Connacht are preparing for a “backs-against-the wall” Italian challenge against Benetton in the face of their fast-fading United Rugby Championship ambitions.
However unlikely it is that Andy Friend's side can reach the top eight, Connacht are in desperate need to post a victory ahead of their back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures against Leinster.
Having shipped 101 points in their previous two games against Edinburgh and Leo Cullen's outfit, while only registering eight in each, Connacht's season appears to have come off the rails. And if the performance in the Scottish capital was a surprise, Friend says a repeat against Leinster at the Sportsground was down to "controllables" – a missed touch and a red card within the opening three minutes. Now it is not only Champions Cup rugby next season that is at stake, but pride.
“We have worked so hard, and as I have continued to say, I have been feeling comfy where we are as a group. But looking at the last two games, it just has not been acceptable – embarrassing to be honest.
“We are not here to put out performances like that, so we are all hurting. We had a full house on Saturday night and you want to give people a performance and a spectacle they want to see. We did for 50 minutes and then fell off. Now this season is still at stake, and getting the pride back in the jersey.”
With Benetton’s internationals available for Saturday’s midday fixture, Friend says Connacht “need to get back to playing the rugby we can for 80 minutes, not for 28 or 50 minutes”.
“I think it is the perfect challenge. We want tough games, but we made that game tougher than it needed to be, and when you go down to 14 men after two minutes, it makes it very, very tough.”
The key message, he insists, is if the system was broken, Connacht would not have led 8-7 after 50 minutes with only 14 players.
“Something happens that causes the multiple tries that come after that, and I have said to the players, ‘I can’t ask the coaching staff to do any more. They are working their backsides off, so that responsibility now lies with you guys collectively and individually’.
“It’s not us abdicating responsibility. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me, those two performances rest on my shoulders, and I need to challenge the group in better ways to get more out of them.”
But he says, he has told the players they also have to respond. In the face of conceding two scores, they have to have “belief, never give up the fight, never until the final whistle can you give up”.
“We have blokes who can lead, and it’s again another area I am looking at, and I have tried to implement different styles of leadership programmes. The fact of the matter is I haven’t got it right yet. Have we the right leaders? Yes. Have we given them the tools to do it, the support, and the challenge? No, not yet, and again that rests with me.
“Yes, we have all the people, but they must also have the courage to stand up. Sometimes it’s tough, but you must stand up and you have to call out your peers. That is what life is about, so we have to give them the courage to do that.”
That courage will be tested again when Connacht head to Treviso to face a Benetton outfit that will be looking to close the five-point gap on the URC table.
Ireland's Bundee Aki will not be travelling, but both Finlay Bealham and Mack Hansen will be available, while Leva Fifita and Tietie Tuimauga are also fit. John Porch is awaiting clearance after a HIA, while lock Gavin Thornbury has returned to training and is a possible replacement. Ruled out are Denis Buckley (calf), Alex Wootton (foot), Shane Delahunt (hamstring) and Dylan Tierney Martin (hamstring).