A battle on two fronts?

Connacht faced into the game against Ospreys off the back of a comprehensive loss to a fairly makeshift Exeter in the Challenge Cup. In the lead up to that game the talk was that the focus was very much on the Ospreys game, and as a result there was a slight forgiveness given for the European performance. However the last two weekends again proves how difficult it will be for Connacht to attempt to compete in two competitions and achieve the goals set down for both – a sixth place league finish and a Cup final. Believing that many important players had been rested for the Ospreys game, there was still a hope and expectation of quality performance and a tight game, with a win against severely weakened opposition appearing to be a semi-realistic proposition. It didn’t work out that way.

It is difficult to compare one season to another as the Ospreys did not face an Irish province at home during the November internationals; but they did lose to Glasgow at home in November, who would have been as or more impacted by call ups than Ospreys, and during the season lost both home and away fixtures to Munster and Ulster. Perhaps a better comparison is the games against the other Welsh provinces who are roughly on a par with Connacht. Ospreys won all of these derbies.

In this context, Connacht understandably went into this fixture as underdogs. Despite call ups and injuries, the Connacht first fifteen was quite strong and with the exception of Layden, Aki and Rodney, was more or less first choice. The first half cannot be described as exciting, but finishing at 3-3 felt pretty close to the ideal scenario for Connacht. We had taken one chance of three, but importantly denied Ospreys proper scoring opportunities. In this regard we were helped by a less than perfect performance by Sam Davies from the tee, but this was also partly due to not conceding too many penalties in easily kickable positions. In addition the pack appeared to be on top of their opposition; the scrum was strong if not completely dominant; and McKeon made some important turnovers to suggest there may be positive returns to be had if this openside experiment is continued. The big problems were the lineout, which was somewhat shaky, and the poor kicking from hand, which was slightly mitigated by Ospreys own problems in this field. Everything appeared set for the second half tactical switch up that we’ve seen in a number of games now that would allow Connacht to wrest control of the game from Ospreys.

Instead the opposite happened. Kicking from hand by Carty, Ronaldson and the normally reliable Marmion was poor and often done reflexively without thought or aim. The result was repeated uncontestable kicks down the middle of the field and kicks to touch that never made it, making it easy for Ospreys to counter-attack. The second part of this problem was decision making, which was almost non-existent this weekend. Perhaps wound up by the referee’s interpretation of the breakdown, Muldoon appeared to not make the right choices at vital times. I believe it was in the first half when he allowed Ronaldson take a kick at goal from the half way line, when he should have gone for the lineout. Perhaps the memory of the Blues game was still in his mind. As I noted before the game, the Ospreys lineout defense last season was poor, and in this game was even worse. Connacht managed to defend the Ospreys’ maul quite easily, and the one time Connacht attempted a maul in Ospreys territory they easily scored a try. But by then it was too late.

Worse, the throwing in this game was as bad as the Blues game, with Harris-Wright throwing a crooked throw to Buckley at the front (a move I remember seeing at least five times or more this season and which perhaps should be benched for a few games), and there was another throw stolen in an important position for Connacht. Yes Harris-Wright is only just back from injury and yes he made a lot of tackles, but as the most senior hooker its difficult to excuse three lost lineouts.

In addition Carty again played extremely deep and rarely carried the ball for any length of time before passing. ESPN credit him as running 11m with the ball, and Ronaldson carried for 13, the majority of which was probably part of his mad run for the line late in the second half when he should have thrown it wide. I find this infuriating to watch and it must be quite easy to defend against, shown by the 1 clean break by Connacht versus the Ospreys’ 11. Moreover, multiple times Leader ran directly at Tipuric or Sam Lewis, leading to easy turnovers or penalties for the Welsh. The combination of the referee’s impatience at the breakdown and the lack of support at the ruck had a part to play, but if Connacht did not know before the game that Lacey would blow so quickly, they should have known by the second half and adjusted accordingly. Instead there was little or no attempt to change the Connacht approach to the breakdown. This was a game that was to my mind crying out for the likes of McSharry and Henshaw (obviously away with Ireland) to provide momentum and the majority of the carries, with the forwards in support to seal off the ruck from Ospreys’ flankers. Instead we saw isolated carrying far too often which were easily turned over again and again.

The two Ospreys tries were well taken and they had been asking serious questions for a while before that, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Connacht made this victory as easy as possible for the Welsh region. There was an overall lack of ruthlessness, composure or thought about the team which was especially galling given the supposed two weeks of planning that went into the game. When you’re playing against a team with two opensides first and foremost in your mind must be ball retention. If that means players only make four metres instead of eight but the ball is protected over multiple phases then so be it.

Looking forward to Zebre and Scarlets, Connacht will thankfully be given a break to rest up and prepare for two vital games. However Henshaw and Rodney are likely to be away and Marmion’s time with Connacht could be limited, so unfortunately we cannot start to envision a scenario where Connacht cut loose from the start of the season and play exciting running rugby. The main issue will be ensuring Loughney and Bealham can return as soon as possible, and blooding some talent against an even more depleted Zebre. A first start for Blade would not be remiss and another appearance from Qualter is badly needed if Roux is leaving after Christmas. The saffer has exceeded my expectations (in that I thought he would be crap) but regardless its time to start planning without him. The arrival of McCartney as well as the bedding in of Aki and Muliaina will provide a welcome boost to the team.

Connacht to me are starting to look like they have painted themselves into a corner with their tactics this year, attempting to ease Carty into pro rugby with a deep playing position, and in the process handcuffing themselves to a kicking strategy that has not yet paid off. Even in his worst games Parks was usually capable of playing flatter than Carty has done lately, and the latter has not shown any line breaks that would set him apart from the old master. I don’t want to be totally negative towards Carty and I do think he has a quite well developed passing game already, but he just isn’t playing flat enough or taking control of the game to make those skills of use.

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