Connacht’s hardened approach to gaining Heineken Cup qualification gets its first big test tomorrow night when the Magners League season opens.
Connacht, still with the smallest squad, the smallest stadium, the least number of international players, open their account at the Galway Sportsground against a star-studded Ospreys from Wales – a team that boasts some 27 international players – including the former All Black Jerry Collins who is expected to make his first competitive start in Europe in the Galway Sportsground.
However Connacht director of coaching Michael Bradley believes he has a squad that can make a difference this season. Battling displays and the rare sensational victory are one thing, but Connacht now need consistency both home and away, and the ability to close out games if they are to qualify for Heineken Cup rugby.
Bradley, now in his seventh season at the coaching helm, aided by Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland, says Connacht have a “better chance this year”.
“I think we have a better squad. I think even as an organisation we are taking a harder view of ourselves and questioning what we do. There is a serious focus on the result – even though to some degree you don’t control it, a lot hangs on it. The management know it, the players know that, and the organisation knows it. I am very confident if we produce the rugby we can produce, then we will go very well this year.”
Connacht concluded their pre-season last Friday night, but it was more reminiscent of past fixtures in which Connacht surrendered the lead late. However Bradley is confident that the work conducted in the pre-season, coupled with the squad which boasts a couple of players knocking on the door of international call-ups - will dispel any “lingering” doubts.
“The attitude is one of the key differences.. The guys are doing most of the fighting now in their heads as opposed to the physical,” he says. Add in a couple of new signings, players like Brett Wilkinson and Sean Cronin who are in the Ireland squad, and Bradley says he’s “very excited “ about this year’s team.
Several of those new signings will make their competitive debuts tomorrow, either from the starting XV or the bench. New Zealand lock Bernie Upton, who Connacht tried to sign two years ago, is a “strong Super 14 player”; No 8 Mike McComish, who Bradley describes as a “good honest player who has worked very hard on his physical preparation”; prop Jamie Hagan from the Leinster Academy who boasts a “lot of potential if he can deliver”; ex-Munster wing Brian Tuohy, a “strong fast and good footballer”, and Miah Nikora, the former Tasman player who “has potential for Ireland if he goes forward”.
The introduction of a top four play-off and the removal of the Heineken Cup play-off place means Connacht need to finish above any of the other three Irish provinces to qualify by merit.
“I think it certainly focuses us more. It is a straightforward equation that you have to be one of the top three teams in Ireland to quality through the Magners. In that mix we have current European champions and the Magners champions – so it’s really between ourselves and Ulster. In fairness to Ulster they have managed to beat us in the last two years, and if those matches can be swung in our favour, then we will be in with a very good chance of qualification by merit.”
Bradley admits Connacht cannot compete with the bigger budgeted teams.
“We can’t compete. We won’t have a stadium as big as Thomond Park this week. We won’t have the budget that Leinster and Munster have, but there are different ways of skinning a cat. We beat both Leinster and Munster last year; we should have beaten Cardiff and Llanelli - we didn’t but we should have, and when we start to put those games away, then we are talking about qualification for the Heineken Cup.”
Bradley is looking at targets for the first four games, but the focus is very much on Ulster. “That game is a massive one for us. You will see Connacht progress in my opinion once we start turning over Ulster. It’s a major focus for us this year. I know each game is worth four or five points, but it is a massive challenge for us. We have them at home first, and we are not afraid to say it is match we really want to win.”
First up is the Ospreys and John Muldoon, who captains Connacht for a second season, believes the “toughest” pre-season will stand to them.
“It has been by far the toughest. It has challenged us in a lot more ways than just physically. We are asking more of ourselves this season.”
However he says Connacht will be in serious trouble if they lack intensity as they did last week against the Titans. “If we don’t get it right, Marty Holah and the likes will destroy us.”
Muldoon remains upbeat, hoping the crowd for this opener will influence the outcome.
“I think it’s getting harder for visiting teams to come to the Sportsground, particularly when the crowd gets on top of them. We are conscious people like to come to see a winning team, and we hope by Christmas to be in the middle of the pack and beating Ulster - that’s all we want.”