Now that the season is over for Connacht I intend to take a trip down memory lane and think about some of the features of Pat Lam’s first year in charge – what worked, what didn’t, and even more hypothetically what I think we can expect next year.
Win and Losing.
Connacht finished 10th place in the league this season after a best ever finish of 8th last year, or 6 wins versus 8 wins and one draw. This is not what people expected after a number of high profile signings last summer. However it has to be said that these signings were a very mixed bag – So’oailo obviously added nothing to Connacht long term after a very promising game against Zebre, and Clarke was unfortunately sidelined for a good chunk of the season – in fact he only played 10 games in the league. Of course we hope that Clarke makes a full recovery, but the lack of news on his condition has hung over the province for several months now like a cloud. Coupled with the retirement of Wilkinson and Tonetti from injury, its been a disrupted season and one can imagine how these incidents might have stuck in the back of players minds.
Having made our excuses its worth nothing that Connacht only finished 3 points lower than last season, picking up 11 bonus points (4TB, 7LB) versus 4 last season (1TB, 3 LB). That’s a major improvement in both areas, showing that Connacht have become much more competitive. However the problem of goalkicking becomes even more apparent in these stats. The golden boot top five all kicked over 80% this season – in such a climate a success rate of 75% or less quickly becomes rather mediocre.
Parks was signed with the intention of reversing tight games that went against Connacht in the past. While he certainly played a part in some of the province’s greatest victories its clear that over the course of two seasons he didn’t fulfill the role he was hired to do, and this could be seen as a significant factor in his being let go. Attempts were made to change things up, including allowing Darragh Leader to take some long range penalties, but this was not a regular occurrence. Ronaldson was the AIL leading pointscorer last season before signing for Connacht. However the majority of games that he played were alongside Parks and he didn’t take over kicking duties on a consistent basis. While in theory rustiness shouldn’t be a valid excuse for a professional player, its hard to believe that it didn’t play some part in both these young players misses.
At the time of writing a new star fly half has not been signed although Shane Leary will arrive to add to the young but inexperienced contenders in line behind Nikora. I personally feel that while Ronaldson had an underwhelming first season adjusting to professional rugby this was at least partly down to injury and stepping into a new position, which he did admirably. At the start of next season I expect Nikora will be in the driving seat but only just. Considering his history of injury and also McSharry’s, its not impossible to see a scenario where Carty and Ronaldson will both start with Leary on the bench, although I don’t think seeing them line up together at 10/12/13 on a consistent basis will help move the province forward.
There were a number of agonizing and even humiliating defeats this season, and they don’t get better on repeated viewing. In the early season Connacht seemed unable to score in the second half allowing comfortable leads such as that against Cardiff to slip into the ether. This would seem now to have been a painful bedding in period for Lam’s brand of rugby, but the gains were seen later in the year.
Even worse however was the seemingly increased inconsistency of the province. This is an issue that has obviously plagued the team for years and we can now say emphatically that Lam has not yet been able to fix this. While injuries certainly complicated things, all teams have to deal with this. In addition the best winning streak came while all our openside flankers and most of our hookers were injured. This shows that even a particularly bad attack of the injury fairy in a position or two should not be enough of an excuse to accept losing.
This year Connacht lost by more than 15 points in 5 games. While that’s a painful figure at least two of those (Edinburgh, Treviso) can be considered freak results and I feel reasonably confident suggesting they won’t happen again next year. For some reason Ospreys were more than capable of reversing a poor performance the week before and hurting Connacht in both fixtures this season, which is something to be looked at. The Welsh province have always been a potentially wicked mix of physicality, speed and quality but even so beatings of that magnitude should not be viewed as inevitable. What was more expected perhaps was the annual pasting at Ravenhill.
While its tough to see a chink of light in those losses it has to be said that last year Connacht were nilled three times in the league (and once in biblical weather in France). It may be progress on a micro level but not losing in that manner at all this season should be taken as a positive.
I’d love to see Lam reverse those scores next season and exorcise the Ulster voodoo, but Connacht will first of all need to start winning more home matches, and reducing the number of games that are lost by more than 7 points. In the meantime perhaps someone should try interviewing any survivors from the last time Connacht bet Ulster in Belfast and ask them what they did right. Every team has their bogey side, but even Ireland beat New Zealand every now and again actually, never mind.