Oh, how much easier it is to look optimistically at this season after a game like last weekend. I had more than a little trepidation facing into Friday evening. Sure, they had a few injuries, but so did we. They were resting their best scrum half but it seemed ours only had one arm. Whether they have been playing well coming into the derby or not, Ulster have traditionally been able to outmuscle Connacht and drag a result out of the game. When Ulster have been on form, they’ve often ripped Connacht to shreds. And Ulster had been on form so far.
It was clear from the first whistle however, that if any fans were carrying reservations there were none amongst the Connacht fifteen. Heffernan looked like a man possessed, making searing runs – yes, really! – fending off two or three opponents at will before offloading the ball to another player in space who continued with more of the same. Ulster were obviously shell shocked after the first salvo, to the point where Carty sold Hendo a dummy that the big lad will still be embarrassed by. Carty by the way, was excellent throughout the game, bringing this seasons new found aggression to bear on tackles and ruck clearing while also playing more front foot rugby and backing himself to find those gaps.
Kelleher had already looked like one of the few bright spots in a sorry season thus far, but with everyone else around him on song he was allowed to show his finishing ability. Leinster fans will soon be wondering what they lost out on. Maybe it was not so much his attitude that was wrong, as the club attitude that said he needed to wait his turn in a three or four year apprenticeship behind hard working but guileless wingers like Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden, playing rugby in the sporting wasteland that is the B&I cup. Having a coach that challenges him and also believes in starting the best performer have given Kelleher something to prove, but also the means with which to do prove it.
At half time I dared not believe that we could win, but when you see Heffernan plucking balls out of the air above his head at full tilt without slowing, hand off multiple players and get the ball away again you feel like it could be your night. Of course the five minutes after half time brought that crashing down.
In truth, that Ulster maul try was almost certainly illegal, and the defence off their lineout was abysmal, allowing Bowe a handy line between two forwards that should probably have been predicted – but Ulster were always likely to score, regardless of how it came about, so we can’t complain too much.
But rather than panic Connacht played through the rough spot, looking for their opportunities as they came. Putting the ball through the hands quickly and efficiently in the opposition 22 was not the sort of flashy, length of the pitch stuff some people associate with the league title but those high quality basic skills and cool heads in the red zone are the real signs of winners.
Everyone’s already said it, but at times it really felt a lot like last season – the daring offloads, the high tempo gameplan, the surging, pressing defence, the handling skills – a lot of the good stuff from last year was back with a bang.
But in a sense what’s really impressive is how much room there still is to improve. The scrum was effectively functioning on a third choice front row, but held up against the Ulster pressure (itself a second choice according to their own fans). The lineout, though much improved, was mainly thrown to the front, a sign of some continuing confidence issues. The maul defence was pretty facile at times, and we’ve not seen Connacht launch a successful maul all season (to my recollection at least). When the set pieces improve, and they will, Connacht will step up another gear.
There’s still too many patronising soundbites from the media and not enough respect being shown to what Connacht achieved last year and what can be achieved this year. A home loss to Glasgow and Ospreys in a season – I’m sorry, is this somehow unprecedented? Are the winners of the last season expected to never lose at home again? Munster lost to Edinburgh in the opening weekend of 2014 (admittedly a shock defeat) and still made the final that year. Leinster routinely lost to Ospreys when they were winning back to back European cups. Holding last years title does not incur invincibility upon a team, and we shouldn’t be writing off a season on the basis of losing two of the toughest fixtures in the league. It was a horror opening that no team would have wanted, but having beaten Ulster we’ve already turned 5 of the 8 points taken from Glasgow and Ospreys last season.
Admittedly, the manner of the defeat against Glasgow in particular was not happy viewing. To be frank it was painful. The Zebre game will live in infamy, but really we’ll never know what might have been, good or bad. We’ve had a slow start, no one could deny that, but this will be an extra long season for Connacht, given how much harder the European tournament will be compared to last year, and perhaps taking a few games to get up and running is not the worst.
There was perhaps a level of naivety amongst fans and even players about how to maintain last seasons form. A lot of talk about replacing Muldowney, MacGinty, Henshaw, and Rodders, but not enough thought perhaps about what material effect those changes would have. Even if you have a play making forward (Heffernan, perhaps, on the basis of the last weekend) available to you, that does not mean they can mindlessly slot into the last man’s space without some time to adjust. We lost two playmakers and the leagues top second row, short of signing Retallick, that was always going to make an impact.
Carty is back playing rugby after several months off from a freak injury, he was never going to be at the level of MacGinty at the end of last season, who himself was not at that level when he first joined Connacht. O’Halloran, Healy, Dillane, Bealham were all coming back from their first summer tour.
Marmion was coming back from yet another frustrating tour for him, and we should know by now it takes him a few weeks to scrape off the rust from Ireland camp. Add to all of this, the disruption of McSharry and Whites retirements to both of those players lives and the team as a whole.
These are all factors, which if on their own only added up to one per cent each, would clearly have a big cumulative impact as a whole, and that’s even before we add in the now notorious cancelled preseason games, and the routine injury list that we started the season with.
All the same, this victory clearly, was badly needed, and now Connacht can start to look forward with purpose.
Pat’s pulled another rabbit out of the hat with the signing of this Fijian backrow. In truth I know nothing about him but it just feels like a good deal. One feature of Lam’s tenure has been the gradual balancing of the team age from a group that was hopelessly lopsided and brimming with youth but relatively little experience, to a team operating with the right balance of youth and grizzle. Through the retirals and departures, that team age was starting to shift towards inexperience again, so signing a late twenties Fijian with plenty of mid-tier NZ experience and some international caps just seems like a no brainer.
Some might ask, do we need another backrower, which to an extent is to miss the point. We’ve found the budget to sign him, ergo we will find a use for him. Squad depth is something Connacht will always struggle with, and so any signing that helps improve that is worthwhile. Even if all our backrow options were fit, with SOB likely to at least provide cover for second row and with a European campaign that requires our full attention, we’ll always need more players. If he turns out to be a first choice option that’s just a bonus.
Just one or two wins and everything starts to look rosy again. Toulouse, a team that Connacht know too well by now to fear, are coming to the sportsground off a six day turnaround and their second away game in a row. Unlike Connacht they have the depth to rotate, but they won’t be happy with their preparation, while Connacht are planning the biggest night of rugby in Galway since the first time Toulouse came to town. This game is already being talked up as a cup final, which given the unique make up of the group, is more or less true. Wasps should really walk the group but as Zebre are potential whipping boys, a second team from this group is more likely. This game between Toulouse and Connacht then becomes a ten pointer. After that whoever can take a few points off Wasps will be in qualifying position and goes some way to deciding which team has something to play for in the final round in France.