Connacht will need to take another step up in their Pro 12 title defence when they host unbeaten Ulster at the Galway Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.35pm ).
Last weekend's 28-15 win over Edinburgh was not only their first after three defeats, but, importantly, it represented a real glimpse of the rugby the title holders produced last season. And coach Pat Lam will demand more again tomorrow when they face league leaders Ulster.
“It’s the one team I haven’t beaten since I’ve been here and every time, besides two blow-outs, it’s always been close and there have been key moments,” Lam said. “Last year we didn’t take some key opportunities there and we lost in the 79th minute."
Connacht have taken another injury hit with key front row members unavailable for Friday's opening interprovincial with Ulster.
Both hooker Tom McCartney and prop Denis Buckley are ruled out, and are joined by Ireland winger Matt Healy.
McCartney is awaiting scan results of a hamstring injury; Denis Buckley is to be assessed later this week for his knee injury; and left wing Matt Healy, who was replaced after three minutes with a hand fracture, is due to see a specialist this week.
It will certainly test Pat Lam's front row resources as they welcome former Wuprop Rodney Ah You back to the Sportsground with Ulster. However one area in which Connacht have good cover is the front row with props Ronan Loughney, Finlay Bealham, Conor Carey, who looked at home on his debut against Edinburgh, and JP Cooney, all available, alongside hookers Dave Heffernan and Shane Delahunt.
There was also good news with scrumhalf Kieran Marmion and Eoin McKeon, who were replaced in the win over the Scots, only suffering "bumps and bruises", according to backs coach Conor McPhillips.
McPhillips, the former top-scoring winger who grabbed a try in Connacht's 22-12 win over Ulster in 2005, says derby games are exciting, especially at home.
"They were always a strong prospect, but under Les Kiss they are a very innovative team, they have threats all over the park, littered with internationals, and with massive squad depth, specially in the backs. But we back ourselves. Progressively from game one to six, we were looking for a step-up in our defence, and gradually we got that. I think we will need a step-up again this week, but I think it's a challenge we will be ready for.
One area in which Connacht will be looking for an improvement is the line-outs which have stuttered since the departure of key line-out caller Aly Muldowney and the injury to Andrew Browne.
"It is something we identified as a coaching group," says forwards coach Jimmy Duffy. "There was a heavy reliance on one or two key individuals, so it is something we wanted to share. It does take time, but we have had five or six guys who have called this season which is a bit of strength in depth for down the line. We would like the area to do better, but we are quite happy with the level of learning in the group.”
A capacity home crowd will play its part, particularly after Connacht delivered their first winning performance last Friday. Led by captain John Muldoon, Connacht produced a display akin to their championship run last season - not without mistakes, but with an intensity in attack, a ferocity in defence, and with their passes going to hand.
They held a deserved lead 18-10 at the break before securing the bonus point in the 73rd minute.
After losing Matt Healy with a wrist injury, they also conceded an opening penalty, providing a straightforward kick for outhalf Jason Tovey to open Edinburgh's account. However Connacht's ambition was realised with a try after nine minutes when outhalf Jack Carty fed Niyi Adeolokun who skipped past Chris Dean's attempted tackle and used his electric pace to grab the opening try after nine minutes. Carty converted and added a 17-minute penalty to push Connacht into a 10-3 lead.
Edinburgh replied from a turnover with a 19th-minute try - Tovey providing big lock and captain Craig Gilchrist who had the momentum to dive over - and Tovey's conversion drew the sides level. Connacht, however, continued to find holes. Tiernan O'Halloran's counterattack from deep set up the second try, and the influential backrow played its part with Eoin McKeon and man of the match Jake Heenan breaking from the ruck, and lock Quinn Roux finishing off out wide to push Connacht into an 18-10 lead.
Although Connacht missed several line-outs, a secure ball from the talismanic Muldoon provided another scoring platform with replacement scrumhalf Caolin Blade making the initial burst, Carty and Adoleokun injected pace, and replacement Cian Kelleher finished for his first Connacht try. Although Carty's touchline conversion shaved the upright, Connacht looked secure with a 23 - 10 lead after 46 minutes.
Glasgow, who had a difficult week with the departure of coach Alan Solomens, enjoyed a period of territorial dominance, capitalising on some poor clearance. However excellent defence kept them out until the 71st minute when left wing Mike Allen scored from an overlap, closing the gap to eight points.
Connach,, however, delivered the bonus poit try when centre Peter Robb sidestepped Damien Hoyland to cap a crucial win.
Connacht Rugby v Edimburgh: T O'Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy, J Carty, Kieran Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, C Carey, Q Roux, U Dillane, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (cpt ).Replacements, C Kelleher for Healy (3m ), C Blade for Marmion (41m ), F Bealham for Carey (46 ), J Connolly for McKeon (58 ), R Loughney for Buckley (67 ), D Heffernan for McCartney (71m ), L Stephenson for Dillane (74 ), S O'Leary for Aki (75m ).
Home calls for Ellis
Connacht Rugby is to lose its influential skills coach Dave Ellis.
Ellis, who is credited with helping to mastermind Connacht's attack and the immense improvement in the club's playing skills, will return to New Zealand to take up a post with the Auckland Blues. He leaves at the end of this year, after the Connacht v Munster match on New Year's Eve, in time for the start of the Super Rugby season which begins in February.
According to the Blues' coach Tana Umaga said Ellis stood out as the best candidate for an important role at the Blues and would make a welcome addition to the club.
The highly-respected Ellis joined Connacht three seasons ago along with fellow New Zealander and backs coach Andre Bell, who returned home for family reasons at the end of last season. The two were key members of Pat Lam's coaching set-up, helping to revolutionise Connacht's confident new playing style.