Player Diary: 16th man can make all the difference
Atmosphere in the RDS was special and recreating that with a sea of blue at Murrayfield will be huge for us
What a difference a few weeks makes in professional rugby! Rewind four weeks and the team was coming back from a thumping loss to Ulster in the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast with our tails between our legs.
But that was then. Three weeks on we managed to put in a strong performance together to reverse the result and book our place in the Guinness Pro12 final against Connacht.
Last weekend's game was one of the more complete showings we have put together in the past few months. We got off to flying start through strong carrying and several dynamic phases inside the Ulster 22 to eventually send Isa over for a cracking finish in the right corner.
I ran the tee during the game for Johnny (Sexton) so was closer to the action than watching from the stands. In simple terms, it means bringing the kicking tee and water on for Johnny when he's about to take a kick. So I could see that things were ticking along well, there was a focus and an intensity in everything we did. It was impressive to see.
During the warm-up it was also impressive to see the amount of travelling support from Ulster but thankfully between our own strong start and our own fans playing their part brilliantly, we kept them reasonably quiet! But what an atmosphere.
The lineout and scrum functioned strongly and had to as we knew it was an area Ulster were strong in. I also felt there was real cohesion throughout the backline in our decision-making, everyone seemed to be reading off the same hymn sheet.
The team performance for the first 60 minutes and the impact of the bench was really satisfying. So, overall, it's nice to get confidence going into the biggest game of our season but we know the level will have to go up if we want to beat Connacht. They have arguably played some of the best rugby in the league this year and the performance they put together in dispatching Glasgow was very impressive.
It's funny when you aren't playing games, due to my ban, you tend to read more papers. If I'm playing week to week I would never pick up a paper and read them as I sometimes find it can become a distraction. At the end of the day people are entitled to their opinion and it's one of the great things about sport and is what drives the interest levels. As players, however, we try to steer clear of reading our own press whether it's good or bad.
But seeing Garry (Ringrose) and Ben (Te'o) put in big performances after getting criticised by ex-Ulster players was particularly satisfying and although not a prime motivation, I'm sure it was nice for them to have people eating their words.
For the Pro12 it was important to have such exciting and high-quality games in the semi-finals. The Pro12 has been criticised in the past for the standard in comparison to the Aviva Premiership but I think they have been put to bed after those games and a great run in for the top six and top four. It's a credit to Irish rugby at the moment that three out of four provinces were involved in the play-offs and now two Irish sides will battle for the trophy in the final.
It will also be exactly the level of rugby Joe Schmidt will want guys involved in before they head off to South Africa.
For me now it's nice to be free! My three-week ban that I picked up at home against Edinburgh finished after the Ulster game on Friday night. I will be available for selection tomorrow in a squad that is pretty much full strength going into the final game for silverware. There is massive competition for places all over the park and in the match-day 23. It's a headache Leo will be happy to have and I'm confident whoever gets the privilege to play will do justice for the 56 players who have been involved in the league campaign this season.
Finals and silverware is where every professional player wants to be and I know the atmosphere for this all-Irish final in Scotland will be electric! Hopefully the 16th man will be on our side with a sea of blue throughout the stadium, it promises to be a cracker!