As I’m writing this, we are between the warm fuzzy afterglow of beating Wasps in the Sportsground, and the jarring prospect of facing the Formorians of Ulster with an extremely depleted squad. These conflicting sentiments, so close together, quite accurately represents how the season has gone so far. We were told that a title defence would not be easy. It was heavily intimated that a number of teams would want to put us ‘back in our box’ so to speak. However, if we can put aside heavy defeats to Glasgow and Ospreys at the start of the season which came about as a combination of injuries and a poor preseason, things on the pitch haven’t been that bad. Yes there have been ups and downs, there have been more poor performances than can be deemed acceptable, but there have also been wins against Ulster, Toulouse and Wasps. It has been a season of extremes, but most of the time this has been down to internal Connacht activities and goings ons, rather than outside factors. Things obviously started poorly with the loss of Andre Bell and a non-existent preseason, which was beyond anyone’s control due to injuries and scheduling. This has been covered many times before, but obviously left us chasing our tails from the start. When things settled down, much of the good from last season was still evident. However, no sooner had things stabilised than Dave Ellis announced he was leaving. This sent shockwaves through the supporters, even if it might not have been felt by the team, as he has not left yet. Finally the hammer blow came as it was announced that Bristol had offered Lam an exorbitant sum of money. Maybe I’m foolish but I genuinely believe he might have stayed if Bell and Ellis had been allowed commit to Connacht long term, but facing the prospect of creating a new coaching ticket regardless, it became relatively easier to take the Saxon shilling so to speak.
While no one saw Lam as a one club man, he had become part of Connacht so quickly, and become such an icon of the provinces success, that it was quite a shock to learn that he was leaving before his five year plan was completed. For me, what stung so much was not so much that he was leaving, but who he was joining. Even before the league title many spoke of him as the natural successor to Joe as Ireland coach when the later presumably moved back to NZ, which looked an inevitability at one point. Others recognised the likelihood that English and French clubs would come sniffing, but assumed a historical connection with Northampton would be the main or even only temptation. The fact that he is leaving Connacht for a team that will almost certainly be in the Championship when he takes over is particularly galling because it is yet another reminder of our relative place in the European game. People were willing to contemplate an upwards move as an inevitability, even a badge of honour of some kind, but a downwards move to a club that despite massive wealth has regularly failed to gain promotion, felt like something that Connacht should have surpassed by now. In truth this move is mainly about money, a fact that Lam has admitted himself while couching it in terms of a higher loyalty to family. It is a very worrying sign of things to come not just for Connacht but all the Irish provinces and even the IRFU, as it illustrates the challenges we now face in attracting players and coaches.
Meanwhile, the standard run of injuries has become something of a torrent in recent weeks, highlighted by the inability to pick a 5-3 bench split (6-2 is the preferred hipster’s choice anyways, so really we’re just on trend). The retirement of White and McSharry without clear replacements has further reduced the squad depth, and within a season tighthead has gone from a position of envious depth to emergency requirements. Carey was the latest diamond in the rough that Connacht had uncovered but with an unknown return date we’re left with only one bona fide tighthead. Similarly just a few months ago we had so many centres that it didn’t seem feasible that they could all be kept happy; now we’re playing musical chairs with players in a bid to field a fifteen. At the start of the season, the most pressing concern was filling Muldowney and Henshaw shaped holes in the first team; while those are still massive issues for Connacht that has to take a back seat to the issue of fielding 23 fit players. Unlike in past years where we experienced a somewhat bizarre injury record that only really affect one or two positions at a time, we’re now seeing injuries across the field, with only perhaps hooker and scrumhalf currently unaffected. I believe this is partly due to the Champions cup – whereas last year we could at least compete in the group stages with an Eagles type selection, now only every first choice option available will do, and the physicality of Toulouse and Wasps has been a level above anything the Pro12 can offer outside of the interpros, which leads to more injuries.
It would be tempting to start dismissing or excusing results for the next three or four weeks on the basis of injuries, but unfortunately these next few weeks have the potential to impact not only this season but next years. With injury to our new fly half any potential new game plan – or even just a bedding in period for Boshoff – has now gone out the window. The continual changes in the pack has meant that we have no idea who the successor to Muldowney will be, if any successor is possible in this current squad. Browne had his go for a few games, Roux might now, but the chances of any of these players being able to take on this role seem slim right now, and when the support players in the diamond are constantly rotating and also learning their own jobs the chances are even worse. There’s so many injuries that even trying to fit new or young players into the rotation is an issue. Last season we saw players such as Connolly or O’Leary brought into a well-functioning system with support around them. This weekend we’re looking at giving an academy prospect their debut alongside a new makeshift centre partnership, which must be at least the sixth or seventh iteration so far this season.
As I said, there have been big wins this season – Connacht are still capable of putting it up to anyone. But the consistency and general smarts of last season don’t seem to be evident. Last year Connacht were capable of figuring teams out as they played, often adjusting to the opposition gameplan or the ref at half time before shutting the other team out in the second half. There was an attention to detail to everything that Connacht did that just isn’t as apparent this year. Players are struggling to maintain the 2-4-2 system and there is yet to be a clear answer to the rush defense other teams have applied with success. While obviously still capable of winning games, its been games where Connacht start well and maintain a game plan, rather than learning their way to victory.
All of this in the context of Ellis’ imminent departure means that unlike last year the odds are stacked against finding a new consistency any time soon. While we should hope that any prospective coach will look past these recent problems, it could have an effect on recruitment, particularly if we’re struggling to qualify for the Champions Cup. The new challenge is unlike anything else Pat has faced at Connacht, certainly not since the first few months when he was bedding in and waiting on his coaching team to arrive. He now has to take personal responsibility for far more of the game plan than he has since that time. He also has to maintain his game style without that support. Lastly, he is responsible for maintaining Connacht as an attractive option for his as yet unknown successor. If he can’t, although Connacht will continue to win some games I expect things to swing through extremes more often, and it would unfortunately tarnish his legacy at Connacht if he leaves, not with a bang but with a whimper.