Sunday 30 April 2017

Johnny O'Connor: Is seventh place worse than eighth for Connacht?

Home venue for play-off final a huge reward to target

Connacht lining out against Leinster in the Sportsground which also saw John Muldoon register his 300th provincial appearance. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Connacht lining out against Leinster in the Sportsground which also saw John Muldoon register his 300th provincial appearance. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Muldoon. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

It's going to be a strange few weeks for the whole organisation at Connacht, with the play-offs two games away, but with the team that finishes in eighth position in the Guinness Pro12 getting a home final if they win their semi-final, it's a difficult one to judge.

With the current lay-out, it obviously favours whoever finishes lower between Connacht and Cardiff and it will be interesting to see how the two teams approach these last couple of games.

Against Leinster last weekend, it was a case of you live and die by the sword once again for Connacht. And it was a really good game to watch, like it has been all season.

At times you felt Leinster were going to walk away with it. But Pat Lam's men really got themselves back into the game, took the lead and deservedly so.

Tiernan O'Halloran stood out in particular. People might say he doesn't have the experience yet to perform at international level, but you have to give the guy a chance.

He had some superb carries against Leinster, three line-breaks, and one sumptuous offload. If he was playing in New Zealand, he would look just as comfortable. He is a really skilful player.

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And Simon Zebo is playing for Ireland so I'm sure that's not what is holding him back. But Joe Schmidt could definitely give you the reasons why he isn't playing and you would respect that too.

I can't imagine he is far off at this stage. Tiernan has got pace, he has got incredible skill, great footwork, and he has worked on his defence. He is still young but is a bit of leader within the squad already, and he is really well respected.

Connacht played well against Leinster, but just at times when Leinster got near the Connacht line they were more clinical and scored. It takes a lot to win big competitions, and it takes a very strong squad - Leinster have that in abundance.

Leinster put out their second string at the Sportsground, and put the pressure on those players to deliver; they stood up to the challenge.

But it's all relative to time, it's just where Connacht are at the moment. Connacht had an unfortunate start to the season with injuries, and a lack of match practice. But they have come back strong. Against Leinster, they did well, but got opened up at the end. The scoreline didn't paint the right picture of that match.

Play-offs

At this stage everyone at Connacht are probably going to gear themselves for the play-offs, and with the lay-out of those it's hard to know who actually wants seventh. 

The team will build towards wins and momentum, but selection-wise Connacht will look to peak for the play-offs, in terms of physicality. They are big games, and if you get through to the play-off final, playing at home with a vociferous crowd, it puts you in a great position no matter who the opposition is.

Kieran Keane isn't coming yet, and Pat Lam will want to leave the province on a good footing, so there's no point looking down the line. It's all about the here and now, and the players will want to send Pat off in a good way.

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He has a good relationship with them and their job at the moment is to get the best finish to the season they can. 

The season would be a failure if Connacht didn't get into the Champions Cup for next term, because when you think of being Pro12 champions, and beating teams like Wasps and Toulouse, you would expect to be back in the major competition again next season.

Connacht are a good team to watch. They have a great style of rugby. But there is a small transition now, and the coach coming in will upgrade the province further and push them on. It's all about getting into the Champions Cup now and giving him something to work with.

When a coach like Kieran Keane becomes available you are going to go and grab him. If he's not available until later in the year then so be it. But you have Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy there in any case, and they will do their jobs and get the guys prepped in the meantime. 

Kieran Keane is coming in to facilitate and develop the players. The show goes on in his absence.

Irish Independent

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