Friday 9 December 2016

Johnny O'Connor: Connacht still on track for greatest season ever

Connacht can put poor Christmas behind them with victory at Scarlets

Johnny O'Connor

Published 08/01/2016 | 02:30

Connacht’s Tom McCartney in action during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht’s Tom McCartney in action during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw. Photo: Sportsfile

It was a tough Christmas period for Connacht but I think an away tie against Scarlets could be the ideal scenario to produce a performance that can turn things around again straight away.

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It's all well and good when a team is winning matches, especially for the young players. It can be easy to get carried by the feeling of invincibility, but what really makes a player is when they are faced with adversity.

In the Pro12, Connacht haven't won since that historic 18-12 win away to Munster in Round 8, and have lost three games in a row against Cardiff, Ulster and Leinster. In all of those games they certainly created chances where they could have won but unfortunately it just didn't happen on the day for them.

I went back to the Sportsground over Christmas on the Wednesday before the game against Leinster, and I was really impressed with what I saw from the guys.

It's easy to forget that this is a squad depleted by injury and they have had to rely on youth to get them by in recent months. But they have a coach with a good philosophy, and a group of players who believe in it at all times.

Clarity is a crucial aspect within any successful playing group, and if Connacht are to bounce back from this minor blip they need to draw on that and build back the momentum.

This squad knows the direction they are moving, players are given roles to fulfil and they do so. It was so refreshing to see the understanding they all have for the game-plan and it will get them back to winning ways.

The losses to Cardiff and Newcastle were difficult to take, in the lead-up to Christmas, but the Ulster game was unusually flat and I'm sure those issues have been sorted out by now.

Connacht started at a ferocious pace in Galway that night but they couldn't capitalise on the early pressure and you feel if they had just got one try, Ulster would have been in big trouble.

They only ended up losing by the one score, and another milestone scalp like Ulster would have done wonders for confidence, and their push for Pro12 glory.

But nevertheless Connacht kept their heads and weren't a whole pile off in the RDS either.

Reflection

The scoreline wasn't pretty against Leinster but I don't think 13-0 gave a true reflection of that game. Connacht were right in it up until the third quarter, and it was another missed opportunity to make more history.

It's disappointing to let those opportunities slip against your inter-provincial rivals but if Connacht bounce back now, they remain on course for their biggest ever season both domestically and in Europe.

The defence was impeccable in that first half against Leinster, and to only concede three points against the wind and rain should have provided the platform for victory, but I thought they lost that game at the breakdown.

It was a former Connacht player, Mike McCarthy, who did a lot of the damage in that vital area of the game.

Nathan White did his best to teach him a lesson but Mike showed all his experience to disrupt the Connacht ball time and again.

Connacht need to wise up a bit more in that area, although Eoghan Masterson was a stand-out there. He is just getting better and better with the extra game time and he has a massive future ahead of him.

When Connacht did get on top at the breakdown, it was usually him that came up with the ball and Masterson will need to be on his toes again this weekend against Scarlets, who are generally one of the top sides in that area too.

They have a big physical pack but their game is centred on fast-paced back play and flinging the ball around at will. That could play right into Connacht's hands.

With Connacht's water-tight defence, they can hold the Welsh out, and Pat Lam's men can be lethal when they are given the opportunity with ball in hand.

Scarlets will be vulnerable on the break and that's where Connacht need to strike, and this time make the opposition pay.

It's been a few games since Connacht broke the gain-line at regular intervals. And there's no better time than the present.

Irish Independent

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