Great chance for Connacht men to make flying startOctober 12, 2012 - 7:00am
THIS time last year, as Connacht embarked on their inaugural Heineken Cup campaign, expectations – outside of the squad at any rate – were pretty low.
Pitted against quality outfits like Toulouse, Harlequins and Gloucester, when the pool draw was made, a lot of supporters were hopeful and giddy but would have adopted a ‘please don’t disgrace yourselves’ attitude to the province’s pool games.
Not this year. This year is different. It’s different because Connacht raised the bar so high last season, punched so far above their weight against three of the best teams in France and England, that when the draw was made for this year’s competition, expectations of a few more wins, and possibly even qualification out of the pool, were heightened.
The expectations are higher, too, because Connacht spent big money on luring Dan Parks to Galway this season; had he been here last year, the former Scotland out-half would perhaps have kicked Connacht to more success in tight games, particularly in the two Gloucester matches and away in London against Harlequins.
Connacht won’t win the Heineken Cup but drawn against Zebre, Harlequins, and Biarritz in pool three, on paper a weaker group than last season, Eric Elwood’s men would be expected to at least improve on the one win from six matches and two losing bonus points that they accumulated in 2011/2012. Finishing third, possibly even second, in the group has to be a realistic target.
Zebre, a new Italian outfit based in Parma that rose from the ashes of the disbanded Aironi franchise, are obviously in the Heineken Cup for the first time, and are in the same situation as Connacht were last season – arriving more in hope than expectation.
They haven’t won a game so far this season in the RaboDirect Pro 12, and Connacht has already beaten them 30-17 in Parma just over a month ago so the pressure is on the visitors this Saturday in Stadio XXV Aprile (kick-off 2.35pm local time).
Connacht assistant coach and forwards coach Dan McFarland is aware of the completely different levels of expectations ahead of this campaign compared with last year’s but he believes this squad of players has the capacity to deliver on those expectations.
“There’s a huge difference. There was no expectation in what we were doing in the Heineken Cup last year, there was just hope. This year, having been over there once already, them (Zebre) not having won a game yet, yeah there’s a huge amount of expectation in what we can do but none more so than among the group of players we have.
“The key point on that is that we don’t focus on our hopes and expectations, but on the processes that we believe we can use to deliver on the result that we need and that’s what we do this week.
We go away, we plan, we think we have the game plan and the armoury to win a match over there. It’s just a question of putting it into practice,” he said.
Last weekend’s loss to Ulster, 25-0 in Ravenhill, and the shock announcement by Elwood last week that he is to step down at the end of the season, is hardly an ideal backdrop for the Westerners as they embark on one of the ‘must win’ matches in the pool.
For more, read this week's Galway City Tribune.