Season Preview – F The Doubters

[I’ve been really busy this summer and didn’t get the chance to put up the more in depth previews you may have come to love/hate in previous seasons, but I had to get something in digital ink before kick off this weekend. I hope you’ve all ready!]

 

When I watched the Connacht bus roll into Murrayfield, I gave the auld thumbs up to Pat and he replied with a resolute thumbs up back. Strange as it may seem, once I saw that I knew we wouldn’t lose. However, it wasn’t until I saw pictures of Muldoon wearing that gold patch that I really knew we were champions. Maybe its partly because I don’t live in Ireland anymore and therefore couldn’t participate in the homecoming but even though I felt elated it also seemed unreal, as if it couldn’t really have happened.

That’s how a lot of pro12 teams and rugby commentators would like us to see Connacht’s win – an aberration, the result of a world cup year that sapped every other team’s squad – something that can’t be repeated under normal conditions. We’ve lost a couple of key players from that final, and while there have been replacements, there are justifiable question marks over each of them. Other teams have strengthened, not to an amazing extent, but enough to improve on last year. League position decides European qualification and while we knew that last year I think it was taken for granted to an extent. Now that teams have seen the resulting draw based on their position they will quite literally feel the impact of a poor position. And finally the Lions tour hype machine has already started to get into gear before the season has even started. To what extent this actually drives players in season compared to the other three years is probably unquantifiable, but its fair to say that some players are big tour hunters, and any *cough* Welsh *cough* player who feels they are in the maybe column will have something to prove.

 

It seems to me that a little thing like a league title won’t be enough to slap away the patronising media head rubs of old, while the other provinces will see Connacht as a team lacking pedigree, upstarts who need to be taken down a peg this season. There won’t be any second string teams rocking up to the sportsground this year – but what the opposition don’t realize is that’s what Connacht always wanted.

 

My main concern is how we will maintain competitiveness on two fronts without being able to put the Eagles out in either competition as we did last season in the Challenge cup.

This is the great unknown of any season, the one thing that can only be prepared for, but never predicted.

 

Even allowing for White, Muldoon, McCartney and Loughney’s impact on the average age this is not an old squad, and of course those old heads are badly needed. All of those players have shown that they are still capable of growth, while its fair to say the majority of the youth around them have not hit their peak by any stretch. Having taken two years to get to grips with the new demands placed on them by the new coaching team, there is now no other team in the pro12 who are as comfortable on the ball as Connacht.

We’ve all read the headlines about tightheads stepping in at scrumhalf and its all true but it deserves constant reiteration. There’s absolutely no other team in the league that are this good on the ball as Connacht from one to forty. Other teams have had amazingly skilful players in certain positions but no one has the base level of skills that our team has. That’s something that isn’t going to abandon Connacht this season or next, and while other teams can follow the leader, they’re playing catch up.

 

Throughout last season, there was a correlation between the growing comfort and confidence of Connacht with ball in hand, and the improvement in other facets of play such as the restart, which had traditionally been a massive weakness. As it becomes easier for the team to put something into action (scrum and lineout integrity, ball skills, ruck defense) it becomes easier for the coaches to implement something new into the Connacht game, further strengthening the overall structure. It stands to reason therefore, that as Connacht are more capable than they were this time last year, there are new plans and structures that can be brought into play that previously were either too risky or complex to integrate. Obviously this sort of upward trend does not continue indefinitely, but its perfectly reasonable to believe that further improvements are not only possible but likely.

 

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Connacht will always struggle at some point in the season to get bodies on the field. This was particularly bleak last year against Newcastle when we were unable to field a full twenty-three away.

 

Because we will never have the numerical depth Lam has attempted to mitigate this issue by building skills depth, as outlined already. This has meant that backs are capable of interchanging with ease, and while we don’t have superstars like Heaslip or Sexton, there are very few teams that can slot their fourth choice fly half into the first team almost seamlessly, as Connacht did with O’Leary last year.

 

I’ve pointed this out several times previously but before Pat joined (and the IRFU provided greater funding to support his plans – I’m sure Eric wasn’t avoiding hiring extra coaches on purpose) there was no full time strength and conditioning or nutrition experts at Connacht. Now the entire squad including academy train together and have access to proper strength and nutrition programmes for three years. This had a marked impact on the first team within the first season and continued to improve the team.

Prior to the final many Leinster fans remembered Niyi as the slight winger they first saw injure himself tackling Sean Cronin in the sportsground. In the meantime he had bulked up over two stone and was easily the physical equal of the Leinster wingers in the final, which was undoubtedly a big factor in Connacht’s ability to physically match Leinster in open play and to continue tackling with such vehemence.

What we should hopefully start to see from now on is more and more second and third year academy players – like Delahunt and Leader before them – stepping up to senior rugby and crucially being physically capable of matching the more experienced opposition.

Whether it be athleticism, physicality or skill base, Connacht have not plateaued yet – not even close. This bodes extremely well for the coming season.

Pat came to Galway with a five year plan and the players have bought into that. Having paid such wonderful dividends just three years in, the only question being asked on laps of the greyhound track is; how far can this team go?

 

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