Tuesday 26 September 2017

One good win can change everything

Below-par display against Scarlets to be expected with players' focus on Champions Cup play-off

Connacht and Scarlets contest a lineout. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht and Scarlets contest a lineout. Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

From the outside looking in the players and coaches said they had all their attentions on Scarlets last weekend. But their thoughts have moved on to the Champions Cup play-offs. It's only natural - and it doesn't matter how professional you are, you're human after all.

Pat Lam gave the lads an opportunity to play and make a claim for their spot in the team. It just didn't work out for some of them. But at the same time, it's kind of unfair to say that too. When a coach makes a big number of changes like that it can be very difficult for guys and combinations to just click automatically.

It wasn't a surprise that Scarlets were the better team; it was more the manner of the defeat that was more disappointing.

A loss like that would be very damaging to psyche of the team going forward if they had their full-strength selection out. But in fairness that was a largely second-string starting 15, and Pat Lam can say that he gave a chance to guys and they didn't take it.

Realistically at the end of the day, there's no point talking about what might have been. It was an emotional occasion with the presentation of the retiring guys, and players and coaches leaving the club after the match.

But this is a professional game and life goes on. Connacht could be back in the Sportsground in a play-off final. So they will move on from that, and losing to Scarlets wasn't a bad way for Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips to leave it at the Sportsground - they could be back there for a much more important game in a few weeks' time.

Pat Lam shows his disappointment during the defeat to Scarlets. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Pat Lam shows his disappointment during the defeat to Scarlets. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

It's bizarre that these games don't matter because seventh and eighth should mean something. If you are higher up in the standings at the end of the Guinness Pro12 season you should be rewarded for that.

It's likely that Cardiff Blues will finish ahead of Connacht now, but in their best-case scenario they will have to look forward to two away games in the play-offs for Champions Cup rugby next term.

Meanwhile, Connacht are somehow able to ease up slightly and that presents them with the opportunity to finish eighth, and go to England, hopefully win over there and then come back to the Sportsground for a play-off final.

Advantage

It doesn't matter who the opposition are, if Connacht get to the final now they will have a massive advantage with their home crowd, and you'd have to feel sorry for a team like Cardiff in that situation.

Connacht might have had their minds elsewhere in Galway last weekend, but they will have to be bang on form for the trip to Thomond Park this weekend. There's no room for error against this Munster side.

They've the history to back them up when they play Connacht in Limerick. But not only that, they have booked their place in a home Pro12 semi-final already. Munster mean business this season, and although they lost their Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens a few weeks back, they have returned to being the sticky Munster team that won two European Cups.

Munster have always been hard to play against. And with their awesome defence, that they use as an offensive weapon too, they could cause Connacht a whole host of problems.

Connacht can be fantastic at times, but their level of consistent accuracy hasn't been there this year. It has been there for patches of games, or in a game every now and again but just when you think they are back they lose again.

Connacht need to put a string of performances together quite soon or else they'll be in a very tough place ahead of next season. And obviously they won't make it into next season's Champions Cup unless they win games at the latter end of the season.

This Munster game has a deeper meaning, and although they are most likely on their way towards an eighth-place finish, Connacht can build up some much-needed swagger for the play-off semi-final.

If Connacht travel to England without form, without confidence and without momentum, teams like Northampton, Harlequins or Gloucester would eat them up and could run up a score.

But if Connacht beat Munster this weekend it's a whole different ball game. Here's hoping they can.

Irish Independent

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