Europe helps Keane's Connacht finds its winning form

Connacht is looking to continue its love affair with Europe, having qualified for a home quarter-final with a demolition of visitors Oyonnax by 50-14 on Saturday.

Whether the Champions or Challenge Cup, European rugby has always provided Connacht with a respite from the regular fare of the PRO 14 as they revel in the change of scenery and enjoy the licence to find their attacking flare. The time of European competition in the season certainly helps, and particularly this year with the Connacht squad getting to grips with different structures under new coach Kieran Keane.

Having struggled against Zebre and Cardiff, Connacht have posted four wins and a draw from their last seven fixtures, and understandably Keane is now a devotee of Europe, thankful it has given his side some much-needed confidence and momentum after a shaky start to his stewardship.

Connacht were not in the strongest group in this season's Challenge Cup, but it is testament to their growing belief in themselves, their coaching team, and their new structures that they finished their pool fixtures unbeaten and on top, with five wins and one draw - the latter being the only blip in Europe, similar to Leinster on New Year's Day.

But Keane now has his eye on advancing further.

"I think the competition has been a good platform for us to achieve the ambition we have been seeking. It has given us confidence, the opportunity to rotate players and give everyone a feel for what we are trying to do. It has allowed us to put a little bit of polish on our game, and it has given us continuity," he said.

His new attacking "heads-up" game plan with offloading at pace produced eight tries against Oyonnax - three posted between the 21st second and the 11th minute. Man of the match Niyi Adeolokun grabbed the opening two of his hat-trick, while scrumhalf Kieran Marmion was at the fulcrum of Connacht's scoring blitz, producing some perfectly weighted kicks, with Bundee Aki claiming the third. The Connacht backs revelled in the front foot ball, queuing up to score, and it provided the 5,000 plus supporters with another memorable evening at the Galway Sportsground.

Fullback Tiernan O'Halloran, who took over the No 10 duties after a leg injury to Craig Ronaldson, and Matt Healy, who celebrated his 100th cap, had Connacht 36-14 ahead at half-time. Replacement Tom Farrell, who boasts the ninth best record in Europe for defenders beaten with 17, bagged the seventh, and a marauding pack with captain John Muldoon in charge, deserved the plaudits for the eighth, a penalty try. He was not alone. Prop Conor Carey was superb around the park, following Ultan's Dillane's lead, while Quinn Roux was as always a powerhouse in the line-outs and scrums. Such was the dominance, Keane was able to introduce his bench early in the second half.

Having fallen behind to Worcester the previous week, Keane's exasperation was appeased.

"We got off to a flyer which was as big focus," he said. "I was shitty last week [against Worcester], but I'm all right now. I think it hit a nerve with the boys that they had bombed it. Today I felt we broke Oyonnax's heart and their interest in the first half."

As third seeds, Connacht now face sixth seeds Gloucester, who dropped down the seeds following their loss to top seeds Pau in Kingsholm. They are something of a nemesis for Connacht in European competition, having sunk Connacht's ambitions in all four tight games they have played since 2011- all before Connacht realised their potential with a PRO 12 trophy.

Thus Keane, his squad, and the supporters, are edging closer to the finish line, but there are higher summits to mount - particularly given the quality in the quarter-finals - top seeds Pau, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Stade Francais, and Gloucester.

"It's a challenge for us, nice to be a part of it," Keane said. "We've had some disappointing results and we've thrown away a few fixtures in the PRO 14, dare I say it, and we are disappointed about that aspect. So we have to look at the positives, and this offers us an opportunity to perhaps get some silverware or aspire to get it.

"We tend to respond pretty well once we've had our tail put between our legs, and the boys have responded each time, and as a coach I have been pretty pleased with that. It takes a certain amount of discipline to play the game we aspire to play. We haven't been that good at it sometimes, and other times we have been brilliant. Getting that consistency is where I am trying to steer things."

Connacht, on a week's break, will return to the Sportsground with a less heavy step. Having come through some tough early days, they need only ask their inspirational captain John Muldoon, who yesterday announced his retirement from professional rugby at the end of the season, how perserverance pays off.

Connacht (v Oyonnax ): T O'Halloran, N Adeolokun, E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy, C Ronaldson, K Marmion, D Coulson, D Heffernan, C Carey, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, N Dawai, J Muldoon (capt ). Replacements, C Kelleher for Ronaldson (32m ),T Farrell for Aki and C Blade for Marmion (47m ), D Robertson-McCoy for Carey (48m ), S Delahunt for Heffernan and J Connolly for Dawai (54m ), P McCabe for D Coulson (69m ), C Gallagher for Adeolokun (69m ).


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