Last chance saloon for Connacht

Connacht's slim Champions Cup hopes will be in the "last chance saloon" in Liberty Stadium this evening.

Having lost the opportunity to progress through the Challenge Cup, Connacht return to PRO14 action against the Ospreys, both fighting a desperate battle for a play-off place into Europe's elite.

With just three fixtures remaining in Connacht's calendar - away to Glasgow and home to Leinster, Connacht are now in knock-out territory - going head to head with the Ospreys to see who can finish above the other.

Odds are against Connacht - away in Liberty Stadium against a team of internationals that has hit form in recent weeks, ahead of Connacht by a single point, and with a game in hand against Zebre - and Connacht's defence coach Peter Wilkins says the game is even bigger than last weekend's European fixture.

"Ospreys are in the box seat. They are a point ahead of us, have a game in hand on us, and that game in hand is against Zebre in Italy. If we get a win, then we have another two to do well. We see the seaon as very much alive - last chance saloon this week - and we need to make sure we do the business."

"Last weekend was a huge week in terms of the occasion, the home game, and it being a quarter-final, but in terms of the implication for our season, this is just as big or even bigger, now the other one has passed us by."

Wilkins believes there are similarities between Gloucester and Ospreys - not least the Welsh side's attack, but, he says if Connacht have learned the lesson from Gloucester - albeit a "painful" one - it will set them up well.

Connacht's defence will also have to improve, he says after the tackle statistics dropped to 81 per cent last weekend.

On the injury front Connacht will welcome back centre Eoin Griffin who has recovered from a hamstring injury, while missing from action is Bundee Aki, who is on holiday this week, having taken a rest after the Six Nations, as is Quinn Roux.

Wilkins says ultimately Connacht let themselves down against Gloucester, and discussions this week have been "blunt", particularly in terms of ball control, exit strategy (again ), failing to retain ball in contact, and the gifting opportunities to the oposition.

"We have been frank with each other, and the positive thing about this group of players, they are honest and don't shy from taking responsibility and ownership."

It was a hugely disappointing day for the 8,000 supporters who had filled the Galway Sportsground on Saturday in expectation of claiming a path to Champions Cup rugby next season - make it to the semi-finals and it was almost guaranteed if the other competitors had qualified through their domestic leagues.

Gloucester, however, edged the spoils in Saturday's eight-try quarter-final - not the first time the Cherry and Whites have prevailed. On all four previous European occasions - every one a thriller - Connacht have lost by a score - the last time in an injury time play-off under Pat Lam.

Current coach Kieran Keane refused to be downbeat, praising his players for their courage and believing in the future.

"You can't look at the doom and gloom," he says. "The team is in a good space, I think we have growing pains. We are learning, getting tighter as a group, and we have recruited really well."

"I do believe we are a little bit naive as a team still," says Keane. "We do have an issue about allowing teams to get into an area and get the ball - the second half is an example. They squeezed us looking for the penalty and the whole team knew it was going to happen, but we gave the penalty away at the scrum time, and that gave them points at that stage. Little things like that, we know what is going on, but unfortunately we slip us sometimes."

Keane is keeping his own counsel why that happens, "I have my own opinions, but I don't want to share them,", but concedes Connacht keep making life hard for themselves.

"We allowed them into the game a little too easily. Our defence wasn't where it normally is, and we gave them a fair few points, which made life hard, but it put a smile on my face that we just kept coming back and coming back, and you know that is pleasing for me, it means I can do something. The character, the effort, the team work, the problem solving, all those things were jus wonderful."

Keane believes Connacht can recover, and win or lose this evening, they will not lie down. "Between management and players you won't see us fall away, you won't see us chuck it in. We are not that type of team - there is more character in this team than people realise.

"Yes, there are a lot of things that would need to go our way, and also we would not want to drop where we are, which is probably the biggest thing for me as a coach. Some of the stuff that went on in the game was quite magnificent, and some of it was a little bit off, so let's add to the good bits, and if we can add more and more, then yes, we will be much better."

Connacht have only reached the Challenge Cup quarter-finals on three occasions in 20 years, but expectations are now greater. While never having regained the highs of the PRO12 title two seasons ago, Keane, in his first season, says watch this space. “Oh hang in there. Don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t happen this season, it’s going to happen. Just stay the course.”

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