Connacht scrum-half Caolin Blade says having Champions Cup rugby wrapped up for next season is a huge boost but they are determined to have a right crack at finishing this campaign with silverware.
They head to Thomond Park tomorrow for a free shot at Munster before regrouping to take on Ulster in the PRO14 quarter-final in Belfast the following weekend.
Victory at Kingspan Stadium and a semi-final berth would be just perfect for the Galway native who will be 25 on Monday and who has featured in all bar one game for Connacht this season.
He’s made 13 starts and 13 off the bench for Andy Friend’s side and having come through the ranks of mid-Galway junior club Monivea he knows the return of Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season will be huge.
“Yeah, definitely. The best times you have here in the Sportsground are probably them big games, them close games, them Champions Cup games.
“I have been involved in Challenge Cup games here, and winning them. But when you get to a Champions Cup game and you win it here and the crowd rush onto the pitch is a massive feeling.
“It’s massive. Look, as an individual, you want to play in the Champions Cup and test yourself with the top players in the world.
“As a collective, it’s huge; it’s huge for young people in Connacht, for them to see that Connacht are improving. I don’t think we’re fully there yet. But, as a Connacht lad, you dream to play for Connacht and you dream to have big days,” he said.
Blade was called into the extended Six Nations squad and while he didn’t get capped like his half-back partner Jack Carty, he learned a lot from being inside Joe Schmidt’s camp.
He is one of several players to have reveled in Andy Friend’s first season in charge at the Sportsground.
“I think, this year, it’s been a good place to come; whether you win or lose you come into a happy work place. That’s the most thing. I know me, and I know speaking to Jack, we’re enjoying to play rugby and we’re not afraid to do anything and we’re expressing ourselves.
“It’s half mental; just having the confidence and getting the confidence from our coaching staff. I think it’s a combine of everything. We have a massive game against Munster where we can really nail down a real performance and momentum and going up to Kingspan – I don’t think we should be afraid of anything up there – and I think we should go for it,” he added.