Lam's side seeing the benefits of fiery centre partnership
Pressures of being the midfield playmaker and kicking bring best out of Kildare native
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
Three seasons into his stay at the Sportsground, Craig Ronaldson has struck up a devastating midfield partnership with Bundee Aki, as Connacht continue to grow into genuine contenders in the Pro12 and Europe.
The 25-year-old Kildare native has made 42 appearances and scored three tries for the province since he joined from Lansdowne in the summer of 2013.
Ronaldson showed his versatility by offering coach Pat Lam a greater physicality in midfield, and since the start of this season the dynamic duo have clicked.
With Connacht's new brand of expansive rugby they required a hard-nosed backbone to allow the wider players to express themselves, but as well as some tough-tackling Ronaldson has a creative touch to match.
Having a red hot side-stepping Kiwi outside always helps and Ronaldson had to learn to adapt his game in order to keep up with Aki's mercurial talent.
"I am a little more used to playing at 12 now. I've been playing there a good bit more in the last while. And whenever I am playing there it seems to be with Bundee as well," he says.
"We have been working a bit of a partnership, I understand him a lot better now. It's great being able to help out whoever the ten is inside me, and Bundee on the outside of me too.
"You have to try and anticipate what Bundee does. It's hard at times, he can come up with stuff out of the blue which is a great thing about him. When you know he is going into contact with his good footwork and offloads, you just expect something and you follow him in.
"Playing beside him definitely has improved my game," Ronaldson adds.
But moving from the ten channel did not alleviate Ronaldson of the responsibility of the place-kicking duties again in 2015-'16. At the start of the season Lam stuck with Jack Carty, but when Ronaldson kept his spot in the starting 15 he was handed the tee.
He has not disappointed, and following on from a stellar campaign last season he continues to hit the target with pin-point accuracy. Ironically, it was the memorable win over Munster that provided his only stumbling block.
But Ronaldson still boasts a 76 per cent average from the placed-ball in the Pro12 - the fifth best in the league.
"It is something I'm continually trying to work on and I keep trying to get that percentage up. I do enjoy it, it's something I have generally done through my playing career.
"There is a lot of us there as well who can place-kick so the pressure is always on. It is always tough as well down here, when the conditions are pretty tough going with the kicking. But I definitely do enjoy taking that responsibility on.
"I try to follow my percentages. I was going okay at the start of the season, I was top of the league percentage-wise until after the Munster game. That dropped me down the pecking order a bit. I am still there or thereabouts but it is something that you would look to keep on improving."
But his all-round game was magnificent against Munster - his November Player of the Month award was definitely warranted. And it helped Connacht silence any doubters that might remain around the league.
They have another couple of chances to prove themselves further over Christmas. Back-to-back inter-provincial ties follow this weekend's clash with Newcastle, and Ronaldson wants more from this season.
"It's a busy schedule over Christmas, especially the way this year was with the World Cup. Everything was condensed up.
"The inter-pros are always the ones that you look for. Especially when they come thick and fast. You have the games against Ulster and Leinster, there will always be a great atmosphere and a good buzz around those games.
"They are massive games for us, to try and stay up on the top of the table. We will be looking to target those, and hopefully get a few good results out of them.
"I don't see why we can't get silverware this season. Guys are definitely becoming a lot more confident with our style of play and who is around them now.
"We feel we can stay near the top if we perform and we keep going. With the Challenge Cup, we are top of that pool there too and we can hopefully qualify for the quarter-finals.
"That is another chance for a trophy but I definitely feel that the confidence is growing amongst us, and the belief as well, that we deserve to be at the top. We are not just there for the one-off performances."
Ronaldson has a degree in Sports Management and the former Ulster Bank League Division 1A Player of the Year loves the game. This year he has taken steps to ensure he stays in it when his playing career finishes.
"At the moment I'm just doing a bit of coaching on the side with OLBC down here, they actually play in the Sportsground too.
"I am doing a bit of everything. Mainly backs coach, but I'm taking up more of a head coach role now going forward. It's challenging, but it's good at the same time.
"I want to get my coaching badges. Hopefully I will get them in this year, and push on. It is just another avenue. I would like to stay in the game, in some shape or form."