Champions Cup – what is it good for?

I’m back dear reader (I assume there can’t be more than one at this stage, after such a long gap between posts), with a recap of Connacht’s sortée (copyright Jirry) into this season’s Champions Cup and what that meant for Connacht. Comments/thoughts/shares/reposts greatly appreciated.

 

 

The best thing to happen in Connacht’s rugby history was winning the Pro12 last season, but one of the worst things to happen Connacht was qualifying for the Champions Cup as league winners. How can this be the case, surely qualifying for Europe’s top competition is great? Qualifying on merit was after all one of the core goals of Pat Lam and indeed the province as a whole. This dates back to earlier injustices when Leinster were placed in the top competition ahead of Connacht despite their respective finishes in the Celtic League. This qualification as champions should have been the proof that Connacht was no longer the ginger stepchild of the four provinces, able to compete against Europe’s elite on their own terms, rather than because of the success of another province.

 

However, I believe that in the last six seasons there has been a nearly direct correlation between our performance in the league and participation in the Champions Cup – that is, participating in the top competition has a negative impact on league form.

 

Connacht first qualified for the Heineken Cup in the 2011-12 on the back of Leinster winning the competition as we know. While adjusting to the new level Connacht proceeded to go on a thirteen match losing streak before finally winning against Harlequins. That season was Connacht’s best Pro12 league finish in eighth, but they finished on 37 points as against 39 for the previous season, so arguably did not improve so much as their opposition regressed.

 

In 2012-13 Connacht qualified for the Heineken Cup again, winning games in Europe versus Zebre home and way, as well as a surprise win against Biarritz. The latter had won the Challenge Cup the previous season but also went on to be relegated at the end of the 2013-14 season, so its arguable that they were in already in a slump in the intervening year. Even so it was a welcome victory, but Connacht again finished the league in eighth with 38 points. Zebre’s inclusion in the group all but guaranteed the other teams two wins each and opened up the possibility of squad rotation.

 

2013-14 was Lam’s first season in charge and Connacht again bet Zebre home and away in the Heineken Cup as well as a shock away win against Toulouse. However, in the final game of the group stages Saracens absolutely tore Connacht apart and the game basically ended the careers of a number of players (I should add this was not the result of any malicious behaviour by Saracens). While three wins in Europe looked good on paper they came in between a series of losses in the league that saw Connacht slip to tenth that season.

 

Following a restructuring of European rugby Connacht was downgraded to the Challenge Cup for 2014-15 but went on to qualify for the quarter-finals and finished seventh in the league. Games against La Rochelle, Exeter Chiefs and Bayonne provided an opportunity to blood younger players against quality opposition in a less pressurised but still very competitive environment. Adeolokun, Delahunt, Blade, Bealham, Connolly, Qualter, and Masterson all made their European debuts that season. Admittedly some of these players had made a couple of brief appearances in the league before the Challenge Cup. However, these games offered the chance to get starts or extended minutes at a level far above Eagles rugby, where some such as Qualter and Blade had been given fairly extensive time without making the break through to senior level. A number of these players would go on to make significant contributions to the first team the following season.

 

Having been denied Champions Cup rugby in the end of season play offs by Gloucester Connacht again competed in the Challenge Cup in 2015-16, qualifying for the quarters once again. There wasn’t as many debutants as the previous year but having missed the previous season through injury Sean O’Brien made his senior debut for Connacht against Enisey. Connacht qualified for the quarter finals despite being unable (according to Lam at least) to field a full 23 against Newcastle at one point in the group stages, in a damp squib of a game that ended in defeat. They narrowly lost the quarter final in one of the most thrilling matches of the season. In the month of April Connacht lost to Ulster, lost to Grenoble, soundly bet Munster and lost to Treviso by a point, as they continued to struggle with injuries (though not at the same level as during the group games). In May they bet Glasgow on the way to an historic Pro12 victory.

 

It is my contention that if Connacht had been competing in the Champions Cup last season they would not have won the league.

 

The reality is that Connacht’s squad is still too small, or too injury prone, to effectively compete on two fronts. Each season the squad goes through a period of numerous injuries which sees them struggle to field a team, let alone remain competitive. While they still lost against Newcastle in the Challenge Cup as a result of injuries, Connacht’s squad was deep enough to compete reasonably well in this competition using second or third choice players, which is objectively not the case when it comes to the Champions Cup. Playing bigger clubs (bigger financially, numerically, and physically in regards to the players) in a more important competition, has virtually guaranteed that more injuries would come about as a result, especially as our first choice players by necessity are expected to play in the major games in both Europe and the Pro12.

 

There is very little room to blood younger players in the top European competition unless they are already performing well in the league, and there is less room to play them in the league if they have not had a chance to play in another competition where they have been genuinely tested. Although the Eagles play in the British & Irish Cup it is nothing more than a practice tournament. When younger players did get games in the Champions Cup it was generally not alongside a strong team but as a result of numerous injuries which caused disruption to the team and gameplan. At the same time players like Andress have been brought in to fill gaps on the bench rather than as an active recruitment strategy, but a number of players are clearly not trusted to play significant time against top European opposition.

 

Here I have to admit that there have been positives arising from Connacht’s place in the top tier of European Rugby. Record attendances against the likes of Toulouse in the first season, added to historic (one off) wins against a number of larger and more decorated clubs, have undoubtedly boosted confidence at times. Competing in the Champions Cup is also linked to increased Season Ticket purchases, which raises more money for the club. It also makes Connacht a more attractive proposition for new players, though its very hard to quantify this.

The question can reasonably be asked, could Connacht have won the league if not for the groundwork of the previous seasons in the Champions Cup? However, it is very much a chicken and egg scenario. While we attracted bigger name players for a time in part due to the top tier competition, we won the league without Parks, Clark or Mils in the team, but rather through identifying players below the international radar and improving them after bringing them in. We also managed to build squad depth in a number of positions, most notably in the front row, back row and backs, as a result of two seasons in the lower European competition, including knock out rugby which set the groundwork for the league semi and final. There was also a hefty chunk of luck involved, but all winning teams are lucky.

 

In previous seasons, with no expectations placed on Connacht, there was no reason to expect to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter finals. Added to that, we were regularly drawn in the same group as Zebre, which padded the stats and gave the appearance of competitiveness. However, by winning the league we have forced our opponents to take us seriously, taking away any potential complacency and replacing it with a desire to take a genuine scalp by beating one of the three league title holders. Moreover, by winning the league we were no longer considered gross outsiders but were expected to be compete for the final eight.

 

It was always going to be difficult, to defend the league title, but playing in the Champions Cup easily compounded that difficulty to a much higher level than competing in the Challenge Cup. Having lost a number of key players from last season, our squad depth would always have been tested. Losing games against Glasgow and Ospreys at the start of the season can’t be blamed on the Champions Cup, of course, but having to prioritize Europe rather than the league has left us playing catch up much later in the season than might otherwise have been the case, and quickly put the top six out of reach. It has also seen the squad stretched to the point where short term medical jokers had to be brought in. If this leads to Connacht signing Farrell on a long term contract some would say it was a good thing, but as we were previously told the budget for such short term players was not there, we should perhaps ask where is the money coming from the pay those players? Has the Branch had to rob Peter to pay Paul, pulling money from the academy or next years budget? If so then this could have an effect on recruitment next season.  That might seem very negative but we already know that the Branch operates on a relative knife edge when it comes to player recruitment and unlike other provinces there is no real place for borrowing large sums from the IRFU.

 

In order to be competitive in the Champions Cup, you first need to have a minimum of two, but preferably three, international or near international level players in each position. We may quibble about what the term competitive means in this context, but to me it is simply the ability to reach the knock out stages. Had we held onto all of the players who left at the end of last season, plus signed Boshoff (who would have remained fit in this scenario) we would have been more competitive, but would probably only have 10-12 international level players in the first team. While this is a huge improvement on previous seasons it would still fall well short of the opposition in a quarter final.

 

An extremely late win against Wasps in Galway (which we now know should not have been permitted) may have momentarily fooled us into believing that we had a shot at the quarter finals, but the inability to pick up just a lbp against Toulouse reminded us that really the squad depth is not there. Had Connacht managed to qualify for the quarter finals, it would have had to come at the expense of the league, and would have put the chance of finishing ninth or tenth on the table as a trade off. Some would probably take that – a big quarter final, especially if it was a home fixture, would have been extremely attractive. But once that was gone reality would set in.

 

This might all seem hopelessly pessimistic, but its not meant to be, not really. Its simply an acknowledgement that rugby is not a sport of overnight success. The experience of Connacht and Edinburgh under Bradley has shown that you can’t create long term improvements with strategic short term victories.

Despite much greater funding and squad depth it took Glasgow much longer to firstly win the league and then to reach the quarter finals in Europe. In addition, we might not have beaten Ulster in Ravenhill for decades, but how many of their players would really value their losing Heineken Cup medals over a winning league medal?

It might be that we finish this season by dropping into the second competition, and I realize that games against Bucharest and other semi-pro teams won’t have the same allure as storied clubs like Wasps and Toulouse, but it will have a positive effect on our long term potential if approached in the right way. There are plenty of quality teams in the Challenge Cup and as money continues to flow into the Premiership and Top14 the opposition those teams can put out against Connacht will be assuredly provide high quality tests, particularly in the knock out stages.

Connacht have proven their quality by winning the league, and no longer need to qualify for the Champions Cup to assert their equality with the other provinces. For Connacht to progress we now need to get out of the mindset of Champions Cup at all costs, and set a new standard as a top half/quarter team in the league that does not drop from that level without exceptional reasons.

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.