Preseason Ramblings

I’m still working on finishing my phd and its still preseason. Will either ever end? Which will end first? These are some of the questions you’ve probably not been asking yourself. Here are some rugby questions I’ve been had rattling around my head.

Tighthead lock

When big bad Brad joined Leinster the term tighthead lock suddenly became all pervasive in scrummaging terminology. Its certainly true that Thorn took the starting position from Toner and its also true that he added significant strength and aggression in both the scrum and around the field, as one would expect from one of the all time greats. But how important is this specialism to the game?

The rules have changed since Thorn was at Leinster of course, taking the hit out of the scrum. This was a big part of the benefit of a specialist th lock, as the tighthead was otherwise quite isolated in the scrum (one th versus the opposition hooker and lh) and needed that extra ballast and strength from behind. Now that packs are more likely to scrummage as a unit this is lessened as the hit is gone and the th should have the benefit of the flanker pushing more actively than before. Depending on formation the hooker can become the isolated one, as frequently they may not have a strong connection with the locks and may even depend on the support of the eight, especially if a scrum goes pearshaped (I suppose in this instance that description is literally true). Perhaps notably, POC scrummaged at 5 during the six nations with Toner at 4, despite the latter’s extra bulk, and the scrum was in my opinion second only to England’s throughout the tournament. If there’s a point here its might be that the ephemeral TH lock may not be as important any more. Does this have any significance for Connacht? It might mean that while the first choice combo of Muldowney and Kearney may appear somewhat slight it shouldn’t be detrimental to the scrum, and that they should be interchangeable in the five jersey. It should also mean that while George may be needed more often as second row cover the move hopefully shouldn’t be forced on the basis of stabilizing the scrum – rather it should be about getting the best (in form) players on the field.

Strength in depth

The question at the start of every season is of course ‘are we stronger or weaker than last season?’ In most positions Connacht appear stronger than last year although weakened at loosehead and second row (as previously outlined). This does not come as a surprise given the respective players retirement/exclusion midway through last season, and although its by no means a foregone conclusion, if Muldowney, McCartney and Buckley can all step up and fulfill their potential/expectations, and if an academy lock can come through, then Connacht will have weathered their losses as well as can be expected. Its a different story at half back(s) though – I had very little time for Frank Murphy, but the signing of Ian Porter is not a an exciting development on paper at least. Its the old question of potential versus experience: you at least knew what to expect from Murphy (ie, very little). Whereas Porter is a 26 year old, 11(ish?) capped Ulster player who couldn’t get ahead of Marshall or Heaney, neither of whom were particularly rated by the ex-coach. Now Ulster have obviously jettisoned that coach, but are they regretting Porter’s move? I doubt it. Marmion to reach 75 caps this season?

Odd maths.

Its a similar story at 10. I had hoped that Ronaldson would be able to make an immediate impact last season but a series of injuries and knocks, plus requiring him to fill in at 12, meant his time at fly half was extremely limited. On the plus side he got a taste of pro rugby and offered a potential 2nd 5/8 element to the game, although I think it was too early for that part of his game to develop to any great extent. Shane O’Leary has mainly been signed as utility cover from what I can see which is great and something that is needed, but it means that again his time at 10 will be limited and if injuries happen (which they will) you would be nervous about depending on a player who may not have played much at 10 in several months. Same goes for Jack Carty, he seems a handy player but didn’t see as much game play as you would have liked considering the senior, first choice fly half has now departed. It’s a nervy situation for a Connacht fan.

Nuuu Zeeelund love a….

Speaking of fractions, it seems like the second five eighth is in vogue at the minute. Waratahs won the Super XV using this system, and Australia are now employing it, to some success(?) Crusaders have used Dan Carter at 12 again this season (not for the first time of course) which gave them a range of options, and although Nonu is not the prototypical flyhalf his kicking game is evidently vastly improved in the last few years compared to early in his career, and he has fair dinkum passing skills as you would expect from a New Zealand International.

I think Pat signing a NZ backs and kicking coach might signal a move in this direction and we have the options for it anyways. The alternative, or perhaps default option, would be to play a power game using some combo of Aki/Henshaw, McSharry/Henshaw or McSharry/Aki. Straight away any of those pairings look exciting, powerful, and offloadtastic – if our back three are alert to the offloading options and doing their best Tommy Bowe impression by popping up in midfield then that should cause problems for most teams. However it remains to be seen how much McSharry will play this season and anyways he has a decent pass, so it doesn’t have to be all bosh – nothing wrong with a bit of finesse. Plus with all these fly halves hanging around hopefully we’ll see some game plan that sees multiple options offering themselves to Marmion and threatening the gain line in a way that Parks rarely did last season. From memory, in a number of games last year it seemed like Connacht depended on Henshaw, Leader or almost anyone else to fill in at first receiver to provide go forward momentum and threaten the opposition defense.

I’d love to see Leader at 12 I think he has all the attributes and looks to have some brains about him, but improbably there just might be too many options ahead of him right now and more need for him at full back? But if Mils plays then Leader won’t, so where do you put the youngster? He was too good last season to leave out. One more alternative might be to play four ‘centres’ – Leader, Aki/McSharry, Henshaw, Poolman – which is a Joe Schmidt-esque move that would offer lots of power and strength, as well as hopefully some rabid counterrucking, good defense, ability to break tackles and offload … maybe its just preseason madness (or phd madness, or both) but its a possibility, especially while Healy is out injured right now (who in any case may yet have to be our Niko Matawalu this season).

Finally…

This question has been swirling around in my head for ages – What does winning mean to Connacht? Its preseason so hopes are obviously high, but I think only the most delusional optimist would suggest we have a chance at the title, or even a top four finish. Finishing in seventh seemed a possibility last season and should be again, and would represent Connacht’s highest ever finish.

Here’s my problem – Connacht could have their highest ever finish in the league this season and still end with more losses than wins. You have to finish in sixth to break even basically, although if you go back over past seasons you can see some years the sixth place team had (slightly) more wins than losses. One of the reason’s I felt Connacht should make an effort to win the fairplay award last season was not the money necessarily, but because it would represent a measurable improvement on previous seasons. Improved discipline usually leads to improved performance and hopefully improved results – from there perhaps something could be built. I see now of course that its not that simple, but I think its still a worthwhile principle, even if it is very much a distant second thought at times. Especially when a team is facing opposition made up of significantly more internationals, you need your full panel to participate to the highest level.

Anyways, beyond the fair play league, I wonder what does winning mean to Connacht? What does it mean to a player like Swift or Muldoon, who must still remember those grim years when the province was glued to the bottom of the league? What does it mean to players like White, or Muliaina or even Harris-Wright, who have tasted success in the past? Did Clark really know what he was getting himself into last season? Did he think that by the end of his contract maybe Connacht would be challenging for silverware? Perhaps that’s something that Pat had sold him, and its important that Connacht believe they’re pushing forward. But in the meantime, they still have to find a way to finish with a better than 50% win record this season. Certainly the big name signings have gotten steadily better, if that points to anything, and Pat finally has a full compliment of coaches this year, and the Branch is now improving the training facilities. Its an entirely too simplistic answer but the number one thing will be to prevent teams scoring as much as they did last season. Over to you Pat, no pressure…

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