A new season, but with the same goal. Connacht open their Guinness Pro 12 League with a home fixture against the Newport Gwent Dragons more prepared than previous seasons to achieve Champions Cup qualification.
An opening night win tomorrow (7.30pm ) is a must, and coach Pat Lam is confident his pre-season preparations have ensured Connacht will make the best possible start in their hopes of a top six finish.
Last season Connacht achieved more wins than previous seasons, but ultimately failed to qualify, finishing in seventh place. A couple of defeats proved costly in games they should have put away, and Lam knows the margins could be tight again.
“When you look back to last year and how we missed out by such fine margins, it just highlights the importance of every single game and every single point. We are at home for five of our first seven games so getting off to a good start is crucial.”
There is a settled look to Connacht this season, and with no big name signings, Lam has opted to add a few youngsters to support his maturing squad, including the Kiwi duo of Nepia Fox-Matamua and Api Pewhairangi, and Dublin's lock Ben Marshall. The squad remains youthful, but there is considerably more experience within the ranks after three years of Lam's tenure.
Players such as Eoghan Masterson, Jack Carty, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Darragh Leader, Kieran Marmion, Eoin McKeon, have now considerable experience playing at the highest level for Connacht. And alongside that youth are still the old heads, none more so than John Muldoon, who continues to captain the side, last year's forward of the year Aly Muldowney, tough Kiwi hooker Tom McCartney, the versatile George Naoupu, and exciting centre Bundee Aki. Add in Connacht's two World Cup squad members, Nathan White and Robbie Henshaw, in addition to Kieran Marmion, and Lam has reason to expect his squad to step it up to another level again this season.
"I would say selection for this team has probably been one of the toughest in all my time here, " Lam says. “We’ve come off the back of a really tough pre-season schedule and we worked the boys extremely hard.
"We know we will have a tough match schedule with 16 consecutive weekends to come this season, so from the start we have put a huge emphasis on ensuring we close the gap between the perceived first teamers and second string players. All the boys, including the Academy players training with us, have really taken ownership and pushed themselves.
“Everyone is really pushing each other hard and that has made selection really hard for us, which is what you want as a coaching team.”
Lam does have injury headaches with Api Pewhairangi, Niyi Adeolokun, and Darragh Leader recently sidelined, while Dave McSharry is doubtful after concussion protocols. As a result Lam says Connacht will be looking to some of the younger Academy players to step up, and several, including Rory Parata, Ciaran Gaffney, Peter Robb, James Connolly, Shane Delahunt, Conor McKeon and Sean O'Brien are all involved in pre season training
Four tough challenge fixtures have ensured all players have been given game time, and Lam says it was needed to ensure players were up to speed early in the season.
"We are in a better place than last season. There has been a real focus on ownership, and with a core group of players, they are all challenging each other.There is real growth and maturity in the squad."
Always tricky opponents, the Dragons will come with similar intent, and Lam is conscious a good start to the game will be important. Last year Connacht were often stung by a poor opening half - statistics showing of the top 12 teams, Connacht were 10th in conceding tries in the opening half, but those figures improved considerably after half time - the best in not conceding tries in the first 20 minutes after the break.
"There has been a big focus on the start of each game," says Lam," and we have put a big emphasis on individual preparations, and training to play."
Connacht have beaten the Dragons on the last five outings, but this is a new season and "everything counts now,” he says.
"We are more determined after coming so agonisingly close last season. We are in a better place, going into my third year, there is more clarity relationships are stronger, and you are able to build, build and build.
"I expect us to step it up in all areas this season."