Alan Quinlan: I'm convinced Pat Lam's Connacht will reach the Champions Cup
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
It must be near Christmas time when you see the Irish inter-pros coming thick and fast. And this afternoon's Munster versus Connacht tie at Thomond Park has the potential to be one of the most exciting derbies we'll see this season.
First against second; the league's top try scorers to date meet last year's runners-up - it's set up to be a cracking game, so fingers crossed the expected weather doesn't ruin the spectacle.
And I give Connacht a massive chance today. Already this season they have played some of the best rugby we've seen in the Pro12. Their one defeat came by a one-point margin away to the champions Glasgow Warriors.
And that day Connacht even came away with two bonus points when their fluid backline ran in four tries in defeat. But as well as their 23 tries from the seven games, they are well able to rough it up with the best of them. Munster face a massive challenge and they should expect a hugely physical test here.
But there is no getting away from the importance that home advantage plays in this league. Like Munster, Connacht have benefited from playing five of their first seven games at home, but a run of four from the next six away from home will really show us how far they have come. I'm sure home advantage will play its part here today too.
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Connacht's record at Thomond Park is shocking though. They have not won there in 29 years and even last season when they got a sniff of winning the game, they ended up on the wrong end of a 22-point defeat in the end.
It's almost a year since Munster last lost at Thomond Park, or any home game for that matter. Since they lost to Clermont Auvergne in Limerick they've won all seven games at Thomond Park as well as six competitive wins in a row at the newly-revamped Irish Independent Park in that spell.
But despite Munster being a force again at home, if Connacht are on their game today I have a feeling they are in with a great chance of winning, such is their development.
Even since that loss last March I think this Connacht side has improved dramatically. Their young players are coming of age while some of their older guys like Nathan White, John Muldoon and Aly Muldowney are in really good form. Their backs are really exciting and you could pick any of the seven as potential danger men.
But up front I'm looking forward to seeing young James Connolly at openside for Connacht again.
Along with Eoghan Masterson, he really stood out for them against Gloucester in the play-off last season, while former Munster youngster Ultan Dillane is another one to keep an eye on.
In his third year as Connacht coach we are beginning to see Pat Lam's side regularly come away from games with impressive results - this year's win away to Ospreys is the prime example.
The improvements under his watch have been gradual: he started with an aim of improving the basics of their game. Their ball-handling improved hugely when Lam insisted every player carried their own ball around all day, every day. By all accounts their training sessions as very focused, with short and sharp exercises which aim to continuously improve the core skills. At the start of each week the players tell the coaches what they feel they need to improve on and they get the chance to work on that skill.
And you can see the difference it has made - there is no way the team Lam took over could have scored some of the tries they have pulled off this year. Just look at Tiernan O'Halloran's try against Edinburgh. The precision of the move was top-notch. Everyone knew their job and the team executed the key try of the game.
Last year they came desperately close to reaching the Champions Cup off their own bat for the first time. It was only an implosion after their New Year's Day win against Munster than denied them sixth place, but they still finished the season in seventh - their best ever finish - and with 10 wins, more than they had achieved before.
This season I'm convinced they'll take it on another step and reach the Champions Cup, and if they can maintain their current form they look good to make the play-offs.
That would be an incredible return for a side who is now being regarded equally as one of four Irish provinces, not the poor relation. Who knows what could happen if they get that far, but I think gradual steps are Connacht's best route to success.
Looking at the two sides the respective coaches have picked, I think we are in for a few big clashes at Thomond Park. The front-row will be a huge battleground as always. Both teams are without their first- and second-choice hookers for the game, but we could be in for some real fireworks when the props collide.
In Denis Buckley, Connacht have one of the game's up-and-coming looseheads and I'm really looking forward to seeing how he copes with an experienced player like BJ Botha. Last year against Munster he effected six or seven turnovers in open play, but like any prop he'll be judged how he performs at scrum time.
On the other side James Cronin faces fellow Irish international Nathan White and that's another intriguing battle. How these two duels fall will have a major bearing on the game.
I expected to see Jack Carty get the nod at out-half, but Connacht have gone with USA international and former Blackrock star AJ MacGinty. He had a good World Cup for the Americans and from the brief action I saw from their game in Siberia he controlled the game really well for them over there. Munster won't have known a great deal about him and I'd say there was a bit of scrambling going on yesterday for the coaches to scrub up on him from World Cup highlights.
There is no denying this is a huge match for Munster as well as Connacht and they will be keen to get back to the top of the table by winning this game. Not having had a game last weekend is a big advantage for Munster this time, but having to line out without Conor Murray is a big blow for Anthony Foley. Murray is a class act, he'd be a huge loss to any team, and Munster lay a large emphasis on his ability to kick them out of trouble and to execute under pressure.
It's great to see Tomás O'Leary get the chance in his absence though. Tomás has had a few serious and niggly injuries in the last few years, but if he can get a run of games under his belt, the hints of good form we are seeing from him could be of huge benefit to Munster.
But O'Leary will be pushed hard by Kieran Marmion today. Fresh from signing a new two-year extension with the province this week, Marmion will be keen to push his Ireland prospects with another big showing for Connacht. He'll be disappointed not to test himself against Murray this time, and Munster need to watch out for his threats around the fringes.
I'm a bit surprised that Lam has selected Robbie Henshaw at full-back rather than in the No 13 shirt, but it does allow him to bring back in Craig Ronaldson - the league's best kicker with an 81.25 per cent return - at 12, with the in-form Bundee Aki moving out to outside-centre.
Aki has been a great signing for Connacht and Lam deserves plenty of credit for some of the recruitments he has secured. Mils Muliaina and Craig Clarke - because of injury - are the only ones that didn't really work out on the field, but having fellas like Tom McCartney, Aki, Jake Heenan and Nepia Fox-Matamua around the place can only be a plus.
But the heartbeat of the province remains Muldoon. Next weekend he'll likely become the first player in the league's history to make 200 appearances, which is an incredible feat - Donncha O'Callaghan's 156 Pro12 appearances is the closest Munster representative on the list.
Muldoon is a tough, tough competitor. I faced him several times and he put his body on the line for the Connacht cause so often.
He could have moved on a few times throughout his career, but he stuck in there and is now the spiritual leader of this team.
What a legacy it would be for him to guide this young team and this province to bigger and better things.
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