Connacht face Ospreys away this weekend in what will surely be the greatest test of the squad this season. Although our injury worries are nothing compared to the likes of Leinster or Ulster, and we do not have as many players away on international duties as others, yet it would seem that our squad depth, at least for a game of this level, is almost at its limit. The only good news is that the Ospreys are possibly worse off.
Already missing numerous backrowers through injury, Ospreys have lost even more key players to the Welsh squad and have had to sign a loan with Blues to get Ieuan Jones for a month. 21 year old Jones made 32 appearances for Dragons previously, but has yet to appear for the Blues this season, so while he is not a complete neophyte he has not played any senior rugby this season and is still learning.
In contrast Connacht’s backrow will be more settled than Ospreys, with Muldoon set to return as captain, alongside McKeon and big George. So far this year I think this has been my favourite backline but McKeon has yet to fully click as an openside and Connacht may be vulnerable at times, for example when he needs to release from the scrum quickly and make a tackle, as we saw against Glasgow.
Second row is as good as can be expected with Kearney and Roux starting, but from the reports on Connacht Clan that I’ve seen, Kearney did not cover himself in glory against Exeter. The last few games I’ve seen of him he seems to have had a slight dip in form and it will be important that he really bosses the lineout this weekend, especially with Harris-Wright back.
Connacht’s backline has me scratching my head, and could be serious cause for concern. Marmion is back from Ireland camp, which is excellent news for Connacht. He’s been the lynchpin of everything good that Connacht have done this season in the backs and offers a proper line-breaking threat. I had half expected a seriously defensively minded backline but instead Lam has given Carty the nod at 10 with Ronaldson at 12 and new arrival Aki getting his first start at 13. Layden at 15 is a case of having little other option, but I’m not sure this is the game for Niyi. He’s given his all thus far for Connacht but he still needs to work on his tackling and fielding the high ball, and could be under severe pressure from both this Friday. I have a lot of time for Healy, he’s defensively solid, and has a good boot, but hasn’t played that much so far this season and will need to be on point.
But even more than the backs, the real cause for concern is in the front row. Getting Rodney back from Ireland camp is a huge boost and the starting front row is a good mix of experience that would start most games by choice. But the loss of Loughney and White has been compounded by Bealham’s unavailability, leaving JP Cooney to make his first appearance of the year and Jamie Dever to make his senior debut. To say that this is less than ideal would be an understatement, and although the sub Ospreys props are not first choice players they are still more experienced than either of the Connacht lads. Heffernan will give Connacht a badly needed speed and strength boost in the second half but given the high work rate that Connacht will have to display throughout the game we can’t really afford to have Buckley and Ah You on the field into the 70th minute and beyond, but we can’t not afford to keep them on as long as possible either. A difficult situation for Lam here and a massive game for both Cooney and Dever.
Despite losing several key players through injury and call ups Ospreys will unsurprisingly still be able to field a strong team. Veteran props Duncan Jones and Aaron Jarvis pack down beside young hooker Sam Parry. Their second row contains a couple of 23 year olds, with Lloyd Peers captaining. Its difficult to say that Connacht have the upper hand in this area but Kearney does at least seem to have a good bit more senior team experience than Peers.
An undersized backrow gives Connacht some ray of hope. Justin Tipuric is the obvious dangerman in a unit that includes Ieuan Jones and Sam Lewis, and if Connacht are to have any say in this game they will have to isolate Tipuric as much as possible. This could be a somewhat easier task than normal with Tipuric lacking the protection of star locks and backrow forwards. Both Lewis and Tipuric are capable of making turnovers but if we continue to protect the ball properly at ruck time and defend the ruck quickly then there shouldn’t be massive worries here. Having said that, Lewis did make the turnover that led to the Ospreys first try in this fixture last season, but that was as much a result of Marmion being isolated and a lack of ruck protection on Connacht’s part. This season Marmion has been on a tighter leash in the first half, rarely making runs on his own and as a result there’ve been less soft turnovers given up.
Martin Roberts has always been a last choice back up for Ospreys and I would back Marmion to come out on top here, but their sub scrum half is already a more experienced than Porter, and if Marmion has to come off early for Ireland’s benefit then Connacht will not be capable of chasing a game with Porter in charge. Sam Davies is highly rated by Ospreys coach Tandy, and the loss of Dan Biggar is a let off for Connacht, but it remains to be seen whether Carty can press home any sort of advantage here.
While their backline may not all be first choice, there is more than enough speed and experience there to cause Connacht a lot of problems. Watching Ospreys play Northampton I got the impression that they favour a high tempo offloading game. They don’t commit many numbers to the ruck, preferring to fan out quickly and to keep the speed up when attacking. However against Northampton they came off second best in this area – often props were slow to the ruck and didn’t manage to remove tacklers or roll away from the ruck quickly enough to give Webb fast ball. Connacht won’t have the long arms of Courtney Lawes involved at rucktime, or even Henshaw, so it will be up to Buckley, McKeon and George to get themselves over the ball and slow the opposition in attack.
So far this season Connacht have shown a smarter approach to the breakdown than perhaps previously was the case. They have learned when to commit numbers to the ruck and when to spread out the defensive line. Given Ospreys offloading ability, Connacht will have to be cautious when sending bodies into the ruck as to do so will take numbers from the defensive line and leave Connacht stretched. I imagine we will see more than one side entry penalty against Connacht just to slow down the Ospreys attack.
With Carty, Ronaldson, Healy and Layden on the field I expect this game to be mainly about the kicking strategy from a Connacht perspective, but it will be vital that kicks downfield can find space behind the defensive line. Carty’s kicking from hand has been hit and miss all season but, more than against the likes of Treviso, Connacht will not be able to suffer any going out on the full. Ospreys play with a high, flat defensive line and may be exposed by a couple of contestable cross field kicks for our wings, or this might at least make the Ospreys think twice about pressing up too much.
With the Ospreys and Wales captain out for this fixture, as well as the disruptions to their back row, Connacht are fielding a more settled lineout unit than Ospreys will be capable of. Last year Connacht scored a try from a rolling maul off a lineout, against a better Ospreys pack than the one named this week. Having already seen the continued effectiveness of Connacht’s lineout this season I think this is an area that we can go after Ospreys and really put them and their 20 year old hooker under pressure. If there is any hope for a losing bonus point, never mind a win, then Connacht will have to be able to build a lead early on while key players are still on the field, then batten down the hatches after about 60 minutes and tackle themselves into the ground. Unfortunately we haven’t yet seen Connacht be able to do that, and the last 10 minutes of the Blues game is a prime warning about the problems we face when taking on such an approach.