Mid season review

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.

 

Connacht v Leinster reactions

Connacht 7 – Leinster 6

Rarely have we seen a game of finer margins. Against Edinburgh I never really felt we were in danger, but against Leinster tonight I’m not sure I ever really believed we were winning.

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What does winning mean?

What does winning mean – Part Deux

A year or more ago now I asked what does winning mean to this Connacht team. Due to the current injury crisis there is a growing debate on the Connacht Clan specifically about the Newcastle game tomorrow and what can be expected from the Challenge Cup this season, which relates to this question. There are a lot of interesting factors at play here, which I want to spread out into a more general discussion of winning.

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Ospreys Preview

Connacht face Ospreys away this weekend in what will surely be the greatest test of the squad this season. Although our injury worries are nothing compared to the likes of Leinster or Ulster, and we do not have as many players away on international duties as others, yet it would seem that our squad depth, at least for a game of this level, is almost at its limit. The only good news is that the Ospreys are possibly worse off. Continue reading

Year in review – part troix

Update

This should be the last in the series of review blogs. I’ve left it a while between posts which is not a good decision for a fledgling blogger, but in my defence it is the off-season and I still haven’t finished my PhD, although I’m inching closer. In the meantime let’s talk rugby and look ahead to next season.

Preamble

Since starting this review series there has already been a number of developments in Connacht which appear to be reactions to the past season, as coaches are wont to do. Although Parks is gone Lam has enlisted a kicking and backs coach, which I pointed out previously was lacking. This is a very good decision in my opinion and could quite possibly have a greater impact on the teams performance next year that Mils. A kicking coach was obviously an essential requirement anyways, but now that there are 4-5 young guys pushing for the goalkicker position without the experience of Parks to guide them it would have been insane not to hire one. Doubling up as backs coach takes some of the pressure off Lam and Ellis. Andre Bell has been head coach of the ITM cup club Lions, which places him roughly on a par with Penney when he joined Munster in terms of experience I would think. He will be eager to help improve Connacht and build his own CV.

Lam/Connacht haven’t signed a star fly half although they have added even more young backs to the team. The decision to let Parks go in addition to signing the Schmidt approved, NZ’er Bell, along with Mils and Aki, clearly indicates an even greater shift towards a heavily NZ inspired Connacht team. Overall I’m in favour of this as we have a blend of young nippy backs along with the bigger guys like Henshaw and Leader, in addition to lighter forwards, which taken as a whole suggests a high tempo, fast (and accurate) passing game is the most suited to Connacht. However they still need to be able to play to the conditions and bring the brawn in the long winter months. In this blog I want to look at Connacht’s forwards, who appeared to be the bright light of last season but somehow still manage to appear shaky going into next year.

Scrum.

There was much talk regarding the scrum rule changes and how it seemed to be helping smaller props, how older guys were having troubles adjusting, etc. Most of this was nonsense and excuse making – the French had the smallest, most perfectly squat props of the six nations and were abysmal, because they refused to adopt to the new rules. Similarly when Wales attempted to put the hit back in the scrum they were generally penalized but whenever they followed the new rules they regularly won the scrum. Despite all the criticism and commentary its not as if the scrum has been reinvented: in reality the new scrum simply puts a greater focus on the set up of each prop and the individual and collective static strength (in scrum terms, their ability to resist the force of their opposition) over time.

Because of the change in scrum laws we will never know for certain if it was the change in the rules that facilitated Rodney’s uptick in fortunes, but I feel he and the coaches deserve a lot of credit for moulding him into a viable prop this past season. The season prior he made only seven appearances and was frankly terrible. This year he appeared in every single Connacht game and was even capped for the Ireland squad. As a late call up and rookie international, he appeared overwhelmed in his short appearance against the Argies but I think at that point in the season he was probably close to exhausted, especially considering the difference between this season and the one before.

Over the course of the season Connacht’s scrum was much improved on the last year although at times inconsistency still got the better of them, notably in the last home game against the Blues. Cardiff won a penalty try from a scrum in one humiliating instance, only to be driven back several meters by a seven man Connacht scrum about ten minutes later. If there is anything to be learned from that incident it is perhaps how important scrummaging as a collective group has become. In the past a pack that made a strong engagement on the hit could allow their flankers to pop up early to go looking for the ball. However with the new emphasis on static strength, a pack will generally be rewarded by maintaining structural integrity and if the ball does not get back to the eight quite quickly then the scrum becomes an endurance wrestling event of sorts, allowing for more frequent turnovers. Sometimes teams become lackadaisical against a seven man pack, allowing their flankers to look up and leading to losses like the above. The scrum was always a highly physical contest but its become much more technical, much more demanding, lengthier and more exhausting this season.

Its for these reasons that Dave Kilcoyne for instance has been increasingly shown up in the scrum – in the past he could rely on making a decent initial hit to keep himself in the right position. With the hit taken out you will notice that props who set up with their front knee behind their hips frequently go to ground almost immediately, unless the opposition push them back into the correct position. The reasons a prop might set up like this are either poor technique, lack of strength or confidence in their strength, or the hope that the opposition will attempt to drive through and in doing so fall to the ground themselves. The latter is unlikely to work for a loosehead such as Kilcoyne as by definition he will be under the tighthead upon binding. I expect to see an even greater emphasis on scrummaging technique this year which will potentially make props like Kilcoyne a severe liability if they cannot adopt. In this regard Connacht appear well poised for the new season, as despite the greatly unfortunate loss of Brett Wilkinson, all of Connacht’s props appeared technically sound and strong in the scrum last season. The rehabilitation of Buckley seems to have been handled really well and he appeared to be really enjoying being back on the rugby field in the second half of the season.

The signing of McCartney adds increased utility to a front row that is already highly ambipropsterous, which is just as well as both Harris-Wright and Henry were injured for good portions of last season. It might sound quite harsh but especially in light of the early retirements of this year alone I find it hard to imagine Harris-Wright continuing to play into his thirties. He is almost certainly the shortest player in the team if not the squad, and he does not carry sixteen stone in the same manner of Tom Youngs who is allegedly an inch shorter. If Harris-Wright is given the time off during the season perhaps he could work on improving his body composition and potentially iron out some imbalances or weaknesses that might be causing him to be re-injured, but until McCartney arrives that seems unlikely as he is obviously Connacht’s starting hooker when fit. Finally, White had a very mixed season that leaves him the object of some uncertainty. He continues to be a quality player and a great scrummager, but he was injured for decent stretches in the season and can be a reckless and irresponsible liability at times. Although younger than Ross he has a lot of miles on the clock and will potentially have to be managed with more care from now on.

Overall then despite the apparent improvements in Connacht’s scrummaging, the loss of Wilkinson and the question marks around White, Harris-Wright and Henry leaves the front row in a somewhat unclear state and certainly isn’t the completely settled unit that one might have hoped for based on performances last season.

Lineout.
The signing of Clark immediately brought the lineout to the forefront of peoples minds with regard to Connacht, and overall the pack did not disappoint. In the Heineken cup Clark was (at least at one point) the player with the most line out takes of the group stages. This came as a surprise to some who thought he was not a lineout operator but the reality is when you have Brodie Retallick in your team (as the Chiefs do) then you use him. I watched the knock out stages of the Super XV last season with the intention of seeing what Clark was like after he had been signed, and felt he was particularly good on the opposition lineout. In any case Clark played roughly half of Connacht’s games last season before his concussion enforced retirement, but the Connacht lineout continued to improve, showing that it wasn’t all down to Clark and so we should be able to look forward to more of the good stuff next season. Kearney is obviously maturing into a quality player and I feel that he is ahead of the likes of Henderson in the basic roles of a second row although the Ulster man appears to have a higher ceiling and more to offer as a backrow.

In the final third of the season Muldowney appeared to be coming into his own and added some mettle to his game that had been lacking initially. However despite a quality (and complex) lineout and maul set up questions remain for Connacht next season. The loss of Clark is obviously huge and Swifty is a year older. While he continues to play good rugby he appeared best when given plenty of rest time between games and only used for 30-40 minutes per game. Muldowney needs to make a further step up and both he and Kearney need to be able to impose themselves on the game physically in a way that they have not thus far. I think George is likely to be used in the second row more next season and SOB 2.0 already appears ready to go and likely to play at either second row or six sometimes. Otherwise I have serious reservations about the physical ability of the other academy second rows as I’ve outlined before. While it might not be as much of an issue for backs or even the occasional sprightly flanker, the second row as obvious engine room of the scrum demands strength and ballast which the academy players don’t appear to offer at this point.

Backrow

At times the backrow functioned very well last season, but when it was poor it was very, very poor. The loss of form by both McKeon and Naopu was a big part of the problem, forcing Muldoon into a role at eight. I hadn’t rated him there previously but in fact he seemed to do very well. For that reason I would not be surprised to see him as the starting eight in September with the other two guys deployed elsewhere. Masterson is a promising back row who filled in admirably in a position he wasn’t used to for his first pro starts and I hope to see a lot more of him this season.

Heenan was probably the stand out player of last season, and although his previous role as NZ u-20 captain marked him out as one to watch I think its fair to say most fans were still surprised at just how well he performed. He’s likely to hold onto the starting jersey ahead of the fan-favourite Willie Faloon, although regardless of who starts its good to have two proven options. The attritional nature of the openside position meant that both were injured for extended periods of time last season so a back up seven would be ideal but unfortunately that isn’t available. With Gilsenan having moved to the premiership Connacht again appear light in this key position, and I would not be surprised to see Masterson or more likely McKeon filling in here. In fact I think McKeon, despite second season syndrome last year, appears to have the necessary skills and attributes to make a quality option at openside.

Many supporters wanted a big six or eight signed this summer which didn’t happen. I can see the reasoning, especially with McKeon and George playing below par and Browne having what appeared to me to be a middling to mediocre season. There is certainly room for a proven operator, but none are available at this point. Instead I would like to see a focus on improving positional roles within the back row that could allow players to work to the best of their ability and minimize the loss felt whenever a potential starter is injured. Having had a season with the players Lam should now know that while he has several good players most of them are not the all rounders he perhaps tried to make them.
Muldoon for instance is not best deployed in the wider channels as a carrier but can function extremely well as a primary tackler, make hard yards in the midfield and is reasonably good at jackalling. McKeon out wide had more potential although poor handling let him down at times last season I would hope that will be ameliorated this year. However as a lighter forward he’s not the best at running into opposition forwards and can potentially give up possession. How Lam deploys the players now that he knows their strengths and weaknesses is up to him.

As it stands I would tentatively suggest the first back row of the season could be Browne, Heenan and Muldoon at 6,7, and 8, although SOB could/should be at 6 in the preseasons and could push Browne if the latter continues in his poor form. Unlike in the second row there is a decent amount of room for maneuver, assuming you see Muldoon and Masterson as utility players capable of filling in at either six or eight, with McKeon providing cover across the three positions. As far as I know it hasn’t been announced yet but for me Muldoon is the stand out captain option from the players who captained last season, bearing in mind that two have retired and Swift is by now predominantly a bench option. After Muldoon I see Marmion as the only other valid candidate.

All in all then despite some significant improvements from 1 to 8 I’m left with a vague sense that Connacht could yet again be caught on the hop in the pack next year. Key to their performance will of course be how injuries are handled, and with only two ‘out and out sevens’ on the books openside is the position to watch, with second row almost equally suspect. We saw Kearney playing multiple games last season while carrying knocks which is a concern. All teams have injuries of course and I believe its something like 20-25% of players are injured at any one time, so more than who Lam picks for his starting 15 its how he manages the injury toll that will most define next season’s performance by the forwards.