Connacht’s new era under Kieran Keane faces its sternest test on Saturday in their bid to play Champions Cup rugby next season.
The stakes are high. The winner goes into a semi-final with a huge chance of qualifying for Champions Cup rugby, not to mention the prospect of a trophy down the line.
Having won the PRO14 Connacht fans have tasted success, and this year’s Challenge Cup could well be the route for Connacht to shine.
As always, it will not be easy. Connacht are still getting to grips with new coaching structures, have stuttered along the way, and also shown real competitive signs - most recently against the Cheetahs in South Africa. But on Saturday, in a one-off game, they need to get it right.
“I think we are good enough to go to Champions Cup,” says Kieran Keane. “We will be there, certainly in my lifetime I hope.
“The thing about sport that people tend to forget is that it is on the day. It is like going to the races. If that horse doesn’t want to run, it doesn’t matter what you did or do, for whatever reason, illness, not feeling well.
“So if our team is a just little bit off, like we were the other day [ against Edinburgh], and there wasn’t a hell of a lot wrong, we lost the first minute, the 79th, and won the other 78 minutes and lost the game - that is the cruel thing, the difficult thing. And that is why on the day is so very important.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that we are growing. We are getting better as a team, more settled. We have a new broom in the place, a new coaching structure, and we are just getting better, focusing on getting better each day. We have had highs, and lows, and those inconsistencies are growing pains perhaps.”
This is Connacht’s biggest challenge of the season because so much is riding on it. Connacht have never come out on the right side in meetings with Gloucester in European competition. They have broken Connacht’s hearts on just too many occasions - most recently the play-off in Pat Lam’s last season - but an intimidating Sportsground will certainly not make it easy for Gloucester.
Gloucester, like many English teams, are big up front and physical, and Keane says the two sides are similar.
“I have had a lot of looks at them - five or six games - they love to play, similar to us in their approach to the game. They have some big name players, who they rely on I suspect, and they have also had an indifferent season, high and lows like us, but you can’t hide the fact that challenges are still there, but it is exciting too. They will get a lot of growth out of this.”
Connacht, also, have been growing in confidence and maturity throughout the season, and will also be boosted by the return of their internationals, Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane. Keane says some may be sprung from the bench, most likely Ultan Dillane, who has been out of action for some weeks, but all will bring an added dimension and the “experience factor”.
“They are not going to be intimidated by anyone,” says Keane,” and that is a blessing. It also brings a bit of chemistry into the group.”
Aki’s return is a huge boost - “a hard edge that will lift the boys” - and like John Muldoon and Tiernan O’Halloran, he always leads by example.
Aki’s feet still planted
Aki says he has brushed off some “cobwebs” after recent Grand Slam celebrations, and bounced back into Connacht training this week.
“It’s always good to be back around Connacht. Good to run around the dirty pitch behind us – the puddle pitch – I’m not used to that,” he says after his two months with the Ireland squad.
“The lads have been together for the last eight weeks and I have been away, so it is not about them trying to fit into what I have been doing, but me trying to get into the squad, making sure I add value as well, and making sure I am up to speed.
“At the moment it feels like I am the new player in the squad, so I want to make sure I do my homework and fit into the team this week.”
“It is going to be a challenge for us and I am sure we can step up to the plate and do the job. Certainly I have seen the boys playing really well and I have seen the ambition, but sometimes the result hasn’t gone their way or told how well they played. Last week was a fine example. Watching from the sidelines was hard to take, but I think things are going in the right direction and there is no better than this big challenge ahead of us.”