Connacht now face uphill battle after European rugby takes a toll

Laid back and relaxed: Connacht's Mack Hansen scores Ireland's first try during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match against France.  Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Laid back and relaxed: Connacht's Mack Hansen scores Ireland's first try during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match against France. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Connacht face the unenviable trip to Wales to take on the Scarlets in their URC league fixture on Saturday (7.35pm ), needing a win to resurrect their URC season.

It has been a tough couple of months for Andy Friend's men, who have not reaped the rewards for their efforts, but with Champions Cup qualification now on the line, the need for wins is more imperative than ever.

Connacht have just four wins from 10, which may not be reflective of their season and the efforts put into their Champions Cup fixtures. But unless they can turn it around soon, not only will they be facing a season without reward, but also one which has not delivered on promise.

Champions Cup rugby is now a slim possibility, and senior coach Pete Wilkins says Connacht are no longer setting themselves "hard targets" as they begin this series of three fixtures . Away matches to Scarlets and Edinburgh, with the visit of the Stormers to the Sportsground, will not be easy as they currently sit outside the qualifying group in 10th place.

"We need to win this fixture," Wilkins says. "It is important after the previous run of games, it's important for this new mini-block, and it's important in terms of our season and URC and Champions Cup ambitions."

It is now "about winning as many as Connacht can", he says, having shipped 74 points in their losses to Ulster and Glasgow on the back of their heroic efforts in the Champions Cup.

However Wilkins admits their Heineken Champions Cup exploits did take a mental and physical toll.

"The effort that went into two very big and good teams, and the psychological impact of losing tight games at the end, and to then back it up against Glasgow and Ulster were probably a couple of bridges too far.

"In terms of being up against it, there is no great shock to the system or need to reset the mind. It's always been a challenge for us. We started well, we've levelled off, and now we need to improve again. It was not long ago we were slim outsiders anyway, but our determination to achieve that goal is as strong as ever," Wilkins says.

"Sometimes you can't believe a win is around the corner, but the wheel does turn. As long as we are putting in the hard work and preparation, that wheel will turn for us in due course."

There have been mitigating circumstances, not least injuries which has caused disruption to what had looked like a settled team. And this week they will be helped by the return of Jack Carty and Dave Heffernan from Ireland camp, while centre Tom Farrell (ankle ) and prop Jack Aungier (rib ) have returned to training. Front row Matthew Burke (knee ) and Dominic Robertson McCoy (hamstring ) expect to be back training over the next fortnight, while prop Greg McGrath is being monitored this week for a finger injury sustained in the game against Ulster.

One player whose presence will be missed is Mack Hansen, who remains with the Irish team after this meteoric rise to international rugby. Rugby's new discovery is fast becoming a poster boy after two matches in an Irish jersey and the 23-years-old, who was parachuted into Andy Farrell's squad after just nine starts for Connacht, is certainly making the most of opportunities on the field.

"He's an absolute character," says Wilkins, "He is laid back and he is relaxed, but he applies himself really effectively, and he doesn't shirk on work and extras, and learning his detail.

The Canberra born Hansen, who was enticed to Ireland by Connacht boss Andy Friend, quickly endeared himself to fans in Galway when he hit the ground running against the Bulls, scoring a try on his home debut. In nine appearances for Connacht, he has scored six tries, earning him a deserved call up to the Ireland camp.


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