It has been a while since the season ended, and too long between blog posts, but it has taken me this long to recover from the heart break of Gloucester. At the start of the season I said that Connacht have surpassed the old head rub and the moral victory, and I still believe that.
But to me, Connacht bet Gloucester, regardless of what the score line said at the end of extra time. The referee’s decisions at the end of the game might described as ‘erroneous’, or less charitably, ‘disgusting’. It is not only the fact that the decisions were wrong – this happens in every game, it can’t be helped – it was the obviousness of the Gloucester infringements and the referee’s closeness to the events that really grated, and his reversal of the same decisions later in the game was the icing on the top.
However, even when things went against us, we should still try to celebrate the performances of the players on the day. Individuals like Healy and Buckley who have become cornerstones of the team showed their class, newer characters like McCartney and Masterson added serious graft and strength, and younger players like Carty found a new level. The most important point from this game is that a marker has been set down for the required performance level of the coming season, and it’s vital that Connacht not allow themselves to slip below it.
Seriously though, how good was Carty? I complained for much of the season about his performances, his tendency to stay way behind the gainline, and his errant kicking. I still believe that criticism was justified, but we finally got a glimpse of what he might be capable of, and it was good. His passing from hand is already extremely good and much more varied than the likes of Madigan in my opinion, and now with a full season behind him, there will be a lot more expected of him in 2015/16. When he plays aggressively and makes defences think, he is a completely different proposition to the player he was earlier in the season, and he showed that he can make quick and accurate decisions that will benefit the team.
Over the course of the season, there cannot be too many quibbles about how things went. There were significant improvements across key markers compared to the previous season, including league position, tries scored, games won, total points, and a positive aggregate for the first time ever. Despite not qualifying for the Champions cup, there can be few complaints about the seasons performance. Personally I still believe that the Champions cup could be much more of a distraction that it might be worth, but I can’t deny there have been some great nights for Connacht rugby in the top tier of European rugby. But at the same time, it is a serious step up that will always drain a small squad like Connacht.
In the Challenge cup, we were able to rotate and remain competitive, which exposed young players to European rugby and kept the squad fresh for the league. If Connacht were in the Champions cup this would not be possible unless we were drawn against the Italians, and even then, we are not so much improved that we can afford to look down our noses at our Latin opponents. Top four Pro12 teams frequently struggle in Europe, and the same thing thing would happen with Connacht. Another years development for the squad could be positive.
On an in-game level however, no one is surprised that there are still issues that need to be addressed. The seeming inability to perform after a break of more than a week was particularly costly during the international window, a period when Connacht should be racking up points against weakened opposition. It points to a larger issue of mental preparation and the ability to stay switched on, which often undermined Connacht for years. While the typical switch off in the 10 minutes before/after half time has been more or less exorcised, the continued inability to deal with restarts is extremely frustrating. More than that, it directly cost Connacht points throughout the season.
It should not be so difficult for a professional team to prepare for this vital part of the game, and its not as if they don’t expect restarts to happen. It might be possible to make excuses related to video analysis (and the previous lack thereof) but really this is a basic requirement of the game. It should be possible to put in place a rudimentary strategy that perhaps involves the breaking down of the pitch into sections and placing the required forwards in each place. Strength and conditioning have both improved significantly in the last season, so it cannot be an issue of cardio endurance (and the defensive restart at least is probably one of the less demanding periods in the game anyways). Sorting this out would keep opposition points off the board and directly improve our league position, as well as reducing the Clan’s collective blood pressure.
Similarly the exit strategy from our own 22 was frequently amateurish, and the inability to relieve pressure through the boot is especially damning when you consider that the likes of Carty, Marmion and Healy all played almost every game, while any match day squad included at least one of Henshaw, Leader or O’Halloran, all of whom can kick more than adequately. Any one of those players can, or should, be considered an option for kicking out of hand, and (thanks to the kicking exploits of the Irish team in the six nations) we all know about the now-mythical GAA training that all Irish players undergo during their youth, so there really cannot be any excuse for the continued poor kicking from hand from so many of our players. I believe that there was an attempt early on in the season to improve this facet of the game, but after a disastrous performance against Glasgow, including a chargedown (or two?) of Leader’s kicks, I think that it was more or less abandoned.
If I remember correctly this element of the game was improved somewhat when Ronaldson played, but again, that can’t be an excuse – we have a kicking coach now, and we have not seen the improvement that we hoped for in this vital part of the game. Conversions and poorly placed kicks from hand will continue to cost us points and games if it is not sorted out. If it cannot be sorted out then there will have to be question marks over the continued relationship between Connacht rugby and one or more of Carty, if he continues as primary placekicker, or Andre Bell, if the backs continue to underperform in this department.
I don’t want this review to be all negative however, as while it would be easy to remember games against the likes of Cardiff and Scarlets that could have led to a sixth place finish, it is equally important to remember the marked increase in competitiveness, the two home derby wins, and the growing ability to grind out wins in poor conditions or adaptations that occurring during subpar performances to eke out results. All of this will stand Connacht in good stead and provides a platform to build on for the coming season.
Connacht won the fair play award for the second time running which I know is pretty meaningless to many, but I believe this is an important sign of improved defence and analysis of mistakes, as well as putting the opposition under pressure as opposed to making bad decisions.
The academy continues to improve the squad year on year, as does the selection of promising AIL talents such as Healy and Adeolokun. Blade, Masterson, Henderson, Delahunt, Dillane all featured at times during the season while James Connolly made a fantastic appearance in the final game against Gloucester. With such a small playing squad its vital that the academy can make a positive contribution. One of the remarkable things about how Connacht are playing and training under Lam is that individuals like Masterson who featured in the previous season are willing to bide their time until called upon, and then perform to a high standard when they do appear. This to me suggests a strong team ethos and a coaching staff that communicates well with their team.
The pack continued to show improvements, and while not quite as dominant when White was injured there is significant depth now in the front row in particular, while in the backrow the performances of Masterson and Connolly, as well as the growing reputation of academy hopefuls like Rory Moloney augers well. Second row in contrast will be difficult this season. Ireland as a whole find it difficult to produce second rows, not for genetic reasons as some commentators claim, but I believe because underage sports training is still far behind. The fact that Ian Henderson almost did not play senior rugby at all is a fairly damning indictment of the Ulster (and Irish) rugby system. Similarly, the slow physical development of Kearney, Marshall, Henderson himself to an extent, as well as Qualter, and Toner, who would surely have been jettisoned long before he reached 100 Leinster caps if it wasn’t for his height, speaks volumes in this regard. It seems that if Irish locks do not come out of the leaving cert ready to go that no one really know what to do with them.
Questions about the best position for Ben Marshall and Sean O’Brien 2.0 shows that this has not been resolved by any means. I have previously expressed interest in Marshall and I’m happy to see him coming west. But at 25 its taken a long time to get to this stage and he must quickly show that he is capable of producing week in week out for his new province. I was initially underwhelmed by the Roux loan last season but he has turned into a smash hit, and I imagine there were a few Leinster fans who would have much preferred Roux to Douglas last season, and even more this summer as the latter appears ready to leave Ireland. Hopefully a similar metamorphosis is possible with Marshall.
Although both George and Browne both had fairly indifferent seasons, both could easily be pressed into the lock position a lot more next season. One of the main goals of the coming season will be the hothousing of Cian Romaine, Sean O’Brien and Ben Marshall as well as the continued development of Dillane, Qualter and Roux. If Roux and Muldowney are now the senior and first choice locks, and Dillane as a specialist lock benches, then we have three utility back five forwards and three academy/graduates to pick from and build some depth. My bet is we will see Romaine and O’Brien featuring at lock during preseason at any rate, assuming the latter is fit and still an active proposition.
Speaking of forwards development, the unanswerable question for the coming season is, how much does the loss of Dan McFarland cost Connacht? Replacing him with Jimmy Duffy is probably the least disruptive option possible, and he obviously knows the players well which is a huge bonus. But Dan is probably the best forwards coach in the pro12 and I imagine that was also the opinion of Gregor Townsend and the Glasgow board. I expect to see an awful lot more rolling mauls from Glasgow in the coming season. In that sense, next season will become perhaps Lam’s biggest test yet at Connacht. He has to prove that last season was not a fluke, and with the squad least disrupted by the world cup its vital that Connacht can start strong. But he now also has to prove that Connacht’s success was not just down to McFarland, and not only that he will have to continue to develop Connacht’s forward game.
With the continued development of Carty and Ronaldson, its important that we see increased sophistication from our backs as well. This brings its own troubles, as in addition to Henshaw we might start to see the likes of Leader, Marmion or Cooney called up to the Ireland squad more frequently. This would be in addition to White and Rodney, and potentially Buckley, Roux and even Marshall, if their development continues and spaces open up after the World Cup. How Lam handles this could well define the season for Connacht. Lastly, we need to see progress in the areas of weakness outlined above, or Connacht can never seriously challenge for sixth or above.