Connacht look to finish off a good week for the province when they face their Pro 12 interprovincial rivals Leinster at the RDS on Saturday (5.15pm ).
Having posted their second win of the European Championship, comfortably disposing of Zebre in Italy by 52-7 on Sunday, Connacht followed up with Monday's announcement that hot property players Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane had signed new contracts to remain at the Galway Sportsground where they are “enjoying” their rugby.
Although they signed two weeks ago, the announcement had been delayed due to the untimely and unexpected death of Munster coach Anthony Foley.
Now Connacht head to the RDS in confident form to face Leinster in an repeat of last season's Pro 12 final, and for the first time since losing Robbie Henshaw to Dublin.
"The big thing about this Leinster game that we are excited by is we have an opportunity to create a bit of history," says coach Pat Lam. "We haven't won in the RDS before, they are sitting at the top of the table, so we have goals out there to achieve. Every week we are getting better and better."
There was more good news with Dominic Robertson McCoy (arm ), Eoin Griffin (concussion ) and Tiernan O'Halloran (knee ) all having returned to training ahead of Saturday's clash, while Aki is expected to line out against Henshaw after resting on the bench last weekend.
Aki and Dillane are now resident at the Sportsground until 2020 and 2019 respectively, and both said they did not want to play for another club.
Former Chiefs' player and centre Aki, said the decision was “fairly easy” despite offers from cash-rich French giants Toulon, Toulouse, Bordeaux-Begles, and Stade Francais, in addition to Premiership side Bath.
“Obviously there were a few people knocking on doors, but I felt like I was home here. I have been here for almost three years. I have enjoyed every year and every moment. My family is here and enjoying their time, so it was fairly easy decision for me to make.”
Aki, who followed Mils Muliaina to Connacht because of Pat Lam’s vision, said he was “happy to be part of something that is on-going”. “I see us moving forward and I want to be a part of it, ” he says, while also acknowledging his hopes to play international rugby at some stage (qualifying for Ireland next year ).
Twenty-two-years-old Dillane, who has been fast-tracked from Connacht Academy to Ireland squad, says he wants "to keep going the way we are going". “Obviously we did some great things last year and we have our goals for this season.”
Their contract extensions is also an important message for the province, Connacht CEO Willie Ruane, says. "It sends out the message that this is where the guys want to be and that is hugely significant. We are trying to continue to build something very significant here. We have achieved some great stuff over the last number of seasons, but we have ambitions to achieve more."
It is understood salaries have been increased to reflect their status and ensure their signatures, helped by last year’s increase from the IRFU and new commercial opportunities reaped as a result of winning the Pro 12, but it was not a decision made solely on money.
"Our own success has been great," says Ruane. "It allows you to grow your sponsorship, your gates - this is the outcome of that support - this is where you are able to invest in your squad.
"It says a lot about both of them," says Connacht coach Pat Lam. "There are many examples of people who have gone to other places for money, and not enjoyed their rugby at all, but first and foremost it is the quality of the rugby players and making a decision that is best for themselves, their families."
The renewed signature of the two marquee players is hugely significant, alongside contract extensions for Ireland squad member Finlay Bealham, and the up-and-coming youngsters such as Sean O'Brien, Peter Robb, and Niyi Adeolokun.
O'Brian, Robb and Adeolokun produced prominent displays in Connacht's win over Zebre on Sunday which put Pat Lam's side top of pool three in the Champions Cup. With Toulouse and Wasps forced to share the spoils in a 20-20 draw in France, Connacht now have a two-point lead over their English counterparts in their bid to reach the knock-out stages.
It was a great night for debutant left wing Stacey Ili who bagged a hat-trick in his first match, while fullback Cian Kelleher grabbed two in the second half, and centre Craig Ronaldson added 10 points from his boot in this seven-try blitz.
"It was a professional performance, " said Pat Lam."We are top of the table now, but there's a long way to go. We are sitting in a good place, but we have a tough job in December away to Wasps in Coventry."
Stacey Ili, who came to Ireland from the fringes of the Auckland team, impressed with his pace and energy, while Sean O'Brien, although yellow-carded for deliberate knock-on when offside, was prominent in the loose, alongside Jake Heenan, while Jack Carty produced a mature performance at outhalf.
Always a potential banana skin for Connacht, particularly after Zebre had led the abandoned Pro 12 fixture a month ago, Connacht looked like a different outfit in the perfect conditions.
In an error-free opening period they profited after nine minutes when Carty grubber kick was finished off by Ili for his first of three. Five minutes later a smashing tackle from Peter Robb forced outhalf Carlo Canna to spill possession, and with Zebre fullback Edoardo Padovani out of position, Carty picked up and raced from inside his own half, with Ronaldson converting.
A yellow card for O'Brien, and a red for Zebre lost hooker Oliviero Fabiani for an alleged bite on Quinn Roux's arm were the key features of the second 20 minutes, but Connacht regained the initiative immediately after the break - Ili racing in from 30 metres from Carty's crossfield kick. Nine minutes later the forwards got in on the act for the fourth try in the 50th minute when referee Mattieu Raynal awarded a penalty try from a five metre scrum.
Kelleher (2 ), replacement prop Conor Carey, and Ili (his third ) added to the scoreline in a game that was as much about Connacht's attitude as Zebre's inepititude.
Connacht: C Kelleher; N Adeolokun (D Poolman 55 ), P Robb, C Ronaldson (S O'Leary 57 ), S Ili; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 57 ); JP Cooney (C Carey 49 ), S Delahunt (D Heffernan 52 ), F Bealham (JP Cooney 72 ); Q Roux, A Browne (U Dillane 59 ); S O'Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (E McKeon 58 ).