Connacht are no longer setting themselves “hard targets” as they begin a series of three URC fixtures that will have a big say in their bid to play Champions Cup rugby next season.
Away matches to Scarlets and Edinburgh, punctuated by a visit of the Stormers to the Sportsground, will provide a clearer picture of Connacht’s ability to once again attain their seasonal ambition of playing in the top tier of European rugby.
They have not enjoyed the best start, and currently sit outside the qualifying group in 10th place. And with their Scottish and South African opponents already in the top eight, senior coach Pete Wilkins says a win is a must against the Welsh outfit in Parc y Scarlets on Saturday.
“We need to win this fixture. It is important after the previous run of games, it’s important for this new mini-block, and it’s important in terms of our season and URC and Champions Cup ambitions.”
However slim their chances of qualifying, it is now “about winning as many as Connacht can” he says.
They have not done themselves any favours, having shipped 74 points in their losses to Ulster and Glasgow, particularly after heroic efforts in the Champions Cup. However, Wilkins says that their Heineken Champions Cup exploits did take a mental and physical toll on the squad.
“The effort that went into two very big and good teams, and the psychological impact of losing tight games at the end, and to then back it up against Glasgow and Ulster were probably a couple of bridges too far.
“In terms of being up against it, there is no great shock to the system or need to reset the mind. It’s always been a challenge for us. We started well, we’ve levelled off, and now we need to improve again. It was not long ago we were slim outsiders anyway, but our determination to achieve that goal is as strong as ever,” Wilkins says.
“Sometimes you can’t believe a win is around the corner, but the wheel does turn. As long as we are putting in the hard work and preparation, that wheel will turn for us in due course.”
Connacht will be helped by the return of Jack Carty and Dave Heffernan from Ireland camp, while centre Tom Farrell (ankle) and prop Jack Aungier (rib) have returned to training. Front row Matthew Burke (knee) and Dominic Robertson McCoy (hamstring) expect to be back training over the next fortnight, while prop Greg McGrath is being monitored this week for a finger injury sustained in the game against Ulster.