Connacht can give themselves a real chance of qualifying for European quarter-finals if they repeat their performance and victory over Brive in the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (3pm ).
The hardest work was done last weekend in France, and now Connacht, backed by a home crowd, must use that advantage to help nail down a Challenge Cup quarter-final at home, and head into the Christmas interprovincials with momentum and confidence.
It is a realistic outcome if Connacht display the same character, attacking desire, and defensive structure, that saw them fight back from a 16-point deficit in the Limousin region, while also improving consistency and discipline.
“The most important thing for Connacht is consistency," says backs coach Nigel Carolan. “Hopefully the game against Brive is like Oyonnax in the first block which kicked us off to a run of four wins. We have some huge games coming up and that level of consistency is really important.
Despite the away win, Carolan says Connacht cannot afford to be complacent. "On our trips to Cardiff and Zebre, we failed to spark, but at home, certainly in the latter stages of the first block, we were good. We haven’t played here for a few weeks so we are looking forward to being in front of a festive home crowd, and producing the performance that can achieve the result we badly need again.”
Brive’s rolling maul, which is their number one weapon, did the early damage last Saturday, but Carolan insists it comes down to indiscipline.
“That is what Brive has been doing in the Top 14. Unfortunately we had a player in the sin bin when they scored the first one, and on the second, a couple of our roles were wrong, so we will be working hard to address that this week. But to have put ourselves there in the first place was our own indiscipline which allowed them access to our 22, so we have to ensure our discipline is better."
With no fresh injuries from that 38-31 win in Brive, Connacht is hoping Eoin McKeon (hamstring ), having returned to training, will be fit, while Craig Ronaldson (calf ) and Peter Robb (hip ) also came through the Eagles’ win over Richmond. Tom McCartney, who suffered a haematoma against Cardiff, is also expected back on duty. No restrictions have been imposed on Irish players by Joe Schmidt, but coach Kieran Keane may opt to rest some of those players ahead of the Ulster fixture.
Carolan insists the team is starting to gel.
"We have grown massively as a team. It's been a new approach how we play a game, and it's taken time to bed in. We created opportunities and it’s down to the lads, down to the way we play. It is not a prescribed process, it's figuring it out, and there are mistakes along the way, but it does produce some outstanding phases of play and creates opportunities to score, and we have to be clinical enough to score those.
“We are playing on the edge, and there’s a fine line, and sometimes we get the wrong call, but we have to push the boat out. If we improve discipline, we would have more possession and we are dangerous when we have the ball.
"I think there is real competition in the squad, it is finding the balance and those players who are willing to take ownership and account for themselves. Confidence breeds courage, which is about ambition, not only as a club, but how we play, but it does come with risks."
Connacht certainly looked a more confident outfit in Brive, while also showing backbone and determination after going behind 19-3 within 30 minutes.
Brive scored five tries in total to Connacht's four, but outhalf Jack Carty produced a near flawless kicking display, posting 23 points, 18 from the tee, including four penalties to help his side to a deserved victory.
Brive, as expected, made it difficult up front, and one too many collapsed mauls handed them the early initiative as captain John Muldoon was yellow carded. Influential hooker Mike Tadjer, scrumhalf Florian Cazenave, and former French and Racing Metro prop Julian Brugnaut bagged three tries to lead 19-3 lead after 28 minutes.
Inspired by Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Cian Kelleher started to find gaps, while up front the scrum continued to deliver, and combined with a superb line-out provided the platform.
O'Halloran's sidestep after a switch in direction from John Muldoon, paved the way for Ultan Dillane to cross, before scrumhalf Kieran Marmion produced a trademark snipe, reducing the arrears to 19-17. A Carty three-pointer put Connacht into the lead for the first time after the restart, and although Tadjer grabbed his second try, Carty produced the pivotal score, having the courage to spot a gap inside his own half to put Connacht back in front. The outhalf added a penalty, delivered the crossfield kick for Cian Kelleher, who although denied for a knock-on, claimed the fourth try. Led by John Muldoon, a tackle and Tom McCartney turnover were the first of many big moments in the final quarter to complete the victory.
"I'm thrilled for the boys, they deserved it. To go down by 16 early on, it showed character to keep calm, and build back into the game - very positive.
"I think the whole team mentally lifted their game. I thought we were up for it. We had taken a bit of a pizzling [whipping] from various sources, and I think it was a pretty emphatic answer actually. We needed it. We had lost a couple of tight ones, and had some tough calls along the way, but we didn't bleat. I'm just pleased for the players. We won't underestimate Brive at home - it will be nice to be home, it's been a while."
Connacht: T O'Halloran, C Kelleher, P Ahki, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, KMarmion, D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, CGallagher, E Masterson, J Muldoon (cpt ); Replacements, C Carey forBealham (49 ), P McCabe for Buckley (59 ). T McCartney for Delahunt (62 ), D Leader for O'Halloran (71 ), J Cannon for Roux (76 ).