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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.odt.co.nz/files/story/2014/04/liam_messam_photo_by_getty_534623481e.jpg

[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.

https://i2.wp.com/www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Jake+Heenan+Gallaher+Shield+Semi+Final+Grammar+77r8nz8eqCil.jpg
[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.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sarugbymag.co.za/images/made/images/uploads/blog/FansDuaneChris_RiccoBackpagePix__copy_620_395_s_c1_top_top.jpg

[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.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn1.independent.ie/sport/horse-racing/article29742710.ece/73fb2/ALTERNATES/h342/SPT_20131111_SPO_028_29577271_I1.JPG

[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.

https://i1.wp.com/www.irishrugby.ie/images/news/SeanOBrien_IrelandUnder19svEngland13.jpg

[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.
https://i0.wp.com/www3.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Stephen+Ferris+Ireland+v+Wales+IRB+RWC+2011+kFw0Bokpxn5l.jpg
[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.

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