URC focus for Connacht as top eight race intensifies

Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins before the EPCR Challenge Cup quarter-final match between Benetton and Connacht at Stadio Monigo in Treviso, Italy.

Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins before the EPCR Challenge Cup quarter-final match between Benetton and Connacht at Stadio Monigo in Treviso, Italy.

Connacht’s focus switches this week to securing a top eight spot in the United Rugby Championship. Last weekend, Pete Wilkins' side failed to qualify for a European Challenge Cup semi-final.

After a disappointing 39-24 to fellow URC competitors Benetton in Italy last Sunday, Connacht now seek to secure Champions Cup rugby next season with a place in the top eight. The run-in starts on Saturday when they host Zebra Palma in Dexcom Stadium (8.35pm ).

Connacht currently lie 10th in the table, but there are only five points between fifth-placed DHL Stormers with 39, and Connacht on 34, ensuring there is still much to play for in this competition. But with five fixtures remaining, including tough opponents Leinster, Munster and the Stormers - there is no time to lose or lament last weekend’s loss to Benetton.

“We would much rather be fighting on two fronts, but it does narrow the focus,” says head coach Pete Wilkins. “It means we can be more selective about the use of players. Once we processed some of the elements of the performance in Italy, talk quickly turned to the URC, and the importance to set ourselves up for playing Champions Cup rugby next season.”

With a tight mid table, Wilkins knows what his side needs to do to qualify for the top tier European championship again: “We’ll play it week by week, but we need to get into the top eight and we think we can.

“It’s a pressure time of the season, and we will be involved in some must-win games; something we have to look at. We can’t not brush over it, but in my seven years here, we have never been a team that is a solid seven- or eight-out-of-10 every week, but we need to keep chasing greater consistency.

“Will we ever be the team that is a nine-out-of-10 every week and top of the league and barely losing a game? It would be nice to think so, but immediately we have to chase for improved consistency.”

Benetton’s superiority on Sunday heaped pressure on Connacht throughout the contest, leading to a host of errors, which Wilkins acknowledges.

“We were certainly inaccurate. Fifteen turnovers conceded on the back of the opportunities we had, 145 carries, and we bettered them for territory and possession. So we had opportunities but didn’t take them.

“They are a good team with a lot of international players. They managed the game really well in the context of putting us under pressure, and they got the rewards.”

With both Zebre and the Dragons in lowly positions, nothing other than wins will be sufficient for Connacht.

“Both are good opportunities for us,” says Wilkins. “The nature of this competition is that you have to respect the challenge that is coming; any team in this competition is still capable of beating others. In most of the games involving Zebre, teams have had to work to break them down. You can’t roll out and expect it to happen, you have to respect the threat and work really hard.”

Connacht will be still without Jack Carty, while Eoin de Buitlear is the latest player from their defeat in Treviso to be side-lined. However Oisin Dowling and hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin are fit and available.

Wilkins is expected to continue to give youth a chance - two of whom stood out last weekend: replacement scrumhalf Matthew Devine, and winger Shane Jennings.

“Both did brilliantly and Zebre is a good opportunity for them to build on their performances,” says Wilkins. “If they are involved this weekend, it will be because they have earned the right, not because Zebre is a chance to give them a run-out.

“We have to respect that we have had three very tough games on the road with some challenging travel and weather conditions. But also, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and expect to build a team from scratch. There is a balancing act, and the selection will reflect that.”


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