CENTRE Ashley Smith says Newport Gwent Dragons cannot afford to waste the efforts of an improved season by letting it slip in the RaboDirect Pro12 run-in.
Of the region's current roster only scrum-half Wayne Evans can better the 27-year-old's tally of 144 appearances.
Smith has experienced the ups and downs of life at Rodney Parade since making his debut against Worcester in 2005 and believes strides have been made this term after a disastrous 2012/13.
However, last weekend's humbling home defeat to Connacht was certainly a low for the Dragons, who wasted an opportunity to put pressure on the sixth-placed Scarlets and saw their Irish conquerors leapfrog them in the table.
But all is not lost and they have a chance to stay right in the mix for the Pro12's final spot in the new Rugby Champions Cup with quickfire fixtures at bottom club Zebre on Saturday and against eight-placed Edinburgh at Rodney Parade a week on Thursday.
"Connacht was a massive missed opportunity but it has gone now and we have to move on," said Smith, who was called from the bench early in the second half of the 24-8 loss.
"There is still a lot to play for and we need to put things right against Zebre. We don't want the season to peter out and we spoke as a group right after Sunday's game and said that there is still a massive opportunity.
"It is still in our own hands, we have the Scarlets to play (in the penultimate game of the season) and we have to finish strongly.
"We owe that to ourselves because it has been a decent season; not an amazing one but there have definitely been improvements."
Saturday's hosts were the only club that finished below the Dragons last season and Lyn Jones' side have already matched their 2012/13 tally of six wins and 28 points. Smith wants a tangible measure of their progress.
"As players we want to be as high up the league as possible," he said. "We know that we are not going to jump from 11th to first but we want to see an improvement.
"We want to make progress and take some steps this season and more next year. Lyn talks about his plans for the future and we are going in the right direction but we can't have performances like the one against Connacht."
Zebre, who lost 30-7 at Rodney Parade, are in a qualification race of their own for the premier European competition. The Parma-based side trail Italian rivals Treviso by just two points, albeit having played one fixture more.