It is another big weekend for Connacht Rugby. Still sitting on top of the Pro 12 table, Connacht are preparing to step it up for the visit of former champions Ospreys to the Sportsground on Saturday (7.35pm ).
Although Connacht could celebrate bagging 15 points from their last three games, coach Pat Lam says there is no room to get carried away with Ospreys now on the agenda.
“It is exciting times, and we are looking forward to a big crowd at the Sportsground against a team that is on the rise. Ospreys are 12 points off us, but they are always a tough team, we always struggle with them, so we will have a good week’s training.”
Unfortunately Connacht suffered another season-ending injury with the news that talented 22-years-old Eoghan Masterson is ruled out of action.
The back row player suffered a serious knee injury in the 45th minute playing against Zebre in Parma at the weekend, and although the extent of the injury is still unclear, coach Pat Lam says he will "definitely" be out for the rest of the season.
After an x-ray in Parma, Masterson travelled home with the team on Sunday evening before undergoing further scans this week.
And another three key players are being monitored ahead of the Ospreys' visit - openside Jake Heenan suffered a hip pointer, centre Craig Ronaldson a knee ligament, and Eoin McKeon a grade one ankle injury. Centre Rory Parata is also ruled out for the next two weeks with a knee cap injury in training, and is awaiting a report to determine if surgery will be required.
Connacht currently sit on the top of table with 50 points, but Lam says Connacht will still need to ramp it up this weekend against an Ospreys' side 12 points behind in seventh place.
"We know Ospreys are on a good run of form and will be desperate to get the four points as we are ourselves, so the crowd will be massive. How many times do we play at this time of the year on top of the table? We need the push from everyone, and if we are chock-a-block, it would be fantastic."
Although Ulster is the only team in 10 contests to have left the Sportsground with a victory, the Ospreys arrive having having won six of their last seven games in Galway. However Connacht, having recorded a first victory at Liberty Stadium earlier in the season, now have the opportunity to secure a rare double.
Lam says the squad is drawing lessons from its past - particularly the losing run after their heroic victory over Munster.
"We have talked about it this week and everything is going up to another level - as far as sleep, recovery, application in meetings and in the gym, and it is on all the staff first and then on the players.
"There is a realisation that we are in a position where haven't been before which has responsibilities, so rather than allow what happened after Munster, we are making sure we are right on top of everything."
Lam is also looking at the learnings from last week's concession of four tries, the way the game is played on harder grounds, and training to run for longer periods.
"When you have two teams that want to run and play, the ball is in play for much longer periods," says Lam, and last Saturday was a rude awakening for the players going from bog and mud in Galway to the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
"You are going to lose the ball at some stage. Zebre came out fired up and when they got the ball, they ran it back, so it was a good learning and it has altered our training for the next part of the season."
Ten wins equalled last year’s tally, while Connacht continue to lead the try-scoring stakes with 42 – eight ahead of Ulster and Cardiff.
“We have stayed in the top four all season – the only team that hasn’t dropped out, but we realise it doesn’t count for anything come May. We have a long way to go yet.”
Saturday’s performance in Parma was not the most clinically efficient, but Connacht still finished with six tries. Man of the match Matt Healy bagged a hat-trick, fellow winger Niyi Adeolokun crossed for two in the second half, and scrumhalf Kieran Marmion completed the tally.
Both sides traded early penalties before Connacht struck with two tries in five minutes. Conversions gave the visitors a 17-3 lead. Zebre dominated the opening half, but failed to score again until the 37th minute, when a converted try closed the gap to 10-17. The visitors took control in the second half, though it was not until Niyi Adeolokun added two tries that Connacht could put the game beyond Zebre’s reach.
“John Muldoon nailed it when he said in the training room that good teams win ugly, and the boys are doing that. Yes, we are pretty proud of the outcome when we haven’t played well, but we are not getting carried away.”
CONNACT: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, A MacGinty, K Marmion, D Buckley, F Bealham, B Marshall, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), J Heenan, E Masterson. Replacements: E Masterson for Heenan (25m ), G Naoupu for Masterson (45m ), P Robb for Ronaldson (49m ), C Blade for Marmion, Ah You for Bealham and R Loughney for Buckley (59m ),D Heffernan for Marshall (60 ), D Poolman for O’Halloran (72 ).