If the league were to finish today, there’s little doubt in my mind that this would go down as Connacht’s most successful season. Record league position, record number of home wins, record points total, as well as the continued production of the Connacht academy, best scrum in the league and best line out. Good signings that have bedded in quickly and added a lot to the team. A youthful team profile with a good mix of experience. Things are looking good.
And yet, the league does not end now, and because of that, all of the above success is in jeopardy. Tough, attritional fixtures against Gloucester, Ulster, Glasgow and Ospreys along with the potential banana skin against Zebre (at a time of the year when Connacht have traditionally switched off) threaten to derail all of this years progress. While Ireland were establishing themselves as an outside shout for the world cup, Connacht were sliding back on the standards of the first half of the season. Subpar performance against Scarlets, Blues and Munster have cut the gap between 6th and 7th to nothing. But perhaps worse than that has been the litany of mini crises, which taken together may yet have a seismic effect.
Lam v Hodges
Pat Lam’s reaction to Leighton Hodges’ decision was completely understandable, but the introduction of potentially slanderous hearsay was not. In the space of a few minutes Lam knocked himself from a position of strength to a position of extreme danger. He was perhaps lucky to escape with a €3000 fine (€5000 suspended), because if Hodges had been a litigious type, that incident could easily have dragged on for at least the rest of the season. I hoped at the time that it would have a galvanizing effect on the team and provoke a performance for the coach, but of course this was not the case, which in itself was somewhat worrying.
Quickly after this incident came the news that Dan McFarland had decided to leave Connacht, to take up the same position at Glasgow. While it has been suggested on the excellent Craggy Island podcast that Vern Cotter may not be the Scotland coach beyond the World Cup and that Gregor Townsend may be promoted before the next Six Nations, thereby leaving a head coach space for McFarland to fill, this seems like a bit of a leap to me. It suggests that McFarland has taken a job based on what is basically gossip at this point. Personally I feel the move is much more damaging from a Connacht perspective, and suggests that he may believe that Connacht have hit a ceiling of sorts. In contrast, Glasgow have obviously seen what he has done with our forwards and want him to transform their pack into a more cohesive and overall more rugged unit than they are currently. In comparison to their backs play, their scrum and front row in particular are painfully average, and it is the main facet of their game that has held them back from achieving a league title in my opinion. McFarland has shaped a pack that is much more than the sum of their parts at Connacht, as well as turning Rodney into a viable tighthead and quickly improving Quinn Roux beyond all recognition, and Glasgow obviously want him to perform the same work for them.
It leaves Connacht without a key part of their system and a large part of their success in the past few years. The success and complexity of the Connacht lineout and maul this season has been a massive factor in our wins. While Pat, as a former eight, is presumably capable of coaching forward play, we currently have no idea whether he can replicate the success of this years forward play, to say nothing of exceeding it. This is a giant question mark hanging over next season, and realistically we won’t know the answer until at least January next year.
Fighting on Two Fronts
The match against Gloucester was at times quite depressing. While things improved significantly in the second half, it is hard to believe that Connacht would ever open Gloucester up through their backs. Add in a few injuries to key players such as Healy, and the idea of competing on two fronts was quickly shown up as folly in light of Connacht’s need to secure four points against Ulster this week. The selection of players such as Muliaina and Kearney, who both ultimately were injured and had to be replaced before the match or in the first half, further illustrates the dangers of trying to compete on two fronts especially in a competition that did not guarantee European qualification.
All of these incidents combined would have been enough to worry supporters about Connacht’s chances this weekend, but when you add in the Mils saga and it is a media exposure that Connacht can ill afford at the minute. While Mils was released on bail without charge the following day, the incident and its continuation behind the scenes must surely be a disruptive force within the team this week. Pat Lam’s job this week will be trying to keep the group calm and collected with their minds on the prize, but its a tall order. This game against Ulster threatens to be season defining. Lose, and Connacht look set upon a downward spiral that could most likely see them give up their sixth place position that they’ve held almost the entire season, and even slip as low as eighth and therefore outside of the play off positions. Win, and Connacht will have performed a clean sweep of the provinces at home, added a vital four points to the total and set themselves up to face into some extremely difficult games. However, even with a win its a massive task for Connacht. As we said earlier, Connacht normally have nothing to play for at this point in the season. The normal injury toll that accompanies the end of the season is not as big an issue. But in this case the game against Zebre, which is around the time the end of season party normally happens, is of absolutely vital significance, while the last game against Ospreys could be seen as an eight pointer depending on results between now and then.
What does winning mean?
At the start of the season I asked what does winning mean to Connacht, for a team that has never finished with a greater than 50% win ratio. The Ospreys game is the embodiment of that question – what will it mean to players who have never had anything on the line in the final game of the season, to suddenly face a scenario like that? Its something that Lam must be aware of as he prepares his players for the last set of fixtures. To use a clichéd cliché, every game is and must be played as a cup final.
The problem is, will Connacht have the players and the depth to do so? With the best intentions in the world Carty has been playing like a drain lately. Ronaldson has looked good, but hasn’t managed to put together more than a couple of games back to back at 10. Nikora simply hasn’t been trusted as anything more than a squad player. For me one of the worst moments against Gloucester was when a penalty was awarded against Connacht’s scrum and the only player that questioned the ref was Tom McCartney, as the rest of the pack, including the captain Muldoon, trudged back. For me Muldoon has not performed to the level expected of a captain this season. At times he is too quiet, but when he breaks his silence it is often with an unrestrained petulance that would turn any referee off. It can be cringe-inducing to hear him speak to referee’s sometimes. Does he has the capability to lead his team to a height that he, and they, have never reached before?
Injuries as always will take their toll, but Connacht are close to an injury crisis in key positions, notably at seven, second row and twelve. Again this is nothing new but when you need to be able to field the best team possible five weeks in a row, it is essential that Connacht not suffer any further setbacks. How realistic is it to hope for no new injuries in a sport where 20% of your squad are unavailable at any one time? And yet, the season may be defined by one or two more injuries which stretch the team to breaking point or rob them of accuracy at the breakdown or from the tee. With Heenan and Faloon yet again sidelined simultaneously, McKeon, Masterson and possibly Connolly will deputize on the flank. This is extremely worrying given the high quality opposition Connacht face. Henry is back for Ulster, while Ospreys annihilated Connacht at the breakdown earlier in the season by playing two sevens, as did Edinburgh. Our competition at the breakdown is lax, and liable to get worse without Heenan available.
One small glimmer of hope in terms of expectations and attitudes may be gleaned from the change in the awards night scheduling. Previously this event took place with two games left to go in the season and represented the end of the hard work for the squad, who tended to switch off afterwards. This year it has been pushed back until May 16th, the same day as the Ospreys game. Its not much, but to me it suggests Lam has noticed this tendency in the team and intends to break that tradition, and focus the team on winning as long as there are games to play.