The game against Glasgow was as frustrating a performance as Connacht have put in all season. For the first twenty minutes Connacht absolutely dominated Glasgow in the scrum and lineout. While the best early occasion for points was needlessly wasted, it still seemed as if it was only a matter of time before Connacht started crossing the whitewash and putting away the league leaders. For all their undoubted qualities Glasgow were missing a few players and had lost ten away games in a row. Although they are still riding high and are basically everyone’s second team, this is not a vintage unit – there was every reason to believe that Connacht were capable of a win.
Instead, after just a few poor decisions it all went to pot, and Glasgow streaked ahead on the scoreboard, even though they were still very much winning against the grain. There were a number of mistakes from the normally ultra-dependable Henshaw, who was at least partly at fault for two tries in the first half, including a completely avoidable intercept try. Even more worryingly, crucial tackles were being missed in Connacht’s own 22, which would have guaranteed any team a try, never mind an incisive set of backs like Glasgow.
Unlike earlier in the season there was no half time renaissance, no sign that a gameplan had been hatched or even that Lam had given the team the requisite bollocking that was surely needed. Instead, Connacht made immensely hard work for themselves even when Glasgow were down to 14 men for twenty minutes. One try in that period is simply unacceptable for any team with aspirations of a top six finish.
Fans of any sports team have a tendency to forget that there is always two sides on the field, and highlight their own team’s mistakes while ignoring the qualities of the opposition. However, on this occasion it really seemed to me that Connacht made a rod for their own back. If ever a game was not represented by its statistics, this was the one. Connacht dominated Glasgow by almost every measure – scrum, discipline, carries, passes – and yet were second best by five tries to one, and Glasgow could easily have had another one or two if they had played anywhere close to their potential.
According to Connacht’s own stats, Connacht made half the tackles that Glasgow had to (94 versus 180), yet missed 20 compared to Glasgow’s 22. This of course wouldn’t take account of the numerous players Matawalu, Tommy Seymour and Strauss passed by with nary a hand put on their jerseys. This season’s big performers, including Marmion, McCartney, Muldowney, Buckley, Henshaw and Aki were notably subpar around the field and virtually anonymous for vast swathes of the game. Scrums and lineouts were generally owned by Connacht, and there were numerous strong carries where metres were won almost at will, all until they approached the Glasgow 22, at which point mistakes took the pressure off with perplexing regularity.
Initially it seemed as if they had finally learned to properly challenge restarts after being schooled again and again this season, but this quickly evaporated with any semblance of composure after the first twenty minutes. Before the Ulster game I highlighted the fact that Connacht have traditionally had nothing to play for at this time of year. For all the pre match talk of being excited by the prospect of winning a place in the Champions Cup, Connacht as a group seemed deflated and undercooked – the complete opposite of an organization like Glasgow who still had something to play for.
Muldoon was at times quite petulant towards the referee, to the point where he could have negatively impacted his team if it had been any other official. For a player who has over 200 caps behind him, there is sadly little sign that he has the qualities needed to be a top captain. If Henshaw was not likely to be away with Ireland for so much of next season he could very well have been in the running to take over. Even then, it may be an additional sweetener in a deal to prevent him leaving. As it is, despite a few disappointing games compared to his normal high standards, I think Marmion may still be a good choice for next seasons captaincy. He generally gives his all in everything he does on the pitch, and is a natural leader in his actions and decisions. Not having to wait for someone else to make up their mind might help encourage his natural habit of making quick decisions (which, in fairness, could be seen as a negative from a captain, but would at least lead to some assertive actiosn from a Connacht captain for the first time in a while).
The Carty conundrum continues. First, the positives – he made some very nice cross field kicks in the second half which seemed to stretch the Glasgow defence and on another day may have been more profitable. Arguably these could have been more challenging if they were directed behind the Glasgow line, but I still count this as an improvement given how inaccurate his kicking has been in the past. He did make a number of decent carries which made metres and even played close to the gain line in the first twenty minutes, while the team as a whole were still performing to expectations.
However, allowing for the general collapse of the team, and Muldoon’s aforementioned petulance, which we cannot rule out as having affected Carty’s mood during the game, we still can only see his performance against Glasgow as yet more evidence that he could have been better off learning his trade in the AIL this year.
Having initially backed his man, Lam has since dropped Carty when Ronaldson has been available, and Carty seemed to be third choice at one stage. In his brief outings at 10 Ronaldson has generally looked to be everything Carty is not, and the difference must be felt by the young outhalf himself. In the second half it was supremely frustrating to see 20 hard won metres regularly eaten up by Carty standing 10 metres behind the ruck and passing10 metres behind him, generally without taking a single step forwards. This is one example of why Connacht appeared to perform better statistically than it looked on TV – because they made numerous carries into empty space and were given plenty of time to think and offload, but also took all the pressure off Glasgow and were shorn of any momentum or spontaneity. Tellingly, the best passages of play with ball in hand occurred when Carty was ignored in favour of a pop pass to almost anyone else. At one point Tiernan O’Halloran made a strong D’arcyesque carry which predictably ended in nothing, but Connacht had at least appeared to challenge Glasgow and ask questions.
For all Lam’s post-match talk of Glasgow’s legion of internationals, there was not an awful lot to divide the teams. Yes, their backrow was larger than ours but beyond that the physical differences he highlighted were not particularly apparently to me. It is true that Glasgow do have a lot of internationals on their books but the majority of those are Scottish and not necessarily first choice either. One of the great things about rugby is the separation between the highest and lowest teams is not necessarily the chasm that you see in soccer. Yes, Scotland are a top 10 international team, but all the same if they were to compete in the Champions Cup for instance they would hardly be favourites. In addition, Connacht have beaten the likes of Munster and Leinster this season who are packed with internationals themselves, arguably of a higher quality. And if the number of international players in a team was a measure of anything then surely Zebre and Cardiff would be much better than they are. So to me this is a bit of a red herring.
Similarly, the number of players Connacht are missing through injury – yes Heenan, Ronaldson, White and Kearney might each have replaced a starting player, but only the first two would have made a substantial difference to the functioning of the team. Undoubtedly there are still questions of depth at Connacht but the gap is diminishing every season, and the likes of Masterson have been fantastic deputies. There are a number of exciting young players in the Connacht academy who will soon become available to fill the gaps in the team. One of those will hopefully be the forgotten Sean O’Brien, who seems to have missed this season through a number of niggling injuries. Fingers crossed he gets back to full strength for September.
Unfortunately, even the possibility of academy players filling gaps is itself part of the problem. For the last three years now we’ve seen Connacht born players filling in for injured senior players and usurping those more established players. But as they do so the age profile of the team has become more and more lopsided. Successful teams by and large are built around a spine of players in the 25-29 age bracket, but apart from Poolman and Rodney, Connacht have almost no players within this range, and the latter is not a guaranteed starter. Muldoon, Muldowney, White, Naopu – they all make valuable contributions to the team, but are perhaps a little too far removed from the mass of new guys to build the cohesion required. Certainly this was one of the reasons that Muliaina was brought in – to provide experience and stability amongst the inexperienced backs. We can’t afford to sign another Muliaina next season, not least because of the negative experiences that were caused this season by that signing. But also because at some point the players have to be responsible for themselves, and not dependent on Lam signing past superstars.
One perhaps outlandish possibility might be the signing of Isa Nacewa after his one year Leinster contract ends. This would not be as a player but as a mental skills coach, which is the role he has with Blues. At the start of the season I asked the question ‘what does winning mean to Connacht?’ I don’t know if this has been adequately answered yet this season, but one certainty is that Connacht are not yet comfortable with winning, or overturning the natural order to rip wins out of games were they aren’t completely in control. Players like Muldoon are in my opinion still haunted by memories of bottom of the table seasons, whether he is even aware of it or not. Younger players, with the exception of Henshaw, are caught in a no man’s lands of confused expectations and little opportunity of silverware. Lam has done his part in convincing his team to punch above their weight, but I can’t help thinking they could benefit from a dedicated coach who can convince them they are not just beating the odds, but that they can control their own destiny and help the younger backs to learn to keep their calm when things are going wrong. Admittedly a large road block opposing this move is that Isa has signed for a full year, but all the same as big name signings on the field seem hard to come by, gaining an added advantage elsewhere could become even more important next season.