Connacht coach Pat Lam is feeling a lot more confident following the return of seven key squad members as the Pro 12 resumes this weekend.
Connacht host Cardiff Blues tomorrow (7.35pm ) and Lam says the break for the autumn internationals has allowed his squad to recharge mentally and physically after they slumped to 10th in the Pro 12 table with their first defeat to the Dragons since 2012.
"I am feeling much more confident now. We were chasing our tails with two six-day turnarounds, and we were also depleted," he says. "All-in-all the break was extremely good. It has given us a good build into this game. It doesn't guarantee we will get the outcome on Friday, but it certainly gives us a good chance."
Three experienced front-row players, Tom McCartney, Denis Buckley and Ronan Loughney will be monitored this week, along with back-row players Sean O'Brien and Nepia Fox-Matamua. And with Kieran Marmion, Tiernan O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun involved in Ireland training this week (along with forwards Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham ), the return of scrumhalf John Cooney and winger Matt Healy is a real boost.
Also expected to make his debut is experienced outhalf Marniz Boschoff from South Africa. Lam says there is a "good chance" Boschoff will see action against Cardiff on Friday after his assimilation into the squad.
"He has put himself right into contention, yip ready to go, knows the boys, knows the plays, and now he just needs to get out and play a game. He has fitted in really well, off the field and on the field. He's getting more and more confident."
The return of three key front row players will be a real boost for Lam who is preparing his squad without the five in Ireland training - a return of any would be bonus, he says. Buckley will celebrate his 100th cap for Connacht, which is another great milestone for the former Creggs player as he returns from injury. However the second row will be missing key players in Dillane (Ireland ), Andrew Browne, who is now out until February following ankle surgery, and the long term absence of Ben Marshall.
Also still missing is prop Ivan Soroko, who continues his rehab on his foot, back row players Rory Maloney (concussion ) and Eoghan Masterson (knee ), who is progressing well and is expected to return at the end of next month, and backs Shane O'Leary (concussion ), Eoin Griffin (chest ), Josh Rowland (ankle ) and Darragh Leader (hand ).
Lam has also prepared his squad for Friday's first home game in six weeks with "one of the toughest weeks this season" after performances away to Cardiff and Leinster "not up to our standards".
"Last week was pretty full on, there was some tough work done. We went three games away in two short weeks, and short weeks are difficult because you don't get the real contact hit. It is something we have reviewed, and so we ramped it up last week and will ramp it up again today [Monday].
The next series of fixtures will be crucial in Connacht's seasonal ambitions. They now host Cardiff and Treviso in Pro 12 fixtures they must win, before back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures with Wasps. Then the Christmas period interprovincials against Ulster and Munster will also be opportunities Connacht must grab.
"To get into the top six, and we are right out of it at the moment, all points are crucial. There are five on offer this week and so we have to get going there. And obviously there's two big games against Wasps, win one - great chance of getting through; win two - extremely good chance of getting through, and they're on fire at the moment. Then the interpros, so there are a lot of exciting games for us, for the fans, but certainly, if you think about where Connacht has come from, it's been based on tough times, and if you look at our season, it's been tough so far. But we have a good foundation and hopefully we can take off from here to the end of the calendar year."