Connacht prepared for high-stakes games at home

Connacht will welcome a return to the Galway Sportsground for crunch fixtures in the next two weeks as the chase for qualification and titles hots up.

After a five week hiatus from home, during which Connacht added five valuable points to their PRO14 campaign, the next two games will have a real impact on their season.

First up is the visit of high-flying Edinburgh for round 18 of the PRO14 and the chance to close the gap on Cardiff, and then it is the turn of Gloucester in a mouth-watering European Challenge Cup quarter-final. Coach Kieran Keane will demand two wins from these fixtures to maintain a real interest in the business end of both competitions.

This weekend Keane will be missing their three Ireland internationals, including Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane, but Quinn Roux returned to training this week, having requested to be made available. And with the injury list at last looking healthier, Keane will need his squad in peak form for the exertions ahead.

Connacht trail fourth-place Cardiff in Conference A by nine points, and they must produce the type of form that saw them overcome Benetton in Treviso and nearly pull off a huge coup against the Cheetahs in South Africa.

Must-win games

Connacht's backs' coach Nigel Carolan says there is still much to play for as the season winds up.

"There is a lot at stake in the league - we have a bit of work to do there - and a big game against Gloucester, so there are a lot of games coming up which will have a major impact on our season.

"We are taking every game as a must-win, but more importantly our last home game was against Zebre and we were bitterly disappointed. We let ourselves down, our organisation, and our fans. We had a good home record, and hadn't lost here since September, but we underperformed and that was the most disappointing aspect.

"We dogged it out in Treviso and the guys were stellar in South Africa against the odds, and they fronted up which we expect. This is a big game for us and we are not taking it lightly.

Connacht produced a huge performance in South Africa - the intensity of which will need to be repeated against an Edinburgh side which is enjoying a superb season under new coach and former England hooker Richard Cockerill.

"Cockerill has added a real bit of steel to the Edinburgh side," says Carolan. "They are a tough team to play against, not the most extravagant, but tough to break down, and our biggest focus is on the breakdown this week."

Maintaining a focus in both competitions will be crucial for Connacht in their continued development under Kieran Keane. Whether Connacht can reel in Cardiff or head into a play-off - which is looking the more likely - Connacht still need to keep showing improvements.

"This is a home fixture, and we have a lot to prove on the back of a win in Treviso and an outstanding performance against the Cheetahs, but we have to back it up again. It is next game focus, and after Friday, it is all about Gloucester."

New signings

While Aki is ruled out with HIA in Saturday's Grand Slam winning performance, Carolan believes he is likely to return for the European quarter-final, which would be a huge boost - even if he does not get the "plaudits he deserves for working as hard as he does" on the national stage.

"The work he is doing off the ball, his ability to organise, his impact at the breakdown, his work in defence, a lot of it is unseen work, and I think it goes unappreciated at times."

Connacht have already anticipated his increasing unavailability next season due to national commitments and have recruited Brumbies' back Kyle Godwin. The Zimbabwean-born centre has made 66 Super Rugby appearances, having made his name with the Western Force before moving to Canberra in 2016. Crucially he is exempt from the restrictions placed on the number of Australians or New Zealanders permitted in European squads.

"I think the IRFU will mange Bundee more carefully and monitor his minutes, and we have to ensure adequate quality cover in his absence next season. We are very happy with Tom Farrell and Eoin Griffin, and with Craig Ronaldson who can play at 12 and Peter Robb, there is still quality there, but it is to ensure we are not dropping too far down the depth chart in his absence."

"He's a different type of player to Bundee, who is very direct, physical and quite confrontational, which has its advantages, while Kyle, who has played right across the backline, has a wider skill set- more a ball player, a distributing centre with really good feet, and I think they will complement each other."

Connacht have also extended contracts to Ronaldson, Cian Kelleher, Darragh Leader, and Griffin, with more announcements, including "exciting signings" in the near future.

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