The transformation is not yet complete, but Connacht came as close as they could against the Ospreys in Liberty Stadium on Sunday.
For a brief moment, four minutes from time, Connacht looked poised to stage the surprise of the weekend, defy the odds against the most expensively assembled Welsh side, and maintain the winning momentum achieved in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Having been 19 - 6 down to come within two points, Connacht left wing Troy Nathan picked up from a ruck and broke through. Had he found the supporting Frank Murphy to his right with Ian Keatley following up, there was the possibility Connacht, even a man down at that stage, could have turned their poor away record on its head. Instead there was no sting in the tail for the Ospreys, who hanging on in the end, prevailed yet again, enabling them to go top of the league table, ahead of the Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, and Munster.
However Sunday’s Magners League fixture was as much about Connacht's ability to translate their successful European form into the Magners League, and while they may not have taken the spoils, they certainly went a long way, claiming their first away bonus point this season. A strong second-half performance in which they outscored the Ospreys by 11 - 8 was a measure of their rehabilitation, producing their best performance away from home in this season's league to come away with a deserved bonus point. Crucial was their set piece, particularly the scrum, and their ability to disrupt the superior attacking power of the Ospreys.
Connacht were well in the game at half time after a battling opening 40 minutes. Although the home side grabbed an 11 - 6 lead courtesy of a try from fullback Gareth Owen, Connacht showed their improving attacking ability, carved out chances, and kept the Ospreys from building up a head of steam.
After an opening Dan Biggar penalty, Connacht established field possession after a superb break from hooker Sean Cronin, and although he could not find the supporting George Naoupu, Connacht were rewarded with a penalty after John Muldoon stymied Biggar in the tackle. Keatley struck the 13th minute effort from the 22 to level matters, but went behind soon after when Owen was able to get outside the defence and touch down after 17 minutes.
However with Keatley establishing some territorial control, Connacht had two clear chances to score. The first came from No 8 George Naoupu who was held up over the line after blocking down scrumhalf Jamie Nutbrown's clearance, and the second after Conor O'Loughlin could not find the supporting Ray Ofisa after his sniping break was halted by Owen's ankle tap just yards from the line. However their hard work was rewarded when Nutbrown strayed off side in the ruck and Keatley keep the scoreboard ticking over with a 30th minute penalty.
Although Biggar replied before the break, the Ospreys did the damage in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. With their New Zealand backrow trio of Marty Holah, Jerry Collins, and Filo Tiatia influential throughout, and their backline dangerous out wide, the home side swept into a 19 - 6 lead. Biggar struck a penalty in front of the posts before finishing with a try in the corner.
A sinbinning for the Ospreys' Ian Evans kick-started Connacht's fightback. From the penalty kicked to touch, Connacht staged a series of drives before switching directional play, and Keatley's reverse pass found the Sean Cronin, who bursting from deep with an angled run, could not be stopped from crossing for a well-deserved try. Thereafter it was Connacht who maintained the initiative, despite losing Gavin Duffy to the sinbin. Grabbing a 68th minute penalty to reduce the arrears to five, Keatley struck again on 76 minutes before Nathan's break came tantalisingly close to rounding off a much improved promised away display from Connacht.
Connacht: G Duffy, T Nathan, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, F Carr, I Keatley, C O'Loughlin, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M Swift, B Upton, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements,A Wynne for Ta'auso (22m ), M McCarthy for Upton (41m ), J Hagan for Morris (41m ),F Murphy for O'Loughlin (61m ).
Ospreys: G Owen, H Vaughton, S Parker, A Beck, N Walker, D Biggar, J Nutbrown, T Bevington, E Shervington, C Mitchell, I Gough (cpt ), I Evans, T Smith, M Holah, F Tiatia. Replacements,J Collins for T Smyth (16m ), M Phillips for Nutbrown (41m ), C Griffiths for Mitchell (65m ),A Lloyd for Gough (74m ), C Mitchell for Bevington (79m ).