Worrying loss turns up heat for huge clash
No room for any more slip-ups as in-form Benetton eye sixth win
Connacht suffered a huge setback last weekend and it will be a real test of character away to Benetton Rugby tomorrow. Most eyes will be on the Aviva Stadium and the Six Nations, but Connacht's trip to Italy could define their season.
If you look back through the season, particularly in the PRO14, some of the performances have been very poor. Even the games Connacht have won have been littered with little errors.
It's a far cry from hammering Ulster in the Sportsground at Christmas time. You can't help but wonder why Connacht couldn't kick on from that.
In the league they have struggled to put any form together, while they have been good in Europe. But that may be because they might not have been expected to win some of those games.
Saying all that, you would hope Connacht are past the stage where they used the underdog tag in their favour, and sometimes relied on it. Last Friday was a big step in the wrong direction.
The basic errors were rife, there were bad calls and bad management on the pitch. There was an air of apathy going through it all, and the fact that John Muldoon wasn't starting, you would hope that's not a reason for it.
That's worrying because he's leaving at the end of the season and then you start to wonder who can lead this team forward when he's not around.
His playing career was always going to come an end at some stage and right now it doesn't look like Connacht have legislated for his departure.
Even guys like Tom McCartney, who would usually have fronted up in difficult scenarios - his lineout throws were off and that's a fundamental part for any hooker.
That team needed the older guys to stand up when they fell behind against Zebre. Bundee Aki wasn't there, Kieran Marmion didn't start, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux weren't there. Tiernan O'Halloran was another one of the bigger figures missing.
You would hope that if they were there it might not have gone downhill like that. But still, that can't be an excuse at home to Zebre. Connacht should never lose a game like that.
Coming off of a win over Ospreys and qualification for a home quarter-final in Europe, and an impressive home record this season, things don't look that bad. But it's the performances that strike you as a worrying factor.
Zebre were good though. They performed well, adopted a simple system of shooting up fast in their defensive line. They sent some one-off defenders up too.
But overall they had a clear and precise vision about what they were defending against, and they knew how to contain Connacht. They caught Connacht on the hop, behind the gain-line, and they were unlucky not to score again and get a bonus point.
Whatever inside track Michael Bradley had coming back to the Sportsground, it certainly worked. But still saying that, it's a fairly disastrous outcome for Connacht.
Now they face a difficult trip to Benetton. The Italians made it five wins in-a-row at the weekend, and then it's on to South Africa after that. If the morale is low for them it's going to be very difficult.
The PRO14 chances are probably gone at this stage. But Connacht have the responsibility to perform for the staff, for the supporters and sponsors, but even for the players themselves. Ahead of the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup it's crucial they win matches and play well.
If they keep the performances levels where they are now they won't beat Gloucester, and then it's season over. When Connacht return from the South African trip they should have their international contingent available again, but then you wonder what state will those players be in.
Bundee is a big part of Joe Schmidt's plans in this tournament, and Marmion is likely to get a bit of game time too along with the rigorous mental and physical training.
Dillane and Roux are around the camp too and they could be forgiven for being a bit fatigued up until the big European quarter-final.