Connacht have endured, rather than enjoyed, their start to life as defending Pro 12 champions.
Back-to-back defeats at the Sportsground coupled with an abandoned game away to Zebre, where the Westerners trailed 22-10, has raised serious doubts over a top six finish.
But why are Connacht suffering from such a title-winning hangover? Here we look at some of the reasons why.
As Connacht’s momentous 2015/16 campaign drew to a close, the club said goodbye to ten senior players. Robbie Henshaw’s move to Leinster looked to be the biggest cause for concern. But the departures of Aly Muldowney and AJ MacGinty have proved most damaging for the Irish province. The playmaking duo have left gaping holes in the Connacht squad; holes that are yet to be filled.
Muldowney was instrumental in the second-row during Connacht’s championship-winning season. Employed by Lam as an auxiliary playmaker and chief lineout operator, the Stafford native provided an extra dimension to Connacht’s attacking play.
— Aly Muldowney (@AlyMuldowney) June 16, 2016
Power and athleticism, the staple of any good second-row, hand dexterity and ball distribution are what set the 33-year-old apart. Grenoble head coach and ex-Leinster forward, Bernard Jackman, duly noted these skills and snapped up the Englishman on a two-year deal.
Danny Qualter has auditioned for the role left by Muldowney, but such is the quality of the big Englishman, it may take Qualter some time to reach the lofty heights set by his predecessor.
The acquisition of South African out-half, Marnitz Boshoff, ensured that there would be no room for USA international MacGinty in the Connacht squad. Despite the fly-half enjoying a stellar first season at Connacht, IRFU rules stipulate that the province cannot have another non-Irish qualified player in the out-half position, effectively sealing the 26-year-old’s fate.
Hell of a season👍 extremely lucky lad! Grateful to everyone who helped me this season! ❤️ Bring on Year 2 pic.twitter.com/wDwEELiZea
— Aj MacGinty (@Aj_MacGinty) June 26, 2016
The Blackrock College alumni’s strength in the tackle and durability in defence offered what others lacked, and those talents helped the 26-year-old cement his place as Connacht’s first choice No. 10. With MacGinty having now moved to Sale and Boshoff unavailable until at least October, Jack Carty and Shane O’Leary will be required to find some true form.
With an injury list in double figures before the season started, Connacht’s title defence was hampered before a ball was thrown or kicked. Heading into the third game of the season with just four fit back rows and three fit second rows, Connacht’s yearly injury crisis has come early.
Last December saw a similarly lengthy injury list, resulting in Lam’s men winning just one out of four games; picking up a solitary home win against Newcastle Falcons in the Challenge Cup.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) September 20, 2016
Quinn Roux and Jake Heenan are welcome returnees for the away trip to Scarlets on Saturday. But, with such a small squad and multiple players still on the treatment table, the injury crisis continues.
Connacht’s pre-season, or rather a lack thereof, has left the league champions looking woefully off the Pro 12 pace. Glasgow Warriors showed just how far on the opening day of the season. Two cancelled pre-season games last month has resulted in hands-on-hips and heavy breathing being a feature of the team’s opening Pro 12 matches.
The performance against the Ospreys was undoubtedly an improvement, but the manner in which the Westerners conceded three tries in the final eight minutes suggests a serious lack of match fitness.
The cancellation of last week’s game in Parma spared Connacht’s blushes, but it sees Lam’s men with 40 minutes less competitive pitch time. For a team in need of improved fitness levels and on-pitch cohesion, it comes as another stifling blow.
Ross Cannon, Pundit Arena