Sunday 22 April 2018

We are determined to be top-six - and it doesn't have to be sixth

John Muldoon takes the attack to Munster’s BJ Botha at Thomond Park
John Muldoon takes the attack to Munster’s BJ Botha at Thomond Park

John Muldoon

It's great to get back into the swing of things and I'm excited about what's ahead for us this season. We are nearly finished a tough pre-season now and with three games under our belt we cannot wait for Dragons in Round 1 of the Pro12.

Pre-season has been good - I haven't missed any sessions and my body is ready. It's never easy, no matter how many of them you do, but this is why we play the game.

You have to get the armour on for the year ahead and prepare your body for the season. We really need to be in the best shape possible more than ever because we have 21 games in 22 weeks later in the year.

But Connacht is full of young guys who have worked their way up through the ranks and got blooded last year. They will be push on this time around and look to play more, which should give us more options.

Last term, we probably had a more settled team early in the season and didn't make too many changes, but then the injuries came.

The younger lads had to step in but maybe weren't as ready as they could have been because they lacked the game-time.

Towards the end of the season they improved immensely and certainly have stepped up in pre-season again this time around. They all want to stake their claim for a place in the team.

That puts pressure on the guys who were almost permanent fixtures last year so there's a healthy atmosphere around the place.


We haven't recruited massively but we haven't needed to, and the guys that we have brought in have all added to the competition for places.

The second-row is going to be hotly contested again this year, especially with Ben Marshall added to the mix. He was away with Emerging Ireland during the summer, as was Andrew Browne.

Danny Qualter stepped up from the academy last year and Quinn Roux is back from injury. Ultan Dillane had his breakthrough year last year and Aly Muldowney was probably our stand-out player and will look to build on that this term.

At tighthead Rodney Ah You has been a star performer for us in pre-season, and both Castres and Grenoble were asking about him. That is a testament to how well he has played.

Nathan White has been up with Ireland and Finlay Bealham has come on and done extremely well.

So the ingredients are there - Nepia Fox-Matamua has come over, fitted in well and got a try against Munster. Unfortunately Api Pewhairangi picked up a knee injury in France but all in all the lads have fitted in extremely well.

We have played three games now. The heavy defeat to Grenoble was a disappointment but it was our first hit-out and we used it to give some new guys a bit of game-time, and the performance in France against Castres was much-improved.

That was a nice week for us and we capped it with a decent display; although it ended in defeat we could see things were headed in the right direction and the win over Munster was another marked improvement.

We were delighted to get the result at Thomond Park; there were a lot of things that we worked on during the week that went well for us in the game as well.

But we won't get too excited by it either. Munster had quite an inexperienced side out and were missing a few players, plus it was a pre-season game.

It was great to get our final blow-out against Munster and it's always nice to come away from Thomond with a win. But we still have plenty of things to work on and it will be a totally different test against Dragons on September 4.

Our season goal remains the same: to qualify for next year's Champions Cup. We do that by finishing in the top six of the Pro12 or winning the Challenge Cup. And we'll be targeting both competitions from the start.

Ultimately we are disappointed with how last season finished out for us but we feel we are in a much better position now in terms of our squad, so we should want to achieve more. We have learned a lot about each other from the tough lessons of 2014-15.

We want to be able to close out games better this year. We shouldn't be just one score ahead and this year hopefully we will pull two or three scores clear when we are on top and put our destiny firmly in our own hands.

But the guys in our squad are a bit older and wiser now and I believe we can. We want to be top six and it doesn't have to be sixth. That's what we're saying.

The Sevens competition in Limerick last week was another sign that Connacht have real depth this year. The lads only got together for the first time on Tuesday evening.

They came third overall and did really well. Fionn Carr got six tries and the lads thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good competition and hopefully it continues annually, and other teams support it like we did this year and it can take off.

As a whole there is a massive potential in Connacht at the moment. With the possibility of Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White and Kieran Marmion all being part of the Ireland squad in the World Cup it shows the calibre of player we now possess, it's going to be another big season.

Irish Independent

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