Sunday 25 September 2016

Poor pre-season invites Lam's men to slaughter

Connacht 11-32 Ospreys

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Eoin Griffin is tackled by Eli Walker and Tyler Ardron Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile
Eoin Griffin is tackled by Eli Walker and Tyler Ardron Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

Pat Lam pulls out the presented chair from the table but a sudden shudder forces him to reject the invitation.

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He needs to stand, toe to toe, and face the inquisition head on; his side must do the same in the next few weeks as the cold, harsh reality of a calamitous opening seven days to their title defence hits home.

Bundee Aki makes his way off the pitch after Connacht's defeat in the Sportsground on Saturday night Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki makes his way off the pitch after Connacht's defeat in the Sportsground on Saturday night Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

For much of last season, the Kiwi enjoyed the leisurely seat from which he expounded to all the wonderfully simple but effective philosophy that drove his side to the title while other heavyweights dithered and flopped.

Two games into the season the tables have been turned and so the chair is spurned; Connacht are bottom of the table, winless and pointless.

The caveats are plentiful; they have played two potential semi-finalists who, this not being a World Cup year, were packed with stars, their injury list tallies 20, to add to the summer transfers of key players. Their pre-season was a shambolic mess.

Still, they started Saturday night's 32-11 defeat - in which they led 11-10 on the hour mark - with several of their internationals.

A dejected Eoin McKeon of Connacht after the game Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile
A dejected Eoin McKeon of Connacht after the game Photo: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

And, while there were more glimpses of championship winning quality than in last week's shellacking by Glasgow, some of the errors, poor tackling and fitness issues were unacceptable at the exalted level to which Connacht aspire to remain.

It is not yet a crisis; Zebre will offer up predictably easy points next week with Edinburgh to follow.

Connacht were a top six team who vastly, magnificently, over-performed last season; this season, a return to mid-table status already seems to be their lot as their competitors grow wise to their weaknesses, particularly at the breakdown.

After Rhys Webb and Eoin McKeon exchanged tries in either half, a 72nd minute Tyler Ardron effort forced Connacht to chase a draw late on and Ospreys countered with a brace from man of the match Webb and Jeff Hassler to become the second side in a week to take all five points on offer in Galway.

There have been self-inflicted blows, though; some players reported soreness like never before in training last week, while it was evident that fitness flagged in the final quarter on Saturday, even if attitude didn't despite the less than flattering scoreline.

Connacht breezily dismissed concerns about their pre-season preparations before the Pro12 started; that Lam had entered this game describing the Glasgow defeat as a "pre-season game" reflected the disquiet at just how shabby their plans had been.

Chasing

"We were relaxed because we couldn't control it," says Lam. "We had three games set in place, they got cancelled so we were chasing.

"There's no point in us crying about it. It is what it is. We had to get on with it. It wasn't ideal. Every season I've been here, we've had a minimum of three games.

"Before last week, there were a lot of guys who hadn't played 80 minutes in a long time. It's about being under pressure in games and that's why you have pre-season games.

"Last year we had four good games but that is last year. The planning was exactly the same, it fell through for us and we can't look back."

Connacht's attitude was much brighter, the error count dropped significantly but the lack of a clinical edge - particularly from several lineout mauls - and untypical defensive lapses proved costly.

At least the crowd didn't abandon them as wilfully as some had last week.

Lam, who a few months ago was tentatively suggesting Connacht were outgrowing the Sportsgrounds, bristled at suggestions that attendances were slipping; indeed, 5,749 compares favourably to comparable September dates over the past two seasons and was higher even than this fixture last term.

However, the feverish April and May days with a heaving mass of 8,000 spectators are, for now, absent. Like their shaky title defence, Connacht need to re-convince a lot of people; most of all themselves.

"If we do the business, the crowds will come. The numbers we're getting are better than we ever hit."

With Danie Poolman's injury raising the casualty number to a frightful 20, recruitment may be necessary while the losses of Robbie Henshaw, AJ MacGinty and Aly Muldowney are already being keenly felt.

Lam, once more, will not panic.

"You can't just throw 400 or 500k on people," he says; albeit his province outbid Munster by €30,000 for Bundee Aki's services a couple of years back.

"Some teams can, some can't. You weigh that all up. We're not that sort of team. We never have been.

"There's always opportunities but you need money. We're twelfth when it comes to resources.

"It's no different to what I was talking about before around the pre-season. We have what we have and we'll work hard to get those guys up to speed and more importantly for us as a team. Our whole cohesion is something we'll work on."

Only two games in but they need to get a hurry on. Momentum can swing both ways. If they don't change direction soon, they'll end up where they're heading.

Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun (D Poolman 66 (D Heffernan 74), E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty (S O'Leary 66), K Marmion (C Blade 68); R Loughney (JP Cooney 61), T McCartney, F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 77); U Dillane, D Qualter (L Stevenson 69); E McKeon, J Connolly (R Moloney 69), J Muldoon capt.

Ospreys - D Evans; J Hassler, B John, J Matavesi, E Walker (T Habberfield 74); S Davies, R Webb capt; N Smith (P James 56), S Parry (S Baldwin 66), D Arhip (M Fia 56), B Davies (R Thornton 54), R Thornton (L Ashley 44), O Cracknell (J King 61), J Tipuric, T Ardron.

REF - B Whitehouse (WRU).

Irish Independent

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