Connacht’s performance against Treviso at the weekend made for difficult watching at times, and not solely because of the dodgy Italian stream that we were forced to depend upon. However we came away with the right result and going into the European break Connacht remain in the right half of the table. The game against Treviso represented the quarter mark of the league campaign, so it was important that Connacht come away with the right results from what can be a difficult trip abroad. Both Lam and Muldoon have placed an emphasis on performing from the start of the season to build up points and lay the groundwork for a sixth place finish.
Meanwhile, Treviso would obviously target Connacht as the weakest Irish province and their best chance of winning points outside of the Italian derby and Edinburgh or Dragons, and so a tight win against a determined opposition is nothing to be sniffed at. The scoreline belies Connacht’s dominance throughout this game, and the attacking stats make for encouraging reading, with more metres made, far more carries, far more defenders beaten and clean breaks made than the hosts.
However it was Treviso who seemed most likely to challenge for a try and only thanks yet again to Marmion’s fantastic last ditch efforts in defence this game could well have been lost against the run of play. Connacht missed approximately 10% of their tackles which is disappointing especially against poor opposition, and could have been very costly. Treviso had to make far more tackles than Connacht and missed far more than Connacht did, so it is especially worrisome to see the high standards of the early games slipping in this regard. A better team will punish you when you miss that many tackles, and Henshaw’s 1/2 stats could be cause for concern here. Furthermore, to have Treviso miss 32 tackles without Connacht scoring a try after putting three tries past Glasgow is again a mark against Connacht’s performance in comparison to the early weeks of the campaign. Overall I can’t be too disappointed with a tryless win, as Treviso have often had the better of Connacht in the past, but given the overall superiority of the provincial side I’m sure there will have been plenty to talk about this week in the review sessions.
Performance wise, Ronaldson continues to look ready for professional rugby this season and has been great at 12 on both occasions. Carty was more involved than previous weeks and also made all his tackles, and his kicking out of hand continues to improve – which is important as we don’t have much time to give him on that front. Leader won MOTM, probably on the basis of having run the most of any Connacht player but he also put in a series of crucial tackles near the end of the first half to keep Treviso out.
Personally I was impressed with Marmion yet again, as mentioned his try saving tackle/disruption had a major impact on the game, although his temper threatened to have a significant negative effect in the second half. Otherwise, Delahunt’s first start was very promising; he was strong from the line, only missing one throw, and he looked very good around the pitch and made a great chase to follow up a kick and win Connacht territory in the Treviso 22 before going off with an injury. Credit also to Heffernan who came on and performed well without letting the previous week’s lineout woes bother him. Both young hookers look very exciting in the set piece moves, with ball in hand, and in defence, and hopefully will learn a lot from Tom McCartney when he arrives. A final mention also to McKeon who I think made the crucial – and at least partially illegal – final turnover to win back possession and kill the game off while Treviso continued to batter the Connacht defensive line. I didn’t have the radio commentary on so I didn’t really know what was going on at that point but it seemed like the referee asked the TMO to adjudicate on the legality of the turnover, which seemed borderline unprecedented to me? (I should have taken notes as the game was going on as I’m not 100% sure I don’t have this incident confused with another situation). In any case it didn’t matter to the final score but was important to morale giving the agonising way in which Cardiff manufactured a draw the previous week.
Europe – opportunity or distraction?
Up next are two European games against La Rochelle and Exeter. For the past few years Irish and Connacht fans would have looked ahead to this weekend with excitement as the Heineken cup machine once more lumbered into sight. But this year the Challenge Cup seems to me more of a distraction than anything. Nothing about the new deal has been done well and in the absence of any real prestige, sponsorship or excitement it is questionable how many teams will take this competition seriously. Any English or French opposition will have to weigh up the benefits of a tiring European campaign against the risks of potentially exhausting the squad and slipping into the relegation zone, or equally of taking their eye off the league battle and slipping out of contention there.
In light of this La Rochelle seem to have picked a less than first choice team and who can blame them? However I would still feel some trepidation about this game as with little to play for the visitors may be inclined to simply attempt to grind Connacht down as much as possible. That game is then followed by an away trip to Exeter who will equally look to dominate Connacht in the forwards as much as possible, and even if they play many of their A team, will still probably have more than enough grunt to make it a really attritional battle.
The net result could be a tired Connacht squad facing into a very difficult away game against Ospreys. Considering the form the ‘spreys have shown thus far in the league this will be the hardest game yet and will surely test Connacht much more than even Glasgow, with the Connacht unlikely to dominate the Welsh pack. Relative to previous seasons, Connacht are still in a good position injury wise, and with Andrew Browne and Jason Harris Wright about to return to the senior fold things are looking up. However it only takes a few knocks to complicate things significantly. Although Swifty has not played much yet, his injury along with Delahunt’s, once more leaves us light at hooker and second row, while James Connolly’s injury means there’s little chance of experimenting with a new openside in these European games. McKeon filled in against Treviso as expected and did quite well but against the likes of Justin Tipuric, who more often than not performs very well for Ospreys, he is likely to struggle. How the squad is managed between the two competitions is likely to quickly become the main point of difficulty for Lam and his staff for the next several months.
We all know the threat that Ospreys will present to Connacht and they look strong from 1-23 as always, but they are also playing with a renewed vigour so far this season which makes them an even more dangerous opponent than the one that dominated Connacht at the end of last season. Already this season they have beaten Treviso and Edinburgh out the game, as well as winning in Thomond Park. If there is a chink of hope it is that they won by very narrow margins against Dragons and Zebre, showing they are performing equally well from week to week, and they will face Northampton Saints the week before playing Connacht. The Welsh regions never need much prompting to put in a performance against English opposition and Ospreys will likely go all out here. But given Treviso are their other European opponents in this round there is no guarantee that Ospreys will be slowed at all by their Champions cup outings.