Connacht have given themselves real incentive for finishing out the season with purpose.
Their 38-6 victory over Treviso in the Sportsground on Saturday has propelled them up another place in the Pro 12 table, overtaking Cardiff in the process. Now in 10th place, Connacht are just a single point behind both Edinburgh and the Dragons and an achievable seventh place - the proposed cut off for Heineken Cup qualifications that are still on the table.
Thus for the first time since the Celtic League began, Connacht have a more realistic goal than a “best-placed finish” behind Leinster, Munster and Ulster, and coach Pat Lam has his sights set on qualification.
"If you look at the fixture list, it shows how tight it is. We are a bonus point away from sixth place, and whatever happens in Europe, and they are talking about the top seven, that is now our focus.
“We targeted 16 points in these four games and were two short [before Treviso], so we are really pleased to have taken 10 from the last two.”
It was also the first time Lam's squad had achieved back-to-back bonus-points wins - albeit against the weaker teams in the league - and they will not have it so easy with four of the last six game away to the Dragons, Scarlets, Ulster, and Ospreys.
However Lam believes his squad is "maturing", and the humiliating defeat to Saracens has been the catalyst.
"It was a time to reflect. It clearly highlighted what happens when we don't play as a team. I take my hat off to the guys because it has been pretty tough at training going into this batch of games. There have been a lot of challenges for all of them, but we are maturing into a good understanding and getting on the same page which is really helping us."
Lam believes Saturday's win was another step-up in that continuing process, including mental toughness.
"Against Zebre weekend we shot out to 27-0 and it was disappointing to button off, so when went into a 24-6 lead just before half time, I challenged the boys - ripped into them a bit, and asked the question -'are we going to button off again?' They all said no, went out and finished the job off, got the bonus point, stopped them scoring a try, and I am really proud of them."
In one of Connacht’s best opening 40 minutes this season, Connacht attacked with confidence and purpose in the opening half and were rewarded with three tries, the first as early as the fifth minute when Eoin Griffin's looping pass to fullback Robbie Henshaw provided the space on the wing for Fionn Carr to cross. Outhalf Dan Parks produced a Man of the Match performance - his distribution and both tactical and goal kicking were spot on - nailing every kick to contribute 11 points. He was helped in no small measure by a pack on the front foot, led by John Muldoon, who scored a try in each half, and crisp service from potential Ireland scrumhalf Kieron Marmion, who added his name to the scoresheet with a 32nd minute try. The pack enjoyed a superb battle with their bigger Treviso counterparts, who had the benefit of seven returning internationals. However Connacht's front row of props Rodney Ah You and Denis Buckley, and lively hooker Jason Harris-Wright, have grown in stature since taking over from unavailable Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry and Nathan White. They gave nothing away against a Treviso pack that struggled to strike or gain any momentum. Their only points came from two first-half Matt Berquist's penalties, before Connacht finished the job in the second half with a second Muldoon effort in the 62nd minute from a line-out and drive, while No 8 Eoin McKeon, who put in a good shift all day, dived over for the fifth five minutes from time, which replacement outhalf Miah Nikora converted.
Connacht: R Henshaw, T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Carr, D Parks, K Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, A Muldowney, M Kearney, J Muldoon (cpt ), E Masterson, E McKeon. Replacements, A Browne for Masterson (51m ), N White for Ah You (56m ), D Poolman for Carr and M Swift for Kearney (64m ), M Nikora for Parks, D Heffernan for Harris-Wright and F Bealham for Buckley (all 67m ), F Murphy for Marmion (70m ).
•Family-run timber business, Murray Timber Group, has become an official partner of Connacht Rugby for three years.
The group, which also sponsors Roscommon-based junior club Creggs RFC, was established in Ballycar, and now has bases in both Galway and Carlow.
Patrick Murray, director of Murray Timber Group, says his company was impressed with Connacht’s recent open training session in Creggs RFC, where they “witnessed something special”.