Pointless champions Connacht falling short in so many areas
Still plenty to play for, but Connacht need to start performing
Published 27/09/2016 | 02:30
There was a time when seeing Connacht hanging out at the bottom of the table with the Italians wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows. Last May put an end to all that.
By winning the Guinness Pro12 in stunning style, Pat Lam raised the bar by which the western province are judged - and they have fallen well below their own standards so far this season.
They have yet to collect a point from the three fixtures they have managed to complete and were on their way to a loss in the abandoned game in Zebre.
That's 15 points gone a-begging; the solace for Lam is that there are 95 still available, beginning with the five on offer in Friday's home game against Edinburgh.
Lam dismissed any crisis talk after Saturday's defeat to Scarlets, preferring to focus on the improvements in his side's performance. The Samoan talks frequently about how he is not results-driven and how the process takes precedence, but everyone at the Sportsground could do with a win to lift spirits and improve confidence.
After Edinburgh, Ulster and Toulouse visit Galway before Connacht return to Zebre for their second European Champions Cup game. The schedule is unforgiving.
Over the course of his first three seasons in charge, Lam built a Connacht side that was unrecognisable from its predecessors.
So far, they have struggled to come close to looking like the fluid attacking outfit that scorched all before them last spring: they are currently the lowest scoring team in the league with an average eight points a game, while their defence has been shredded at times.
Over the summer, the Westerners lost influential coach Andre Bell and a trio of important players in Robbie Henshaw, AJ MacGinty and Aly Muldowney.
Their pre-season was disrupted, while their injury list continues to be longer than their rivals. New out-half Marnitz Boshoff has yet to arrive, while Lam has taken to the transfer market to make two late additions to his squad in utility back Stacey Ili and second-row James Cannon, whose arrival was confirmed yesterday.
Last year, Connacht benefited from continuity while around them rivals coped with World Cup absentees, but this year it is the champions who are struggling for cohesion.
Lam was right to point to improvements at Parc y Scarlets last weekend, but it was the hosts who were able to get their ailing campaign up and running with a much-needed win.
Defensively, Connacht were better. Having missed a quarter of all of their tackles in the opening two games against Glasgow and Ospreys, they reduced that figure to 14pc on Saturday.
However, there was a sloppiness about their work that could not just be attributed to the conditions. Work with the ball will be the focus of Lam's work this week as Connacht consistently put themselves under pressure in admittedly wretched conditions.
When they earned shots at goal, Jack Carty's radar was again well off the mark, and chances to apply pressure through the score-board went astray.
Connacht led after the hour-mark, but having coughed up kickable points they were also careless with possession.
Bundee Aki was culpable for the kind of handling errors we rarely saw from him last year, while Carty's kicking game - while understandable due to the driving rain - too often lacked the accuracy as Liam Williams looked comfortable whenever the cross-kicks came his way.
The conditions were unforgiving, but Tom McCartney's usual razor-sharp radar was off from touch, while Kieran Marmion was charged down twice on his own five-metre line and Tiernan O'Halloran spilled a couple of high balls.
It was always going to be difficult to make headway in attack, with the conditions inviting the Scarlets' aggressive defence, but it is a concern that the previously free-scoring champions are averaging one try a game at this early stage.
Last year, two of Connacht's most impressive performances came in the rain, when they beat Munster and Glasgow at home.
After those games, they drew deserved praise for the work they'd done on their skills, but now those same fundamentals are letting them down.
Teams are certainly raising their game for the champions, and Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons rested his first choice front-row last weekend so that he could arrive in Galway locked and loaded on Friday.
That suggests that he scents blood, but Lam will hope that the early-season woes can be erased with at least four points.
So far, his team have yet to come close to parity with their opponents in the possession and territory stakes in any of their three games, meaning their platform is diminished.
Yet, their scrum has worked well and their lineout is fixable, but if they continue to miss kickable penalties then opponents will keep on conceding in dangerous areas.
A top six finish remains Lam's goal, while the European draw has opened up possibilities.
There is still plenty to play for, Connacht just need to start playing.