THIS TIME LAST season, Connacht were preparing to open their Challenge Cup campaign. And they badly needed it.
A trip to the mountains to meet, and comprehensively beat, Oyonnax was just what the doctor ordered for then coach Kieran Keane, not long removed from queries as to whether he was ‘fit to spit’.
Entering Europe on the back of defeats to Dragons, Cardiff, Scarlets and Ulster (one win from six all told), they found form on their visit to the Alps and in a home win over Worcester and duly enjoyed the bounce on their return to the bread and butter.
Suddenly, there was a look of momentum to their list of results as they beat Munster and Cheetahs while turning a dismal 1-5 record to 5-10.
That pattern would repeat itself to some extent throughout the campaign: the December back-to-back cruise against Brive was followed by a win over Ulster and a close-run thing at the RDS.
After the pool stage came to a close, the westerners claimed a February victory over Ospreys.
The change of pace, or maybe the reduced burden, of a new competition can be an incredibly welcome relief. But right now, Connacht have no need to chase results to pad out their collection of Ws.
In the long run, a physical relief for the western province front-liners could have greater benefits than simply a mental one.
Matt Healy, with Bundee Aki in support, helped make for a comfortable pool win over Brive. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
So far, Andy Friend’s influence has been felt in only positive ways on Connacht. Though Keane did plenty right during his one year in charge, public statements like explaining away defeat to Zebre as “a head-scratcher” or declaring “you can’t coach courage” after a win over Cheetahs didn’t exactly send confidence sky-rocketing.
Under Friend, Connacht are a side brimming with purpose again, running Glasgow close on opening day, showing their full array of talent to beat Scarlets and shedding the weight of history by beating Ulster in Belfast.
They sit fifth in Pro14 Conference A, three points off second-place Ospreys. Short-term: Allen Clarke’s team, who Connacht travel to face on before the end of the month, should be the primary target. Long-term: this team is capable of qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup through their Pro14 form.
Obviously, there is a route to the Champions Cup that goes through this competition too. And the presence this year of marquee clubs like Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints, Stade Francais and La Rochelle makes it doubly tempting to pursue that route in the hope of claiming big scalps and, potentially, big gates along the way.