Eric Elwood is counting on the two-week break from Rabo Direct Pro 12 action to give his injured players time to recover before an intensive 13 weeks of competition resumes after the World Cup.
Expected to return for Connacht’s first Heineken Cup campaign are Fetu Vainikolo, injured while playing for Tonga at the World Cup, No 8 George Naoupu, outhalf Miah Nikora, and the recently injured duo of Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffin. Elwood must also wait on the continuing recovery of Andrew Browne, who recently underwent an operation on his Achilles, and centre Keith Matthews.
Those injuries and a flu bug were a mitigating factor in Connacht’s defeat to Leinster on Saturday, particularly hampering the team’s preparations. However there was little excuse for Connacht’s failure to protect a 20 - 8 half-time lead, allowing Leinster to edge back into contention with three successive penalties before grabbing a late winning try and drop goal for a 30 - 20 win.
This is the first occasion Connacht have failed to take a point from an away fixture, but worse was their inability to play a possession game and protect a 12-point lead. The result has seen Connacht slip from fourth to seventh place at a time when teams were missing their World Cup players.
“We set ourselves a target - a combination of points and place where we wanted to be at this stage - and we didn’t achieve it. Part of our development and one of goals is to be competitive home and away. Having one win away from home every year is not good enough -it’s not acceptable in this league.
“We had opportunities in those three games - against Edinburgh, the Ospreys and against Leinster, and we didn’t take them. Whether it is the development of the lads, their inexperience in getting through tight games, manipulating the weather conditions, we don’t know. But when you are leading a game by eight, 10 or 12 points, you should be able to push on, so that is a learning curve for us, but it’s been an expensive one, and there are bigger tests ahead. ”
Although Elwood is satisfied with certain aspects of Connacht’s play, he is disappointed they have failed to capitalise on World Cup absentees.
“We had our best performance against Ospreys, and were lucky to get a bonus point, but, to be honest, we should have got more out of the three away games. That’s disappointing because we should have been higher up the table to take advantage of teams during the World Cup.”
Two first-half tries by Ray Ofisa and Brian Tuohy, and a strong goal-kicking display from outhalf Niall O’Connor, helped Connacht take a 20 - 8 half-time lead. However within minutes of the restart Connacht conceded a penalty, and Leinster, with the wind advantage, started their revival.
“You have to control the ball to play those conditions, because if you are controlling the ball you are contolling the game. Instead we coughed up ball within two minutes of the restart, we failed to hold onto the ball for long passages, and we failed to exert pressure.
“There are now bigger tests ahead against quality opposition who will test us week-in week- out, so we need to get our injured players back in action.”