Saturday 25 January 2020

Trip down memory lane as we tackle familiar faces in Grenoble

Robbie Henshaw going through his paces at training this week – Connacht fans will be hoping for a big performance tomorrow night in Grenoble (SPORTSFILE)
Robbie Henshaw going through his paces at training this week – Connacht fans will be hoping for a big performance tomorrow night in Grenoble (SPORTSFILE)

John Muldoon

It's hard to believe that its 11 years since Connacht were last out in Grenoble in a Challenge Cup quarter-final, but if the game goes as well as that one did for us we'll be more than satisfied on Sunday's flight home.

As a fresh faced 23-year-old I couldn't have dreamed that I'd be captaining Connacht back there in 2016 - and I certainly didn't imagine it'd be against a team coached by the Connacht hooker and managed by one of our second-rows from that game.

I played a good bit of rugby with both Bernard Jackman and Andrew Farley in my early years at the province - I even lived beside 'Bruce' - so I know them both really well. If it was any other game they'd have my best wishes, but all friendships will be parked for 80 minutes tomorrow.

With the Challenge Cup providing a direct route into next year's Champions Cup for the winners, this competition is every bit as important to us as finishing in the top six of the Pro12. We have almost achieved our number one goal via the league, but even so, we'd like to achieve in the Challenge Cup as well.

And it is a competition that has served us well over the years. We've had some memorable wins - away trips to France have given us some real bright moments - but we have never quite been able to get into the decider, which is a big target for us.


But standing in the way is a very good Grenoble side. Since 'Berch' took over there a couple of seasons ago they have played a very attractive brand of rugby, while they have also managed to retain the traditional French strengths of a powerful set-piece game.

On their day they are formidable opposition.

The first half of their Top 14 season didn't go to plan for them as they hovered around the mid to lower half of the table, but it is notable that they have picked up their performances in recent weeks.

The Irish influence on their team goes deeper than the management, with James Hart at scrum-half and Chris Farrell in the centre, as well as a few other lads in the squad, and they will want to leave a mark on the game and upset our plans.

But focusing on us, I think we are in a great place right now. While we didn't get the win in Belfast against Ulster last weekend, we were all pleased with the character that was shown out there.

Considering we trailed 18-3 at one stage and finished the game with 13 men, I thought we gave it everything and at a minimum deserved a point from the game. Conceding a try like we did early in the second half, that might have seen us fold in the past, but we are well beyond that sort of reaction now. There is a belief in our ability and in each other and I was happy to see that we reacted positively.

Ulster upset us at the breakdown and slowed our ball down a good bit, but once we got that sorted out we knew we were capable of scoring against them.

When we did get over, it was a memorable try finished off by Caolin Blade, which showed everything that we do well. It came at the end of some incessant attacking, so to score the try and see Shane O'Leary kick the conversion was great reward.

It was unfortunate that we couldn't add another score or two, but far from being despondent in defeat, we are still full of confidence and we know it was a game we certainly could have won.

It is a pretty good feeling to be still in the running in both the league and Europe with just a month to go in the season, but we also know that we could end up empty-handed if we don't continue to improve as a team.

The moment you are satisfied with your lot you are setting yourself up for a fall.

We have three games to go in the Pro12 and right now the minimum we expect is to claim a spot in next year's Champions Cup. As a group we won't be satisfied unless we go on and take everything we can from this season.

If our best sees us fall short of winning something then fine, but we don't want to have any regrets when all is said and done. There are two semi-finals up for grabs and if we perform in the remaining games. . . well, we'll see what happens.

But there is a real freshness about tomorrow's game. It's a chance to park all the excitement surrounding the Pro12 and the chase for the top six and to go out there, in a one-off game, and have a right crack at making a statement on the European scene again.

At the end of last season we lost out twice to Gloucester in Europe, both games that we felt we could have won.

The second loss - the play-off to get into the Champions Cup - still sticks in the craw and as a group we feel we owe it to ourselves to do our utmost in this year's competition as a result.

And we are a better team and squad now. We are more consistent in what we do and we have improved our basics skills immeasurably in the last 12 months.

But maybe the most important thing is we now know the feeling of winning consistently. We want another taste of that tomorrow at Stade Des Alpes, and with a home semi-final as the carrot, it's a lovely thing to play for.

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