Renewed self-belief for Connacht as quarter-final beckons

Connacht march on to a European quarter-final where they will face a familiar foe.

Connacht march on to a European quarter-final where they will face a familiar foe.

Familiar URC foes Connacht and Benetton meet again in European rugby on Sunday. A much sought-after semi-final spot in this year’s European Challenge Cup is the prize.

Connacht, having qualified for last weekend’s round of 16 after finishing fifth in their Champions Cup pool, secured the 40-30 victory over French outfit Section Paloise (Pau ) who were runners-up in their Challenge Cup Pool 1.

Having delivered what head coach Pete Wilkins describes as an “exceptional performance”, Connacht showed serious mettle in getting over the line, having been behind by 20-10 at half-time.

“We haven’t always had the luck we possibly deserved," says Wilkins, “and we haven’t always played well enough to get the wins when we could have done, but the players stuck at it, worked unbelievably hard, and at no stage did their self-belief waver.

"I think the self-belief in what we saw was enormous, with a huge amount of energy and physicality, and really good rugby on top of that.”

The return of key players Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham was crucial in the south of France, but other players such as Dave Heffernan took a leading role to get Connacht over the line, and that unrelenting work ethic for the full 80 minutes will be required again on Sunday.

Aki, back with Connacht for the first time since the Six Nations, delivered “unbelievably dominant carries with important moments in defence”, says Wilkins.

“It sets the standard, lifts the players around, and gives them enormous energy. But he was also very aware of the impact he needed to have in terms of calming the group. So when things didn’t go well or how to back up a positive moment, his ability to encourage the players around him to stay present, regroup, connect and get back ready for the next play, was just as important.

Similarly, players such as hooker Heffernan took a leading role. “You are looking, particularly at front rowers, at what point will their physicality drop, and it really didn’t. He looked like he was getting stronger as the second half went on - a testament not only to his performance, but also the way he prepares himself,” Wilkins said.

However, Benetton will enter this contest with confidence, having recently beaten Connacht in the URC by 18-14. They sit sixth in the top half of the table, with Connacht just three points behind, but in 10th place in a crowded mid-section.

Both sides know each other well, and the head coach says Connacht will “need to do better”.

“We have to play the game, but at the same time there will be bits of this performance we can use as ideas, motivation, and a clarity of how we want to play on Sunday.”

The coaching staff have already met to discuss Benetton - they did that on the morning of last Sunday’s game, knowing time would be of the essence if they claimed victory.

“It was not a sign we were taking it [a win] for granted, but that we needed to be prepared should we win. We have already met to discuss how we might approach the Benetton game differently - what would the Benetton coaches have learned from playing Connacht last week, and what opportunities would they have seen from us? So this Pau game will help focus our thoughts on some of those aspects."

Connacht will have learned much from last weekend’s win as they head to Italy, particularly their huge defensive plays.

“Throughout the second half, we were aggressive defensively... I thought we attacked Pau rather than standing off and worrying about what they might do.

“I think the Shane Bolton try was a really good example, that if we are positive with our line speed and our decision-making in defence, you can force errors out of the opposition. It has come from Scott Fardy’s work and the players’ work in terms of that defensive aggression.

“The positivity and aggression in defence will be crucial for us, not just this week, but throughout the remainder of the season. I think we have seen a glimpse of what we can do there and that will be crucial because what we could not have done was continue that cycle of not having enough possession and not enough territory.

“The supporters’ impact was unbelievable,” says Wilkins. “There was a lull in the game and the supporters stood up, singing the Fields of Athenry with their hands in the air. It lifted me in the coaching box, so how it felt for the players, I can only imagine."


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