Saturday 10 December 2016

In fine fettle for toughest test of season

Connacht looking good, but Leinster will be smarting after final loss

Johnny O'Connor

Published 28/10/2016 | 02:30

Connacht coach Pat Lam has added to his challenge in Europe with the renewed contract of Ultan Dillane. SPORTSFILE
Connacht coach Pat Lam has added to his challenge in Europe with the renewed contract of Ultan Dillane. SPORTSFILE

Connacht are top of Pool 2 in the Champions Cup after two games, with nine points from a possible ten. It sounds good, and the manner of the victories have been all the more pleasing.

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Oh, and the re-signing of Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane is another massive plus.

Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

Last Sunday Connacht were faced with a situation: they were 14-0 up when Zebre hooker Oliviero Fabiani was sent off. It was just over 24 hours after Glasgow Warriors failed to make their one man-advantage count against Munster.

Connacht never felt pressured into forcing things. They kept their composure, built the phases, put the pressure back on the Italians and ended up with a whopping 52-7 victory in Parma.

Weakness

When an opposing player gets sent off the players need to use their heads. They need to think 'where has that left a weakness, where are they going to be short on the pitch, how are we going to create scenarios, where we can get down the pitch?'

And how are we going to chop off their line and create overlaps or an overload for us?

You work yourself around the pitch looking for weak links and once you know that you have more numbers than them, you want them to commit and then you will create more space and opportunities.

The players have to be cute and you have to know how to utilise the opportunity; some teams can't pull it off but Connacht did that very well.

It turned into the perfect game from a Connacht perspective. Some people felt it was a bit risky, but you have to rest some of your star players from time to time. And the players that come in have to take their opportunity and give the coaches something to think about.

The players who came in had a positive impact on the game. Now there is always going to be something in the coach's mind, that there is a decision to be made, and it won't be as easy to pick the starting 15.

Pat Lam and his management team have been pretty clear on giving lads their opportunities and they are never afraid to do it. 

Stacey Ili was one of the guys who Pat brought in this season and there might have been a bit of a question mark over him, so it helps when he scores a hat-trick. Like most of the Connacht tries, they come from great team efforts, but he still had to finish them.

So from the highs of bonus point victories away from home in the Champions Cup, Connacht need to prepare for the old grind of an inter-provincial derby in the RDS. And Leinster will be as tough as ever in their own backyard.

Last weekend they lost in Montpellier, but crucially they got a losing bonus point. Leinster have been very impressive of late and this is probably Connacht's biggest test so far this season.

Leinster will be smarting from last season's Pro12 final, and they will to and carry a bit of that into this game. 

It will be interesting to see how they defend against Connacht, because when their defensive line drifts out, the way Connacht play, it allows Lam's men to create so many more opportunities when they get over the gain-line out wide. Then when they eventually try and close Connacht down it's too late.

It happened in the final last season - Leinster were lacking that line-speed, but they seem to have got that back with Stuart Lancaster coming in. They get off the line, close the players down and push them back inside.

Weapons

The scrum is one of their biggest weapons and they have some brilliant props, but last season Connacht did pretty well against them.

That was the one area where Connacht looked set to struggle in the Pro12 final but they seemed to have parity. Last season is last season, but Connacht are looking strong in that area even with a few absentees. 

It's not ideal but I think Connacht have the smarts to think their way around those situations. And I would imagine it won't be as bad as people think.

Overall it will be a huge game, and Connacht need to win to keep the momentum flowing.

Irish Independent

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