Connacht cannot afford to let slip a victory on Saturday (5pm ) when they host Treviso in the Rabodirect Pro 12 at the Galway Sportsground.
Having put together back-to-back wins over Edinburgh and Zebre, Connacht have a great opportunity to continue moving up the table and maintain their momentum before the break.
Coach Pat Lam says Connacht set winning targets for this four-game series and to date have delivered two wins and a bonus-point loss. Another victory could see them in a position to challenge for another eighth place finish in the league - they are just two points off Edinburgh and a single point behind Cardiff - and Lam believes that is a realistic target.
This week Connacht will be without scrumhalf Paul O’Donohoe, who injured his back in last weekend’s warm-up in Italy, but welcome back Nathan White, who has completed his three-match ban, Eoin McKeon, who will be a big boost for the stretched backrow resources, and Robbie Henshaw, who has been released from Ireland camp.
Still out are Brett Wilkinson, Craig Ronaldson, Conor Gilsenan, and Ronan Loughney, all of whom are expected back after the break, but hooker Sean Henry requires neck surgery and is ruled out for the rest of the season.
Lam says Connacht are prepared for another tough battle, particularly up front, and despite Treviso’s 75-7 loss to Ospreys two weeks ago, it was a different Italian side that forced Ulster to fight all the way for a 14-12 victory last weekend.
“We are expecting the Treviso we know that has always made it hard for Connacht. I think, similar to us in Saracens, that game against Ospreys does not define who they are. They have been a tough team right through and they can have a one-off bad game, but they turned around and showed against a very strong Ulster team what they are about.
“We lost to them last time over there and they are a very physical side.”
Lam says both the Toulouse and Saracens fixtures remain the benchmarks for Connacht.
“Those two matches sit poles apart and the difference is pretty simple, it’s teamwork.
“We know we have least amount of international players by a fair margin, so decision making and skill level is not the same, but when we play as a team, we can challenge; when we don’t, we all suffer, and that has been our real focus since we came back from the Saracens’ game.”
Having moved off the bottom of the table, Connacht are determined to keep moving upwards, but Lam says the squad must remain “process focused”.
“If you take the games in which we took bonus-point losses, that was 15 points we didn’t get, and we could have been up in fifth or sixth place. It is a fine line, so when people were having a crack at us being at the bottom of the table, you just have to look at it - a couple of wins you can jump up. “But when you are outcome focused, it can beat you up; when you stay process focused, it keeps everyone understanding that we are not far off and that we must keep doing our jobs better as a team, and we have to do that again this week and for the next seven games.”
Lam also believes Connacht need to toughen up mentally, particularly having allowed Zebre to come from 27 - 0 down to score three tries in Parma last Sunday.
“We had really good shape for long periods of time that gave us opportunities to score. The disappointing thing was once we got the four tries, things started to go wrong, and that is a mental ruthlessness we have to understand.”
However it was the first time Connacht put back-to-back Pro 12 wins together and earned a four-try bonus point, ensuring they leapfrogged Saturday’s opponents in the table.
Connacht’s domination in the set piece, particularly the scrum, laid the foundation and Connacht led 8- 0 after five minutes. An early Dan Parks’ penalty was swiftly followed by the first try when prop Rodney Ah You touched down from a line-out and drive. Connacht capitalised on three successive penalties and a sinbinning for Zebre prop Salvatore Perugini to grab try No 2 after 25 minutes. Scrumhalf Kieron Marmion dived over from a unstoppable scrum, with Parks adding the extras for a 15 - 0 lead. And before the break Connacht were awarded a penalty try to put Connacht in front by 22-0.
The fourth try and bonus came courtesy of the backs with London-Irish bound Eoin Griffin crossing in the 55th minute, ensuring Connacht retained their 100 per cent record of Zebre. Zebre grabbed three tries in the second half, but it was little consolation.
Connacht Rugby v Zebre: D Leader, T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O'Halloran, D Parks, K Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, M Kearney, M Swift, A Browne, E Masterson, J Muldoon (cpt ). Replacements, A Muldowney for Swift (48m ), D Heffernan for Harris-Wright and G Naoupu for Masterson (both 56m ), M Nikora for Marmion (67m ), JP Cooney for Ah You 71m, F Bealham for Buckley (74m ).