Connacht Season Preview
If I was extra lazy I could possibly just dust off last season’s preview and change some dates, and for the most part we’d be good to go. That may seem a little depressing but although Connacht achieved their best finish ever last season, many of the same faults remain. However, they were highlighted in the season review so I’m not going to go over old ground. The start of a new season is a time for optimism, and I believe there are reasons to be optimistic!
Firstly, Carty, Leader, Marmion, Niyi, Heffernan, Buckley, Masterson, Cooney, Roux – on and on the list goes. All of these young players are another year older, wiser and more experienced. For Roux, Cooney and Porter they are now well established in Galway and should be hoping to push on and make personal improvements. It took Muldowney a while to settle into Galway and really assert himself and he had a super season last year, so here’s hoping the same can be said for the two ex-Leinster boys. As for the others, they have been working with Bell and Ellis for another year and should be that much more skilled and confident.
Kicking was a major issue last year but hopefully we will start to see improvements in field position, clearances from the 22 and of course kicks at post. If there isn’t an obvious place kicker by the end of the season then frankly it will be time to buy in as we can’t endure many more years of sub 70% success from the tee. Carty towards the end of the season looked to be in superb form, nowhere more apparent than in the game against Gloucester. This showed that despite some poor performances during the season he had the confidence to bounce back and be effective as a game manager. He also showed that he could run at a defensive line and unlock it with speed and a step that had been lacking. This was I believe partly a coaching issue, as I recall the game against Blues in Galway where Carty was almost clear for a sprint to the try line but pretty well turned back for support rather than back himself.
The pack is now relatively settled, even allowing for White’s trip to England this autumn. However, with Dan in Glasgow this will be the biggest test of Lam’s Connacht career yet. The forwards gameplay last year was truly exceptional and won us so many games, while the mauls were massively aggressive, well planned and executed. The maul has been a cornerstone of Connacht’s plans for a while now but really stepped up a notch last year, in part no doubt due to the extra bulk of Roux, Muldowney and McCartney. This suggests that maybe – possibly – it wasn’t just the work of McFarland and that hopefully Lam was also providing input into the maul variations. Regardless I would be happy to see a reduction in the number of mauls if the ones that are attempted are done well. Quality of performance must be the mantra for Connacht this season, especially in areas where there is still a tendency to switch off or to underperform, as in the aforementioned clearance kicks and receiving restarts. This in itself will equate to added points in the table.
Backrow depth continues to improve as with every province, so much so that I almost don’t need to go through the list of young hopefuls. However, I will say that like many others I’m excited to see the continued development of McKeon, Masterson, Connolly and Moloney, and also to see how new signing Fox, and almost new signing Heenan gel with the squad.
Despite Swifty’s retirement and Kearney’s transfer there are enough green shoots around to tentatively suggest that second row could become a position of depth for us by the end of the season. The starting pairing of Muldowney and Roux is pretty well nailed on for now, but Dillane has performed exceptionally well when called upon at the end of the season. The preseason tapes showed he is really hungry for work and loves a big hit on an opponent. It’s great to see that mean streak is growing in our players beyond Henshaw, and when there are a few young lads performing like that the rest can and will follow. Beyond Dillane we have Ben Marshall who I have championed plenty of times on this blog. He also has that grit to him, is an option from 4 to 6 and can only improve if he is given regular game time. If used at 6 he will also provide a bit more variety in the lineout compared to the shorter Muldoon and McKeon. If he can perform well in the scrum at second row then we won.
Sean O’Brien 2.0 is finally fit again after a lost season to injury. It must have been a dark time for the lad, and I’m not sure we ever found out the true nature of the injury troubles, but once he gets back to full match fitness he will make a serious addition to the squad. Playing for the under 20s internationally does not automatically make a player a senior option, but captaining the team shows that SOB has that bit more about him than his peers. The main concern will be that at an alleged 6’ 4’’ he won’t be tall enough to make the grade as a second row, or at least very least will not expand our line out options the way a Henderson or Toner type would. That’s the reality of population variation though.
Our tallest option is Danny Qualter, who is no one’s idea of an overnight success. However, Lam has seen enough in Qualter to persist with him, and at 23 he’s still really young for a lock. In the past I’ve written about Connacht’s problems with strength and conditioning so its unfortunately not surprising that locks, that develop slowest anyways, are going to be even slower to reach maturity with Connacht. But if he can continue to progress then he could offer the bulk and power that we’re missing.
Lastly our youngest lock is only 20 but has already been causing some ripples amongst the faithful. It’s unfair to start talking about Cian Romaine as this season’s breakout, but if anyone has come into the academy ready made for pro rugby it has to be him. He’s large (120kg!), he’s fast, he makes big hits and he can probably even make some carries, although right now that’s not our main interest. If he can impress with the Eagles, get a game or two against Italian opposition and some starts in the Challenge Cup, then that would be more than enough for most first years, but hopefully he may even exceed those expectations.
Second row is still a position where we are short on proven depth, but you have to look at it through the preseason prism of optimism – if just one of these four newer locks kicks on and establishes himself, then that will be a win for the coaching staff and team (assuming Dillane is already ‘established’, but Qualter and Marshall are not). If two or even three manage to start pushing for regular inclusion in the first team then we will be extremely well set for the next few years. In fact, in comparison to Leinster and Munster, who have lost players (Douglas, O’Connell) that they cannot easily replace, have some aging players (McCarty, O’Callaghan), and depend on some in-betweeners like George and Browne to provide cover and depth (McLaughlin, Dave Ryan, etc). Connacht’s second row, while not a position of strength, is certainly not of a vastly lower standard than the rest.
One element that is already working is that Lam has created an environment where players are competing for places but also happy to stay with the team. Masterson was fantastic in his first season run of games then did not appear again for several months. But, when he was called on he was every bit as good and better as before. Similarly, Blade is behind three other scrum halves, even though he scored a brace on his European debut. When he gets another shot at the team you can be sure that he will give everything to try and win himself a place. That sort of competition is evident across the board and that’s a massive improvement on just a few years ago. Having the academy guys training with the senior team improves this even more, as the senior players know what is coming up behind them, while the young guys get to learn from the experienced players.
While Lam went on a rant near the end of the season about depth, and while this has been not improved significantly over the summer in terms of signing players, for the most part Connacht’s squad contains proven options in each position back to the second and third choices, which means that a match day squad without some first choice players can still be competitive against the top teams and still beat the lower teams. This doesn’t mean we should start the Eagles against the Dragons this weekend and expect a five pointer, but we could still feel confident if Heffernan, Marshall and Masterson took the starting jerseys at 2, 4, and 6 for instance. The same is true in the backs – while we inevitably lose experience and physicality of all of Healy, Leader, Henshaw, McSharry and Poolman are unavailable, the back up options of Niyi, TOH, Aki, Ronaldson and Carr will be real options (although that should not be seen as my preferred backline!).
This means that there is enough depth in the backs and there are enough kicking options in the squad that Lam can afford to be brutal and drop players who are underperforming or not carrying out key duties for their position. If Leader can’t make his clearances, drop him for O’Halloran. If Carty can’t kick accurately, drop him for Ronaldson or bring in Porter, get Carr or O’Leary taking conversions. We’ve gotten to seventh on hard work, discipline and rock solid forwards, but it won’t be enough to just play the same game this year. If Connacht are to improve on last season there has to be a willingness to be ruthless and to try the unconventional to get results.