Friday 9 December 2016

A daunting challenge to repeat the trick

Published 30/08/2016 | 02:30

Pat Lam is looking to build on Connacht's success last season. Picture: Sportsfile
Pat Lam is looking to build on Connacht's success last season. Picture: Sportsfile

Follow that. Pat Lam has already secured his place in Connacht rugby folklore, while the team that took Leinster apart in May's Guinness Pro12 final will be remembered forever at the Sportsground.

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On that sunny day in Edinburgh, the oft-forgotten province took their place at the top table, claiming their first piece of silverware in style.

Pat Lam has always presented a strong front-ofhouse presence in Connacht
Pat Lam has always presented a strong front-ofhouse presence in Connacht

Now, they return to the start-line and must deal with a very different set of challenges as they look to defend their title and ensure that last season will not go down as an aberration.

Around them, their rivals have grown stronger; particularly the Welsh regions, who look much better set up for a challenge this year.

Connacht's squad must cope with the pressure that comes with competing on two fronts, while their coach must deal with a major departure from his backroom staff after Andre Bell's exit.

Last season was year three of Lam's tenure and the Samoan's work on the training ground paid off with a cohesive, ambitious game-plan that most opponents couldn't counter.

Cian Kelleher: Smart acquisition. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Kelleher: Smart acquisition. Photo: Sportsfile

However, those opponents have had a summer to pore over the champions' methods and come up with a counter-strategy. Teams will hesitate before resting players for a trip to Galway, now that it houses the champions.

They have continuity on their side, despite the departure of some key names from their starting team.

Lam has lost three key players, but he has also made what look like characteristically smart acquisitions from the southern hemisphere, while he has also prised one of Leinster's most impressive young players from their academy in Cian Kelleher.

The head coach is himself in the spotlight as his achievements mark him out as a potential successor to Joe Schmidt, whose future movements remain private, while he will continue to be linked with big jobs in England, France and New Zealand on the back of his excellent work out west.

However, his full focus will be on the continuous improvement of his team and the defence of their title. It is not an easy task, but that hasn't stopped him before.

The squad

Two of the starting backs from the Pro12 final, Robbie Henshaw and AJ MacGinty, have departed and there can be no doubt that replacing the Ireland centre is a particular challenge. Throw in the departure of play-maker Aly Muldowney and there are a lot of gaps to fill in their team.

The Champions Cup and an increased representation in the Ireland set-up will place further strain on Lam's resources, but he has placed his trust in his academy players before and come up trumps.

Last year, Connacht were less affected by the World Cup than their rivals, while they were able to rest star men during the Challenge Cup pool stages.

However, the seven players selected in last season's Guinness Pro12 Dream Team remain available, so it is not all doom and gloom.

Lam will pray for a better run with injuries to key personnel, but the loss of Tom McCartney, John Muldoon or Bundee Aki would be a major blow.

After losing some star power, the lack of depth looks a risk.

Star rating: 3/5

The coaching ticket

Lam has always presented a strong front-of-house presence, allowing his unit coaches get on with the job in hand.

Backs coach Bell has returned to New Zealand, meaning Conor McPhillips is promoted to an increasingly home-grown team, and the highly-rated former scrum-half's progress will be interesting to watch.

The longest-serving coach of the Irish entrants, Lam has been an inspirational figure in the Connacht story and he will need to continue to combine innovation and motivation to sustain their momentum.

Star rating: 5/5

The expectation

It will take some doing to wipe the sheen off May's heroics, and nobody is expecting the Westerners to go back to back.

Defying expectation has been part of Lam's raison d'etre, of course, but most fans would take Champions Cup qualification in the league. Indeed, Europe appears to offer a real prospect of success given the top-seeds have not been drawn in a particularly daunting group.

Still, barring disaster Lam and Co should remain in bonus territory for some time, even if they won't countenance a backwards step internally.

Star rating: 1/5

Recruitment

Marnitz Boshoff is a fascinating recruit and Lam is backing the Springbok to deliver consistently from the kicking tee when the weather calls for a less-expansive game, but he won't be available until October at the earliest.

Kelleher is another intriguing addition and offers bundles of potential, while Eoin Griffin's return from London Irish is a positive as they look to replace the Henshaw-shaped hole in the midfield.

Still, it is hard to escape the sense that Connacht have lost more than they have gained this summer.

Star rating 2/5

Room for growth

Ireland's summer tour will have brought on Quinn Roux, Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Finlay Bealham, while Nepia Fox-Matamua is fit again after injury-disrupted first season in Galway. Connacht's age profile is largely good and Lam will look for more from James Connolly, Sean O'Brien and Peter Robb.

Star rating 3/5

X-factor

This could be Aki's last season in Galway with a queue of clubs forming for the Samoan's signature.

For the duration of 2016/17, however, the centre will be the fulcrum of the province's belief-system. Captain John Muldoon is the spiritual leader in the pack, but no-one sets the physical and creative tone like Aki.

Star rating 4/5

Verdict

Underestimating Connacht proved to be an unwise policy last season but, with no World Cup interference and almost all of the top eight teams looking stronger this season, the likelihood is that the Westerners won't be retaining their trophy in May and will be scrapping for a place in the top six.

Europe may afford them their best chance of success, but reaching the Champions Cup again would represent a successful campaign.

Tomorrow: Ruaidhri O'Connor's Leinster verdict

Irish Independent

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