With the domestic rugby season having come to an end, Ozer McMahon is here to review the season’s of each province by issuing them with their PA Report Card, detailing the highs and lows of their respective seasons. Up first is Pat Lam’s Connacht side.
As so often seems to be the case it was a case of one step forward, two steps back for the Westerners this term. Despite pulling off one of the greatest shocks in European rugby with a 16-14 victory away to Toulouse, and coming painfully close to overturning Saracens at the Sportsground in October, Connacht finished ahead of only the two Italian franchises in the Rabo Pro 12.
With a mere six wins in 22 games, Pat Lam’s debut season in Galway has seen the team fall back down the table from their 2012/2013 finish. After four wins on the bounce in February and March, there was a feeling that Connacht would finish the season strongly, and lay the foundations for next year which would allow them to compete with their fellow Irish provinces.
A dispiriting run of five losses from the final five fixtures however sapped a large gust of wind from their sails.
Watching Connacht continues to bring great frustration to those that make the regular pilgrimage to the Sportsground. They always put it up to the bigger teams, yet struggle to punish those on their level. Between the Heineken Cup and the Pro12 Connacht only mustered 9 wins, four of which came against a pitiful Zebre outfit.
Reasons to Be Cheerful
Connacht have routinely lacked the financial clout of the other Irish provinces but the signings of Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina ahead of next season have already appeased the long suffering supporters of Ireland’s forgotten sibling. Added to the talented young backs like Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Dave McSharry who are already based in the West, there is big potential behind the scrum next season.While Eoin McKeon, Jake Heenan and Rodney Ah You are powerful forwards who look like they can mix with the best it in club rugby.
If Connacht can field their strongest team they can give any side a game, and while the supporters may rue not being involved in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season, the less intense nature of Europe’s new secondary competition will offer a shallow squad some much needed respite between league fixtures.
Pat Lam has lured a number of players he was familiar with from his days in New Zealand to the West and their experience should help guide the talented but inexperienced young Irish players around them.
Reasons to Fearful
Having to compete in a sport where injuries are inevitable the teams with the smallest squads often suffer the most. The fall off between the standard of Connacht’s first choice and back up players has been their Achilles heel for some time. Comprised mainly of young local talent and fringe players from the other provinces, the men out West have always been under pressure when they pick up a few injuries to key players.
On the rare occasion they have been able to add players of established pedigree to their side, things have not always worked out so well. Craig Clarke’s persistent concussion issues cast a shadow over the team mid-season, while James So’oialo came and left in a matter of weeks without having even pulled on the green jersey.
Muliaina has spent a large part of the past two years injured, and his role as a player/backs mentor means he may not see the field as frequently as Connacht fans would hope.
Issues also surround the out half berth where Dan Parks’ release has left a gaping void in the Connacht squad. Miah Nikora has been with Connacht for five years now but the former New Zealand underage international has never grabbed hold of the number 10 jersey with any conviction.
Nikora will be vying for the starting spot with youngster Jack Carty who despite his promising showings this past season is not ready for a starting role and Craig Ronaldson, the 24-year-old former AIL outhalf who only broke into the professional ranks last season. With a talented back division at their disposal, if the Connacht outhalf can’t control the game, the backs won’t deliver on their promise.
High Point of the Season
Unquestionably the marvellous 16-14 win away to Toulouse in the third round of the Heineken Cup. It was a performance of the highest levels of passion, discipline and resolve and goes down as one of the greatest Irish club outings of all time.
On a day when every Connacht player took their games to a different universe, livewire scrum half Kieran Marmion blasted above them all. It was his try that ultimately was the difference, but the steady hand of Dan Parks beside him kept the scoreboard ticking over as he registered 11 points with the boot.
Connacht attacked less and defended more than their illustrious opponents but in the end all that mattered to all those associated with the Westerners was the historic final score.
Low Point of the Season
Defeats are one thing, and Connacht had a few over the course of the season but their worst was the 58-12 mauling in Ravenhill at the hands of Ulster. While they lost to Saracens in the Heineken Cup by a heavier margin, losing in such a manner to Irish provincial rivals would have grated with those in the West much more.
Connacht were hapless and rudderless in conceding eight tries to the Northern province. They had looked like they were going to end the campaign with a good run of form but this was a second straight defeat heading down the home stretch. A defeat from which they never recovered and they ended up limping home.
End of Season Mark
Connacht are never going to consistently blaze a trail through club rugby in Europe but they have the capabilities to win a much higher rate than they showed this season (32%). Pat Lam bemoaned the amount of basic errors the team made at various stages throughout the campaign. He was always going have some wiggle room during his first campaign, and the win in Toulouse added some considerable gloss to the season.
However, the fact remains that Connacht regressed from consecutive 8th place finishes under Eric Elwood and with the players at his disposal next season Lam cannot afford a similar return.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.