht to pick up five points and head into two tough fixtures on the road with a squad full of confidence based on their sitting in the league and cup respectively.
Unfortunately, the week must have had a very different feeling to it and no doubt there were some harsh words and tough moments in the review of a very disappointing defeat.
Whatever the reasons and however disappointing the performance was against Zebre, credit has to be given to the squad that took the field against a Benetton team on a five-match winning streak in the league, and managed to force out a win in what is always very tough fixture.
Despite a poor first half, that was similar to the Zebre performance had far too many errors, Connacht had the grit and doggedness to fight back into the second half and claim what could be a vital win.
Jarrad Butler was very impressive on his return from injury and continues to be one of Connacht's stand-out performers this season since arriving at the club in July.
Eoin Griffin had a very strong game and his consistency of performance and reliability is something that the coaches must value greatly.
It was good to see Denis Buckley back from injury and getting 50 minutes under his belt. Yet again the maul was an important weapon for Connacht in creating a platform and providing opportunities.
Heading to South Africa this week will be an exciting prospect for players and coaches alike but brings with it a number of other challenges that a lot of players will not have experienced before.
How the players adjust to the travel involved is crucial, while they adjust to the new time zone and get back to normal sleeping patterns as quickly as possible. On top of this many players will be playing at altitude for the first time which by all accounts is a massive test of fitness and a huge advantage to the home team who play and train in these conditions week in, week out.
The ball also travels differently and further at altitude and the kickers and hookers will have to adjust to this as quickly as possible. Discipline will be important also as the kickers' range from the tee is extended by up to ten metres.
The S&C team will no doubt have played a huge role in planning for these back-to-back weeks on the road. It's much like an athlete preparing for a marathon - food, hydration and sleep before the event are maybe where the game is won and lost.
While the Cheetahs lost their last three games on the road they have lost only one game from seven so far this season at home. Of the two new South African additions to the league, the Cheetahs have without doubt had the easiest and most successful transition to the competition.
While they also had a period of uncertainty on exiting Super Rugby, they managed to retain much more of their core player group than the Southern Kings.
In almost all their games this season we have seen how potent their attack can be. Their trip to the Sportsground in November was one of only three games so far this season where they scored less than 20 points.
In the latter stages of the game tomorrow when the altitude is taking full effect on the lungs, more space will open up and opportunities will arise. This is when Connacht's defence will really get to show where it is at and could again be the winning of the game for them.
The bench will also play a massively important role in adding energy and organisation to a tired group.
Although the odds are probably against Connacht, they have shown this season that while they are lacking in consistency all too regularly one thing this group of players is not short on is resilience.
If they can edge a win tomorrow in Bloemfontein, it will cap two very good weeks in this competition after one of their worst, and will surely instil a new level of confidence amongst a team that has been slowly building it all season.
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