Connacht Rugby determined to keep Champions Cup qualification alive

Learnings from Toulouse will hold Connacht in good stead

European disappointment behind them, Connacht return to Guinness Pro 12 action with a singleminded ambition to win, win, and win, in order to qualify for Champions Cup rugby again next season.

It starts on Sunday against Cardiff in Wales, and although it will be massive challenge, Connacht coach Pat Lam still believes not only qualification is possible, but even a top four place.

With 10 games remaining, played in two blocks of four games, and one of two, Connacht are in eighth place, 12 points off Ulster in sixth place, and six behind Cardiff. However Lam says it is still mathematically possible to advance to the Pro 12 semi-finals for a second year on the bounce.

"When we came back after Toulouse and had a break, we did the maths, and there are 50 points available, and if you go on the last four or five years, then the top four is still up for grabs, but we have no margin for error. Then there is the scenario of top six [automatic qualification], and then there the scenario outside of that [play-offs against French and English sides], and then, as we always do, we reassess our goals of where we are at.

"Everyone is really clear of that margin of error. We have talked about the process and that we all have to step it up, management and players, to achieve it. The main thing is we have set ourselves a goal, and we know it's a must-win. We just have to win, win, win and get the points."

Lam says the squad has been boosted by the return of several players from long term injuries, while the week's break from action, and another grassroots training session - this time in Portumna, home of captain John Muldoon- had re-energised the squad.

"We went back to grassroots rugby, right in the mud, and the boys had a really superb contact session, and we had some awesome support in the community. That brought us nicely into this week, and when you have more players back, it gives you a lift. You have more competition and everyone wants to get involved."

Among those returning are prop Ronan Loughney, utility back Stacey Ili, and backrow player Eoghan Masterson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last year against Parma that kept him out of action for 11 months. It may be too soon for a starting position, but Lam was always confident he would recover.

"I don't think many people would have come back from the injury he had, because I don't think there are many as tough as him. He's put a lot of work into it, but he still has a way to go. It's one thing getting back on the field, the next thing is getting adjusted. We have to understand the significance of the injury, but very proud of him - such a positive attitude."

Still sidelined are Conor Carey (foot ), Ivan Soroko (knee ), Andrew Browne (ankle ), Marnitz Boschoff (shoulder ), Josh Rowland (knee ), Darragh Leader (hand ), Bundee Aki (ankle ) and Eoin Griffin (chest ). Both Aki and Griffin are due to return in the next few weeks.

The disappointment of not qualifying for the Champions Cup semi-final after failing to grab a bonus point in the final pool fixture against Toulouse, may still linger, but Lam believes the learnings from that game will be important in Connacht's growth.

"Still one of the biggest disappointments, probably, yeah. Those sort of games, and I had many in my playing career that I always remember, you don't forget. Funny, you remember championships and stuff, but there are some games that stick with you, that should have been won, and the consequences.

"[It will] bug me. That is me, only, but we talked about it afterwards, the team has moved on. It's like winning the Pro 12, we have moved on, but you don't forget the memories. But I would say the learnings from that game will hold us in good stead. When we talk about the next two or three years, it will play a big part in the growth of this team

"So personally for me it's a bugger, but I always see the positive, and no doubt when I watch games this year and we close games out really well, which we have done before, many times last year, I will say 'that was the game we got our lessons from'."

On Sunday Connacht will be mindful of previous defeats in Cardiff, which has not been the happiest hunting ground for the last three years- "ridiculous penalty count"; another defeat after an extended period of injury time; and three injuries last year which saw Matt Healy taking over at scrumhalf within the opening five minutes.

"Yet all three of them, we were right in there, so we have talked about that. The most important thing is to start well, and focus on minute to minute. We know we are in for a battle, it's like finals rugby for us really, but we are in for a good challenge and excited rather than worried about it."

Cannon and Heffernan

Connacht also announced new two-year contract extensions for hooker Dave Heffernan and lock James Cannon.

"Really pleased for both of them, and for the supporters and the team," says Lam. "Both are key members of the squad, and for Dave particularly, I am really happy because I've been here through his transition from a back row to a hooker, and it's a credit to Dave on the work he has put in.

"I have no doubt he will go from strength to strength, based on his attitude and determination to work. There is a great squad of guys that is going to take this on."

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