Connacht return to Challenge Cup action this Saturday and ahead of the trip to Sixways, forwards coach Jimmy Duffy and back-rower Jarrad Butler reflected on the recent inter-pros and looked ahead to a potentially crucial clash with the English Premiership outfit. Connacht know that a win away to Pool 5 rivals Worcester Warriors will be enough to ensure progression to the knockout rounds and an all-important home quarter-final.

“The excitement in the group around the three inter-pros was massive,” said Duffy. “As a coach you just try to keep a lid on it and then open the doors and let the players away. They don’t need to be motivated in that period of time. The same applies to Europe for us now.”

Connacht recorded an emphatic home win over Ulster before Christmas but fell just short away to Leinster on New Year’s Day before losing to Munster in Thomond Park last Saturday.

“We were disappointed after the weekend but there was a lot of energy around the dressing room. We got the review out of the way and corrected what we felt needed correcting, and then got our direction for this week. We believe we’re in a good space and we’re looking forward to it,” said Duffy.

Butler, who returned from surgery on his injured knee to play a part in all three inter-pros, said the players will look to take the positives from those performances as they head back into European action this weekend.

“At the end of the day you want to get results, and it was frustrating against Leinster when we had the opportunities and didn’t quite get there. Then against Munster, we knocked off for a little bit and put ourselves in a really tough position. As a group we want to be able to lift it that little bit more and start getting those results and obviously we’re hoping to do that this week,” said he.

The busy schedule and physical intensity of the provincial derbies meant plenty of squad rotation over recent weeks, and Duffy pointed to the performances of a number of young academy graduates as one of the major positives from the period as players like Peter McCabe, Cillian Gallagher and Conan O’Donnell all made positive impacts.

“One thing we’d be really pleased with is the guys who got opportunities over the inter-pros,” stated Duffy. “The majority of guys really took those opportunities. That casts a different light over selection. You’re having longer selection meetings, which is a positive for a coach.

“They’re ones for the future, definitely. They’ve done really well when they’ve come in and we love to see the exuberance of the youth. The occasion didn’t get to the boys and that was a major plus. They’re young and quite inexperienced but they’re keen-as, and you could see the smiles on their faces,” he continued.

Connacht are adding depth the playing squad and increasing competition for places, and even an established senior player like Butler is aware of the need to make his opportunities count.

“With the way the rotations work you never quite know when you’re going to be in the 15 or the 23 so you have to take the opportunities as you get them and play as best you can so that hopefully you’re in again the following week. I know personally I don’t take it as a European game or a Pro14 game, it’s just next week, next week,” he offered.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s clash with Worcester (kick-off 3pm), Duffy said Connacht are fully aware of the size of the challenge facing them. Worcester are second-from-bottom of the Aviva Premiership table and a win for Connacht would secure top spot in the group with a game to spare, but Duffy insisted that any sign of complacency in the travelling squad would be quickly snuffed out.

“What we’re seeing is a team that, when on form, are very dangerous,” he said of Saturday’s opponents, who made Connacht work hard for a 15-8 victory when the sides met in the Sportsground in October.

“They’ve got some really dangerous threats in (scrum-half, Francois) Hougaard and (full-back, Chris) Pennell and up front they’re massively physical. They’ve got very strong tighthead options, good loosehead options, good stocks in the back row and obviously a number of internationals sprinkled in there as well.”

Among those internationals is Scotland star David Denton, although England and Lions centre Ben Te’o is set to miss out as he recovers from an ankle injury. Former Munster and Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan is expected to captain the team, who are under the command of Director of Rugby Alan Solomons.

“They’re a formidable opponent and we’re under no illusions, at home in Sixways, it’s going to be a really tough battle” continued Duffy. “I think they’re going to produce the strongest team they have available and really put it up to us.”

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