In the first of his province previews, Matt Casssidy looks at how Connacht have been shaping up in the off season.
“Rugby has many problems, but the gravest is undoubtedly that of the persistence of summer.”
As the long, hot summer draws to a close, players, coaches and supporters of the four provinces will be gearing themselves up for another rugby rollercoaster on domestic and European fronts. With players being put through their preseason paces, it is the perfect opportunity to assess each team’s chances for the upcoming campaign. First up; Connacht Rugby.
There may be no prospect of Europe’s top teams arriving in Galway but that does not mean the excitement of the new season has lessened. Season ticket sales have remained strong and the announcement by the IRFU in May 2014 that it would be providing Connacht with an increase in funding of over €1 million is a great boost to the rugby fraternity out west. It is a clear and obvious sign that Ireland’s rugby authorities are fully behind the Connacht project.
The off season has seen Connacht’s recruiting department go into overdrive. The capture of All Black great, Mils Muliaina, arguably the most high profile signing in the province’s history, is a real statement of intent. It will be hoped that Muliaina along with fellow Kiwi, Bundee Aki, will form a formidable partnership in the Westerners’ midfield whilst imparting valuable experience to the fresh faced youth charges. Connacht’s long suffering fans will expect that these two proven winners will inject a killer instinct into a side that will turn close defeats into precious wins.
The honeymoon period for Pat Lam is over. His first season was about getting to know the players at his disposal and putting into practice the brand of rugby he wants the team to play. Lam may have been able to use the excuse that it was not his team last year but this summer the New Zealander has put his stamp on the side with a number of new recruits along with a big clear out of the dead wood.
Connacht’s coach needs to see an improvement on the results front after a disappointing 2013/14 season which yielded only nine wins.
The addition of high calibre players like Aki and Muliaina will have given a big boost to the Connacht squad. But new signings do not necessarily guarantee success as Connacht have found out to their misfortune. One only has to look back to last year when Craig Clarke was forced to retire early due to a series of concussions sustained whilst playing in New Zealand and Samoan fullback, James So’oialo, left Galway as soon as he arrived due to personal reasons.
A major problem for Connacht in the past has been injuries and squad depth. Connacht’s first choice squad will give anybody in Europe a run for their money; the defeat of Toulouse gives credence to this. But with the physical nature of rugby it is almost certain that injuries will occur and the difference in quality between the team’s first choice and back up players has been a huge factor in Connacht’s drop in standards during the midway point of the season.
The main area of concern will be the flyhalf position. Jack Carty has excellent potential but he is not ready to anchor this team to glory. That leaves Miah Nikora as the alternative. The Kiwi has been at Connacht for five years now but has not nailed down a starting place. The failure to find a replacement for Dan Parks may be the Achilles heel as without a good distributor at number 10, talented backs are all but useless.
On the short term, the Sportsground needs to be turned into a fortress. Teams dislike coming to Galway because of the poor conditions. This year opposing sides must hate coming west because of the high likelihood of defeat.
Long term, the adventure and ambition off the field have to be matched by the performances and results on the paddock. A top six finish in the league and qualification for the Rugby Champions Cup is a must. It is as a simple as that! An extended run in the European Challenge Cup should not be out of the question either as the Westerners have a favourable draw; another viable route to Europe’s top table.
Top six is within the realms of possibility for this side. But taking into account Connacht’s lack of squad depth and failure to recruit a dependable flyhalf, I feel Pat Lam’s men will come up short in their quest for European qualification. Unfortunately, it looks like another season of frustration for Connacht’s brave players and loyal supporters.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.