Saturday 21 July 2018

Win or bust for European ambitions

Plenty to be happy with but clinical edge is a must

Pita Ahki gets his stretching done. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Pita Ahki gets his stretching done. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Ronan Loughney

After the game on Saturday night Kieran Keane said that one of the biggest work-ons for his side going forward was learning 'how to win' tight games like the one they had just come out the wrong side of.

I remember a similarly recurring narrative at the end of the 2015 season, two years after Pat Lam had arrived at the Sportsground.

After Pat's first year we finished the season with seven losing bonus points and in tenth place in the table. The following year we managed to get that down to five losing bonus points and that brought us to seventh in the league.

A team's ability to start and finish a game strongly is something that is probably not considered too much but is a very valuable attribute to have.

Something that has stood out for Richard Cockerill's Edinburgh is how strong they have been at finishing games and getting decisive scores towards the very end of matches.

Saturday was no different in this respect and while it seems that Edinburgh are further progressed on their journey under their coach, Connacht are still on the road to developing that belief and mental fortitude needed to close out tight games.

Tiernan O’Halloran
Tiernan O’Halloran

As I've been saying all season, there is no certain way to fast-track a team to this stage and it is time and experience that will lead them to acquire that mental strength.

Although it may seem like the league campaign was a fruitless affair this year, there was without doubt a lot of good work done and experience garnered.

One of the things that most impressed me about Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is the way in which he has seamlessly blooded exciting new prospects. These guys will have plenty of international experience behind them come the World Cup next year.

He has managed to give these guys experience at the highest level without affecting the winning mentality or without overly exposing the young players.

This is a very tricky balance to strike.

In Connacht, the coaching staff have also managed to use the full ranks of the squad by giving experience to young guys and also in rotating and managing players well this year.

High-volume

This is crucial for a squad like Connacht's and that dependability throughout the squad is very important at the high-volume stages of the season.

As well as that, the foundations are now firmly in place for new attack and defence structures and while we saw a lack of consistency in the execution of these, we've certainly seen plenty to be positive about for the future.

Furthermore, there has been some very strong recruitment and retention of players for next season and new depth added to a maturing squad in the past few weeks.

Unfortunately, it now seems that the final European qualification spot will be out of reach at the end of the season for Connacht.

However, the winners of the Challenge Cup will receive automatic qualification to Champions Cup Rugby and you would imagine Connacht's full focus and resources will now be directed towards progressing in this competition.

Gloucester tomorrow is the first obstacle in the way and they are a team that Connacht have shared plenty of battles with - but almost always came down on the losing side of.

Gloucester have had a mixed season domestically and currently sit mid-table in the Aviva Premiership. That said their squad possesses a slew of international talent and they won the competition outright in 2015, beating Edinburgh in a tight final at Twickenham.

Connacht have always performed well in cup rugby but have ultimately only ever reached a semi-final.

Home advantage for this game is massive and if Connacht can bring the positives from their better performances this year and channel them into a complete performance, they will be in a good place to get a win in this game.

The return of the Six Nations contingent as well as a few other senior players should bring a bit of a buzz in training this week, and with all the eggs now in this basket, a win is the only option for Kieran Keane's side.

Irish Independent

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