Friday 23 June 2017

Johnny O'Connor: Supporters play key role in epic victory

All to play for as competition for places heats up at Sportsground

Rodney Ah You is congratulated after scoring his side’s fourth try of the game
Rodney Ah You is congratulated after scoring his side’s fourth try of the game
Connacht lock Aly Muldowney acknowledges supporters after his side’s win over Scarlets Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

It must have been a pleasant week off for the Connacht squad as they bask in their first break in 16 weeks after a fantastic performance against Scarlets.

Many times in the past Connacht teams have failed to deliver in the bigger matches. But they needed to and did - it proved how far they've come and was the dream ending to a rough part of the season.

It wasn't their best performance either - there were a few handling errors and missed tackles - but when it really counted they stood up and kept Scarlets out in the final minutes.

Ironically, the pinnacle of their season so far was the 18-12 victory over Munster. Since then they slipped, with injuries playing a massive part, and the season nearly tapered off.

This is the first time since that game that Connacht had such a strong hand to choose from, and the guys showed a clinical edge that separates them from past Connacht sides.

There's a certain resilience - individually and collectively they have developed the mental fortitude to win when it matters most. And when they put in the effort from one to 23 you get bonus-point wins over the league leaders. It must have been extra sweet that it was Scarlets on the receiving end.

The Sportsground sounded like there was an inter-pro on. The team and crowd fed off each other and hopefully that's what it's like now for the rest of the season, because the lads will need that when it comes to the nitty gritty.

Connacht have something to build on. Pat Lam said he wanted to be in the play-off positions for this break, they're second now, so he must be delighted.

With this break in the Pro12, it's all about the Six Nations, and Ireland's clash with Wales in Aviva Stadium. It's such a mouth-watering prospect; we know what to expect from the Welsh, and Ireland come into this one with a real sense of the unknown hanging over them.

The whole Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland battle will fascinate as it always does, and it's all about who settles best and bounces back better after the World Cup.

Presence

Ireland will have to do this without Paul O'Connell, but hopefully Rory Best can take up the mantle and be a big presence. It's a difficult role to fill, and it's something similar to when Brian O'Driscoll left, but he's got it in him to lead this side.

I expect Robbie Henshaw to be kept at inside-centre. Schmidt will stick with the tried-and-trusted combination of Henshaw and Jared Payne in there. And their battle with Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies will be huge.

Warren's style of play evolves all the time. It's going to be aggressive. They say it's easy to read and it's simplistic but it works well for him. Simplistic at that level, with the calibre of players you have, is probably the right choice.

Warren is a very good motivator and man manager, he always gets the best out of players.

No matter what the situation, the players are always at the top of their game and we saw that when they had all of the injuries at the World Cup.

They are team packed full of quality, and the continuity in their squad selection will breed confidence between the players. They have arguably the best place-kicker in the championship, Dan Biggar, and so they know every time they win a penalty it will probably be slotted between the posts.

That's a massive advantage in the early games and Ireland will need to watch their discipline in the opening half especially on Sunday. If they're still in it at half-time, I think Ireland can do enough to win it in the second half.

Elsewhere, who knows what France will offer in their first game since the disastrous World Cup they suffered. Guy Noves has come in and will bring more stability but they could take a while to click against Italy.

England and Scotland will be a tough one to call. Eddie Jones is a good coach, but was he near getting the England job before Japan did that in the World Cup? He had a lot more time to work with Japan and the question is can he make a difference when the access to English players is far more restricted throughout the year.

Irish Independent

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