Thursday 24 August 2017

Europe looks a pipe dream as Connacht 'drop right off it'

Connacht 8 Scarlets 30

Connacht’s Marnitz Boshoff offloads as he’s tackled during Saturday’s game against Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Connacht’s Marnitz Boshoff offloads as he’s tackled during Saturday’s game against Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Declan Rooney

This really felt like the end of an era in Connacht. Coaches Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips waved goodbye to the crowd at the end, along with some departing players including club legend Ronan Loughney.

But the filleting that Scarlets doled out before that meant that shoulders slumped as the players huddled together on the pitch in the drizzle afterwards.

Pat Lam is pictured with his wife Stephanie and daughter Bethany after his last regular season home game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Pat Lam is pictured with his wife Stephanie and daughter Bethany after his last regular season home game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Lam, flanked in the press conference by his young daughter Bethany, pointed to "a variety of reasons" for his side's slump in form, but as his departure date for Bristol nears, his side's execution has slipped. There have been fleeting glimpses of their talents, like in their display against Leinster, but Leo Cullen's men cut them asunder in defence just like Scarlets did at the weekend.

The champions now have one game left of their title defence, and they go to Thomond Park hoping to find form ahead of their Champions Cup play-off, likely to be away to the seventh-placed English Premiership outfit.

The Limerick venue is no place to go to try and find yourself again, and Lam said his extended squad will "get their chance again'"

Idiotic

An idiotic suspension for Bundee Aki means he won't play next week or in the play-off. He would be available for the final, should Connacht advance - likely to be at the Sportsground - but Lam knows they have no chance of getting that far if they don't sort themselves out quickly.

"For a variety of reasons, we are just not in the best form collectively. We have flashes and moments but we are not playing the best we can," said Lam.

"The reason we can be very disappointed with that performance is because we have shown many times during my time here how well we can play and the standards we can set. When we drop right off it, it's disappointing."

Darragh Leader of Connacht in action against Johnny McNicholl of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Darragh Leader of Connacht in action against Johnny McNicholl of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Scarlets, who now face either Munster or Leinster in the semi-final - a home win against Ospreys next week will send them to Thomond Park - made short work of Connacht and their shocking defensive effort.

Johnny McNicholl, Steff Evans (twice) and Lions-bound Liam Williams ran in the four tries in the opening half-hour, and after Scarlets shut down the game after the break, Craig Ronaldson ran in one for Connacht before DTH van der Merwe wrapped it up at the death.

Tiernan O'Halloran of Connacht in action against Ken Owens, left, and Joshua Macleod of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tiernan O'Halloran of Connacht in action against Ken Owens, left, and Joshua Macleod of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"There's many more better memories that I have that will over-ride that performance," said Lam. "But it's not about me it's about the team getting into Champions Cup. If we don't, it will be a disappointing season. That's always our minimum so we have got to reach our minimum.

"(Finishing eighth) gives you the advantage of the home final. But you have got to go to England and win, which is just as tough as going to France. If we play like we did tonight, especially in the first half, we won't be making a final."

Playing into a strong wind in the first-half, Scarlets took the conditions out of the equation with a brilliant brand of running rugby. By making ten changes to the side that challenged Leinster, Connacht had new partnerships all over the field, including at half-back, where Marnitz Boshoff and Caolin Blade linked up.

Boshoff, just back from injury and the death of his father in South Africa, looked like a calm character at No 10 and he kicked Connacht's only points of the first half from the tee on nine minutes. But he also missed a straightforward 23rd-minute penalty following Williams' high tackle on him.

That miss meant Connacht trailed 12-3 as McNicholl and Evans had scored a try each in the left corner in the opening 14 minutes.

Andrew Browne of Connacht contests a lineout with Aaron Shingler of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Andrew Browne of Connacht contests a lineout with Aaron Shingler of Scarlets. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Their third try was a real thing of beauty. The move originated deep in their own half as Tadhg Beirne's powerful counter-rucking forced the turnover. Two more rucks followed, but nine or ten offloads in the tackle sent Evans in for his second of the game.

The 22-year-old flyer then offloaded to Williams for their fourth try in the 31st minute - another wonderful flowing move - at which point they wrapped up their box of tricks in preparation for a semi-final in either the RDS or Thomond Park. Sparks will fly.

On this display there seems to be little hope of Connacht winning the two play-off games that will qualify them for the Champions Cup next season.

Their defensive work was shambolic at times, and their once flowing attack rarely hit form as Scarlets forced them to employ ball carriers close to the ruck rather than attacking out wide.

Lam will surely recall some of his key players next week, but considering a weakened Munster team beat them in Galway earlier this year, it is a tough ask.

Connacht - T O'Halloran (D Poolman 72); D Leader, T Farrell, E Griffin (C Ronaldson 23 HIA), C Kelleher; M Boshoff, C Blade (J Cooney 62); F Bealham (JP Cooney 68), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 68), D Robertson-McCoy (D Buckley h-t); J Cannon (Q Roux 47), A Browne; S O'Brien, J Heenan, E Masterson (J Muldoon 47).

Scarlets - J McNicholl; L Williams (DTH van der Merwe h-t), J Davies (S Williams 53), H Parkes, S Evans (G Davies 53); R Patchell, J Evans; R Evans (W Jones 66), K Owens (R Elias 53), S Lee (W Kruger h-t); J Ball (D Bulbring 39), T Beirne; A Shingler (L Rawlings 72), J Macleod, W Boyde.

Ref - M Adamson (SRU).

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