Connacht sign off 16-week run with Pro 12 and European targets ticked

 No 8 Eoghan Masterson on the attack for Connacht in their victory over Scarlets in the Guinness Pro12 game at the Sportsground on Saturday.      Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

No 8 Eoghan Masterson on the attack for Connacht in their victory over Scarlets in the Guinness Pro12 game at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht players are taking a well deserved holiday this week after a perfect finish to an exhaustive run of 16 games on the trot.

A bonus-point victory over top-of-the-table Scarlets ensured Connacht remain in the Guinness Pro 12 top four, and are level on points with Scarlets, who continue to hold pole position due to a superior win count.

It is has been something of a journey for Pat Lam's squad since Matt Healy, who is currently undergoing return-to-play protocols for concussion in Saturday's fixture, marked his 50th appearance in Connacht's five-try bonus win over Zebre in October. Since then Connacht achieved a milestone victory at Liberty Stadium, home wins over Edinburgh and Treviso, an historic trek into Siberia for a first European fixture in sub zero temperatures, a first Thomond Park victory over Munster in 29 years, and qualification for the Challenge Cup quarter-finals. It has not been all plain sailing - disappointing defeats to Cardiff, erratic away performances against Leinster, Scarlets and Brive, while an injury-ravaged squad of just 22 fit players lost to Newcastle in England.

Lam says despite the "doom and gloom about the five losses", the focus remained on the positives. And on Saturday one of the biggest was denying the Welsh side a losing bonus point - testament to Connacht's growing maturity, confidence, and work ethic.

"There was quality endeavour out there. You don't have to have all the rock stars, just people who are willing to work, " he says. "We are not getting ahead of ourselves, things change real fast, and we have a long way to go. The bottom line is we've passed half way, and we are sitting near the top with Scarlets. It is a relief we got through this period.

"A lot of lessons have been learned in adversity. We have had some tough moments with injuries, and we got through it. To be in the quarter-final of Challenge Cup in April, and to be second in the table is a wonderful effort by this group of men."

Lam believes Connacht have " turned the corner" around mindset and becoming ruthless - as demonstrated by their second-half tries, and huge defensive effort to keep Scarlets achieving the bonus point.

"I reckon we have the hardest working pack in the competition. Jimmy Duffy [forwards coach] has been unbelievable this season. It's his first year at this level, but he has a great relationship with all the boys, and he has built a real culture around clarity, what they have to do, and he challenges them."

Bodies on the line

With that clear edge up front, Connacht turned the screw in the scrum. It resulted in four penalties of the seven Scarlets conceded in the opening 40 minutes, and from two Connacht were able to kick for the corner and score - lock Aly Muldowney securing line-out possession in both, and the pack forcing their way over with Kiwi-born Heenan claiming the touchdowns at the beginning and end of the opening half.

Despite a " horrific five minutes" after the restart when Scarlets outhalf Aled Thomas posted a penalty and conversion to DTH van de Merwe's try, Connacht produced another two tries by the 64th minute. Man of the match Denis Buckley touched down in the 51st minute, and replacement prop Rodney Ah You completed the fourth for the pack, with outhalf Jack Carty converting both, in addition to an early penalty.

Possession in the final10 minutes belonged to Scarlets and a converted 73rd minute try edged them closer to bonus-point territory. However Connacht's disciplined defence took the plaudits in the end.

"You could see the body on the line stuff," says Lam. "It was really important they didn't get a point from the game, and it was massive to finish this period in second place. The next challenge is to take our learnings, make sure we are refreshed mentally, and focus on the Dragons. It's about getting points. We got five today and there is another five available in Newport.

"There is no doubt we look forward to the back end of the season when conditions get good. We understand we have to adapt our game and a lesson going forward in the next few years is how to get through December and January and the type of rugby that needs to be played, but we are learning that as we go and we will get better."

Connacht: T O'Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Naoupu, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), J Heenan, E Masterson. Replacements, R Parata for Healy (30 ), U Dillane for Naoupu (57 ), R Ah You for Bealham (61 ), J Connolly for Heenan (64 ), C Ronaldson for Carty (65 ), R Loughney for Buckley and D Heffernan for McCartney (66 ), I Porter for Blade (74 ).

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