Match reviews are so 2013. Plus I wasn’t at the Dragons game so I don’t have anything to offer on that front (arguably true of this entire blog … ) Instead this is the first of a hopefully irregular series asking some questions of the wider connacht squad.
It wasn’t that long ago that TOH was the Connacht wunderkind and seemed destined to be a staple of the team for the next decade. At his best he remains a high quality back three option (probably covers the three positions to the highest level of anyone bar Muliaina), is a speedy winger with good skills and a step, who can also come off his wing and pop up in midfield in a Bowe-esque manner.
However we haven’t seen many of his good qualities consistently in who knows how long, as first a series of injuries sidelined him for long periods. Thereafter he has been the persistent 24th man for the majority of last season. That is understandable given the form shown by Healy, Poolman and at times Carr last season.
Unable to force his way past these three, and as TOH covers the back three so well, he found himself in the worst case utility scenario – vital back up should anything go wrong, but not showing enough form/not getting some luck to push ahead of any competitor.
There were also rumours of ill behaviour and whatnot, of which I know little. I only bring it up as there were similar rumours surrounding Buckley who was on the naughty step at the start of last season. However I think Lam and the coaching team as a whole have done a super job rehabilitating Buckley’s mental attitudes, and he showed great form last season and obviously won motm this weekend. I was hoping a similar upward curve would become apparent in TOH’s career but so far it doesn’t seem to be the case. This is mainly because further pre-season injuries have put O’Halloran out of the picture for now, and new signing Niyi has looked extremely promising and dangerous, as does Poolman. Meanwhile the previously perma-crocked Shane Layden is rightly getting one more crack at fullback, while Darragh Leader looked great there last season and of course Mils is getting ready to make his Connacht debut.
While I hope all of the aforementioned will continue to go from strength to strength, will it come at the cost of further gametime for O’Halloran, and possibly Carr for that matter, this season? The latter is contracted until 2015 (as is Mils I believe) and O’Halloran until 2016 so in theory he’s going nowhere, but is that in his best interests? Lam has repeatedly said that Mils is here to mentor the young backs, Tiernan commented in a recent Sky youtube piece that he would learn a lot (or words to that effect, it wasn’t the most impressive interview clip) but how much learning is he likely to put into practice? At 23 now he should have become well established in the Connacht 15 or at least a near constant present in the matchday squad (injuries notwithstanding) but instead he’s accidentally become the quintessential fringe player. Obviously injuries happen so this may all become passe quite quickly, but there is decent depth in the Connacht back three right now, so bar a fairly hefty injury crisis at wing and/or a severe dip in form for more than one player its hard to see a reason or way that O’Halloran will play much rugby this season.
Loughney’s story mirrors O’Halloran’s in many ways. It was only two years ago that Loughney was capped on tour against New Zealand and gave a strong account of himself in this blogger’s opinion at least. Already a more than competent scrummager, the new scrum changes should have increased his effectiveness in the scrum. Moreover he already liked to have the ball in hand, making him in theory at least, a valuable asset to Pat Lam. Although he made almost 20 appearances last season he played less than 500 minutes (ie, the vast majority were off the bench cameos). In addition he’s had his own problems with injuries and as a result lesser stars such as Rodney and Finlay Bealham have prospered. Connacht were in bad need of someone like Loughs to step up last season but he just wasn’t available at the right times. Although Wilkinson was very good in the scrum until he was unfortunately injured, he didn’t have the best hands and too often a promising move broke down when the big man was asked to carry or move the ball on. I felt (and still feel I suppose) that Loughney would have been more inclined to make those carries and passes successfully but he didn’t get a chance to shine last season.
With Wilkinson now gone, Loughney might have expected more game time but instead he didn’t feature at the weekend despite not making the unavailable/injured list. This isn’t the first time an injured player hasn’t been listed so it may have been an oversight but its an unfortunate sign of the times for Loughney regardless. White is back from injury, Bealham looked good when used last season and will be pushing for more gametime, and Rodney is a capped international who offers real ambipropping capabilities as well as a strong carrying threat. Loughney offers the exact same thing, but Rodney featured in every single Connacht game last season and Loughney didn’t. If Loughs remains out of the picture until McCartney arrives, and if Bealham does continue to improve, then Loughney could find himself condemned to 3rd choice loosehead and/or 4th choice tighthead.
While that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t once again force his way into the team through injury/declining form/rotation, its the opposite of where you want to be seen at the start of the season. Loughney’s contract is up at the end of 2015, as is White’s. While its long been argued that a props (especially tightheads) best years only start in his late twenties, the depowered scrum doesn’t put as high a premium on mature strength in the same way as it once did, and there consequently a higher value on props who can carry, pass, and – gasp – show a bit of pace. Most important of course is which prop is more likely to be available for the majority of the season. While Loughney has undoubtedly contributed a great deal to Connacht and is, I believe, one of the fan’s homegrown favourites, he may be battling with White for a contract next season. On the flipside, as both will be IQ proven tightheads, a subspecies of continued rarity, they could both be in demand, in which case its still important for both to get as much game time as possible and put themselves in the window – if they can’t both stay with Connacht then its hard to see Munster, Leinster or even Ulster passing up the chance.
Qualter is different to the two guys above as he has only recently been promoted to the senior squad. Qualter didn’t feature last season, and from what I can tell has only made one substitute appearance for the senior team almost two years ago as a 20 year old. I have in the past been quite critical of the academies second rows, who seem on paper to be underpowered and therefore unrealistic options for senior rugby and for that reason we haven’t seen anyone in contention for the senior squad. However Qualter is the opposite – listed at 6’6” and over 18 stone, he’s exactly what Connacht have needed. Despite this he was not even on the bench last week, even though like Loughney, he was not on the unavailable or injured list. Worse still, while Browne and Muldowney were injured, George was on the bench as utility 4-8 cover (and did very well at 8 I hear), but Qualter was nowhere to be seen. Roux is a loanee and only here until Christmas I believe, but has shot ahead of Qualter. If Leinster/IRFU are paying Connacht to make it worth their while for Roux to play then that’s ok, but second row is a problem position and one would think that Qualter (and any other potential option who is fit) needs to be seen at the soonest possible convenience. Admittedly he was in the preseason team to play Wasps, but are we therefore to assume that he didn’t impress?
At 22, time is very much still on Qualter’s side, but the same might not be said for Connacht. Second row is a problem area this season – its an obvious fact but you need three second rows in each match day squad, and with Browne and Muldowney injured Connacht are already quite stretched in that regard to the point that they’re already depending upon Roux and George. Unlike Loughney and O’Halloran who find limited game time available, there might be more than enough game time for Qualter but can he be trusted to match the level required? In his defence its not all his fault if he can’t – a nine minute senior cameo 20 months ago is not good enough prep for a full senior 80 against any pro12 opponent with the possible exception of the Italians. Having graduated from the Connacht academy Qualter is contracted until 2015, and needs to start showing his value to the province as soon as possible.
Perhaps a compromise solution is available, where George continues to cover second row and eight while Qualter covers 6 and to a lesser extent both 8 (I believe he appeared there for the Eagles) and second row. With Muldoon having a tight hamstring that needs monitoring, and Heenan and McKeon questionables, this sort of set up may come sooner than expected.