From the high of their Heineken Cup victory over Harlequins and a two week break, Connacht return to competitive action in the Pro 12 when they travel to Cardiff to take on the Blues this evening. The challenge for Eric Elwood's men is to deliver the type of performance they displayed in Europe in the bread and butter competition of the Celtic League. If they do not, they will languish at the bottom of the table where Italian strugglers Aironi are poised to overtake them, while a win could see them leap the Dragons.
That is the stark reality facing Connacht as this next series of fixtures begins. Connacht do have continuing injury concerns - some 11 this week - but there can be no excuses. If they can produce a winning display against the English premiership leaders, there is no reason they cannot do it in the Pro12. Now after a much-needed two week break from competition, Elwood says his players have returned refreshed and determined to build on their Heineken Cup campaign. "We certainly needed the break. We had a lot of broken bodies. The lads had gone to the well for 13 weeks on the bounce and, to be honest, we would put our hands up and say 'thank God for the rest'," Elwood says. "Obviously we were on the wrong end of defeats. We had that monkey and it was a huge demand both physically and mentally, but in fairness the players stuck to the task and got their just rewards in the end."
It is imperative Connacht push on — Elwood
Now Elwood says it is imperative Connacht push on and get a good start against Cardiff. "The guys have said it themselves this week, what we did against Harlequins counts for nothing now, it's in the past and we have to kick on. We have to rock up and it's important that if we prepare properly, we have a good chance.
"We have always said the ERC is nice distraction, but we have always wanted to do well in the Rabo. Our mantra has been to be better than we were last season. So we have nine games left to do that and it starts against Cardiff. After the break some teams come back well and some don't, and it is our challenge to see if we can be one of those teams that bounces back to kick start us."
Elwood is missing Andrew Browne Johnny O'Connor, who had a setback with his facial injury and needs another six weeks, Brian Tuohy, Dave Nolan, Eoin Griffin, Frank Murphy, Rodney Ah You, Dylan Rogers, TJ Anderson, James Loxton, and retiree Keith Matthews. Griffin and Murphy should be available next week, while James Loxton returned to training for the first time after a long-term knee injury. Brett Wilkinson remains with the Irish squad, but will be available for selection in what is expected to be an unchanged side from that which started against Harlequins.
Cardiff, with six wins from 12, are always tricky opponents, particularly at home, which tomorrow night sees them return to Cardiff Arms Park. As qualifiers for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, Cardiff's credentials are well established, but Connacht will be keen to take advantage during this Six Nations period. However the Blues still selected a dozen internationals for their LV fixture last weekend against Harlequins which they won 45 - 40. "Cardiff score a lot of points, but they also concede a lot. We know the type of rugby they place, they still had 12 internationals out last week, and they are at home, so it will be a huge challenge.