Connacht coach Kieran Keane is happy with his side’s progression in his first season in charge, but admits they need to beat Gloucester on Saturday to have any hope of Champions Cup rugby next season.
Keane’s side have looked unstoppable in the Challenge Cup but fragile in the PRO14 this season, and with their play-off hopes in tatters after recent home defeats to Zebre and Edinburgh, all focus is on winning the European title.
Connacht host Gloucester in the quarter-finals tomorrow, where a win will give them a fourth chance to win a European semi-final, and despite still having a mathematical chance of qualification via the PRO14, all Keane’s eggs are in this basket.
“Without a doubt. There’s no grey there. But winning that is not a panacea for curing of all ills. I think the issue that we have faced right from the get-go is being able to adapt to a new way of playing,” said Keane.
“Different playing group, different coaching group. These things take time. But I’m happy with the way it’s going personally.
“I know it has been up and down and I know it would be really, really good for us to get a good result against Gloucester. I think we’ll have 23 committed players and coaches, totally committed to the task but so will they. There are challenges there. Will it break us? No, it won’t break us.”
Erratic form has bedevilled Connacht’s season. There have been some memorable wins and performances along the way, with victory over Ulster and Munster the standouts, but home defeats to Zebre and Edinburgh have marred their league campaign — and they have just one away win from nine attempts.
Keane puts their frailties down to teething problems in his first season. “Inconsistent would be accurate, no doubt about that. But I think the biggest thing for me is that we are growing and getting better.
“We are getting a bit more settled and we’ve got a new broom in the place, as you know, with a new coaching structure and we are just getting better and were focusing on getting better each day.
“(Europe) has been kind to us, it’s been good, it’s been interesting travelling too. We’ve had some challenges around it and the boys have used that as a forum, really, to gather some momentum which is great.
Connacht’s stocks have been boosted by the return of Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki from Ireland duty, although Ultan Dillane might not start due to a lack of game time. And they must cope without centre Eoin Griffin (hamstring) and winger Cian Kelleher (ankle), who has been ruled out for the rest of the season.
They must also buck an unimpressive quarter-final record. They have reached the knockout stages of the European Challenge Cup in 10 of the 19 seasons in which they have participated, but have only managed to reach the semi-final stages on three occasions.
Win tomorrow and it puts them within 80 minutes of a first European final and a chance to send John Muldoon into retirement on a high.
Muldoon, who is set to take up a coaching role with Pat Lam in Bristol in the summer, made his debut in the season when Connacht reached their first semi-final, going down 49-45 on aggregate to Harlequins in 2004.
That’s the closest Connacht have come to reaching a European final. Victory tomorrow against Gloucester, who have twice won this competition, will set up a semi-final date away to either Newcastle Falcons or Brive.
On the other side of the draw, Simon Mannix’s Pau take on Stade Francais, with the winners meeting either Cardiff Blues or Edinburgh.
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