Though I may live to regret this statement, there’s seemingly never been a better time to face Ulster either at home or away. The summer brought unheralded transition and upheaval as we all know, but the new season has brought injuries in key areas. At second row Ulster are now, at least while O’Connor serves his ban, probably even worse off than Connacht. Cave appears to be either out of favour or brushed aside as a result of Payne’s pursuit of a green jersey, and there is endless speculation about the two on the Ulster fan forum. Meanwhile, Trimble and Luke Marshall are recently injured, adding to the list of key players out of commission including Henderson, Tuohy and Pienaar.
While the injury list is not at Leinster or Leicester levels, Ulster have a much smaller squad and talent pool to draw on. In truth for the last few years, given their relatively shallow squad, Ulster have overachieved by reaching successive finals. But now that Wilson and Fat Nick are no longer cutting the mustard in the back row, and with Henderson out, they are depending on new AIL signees to provide cover. That’s fine for the league but European competition is surely a step too far at this stage. Their backs continue to be exciting and threatening but even then, new injuries to Marshall and Trimble will create worries about depth.
However despite all this, Ulster are third with four wins and, just as importantly, four bonus points. The recent win over Glasgow in Ravenhill should serve as a warning about just how difficult the men from the North can be to beat, especially at home. Glasgow are seemingly everyone’s second team at this point and had comprehensively beaten Connacht just a few weeks prior but they couldn’t compete with Ulster and didn’t even score a try in the game.
The season so far can be summed up as Injury-Stricken. The fans continue to be extremely critical of Matt O’Connor, Jimmy Gopperth, Darragh Fanning, the weather, the price of pints in the RDS … But the reality is its very difficult to know at this stage what sort of game O’Connor wants to play because he doesn’t have a first choice team to pick from. Most Leinster fans seem to have a blind spot for Madigan’s many frailities and just cannot understand why he hasn’t been installed as first choice fly half from the beginning. The reason is that despite his own failings Gopperth is just more dependable, and when the Leinster pack are functioning he is as capable of playing flat while also distributing the ball well to his backline in a way that Madigan cannot. Gopperth’s grubber kick for Fanning’s first try against Wasps seems like exactly the sort of thing that would never even occur to Madigan as an option, never mind something he would actually try. Beyond the perennial problems at 10 the vast number of injuries has put paid to any clear gameplan or even purpose. A lack of ball carriers is nothing new after last season but the slow recovery at the breakdown should be case for concern and tends to turn everything to treacle. The signing of T’eo is unlikely to make much of a difference in this department. As I said in the summer, Leinster need to sign upwards of 10-12 players in the next season or two, but have so far only picked up Douglas and T’eo. The return of Sexton next season has fans already willing to write off this year, but without strengthening the backrow, scrumhalf and centre options substantially he can only be expected to do so much.
Sixth place is a fair reflection of a poor start to the league, while their ability to continue picking up bonus points while playing like muck will ensure they continue to climb the league table. This weekend’s game away to Castres could decide attitudes for the rest of the season both amongst the fans and the team.
Another province which started extremely sluggishly, losing to Edinburgh at home. Even in the most transitional of years Munster fans could reasonably expect to go the season without a home loss in the league as a minimum, but this year there have been two losses already. Four wins in the league leaves them sitting pretty a point above Connacht, but severe deficiencies in their midfield will be cause for concern. The uncertainty resulting from a grevious neck injury to Tyler Bleyendaal has put paid to any plans to play JJ and Keatley together in a second 5/8th approach, and Hurley and Smith don’t appear to be clicking. Add to this Earls has again gone under the knife, and its hard to see how the current Munster set up could push beyond the European quarter finals.
The ray of light in all this is the continued emergence of CJ Stander as a Saffer SOB, bulldozing through defenses on the regular nowadays. The pack as a whole are looking quite capable and were the winning of the match in the Aviva against Leinster, when the outside backs rarely saw the ball. The continued development of Stander, Foley and Casey is tempered somewhat by the underwhelming Robin Copeland, who has not exactly set the world alight. Meanwhile, having clinched a victory through a last gasp drop goal, the fans are finally warming to Ian Keatley, and Jirry Thornley has pronounced him to be now sufficiently ROG’d to be first choice for Munster.
Arguably Connacht had the hardest start to the season of the four provinces, with only the Dragons game at home a soft-ish fixture. In contrast Ulster could have expected to top the league at this point with two games against Zebre in the first month, but found out that easy fixtures easily become difficult. This makes the current league position all the more fulfilling as Connacht have had to battle through away trips to Scotland and Italy as well as provincial derbies to achieve their current fifth place. At the same time there is a slight dissatisfaction that Connacht currently have zero bonus points and thus end up below the likes of Ulster, who have the same record (4w, 1d, 1l) and Munster, who have lost two games. But I would just reiterate that we have faced some of the hardest games of the season thus far. The next three games are barely any easier, with Connacht lined up to face Ospreys, Zebre and Scarlets. The latter two are at home which is good as Scarlets often manage to cause Connacht problems.
The double edged sword of international selection has been inflicted on Pat Lam, who must now plan to face the league leaders next weekend without our two first choice Tightheads, along with Marmion, Henshaw and Leader, three of our best backs (if not the three best). What was already a difficult game now has the look of damage limitation. The one chink of light perhaps is that while the Ospreys recorded massive wins against Treviso and Edinburgh (teams Connacht struggled against) those are their only bonus point games so far.
This means that while the game against Zebre will be targetted as a bonus point home win it is by no means a gimme. The second Italian franchise have so far surpasssed Treviso this season, giving Ospreys a scare and beating Ulster in Italy thanks to an early (but deserved) red card. Despite featuring a number of Italian internationals they are no great shakes and Connacht should be reasonably confident if they continue to play smart and cut out the bad decisions such as running penalties in their own half as we saw against Cardiff.
So far this season we haven’t seen Connacht cut free and throw the ball around like the helter skelter games against Dragons and Scarlets last season. If that’s to happen then first and foremost we obviously need to see Swifty on the wing more if we’re to score tries this season. But beyond that we should keep in mind that we have more than half the total wins for last season with a quarter of the season gone. In the context of our win/loss ratio of previous seasons, Bonus points are just that.
Beyond pure points on the board, there have been a number of improvements within the province that allow us to be cautiously optimistic. Firstly, the European jersey is pretty tasty, and Lam is clearly targetting a Cup final to show off the jersey to the fullest. Secondly, the wins have been achieved without the new signings arriving. There’s already a buzz around the influence of Mils and the impact that McCartney and Aki will make with the province and its hoped that they can provide an injection of power, skills and experience at the right time in the season when Connacht could perhaps be in danger of falling into a lull.
Thirdly, despite injuries to first and second choice hookers, Dave Heffernan has quickly established himself in the senior squad and looks like he will be difficult to shift when Harris-Wright is back to full fitness. In addition Jack Dineen has impressed so far this season, Quinn Roux appears to have bedded in quickly and been a useful addition to the second row. Ronaldson, Buckley and Leader continue a strong upward trajectory and have made themselves vital to the teams continued success.
The AIL find of this season is Niyi who looks like a seasoned pro and not a young guy just a few months into his first contract. Pat is constantly praising players who show an aptitude for learning and Niyi has certainly shown himself aware of the importance of ball retention and rucking, while also displaying speed, a good step and pass. The success of Healy, Ronaldson, Niyi, McSharry and Carty (part of the Connacht academy but a starting outhalf in the AIL for a while now), alongside players at other provinces like James Coughlan, Darragh Fanning and Mick McGrath, points to the continued importance of the AIL as a breeding ground for talented players who for whatever reason find themselves without an academy contract at the age of 18 or 19. In fact I would argue the Connacht examples in particular show that there is a benefit to at times ignoring the academy in favour of giving players regular experience in the AIL and who seem to make the step up more naturally than those players who seem stuck in the academy/A team structure and find it difficult to break into the senior team.
Other benefits have been continued development at the Sportsground as well as the facilities available to the team, including the gym, a full time strength and conditioning coach, a nutritionist, and a backs and kicking coach. Pat Lam is a canny operator and always makes sure to praise the IRFU for their positive contributions to the province. At the same time his statements are sometimes shocking in that they reveal the true level of Connacht’s current development. His declaration that the IRFU have allowed Connacht further investment in video analysis was shocking to me as I assumed it was one of the most basic tenets of modern rugby. While I’m sure there was some manner of video analysis before this season, the improvement in services would seem to have already had a positive impact. Connacht’s video analyst Connor McPhillips says ‘Players now have the ability on there iPads to view training, opposition and individual performance on the move. This is great as players get to analyse there performance straight after the game, even when travelling abroad.’ http://www.analysispro.net/blog/2014/08/15/connacht-rugby-choose-ap-viewer
Hopefully this added analysis will result in an overall better defense than we have ever seen previously as players will now be more aware of their role in the overall performance. This video footage could even have been fed to players like Aki and McCartney as a means of easing them into the team structure before their arrival here.
At the same time its important that the team ‘wants to defend’, as Muldoon has said, and does so with vigour, for the entirety of the season. Its too early to say there is a definitive trend, but the games against Cardiff and Treviso showed a slipping in defensive standards compared to the first three games of the league. Its obviously a very basic point but if Connacht hope to compete with any of the top four teams and turn around games that they would have lost last season, then defensive superiority is a foundation. Hopefully the European campaign will not leave Connacht as exhausted as the Heineken cup games did in the past and the league campaign continues to impress.