Sport Connacht Rugby

Saturday 21 October 2017

Lam's men ready to clip Ospreys' wings

Connacht can make most of hosts' missing stars with overdue win at Liberty Stadium

John Muldoon during squad training ahead of their Guinness Pro12, Round 7, match against Ospreys tonight. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
John Muldoon during squad training ahead of their Guinness Pro12, Round 7, match against Ospreys tonight. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Connacht's Caolin Blade is tackled by Henry Slade in last week's game against Exeter. Phil Mingo / SPORTSFILE

Johnny O'Connor

Now that the Challenge Cup campaign can be parked for another month or so, it will be interesting to see if Connacht can return to their impressive Pro12 form when they roll up to the Liberty Stadium tonight.

Looking at the stats of the season so far, not many people would give Pat Lam's troops much chance of taking a win in Wales. Ospreys have six wins from six and have scored tries for fun along the way - they have notched 19 so far.

But if you dissect their wins, the only team they have beaten that you'd expect to be in the top four is Munster. They were excellent that day, but their other wins have come against Treviso, Edinburgh, Zebre, Dragons and Cardiff.

Blow

Reports coming from Ospreys suggest they have been preparing all week without nine first-teamers for this game. And when you take world-class players like Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar out of any team, it is a serious blow.

Connacht have had to manage without half of that total, so armed with that edge, and with the likes of John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon and Quinn Roux all back from a deserved rest, they can upset the odds tonight.

Connacht sent out a slightly weakened side in Exeter with this game in mind. If they were really serious about the Challenge Cup, they would have done the opposite.

Ospreys, on the other hand, had a mighty tough Champions Cup game with Northampton to cope with, and their fellow Welshman George North blew them away.

Connacht had the luxury of focusing on this game well ahead of time. After the mauling the Ospreys suffered, there will be a lot of bruised egos, and dips in confidence there this week. Add that to the loss of their chunky international contingent, I think it's a game Connacht should win.

The only problem I see is the larger than expected number of players gone from their squad to Carton House. We will miss Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White and Kieran Marmion as usual, and I'm pretty sure they will be named in the Ireland 23 for next weekend's game.

I remember being involved in Ireland squads and missing out on the match-day 22. I'd be released from the Ireland camp on a Friday night and go straight back into the Connacht team for that weekend's game. It wasn't a problem for me - someone would have filled in my role in training all week and I knew my job, it was seamless enough. If a player is good enough to be named in an Ireland squad then they are good enough to slot back into the team on short notice.

But I'm delighted for the five lads, international selection is a huge deal.

Robbie Henshaw has a great chance at taking over the No 13 shirt. He is likely to get first crack at it against South Africa - his physicality will be important there - so if he can impress he'll keep the shirt. The last time we had such a continued presence in the Irish team was Eric Elwood.

The selection of Darragh Leader came as a bit of a surprise - not that he doesn't deserve it based on his form - but he is still really young at 21. He has been one of Connacht's best players all year so he does deserve a call-up.

With Rob Kearney injured, Felix Jones is the only other Irish qualified full-back playing regularly, so Darragh is next in line.

Taste

He'll have had a ball this week, it'll have been a very new experience for him, but his game will only improve from getting a taste of the action with the top tier.

Connacht's record is pretty poor away to Ospreys - we've never won in the Liberty Stadium; the last win was in 2004 in the Gnoll - but this is an excellent chance to improve it.

After tonight the players will have a couple of weeks off for the November window, so expect them to empty the tanks with the prospect of a holiday on the cards.

I think they will win, and with Zebre and Scarlets to come after the break along with the three new marquee signings of Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney to bolster the numbers, victory tonight could be the springboard for a strong second quarter of the campaign.

Cup is waste of time without qualification

I don't know how this slipped under my radar, but it was only this weekend that I realised there will be no automatic qualification for next year's Champions Cup for the winners of this season's Challenge Cup. So I ask you, what is the point of it?

Right throughout the years we played in the competition there was always that carrot dangling in the distance. We had not yet competed in the then Heineken Cup, so our best avenue was to get there via the Challenge Cup. Without that reward there is no value to the competition.

I think it is a waste of time now and Connacht should not bother risking guys who have plenty of game time under their belt. It should be used for players on the fringes of the 23 or for lads coming back from injuries. The Pro12 has to be the priority.

Pat Lam clearly put more value on tonight's game and rested a few lads last week and that was definitely the correct decision.

Yes, there is a trophy to be won, but the club's bread and butter is Pro12 and their major ambition this season is to break into the top six. A few points towards that goal would be a lot better than a cup and a free weekend in London for the final.

Irish Independent

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