Category Archives: Connacht Rugby

Taking the positives from a post World Cup meltdown

It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.

After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.

Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.

But enough of the wallowing.

Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.

Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.

The west’s awake

After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.

I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability  to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.

Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6'9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he's handling the ball.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6’9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he’s handling the ball.

Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…

A Christmas Kiss

Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.

Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.

But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.

It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.

Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.

McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.

 

And then of course, we have the other two.

Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.

In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.

Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.

Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.

Stander's blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

Stander’s blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.

So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.

Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?

Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath

Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls 

Little generals and the steep learning curve

I was one of the most vociferous naysayers about Tomas O’Leary. Certainly, the Corkman was likeable, athletic and liable to make the odd break or two in a game. But for Ireland in particular, TOL’s form went off a cliff before the last World Cup. Of course, this all came to a head in a warm-up against France when he literally handed a try to Francois Trinh-Duc.

Yet on the other side of my protestations, I was also firmly against dropping TOL for the World Cup.

Kidney and co. had made their bed at that stage. Despite floppy haired Conor Murray‘s form for Munster, he simply wasn’t ready to come up to that level. Indeed, in the Wales game he showed his inexperience.

Murray’s starting point for Ireland was quite ignominious. His fluid, languid style of play deserted him, and incessant ‘meerkatting’ at rucks, coupled with some poor decision making had many calling for his head.

But how quickly that changed.

Gradually, Murray and Ireland started to reap the benefits of being thrown into test level so young. His passing, while still not Stringer/Reddan standard, has drastically improved. But more importantly, he’s marshalling his pack, kicking well and using the benefit of an impressive physique in covering and breaking. Murray’s performance last Autumn against the All Blacks was one of the most impressive Irish 9 outings of the last 10 years, while on the Lions tour, he again showed his worth off the test bench.

 

Like tighthead prop and outhalf, 9 is a position where players benefit greatly from experience. Seldom is the player who can come into a test or Heineken level and excel from the outset.

Often, getting this experience takes a lucky break (an injury or transfer) or a patient coach. Murray had both, and another future Irish scrum half does too.

Kieran Marmion has been excelling and leading for Connacht for quite a while now, coming to the national consciousness again last week after a virtuoso solo try against Leinster. The former Exile has played over 50 games in a row out west, gaining that golden experience that’s so valuable to a young career.


Like Murray, originally I was skeptical of Marmion. For Ireland underage he looked ponderous, unsure of himself and a poor passer. While not the finished article yet, he looks a sure fire ‘bolter’ for the World Cup, and may even usurp Mr. Reddan for the bench spot if the form trend continues.

And that mention of an Irish underage career is a nice segue to another young 9 filled with potential. Since school, Luke McGrath has been pegged as a future star for Leinster and Ireland. With a notorious break, an excellent tackling technique and the look of a Yachvilli esque controlling 9, McGrath stood out constantly at underage. Indeed, despite being almost exactly a year younger than Marmion, it was McGrath who played the better at U20 level when the two overlapped.

But things have been a bit stagnant since then. Despite an excellent, injury enforced outing against the Ospreys in 2012, game time for the Blackrock scrummie has been limited. O’Connor has preferred Boss over him constantly, a cautious move that’s drawn some ire from Leinster fans, particularly given the former Ulsterman’s dip in form.

For McGrath’s part, he hasn’t made it easier to select him. Issues with his pass persist, and despite a strong B&I Cup season last year, this season he’s been mixed off the senior bench. Crucial mistakes against Connacht and Glasgow have pockmarked otherwise solid outings.

But as we’ve seen with Murray & Marmion, that’s to be expected.

With Reddan and Boss on their last legs, it’s critical for Leinster’s continuity that the youngster is tested a lot more this season. Experience is vital at this stage of a career, and with two similarly youthful role models in other provinces, McGrath will feel his time has come.

Little leaders need game time to mature into generals, and with MOC staying for at least another year, it’s time to back youth a little bit more in this pivotal position.

 

Connacht’s big chance and why the West must wake in 14/15…

It hasn’t been easy being green over the past decade or so.

The hardship endured down the years by our Western friends is palpable. Connacht have rarely been given a fair crack of the whip, have had their most famous ode taken away from them (it’s in Galway, Munster fans) and, bar some notable big days, have never really looked consistent enough to threaten the other province’s domination. 

They’ve been dubbed a ‘development’ province, patronised and been unlucky in many ways.

Otherside

But there’s also another side to the story. While having reached the hallowed ground of the Heineken and duked it out with the big boys, Sarries, Toulouse and Quins most notably, Connacht only got there with help from others.

There’s also been a sense, rightly or wrongly, of ‘woe is me’ not helped by some incredible comments from Tom Sears after the McCarthy transfer.

And then there’s the results.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 10.51.39

While some progress has been made off the pitch on supporter base and stadium, Connacht haven’t exactly set the pro 12 alight. In fact, since the Italians came into the league in 2010, the points total and position has remained quite stagnant.

Make no mistake about it, it’s a big year.

For 14/15, it’s time to put up or shut up.  No longer the poor relations of the IRFU, Connacht have been given extra funding and an extra incentive with a more meritocratic league. While some Welsh journalists have been quick to dub it a ‘new era’ for the Welsh sides, after the first two weeks it’s Connacht who are the league’s success story.

With a backline filled with indigenous or young talent and the Westies have navigated two tricky ties against teams who were said to be similarly on the up. Last weekend’s 1 point victory in the cavern of Murrayfield will be particularly pleasing. Despite not playing well at all, they eked out a win in a game they perhaps would have lost before.

 

The drop down to the Challenge Cup could also be a blessing in disguise. The visit to Exeter will still bring in a bit of coin, though more importantly, the league can now be the key concentration. Lam’s honeymoon period is over and with Aki, McCartney and of course Old Mils on the way soon, momentum will be critical. As per usual, a gnarled pack will lead the way, with front row in particular looking a strength. Nathan White is a solid base, and despite injuries at hooker, Tom Mccartney will provide some Super Rugby class and experience. Denis Buckley has started the year very well. In reserve, some people would be well advised to take a closer look at Rodney Ah You, derided in some quarters but coming on in leaps and bounds.

Leadership

Truthfully, even with the new signings and optimism, the squad still looks paper thin. There’s a sneaking suspicion that Muliaina is coming in for more of a coaching and marketing optics role which might limit his impact.

At 10 in particular, the retirement of Dan Parks, while not bad news for the province, has certainly impacted the depth chart. Carty is an excellent talent. But a rough patch will come at some stage and injuries will hit. The question remains, will he and others have the experience to navigate the storm?

It’s here the likes of Muldoon, White, Swift and Muliaina will need to step up to a leadership role. But perhaps more importantly, it’s critical now that Marmion, Henshaw, McKeown and Heenan really step up. At Leinster, the likes of Ruddock and McGrath have long been part of a core leadership group. Connacht’s younger men must take a step forward. Ironically, the hope will be that Schmidt continues to ignore Marmiom, given his growing importance as the pivot of the side.

Success

Success this year, as has already been stated by Gavin Duffy and others, will be a 6th place finish. Nothing more or less. This will take a jump from the 35-38 points market towards an end of season total of 54-56 one estimates.

To do that, Connacht will likely have to beat Edinburgh, Dragons, Scarlets and Cardiff to the spot, and start to turn some heroic losses into victories. No mean feat.

Away games in Wales in February and March will likely seal the fate, so the squad needs to be managed intelligently, perhaps at the expense of a tilt at the Challenge Cup. Connacht had 7 LBPs in last year’s tournament, the second highest. In the MLB, teams statistically measure the ‘extra wins per season’ that new players will likely bring. Maybe the addition of some quality and less European stress might indicate more success. My prediction? They’ll be close, but no cigar come May.

The ‘new era’ gets its first big test against champions Leinster on Friday night. No doubt there’ll be bile in the air as usual, but Connacht need to move beyond peaking for these big games and letting themselves down elsewhere.

Wake up West…