Oh Parksy, My Parksy!

Ten players were either released by Connacht or retired through injury at the end of this season. Within these ten there were of course a few surprises; a number of players who had failed to make the grade in the past ran out of time, while players who were coming towards the twilight of their career were pushed out perhaps a season or two earlier than expected. As I said last week it seems in retrospect that Connacht last year were an aging squad, or at least in danger of going that way, so I have to commend Lam in his steely determination to not allow emotion to get the better of him and the club. A small province like Connacht cannot allow itself to be paying wages to players who aren’t playing or who won’t or can’t make the required grade.

Gavin Duffy perhaps justifiably got the most press in this event. As a verifiable Connacht legend and one of Lam’s trio of captains it was surprising that he was let go. In all the hubbub about changing football codes, one of the details that has gotten lost is that Dan Parks was let go – this seemed to be greeted with a bit of a ‘yeah, and?’ attitude.

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In the past week or two I’ve realized that this was a bit wrongheaded. Its true that sometimes you don’t know what you have until its gone. I wanted to write a bit of a dedication to Parksy’s time in Galway, so here it is.

I don’t know about you but I remember where I was when I heard Parks had officially been signed. That sounds a bit daft now but at the time it was actually extraordinary to think that a quality international player (recently retired after an ‘incident’ in Murrayfield, but still) would be rocking up to the Sportsground. Parks is the eighth highest points scorer in the Heineken cup and the first player to hit 1500 points in the Celtic League. There had been a thread about this rumour for several weeks or even months on the Connacht Clan forum prior to that but it still just seemed like idle speculation.

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The previous year Elwood had brought together a number of players from his successful Ireland u-20s team in an attempt to inject Connacht with some young blood and I guess capture lightening in a bottle for the second time. This didn’t really work out and in retrospect its not hard to see why: very few u-20s actually make the grade, although these players were in the right in-between age group where it wasn’t totally clear whether they could actually make it or not. Niall O’Connor had 50 caps for Ulster before coming to Galway, and went back North a year early when they asked (I assume Ulster asked?). Its not like he wasn’t particularly rated, it just turned out he didn’t match up to expectations.

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But this was going to be different. This was going to be Connacht’s Biggest Ever Signing.

Parks immediately announced himself with a fantastic display against Leinster in a game Connacht won 34-6. It all seems so long ago now, but it was just last season! Shocking stuff. Parks had a hand in more famous Connacht victories in his two seasons here, including the win against Biarritz in the Sportsground, a game he captained. In addition the season ended with Connacht’s best ever league position. Things were on the up and up, although there was nervous anticipation as to what the future, Elwood-less Connacht would look like. Pat Lam came in and made all the right noises but its been a difficult (and still incomplete) process, as I partly outlined last week.

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With Lam’s arrival came a host of even Bigger Name Signings. Parks was great, but Craig Clark was a double Super XV winning captain. Jake Heenan was a New Zealand u-20s captain, and you know what that means right? Right? (do you? If you do please tell me). Things were looking even rosier than the season before.

A first game victory against Zebre was quickly forgotten as game after game Connacht struggled to assert themselves. The new gameplan was apparent, but it was not clear if it was actually working. Games were slipping from Connacht’s grasp, while the more than occasional thumping seemed to be creeping into the provinces form. In addition it seemed that Parks was somewhat uncomfortable with whatever Lam was asking him to do. Hadn’t Pat got the memo? Parksy don’t tackle!

Then, having not beaten anyone except Zebre in two months Connacht pulled off the win that shook Europe with a 14-16 victory against Toulouse in France. A province rejoiced, and European rugby congratulated those plucky Westerners who seemed to have made shock wins their forte. At the heart of this coup was Parks, who ran a perfect kicking game, even if at the time we weren’t sure his touchfinders couldn’t have done with an extra yard or two! The whole team was brilliant of course, but Parksy pulled the strings, and it was his kicks at goal that made the difference.

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We’ll always have Toulouse.

Which is just as well because for the rest of the season Parks was maddeningly inconsistent from the tee. I mean really, really, objectively bad; at times barely kicking more than 50%. He must have been really upset about the situation to be honest and I would be surprised if it didn’t start to effect his game at times.

With the benefit of hindsight its been said that Lam’s gameplan didn’t suit Parks and that’s perhaps why he was let go. I’m not convinced by this. I remember Parks’ first game against Leinster as a running rugby tour de force, as he played flat on the gainline, slinging passes left and right. Connacht’s best games have generally come when he played flat, which he is more than capable of doing.

Parks’ problems are in defence, and if a team gets a few hits in early in a game he has a tendency to sit back out of the way of contact. Everyone already knows he’s not one for breaks himself, so when he sits back it becomes even easier for the opposition to defend.

Those are not features that will make you the best fly half in the world admittedly, but he’s not the only one who’s been like that. If your fly half can’t or won’t tackle, don’t leave him in a position where he needs to do so.

Lam only realized this quite late in the season I think but when Parks’ moved out to the wing in defence against the likes of Dragons and tried to snipe interceptions it made the most of everyone’s resources. There are a variety of ways you can hide a fly half when in defence. I think that while it may be true that Parks did not naturally fit the gameplan initially its also fair to say he wasn’t the only one.

As I stated last week I think Parks’ poor kicking percentage this year is what done for him. Elwood brought him in specifically with the intention of reversing close fixtures and he just wasn’t able to do that, especially in his second season. I went looking for reasons why this was the case. It seems to me that Connacht do not have a kicking coach on the team – Dave Ellis might double up in that regard, but if so the website would most likely state this, as is the case with other teams websites. News reports from the time Ellis signed up state he is backs and skills coach, but not kicking.

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Most kickers have kicking coaches, and indeed the best kickers have kicking coaches – the B&I Lions brought one last year, Sexton has one, you might have heard of him; Wilkinson has had several. Its just what you do, its a necessary part of the backroom staff. They’re also an important factor in helping players adapt their style when and if they need to. Some players have the one run up their whole career, others change. There’s no one right way to kick the ball, except for the way that wins you games. I still haven’t found out definitively whether Connacht have a kicking coach or not but if not it would seem like a borderline dereliction of duty on behalf of the branch and Lam.

Because of his kicking rate, the shine seemed to have gone off Parks. Some players get to retire while still on top (O’Driscoll). Other players outstay their welcome, trying to squeeze that last drop out of their careers (also O’Driscoll). Not everyone can go out on top and it seemed like Parks had stayed too long.

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But had he? Parks featured in every single game for Connacht this season. That’s a phenomenal achievement for young players like Rodders and Marmion, but its borderline miraculous for a player of Parks’ experience. He featured off the bench in eight league games but that’s still a massive testament to his abilities. The previous year he played 17 league and 5 European games.

At the very least this shows that Parks was a fantastic return on investment in terms of pure minutes on the pitch.

In addition he tended to act as a ‘second captain’ on the field, ordering a ridiculously young backline around, getting players into position, guiding them through plays and giving them a pat on the back when things went wrong. Its hard not to present him as a type of father figure but from the snippets of second hand information I’ve heard about the younger group they saw him as that and they appreciated him for it. Connacht’s best games were also Parks’ loudest, and its just a pity that on occasion he seemed to clam up when he really needed to keep talking.

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A ridiculous amount of pressure was put on him during his time at Connacht. The next best fly half Nikora, started 7 games and came off the bench in 13 more in the last two league seasons. That wasn’t because Parks shut him out or Connacht were exploring other options – that was because he was injured for long periods of time. For much of Parks’ time at Connacht there was no viable alternative and what had initially seemed like a move to start gently winding down his career turned into a mammoth run especially this year.

There’s a sense that perhaps Parks’ was let go partly in order to pay the wages of Mils Muliana, Connacht’s Definitive Biggest Ever Signing. He is supposed to come in and provide a higher level of mentorship to our young backs. While I appreciate the reasoning, if Parks was let go because of Mils then its a little shortsighted. Someone still needs to run the games from 10 and kick the points.

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When you look at Nikora’s record in the league its actually quite surprising that he was kept on and not Parks. Behind him you have Ronaldson and Carty, both exciting youngsters but almost completely unproven, and Shane Leary bringing up the rear as another promising youngster. They’re going to need a lot of mentorship; can Mils’ provide the specific mentorship needed to teach a young fly half their skills? Only time will tell.

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I’m looking forward to next season with a lot of optimism, as I always do at this time of year. But there’s also a sense of trepidation that things could easily go badly wrong. We saw this year what its like to go without a player in the specialist positions of Hooker and Openside – it was pretty scary at times, and those are positions that you can paper over far better than a malfunctioning outhalf. If Heffernan had gotten injured along with all the other hookers, we could at least have shoved Buckley or Loughney into the two position and thrown to the front of every lineout. It might even have improved the scrum. That won’t be the case if Nikora’s out with another long term injury, and any of the back ups are either injured, playing out of position, out of form or just lacking guidance. In addition although there’s now at least four options to pick from at 10, none of them are proven to a great degree. Again I point to Nikora’s record – he has 55 league appearances to Parks 39, but that’s over five seasons versus two. To put that into context both Kearney and Marmion have over 50 caps now. If Nikora is to be Connacht’s lead operator he has a lot of catching up to do.

To circle back a bit in concluding, the last three years have brought some stars to Connacht, and maybe we got a bit blazé about Parks leaving with all these new names flying around. But there’s no doubt in my mind that of the last two years signings Parks has delivered the most, and perhaps the most consistently. Mils may beat him out next year but he has his work cut out for him.

We’ll always have Toulouse – Thanks for that Parksy.

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Why Connacht won’t (or can’t, or shouldn’t) sign a new back row forward.

A mere nine days after my very first blog post – about the importance of hookers dual roles and what Connacht should look for in a new signing – it was announced that Lam had found one of the biggest and most physical hookers on the market. This could mean only one thing – clearly me and Pat are sympatico when it comes to what players we would like to see Connacht sign.
With that in mind, these are some of the reasons why I don’t think Connacht will sign a new back row forward for the coming season; what we should be looking for, what’s available, and what I would like to see signed in the medium term.

World Cup Cycle.

The first and possibly most important thing to note is that we’re approaching the height of the world cup cycle and as such the number of internationals or almost internationals that will be open to moving has plummeted. We were lucky to sign Bundee Aki as he is a quality player but probably felt he was too far on the outskirts to get a look in for this world cup. Rene Ranger obviously felt the same and signed for Montpellier before getting a belated run out for NZ when they were extremely injury depleted. The fact that Aki didn’t get a cap at that point probably helped make up his mind to move. NZ have pinned their hopes at 13 on Smith and Smith with a dash of Williams for the World Cup and that will do them nicely.

Its a similar story at backrow – the established players of the calibre of Liam Messam are not going anywhere. Behind him you have Steve Luatua and Luke Whitelock, and that’s more or less your lot at 6. While internationals are unlikely to move, their immediate deputies at club/franchise level are perhaps even less likely to up sticks as they are only an injury or dip in form away from taking the starting jersey and building towards their own international career.

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[Messam]

So what you’re left to pick from will be those players on the periphery who are generally inexperienced and might be lacking in one or more areas, whether that be skills, conditioning or strength/bulk. Connacht got extremely lucky with Jake Heenan but there was a confluence of events – he had never played for the senior Auckland Blues team but Pat presumably knew him from his time there as a coach. When Chiefs’ Sam Cane (a player two months younger than Heenan) raced ahead of him and became an All Black Heenan probably felt a change was needed and also had a point to prove. I don’t think you’re likely to get that lucky with 21 year olds on a regular basis.

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[pictured here; youth]

Although the examples above are all from NZ I think its fair to say it applies across the board. Although South Africa will select players who are outside of the country they don’t like to and any player who is unsure of their spot will not take the risk. Any Welsh, Scottish, English or Scottish player is likely to either stay put or go to France or England if the money is right, so the pool that Connacht are likely to select from is mainly NZ and the pacific islands. Lam obviously has connections in this region which have worked out well already but you can only go to the well so many times.

Desirable Qualities.

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[Vermeulen]

Connacht, shockingly, actually have numerous players on the books who fulfill the role of flanker or 8, so its almost surprising that we need to sign another. However many of these players do not match the features that most fans would like to see in a new signing. It has been oft-remarked that Connacht lack heft in the backrow and I have never disagreed with this, in fact I made a thread on the Connacht Clan forum many moons ago about the issue of an underweight pack.

What Connacht are looking for is a player who is preferably 6’4” or over, strong and bulky which generally equates to over 108kg as a minimum, as well as fast and a good passer and/or excellent tackler. These are the qualities which are hard to come by and immediately make the selection pool much, much smaller.
Its very hard to find such a player – let’s look at the other Irish provinces for some examples. The only players that would fit the height requirement are probably Jamie Heaslip, Kev McLaughlin, Rhys Ruddock, Leo Auva’a, Dominic Ryan, Ian Henderson, Robin Copeland (due at Munster next year), Billy Holland and Dave O’Callaghan, and Ferris if you’re being generous.

While that might initially look like a reasonably long list that’s from three provinces, and when picking a 23 you need at least three of them available at all times. In addition you’ll immediately notice how many of those players are or have been listed as lock/flanker during their careers. Indeed its likely that DOC, Holland and Henderson are all seen long term as locks although some might say that’s a poor use of resources. As a side point it illustrates just how hard it is to come across genuine out and out locks of the 6’6”+ variety who are also strong, wide and powerful. Any player who is over 6’4” is almost automatically seen as a potential lock which illustrates how valuable players of this height can be, and how hard it is to come across them.

That’s it – no Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, James Coughlan, or Peter O’Mahoney – numerous other top quality international and heineken cup level back row players don’t hit 6’4”, in fact SOB is listed at 6’2”. Beyond that you have a large group of back row players who are six foot or just over. While that doesn’t make them bad players it severely reduces the number of options who are over the 108kg requirement – O’Brien and Stander manage it, plus Auva’a and Nick Williams as you’ve probably guessed smash through 108kg, but I refuse the believe O’Mahoney is only 2kg lighter than Sean O’Brien, and that goes double for Sean Dougal – and any of the other options who are shorter than 6’2” struggle to get past 105kg.
Again that doesn’t mean a lighter player is bad but it does illustrate how hard it is to come across a big, bulky, pacy backrow forward. Some of the best back rowers out there are around 6’2” – Messam, Faletau, Vunipola, but they generally have the mass and other qualities that make up for that loss.

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[who are you calling short?]

What then?

If you remove either the height or the weight requirement, then the point of recruiting quickly becomes lost. Muldoon, McKeon, Masterson, Fafita, are over 6’2” while Browne and Naoupu are 6’4”+ and have fulfilled the utility tight five role this season, and although Kearney and Muldowney are primarily seen as locks they have filled in at 6 more than once. Recruiting players who are the same or similar to these would be almost entirely pointless. Trying to find a player who is for instance Stander or SOB-esque is a worthy but almost futile quest.
While some of the stats on the Connacht site are questionable (Faloon is listed as 198cm when he’s probably closer to 178) but by and large they seem to match up and anyways I think Munster’s listed weight for POM and Dougal are fanciful in the extreme, so lets assume there is an even level of inaccuracy across the board.

Behind these senior players we have a litany of academy hopefuls, but what immediately stands out from their stats is the randomness of those stats. Danny Qualter is listed at 110kg (reasonable, but not exceptional for 6’5”), while Ultan Dillane is a measly 105kg at the same height. Is it any wonder the latter has not been able to make the step up to senior level or even consistently impress at A level? Neither of them have the necessary weight to lock a scrum against quality opposition.
James Connolly is only 94kg which is a borderline dereliction of duty from a strength and conditioning/nutritionist perspective, while Masterson at 101kg is 6kg behind Sean O’Brien2.0 – all three are in their first year of the academy.

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[Good to go, fresh out of the box]

Again Heenan is the exception in this case and we shouldn’t realistically expect any of these to crack the senior squad until those under 6’3” are a lean 102kg, while any player who hopes to become a lock should be looking at 112kg as a basic requirement. That Dillane is in year two of the academy and has yet to hit 110kg raises questions of both the academy and the players. At his stage of rugby development he start pushing for appearances with the senior team but even if he has the skills he hasn’t the grunt to be a lock right now. While he might find himself at 6 does that really solve the issue? One of the criticisms of English rugby is that they are obsessed with size and their u-20s seem to dwarf many a senior team, but this is a smart strategy. If you can pack on muscle when players have the greatest potential to grow they can emerge from age grade rugby fully formed, ready to take on senior opposition without fear of being hopelessly outmuscled. Its much easier to maintain strength and size while playing a sport than gain it, so they can continue to build their skills and conditioning as they grow while maintaining strength. Contrast that with many Irish players (Connacht’s academy is not exceptional in this regard) who must try to add a few meagre kilos each summer while not gaining too much flab so they don’t have to diet for too long in preseason. Its much more difficult and has the potential to exhaust a player.

So what’s the point?

Ironically Connacht’s newest top quality flanker will be lining out at 13 next season – Mr. Robbie Henshaw. Physically he’s a match for Peter O’Mahoney and dwarfs quite a few Heineken level backrowers. He’s fast, physical, has good hands and can tackle, which explains why he makes a great case to be a centre, but it makes you wonder what could have been all the same.

This, in a way, leads to the finale (at last) and my attitude is that before buying any players the roles of each player needs to be much more defined. In part this issue stems from a lack of viable blindside flankers this season. However as much as I believe in what Lam is doing I think he must ship some blame as a former 8 for the messiness in our backrow. Naoupu and McKeon especially should have taken a step forward this season under his guidance but if anything the opposite has been the case. Ironically while in the past I never rated Muldoon as an eight some of his best performances came there this season. I’d like to credit Lam for this as they are similar shaped players, but then so is McKeon so it doesn’t really make sense in that way.

Without going back over the season though I would guess that Muldoon’s best performances coincided with Heenan’s. Having an ‘out and out seven’ (copyright GH) frees up the six and eight to play whatever role they have been given. When watching the game against Cardiff it struck me how often Connacht didn’t just not compete but basically ignored and abandoned rucks. This gave Cardiff multiple opportunities to pop the ball up to an onrushing Cuthbert which always sucked in two or more defenders and stretched Connacht’s defense badly. With Heenan playing and a well thought out, well drilled rucking plan this shouldn’t happen. Gilsenan was quite impressive in his two appearances but he’s a long way from Heenan’s level. That’s no insult, Jordi Murphy’s weakest area is his groundwork which is a big liability for a seven (so much so that Leinster fans don’t even believe he was ever meant to be a seven, but he was and still is).

I feel that if Muldoon and McKeon are your six and eight then you need to have specific goals for each player as neither seem capable of making 15+ tackles a game plus significant carries. Muldoon as an archetypical chopper six with any of Heenan, Henshaw or Buckley as second tackler and/or challenging for the ball is a very different prospect. Likewise McKeon as previously stated, doesn’t have the bulk (and perhaps stamina) to play forwards on the wing, and make multiple tackles, and make turnovers all in one game. For large portions of the season Connacht have had to play with three back rowers doing a bit of everything but when its gone wrong its gone very wrong indeed. This six nations Ireland showed that wingers could ably deputise at the ruck, pulling opposition players out of the way or attempting to win turnovers. It no longer has to be the openside who does this although it definitely helps.
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[above – specific, predefined roles]

So my recommendation for next season would be more than anything to look for another seven. Even though it will require a bit of overlap we are still well stocked with players who can cover both six and eight with the likes of Masterson, SOB2.0 and hopefully Qualter all expected to make the step up next season. Tom McCartney at prop/hooker looks to be a big abrasive ball carrying option which means the turnover specialist role is still relatively light. It might not be any easier to find a quality seven option but I feel of all the positions it is the one that would pay most dividends to pick young and build up in the short-medium term.