Connacht already looking ahead as province’s season fizzles out

Mack Hansen of Connacht catches the ball ahead of Jordan Larmour of Leinster

David Kelly

Maybe this is the ending Connacht’s season deserves.

The mighty Zebre at home and, with only three-quarters of the tickets accounted so far, it doesn’t seem likely that the sold-out signs will be needed on College Road.

Victory – and surely things are never that bad that a game against Zebre doesn’t end in victory – will mean that Connacht’s league campaign will conclude with perfect symmetry.

Eight wins and eight losses. Some of the wins have been singularly notable; others positively execrable.

They are one of only two northern hemisphere teams to win on South African soil and yet they have besmirched their own turf with a compilation of embarrassing home reverses which recalled the dim, darkest early century years.

In Europe, they flattered to deceive, messing up two chances to advance with sufficient enough advantage to avoid their dubious last 16 reward of meeting the competition favourites over two legs.

Typically, they delivered a feisty home performance before succumbing meekly in Dublin; yet again, their discipline, the worst in the league, compounded pitiful defence.

At times, they have been utterly thrilling to watch; on other occasions, totally exasperating.

Players like Mack Hansen, by way of an Australian tavern, has surfed an exotic wave of terrific excitement all year; there have been lasting impressions made by Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver.

But so many others have regressed and the decision by the management to effectively cull the departing squad members from their recent South African tour spoke volumes.

That the management themselves have mostly been operating on the hoof – Andy Friend helms a staff of two novices at this level and another who had been out of the sport for 18 months – has hardly helped matters.

Friend spoke to the media yesterday for the final match week of the season and expressed his opinion that the players have struggled most when they have been forced to think about what they are doing.

“The game is about flow and when you’re thinking, you’re not in flow,” he says, alluding to the fact that this has undermined the too many occasions when Connacht have barely made it out of the traps at their greyhound stadium.

For the first time under his tutelage, Connacht will not be in the Champions Cup next term – “That hurts us” – and although there is much talk of giving the Challenge Cup a belt, remaining competitive in the United Rugby Championship must be their primary goal.

The addition of the South African quartet – as well as the geographical quirk which pitches Connacht against all three Irish provinces twice (how they would love a Zebre double!) – heightens the stakes.

This season they were ultimately found out while trying to develop a new playing style; some of the players either couldn’t cope or else gave up on it which reflects poorly on them as much as it does those doing the teaching.

Friend, who lambasted Connacht’s professional preparation levels after the Aviva implosion, is confident the arrival of a Leinster cohort and their “self-regulation” can add cohesion to his 44-man squad for next term.

Planning for next season is already firmly advanced.

Nonetheless, it seems sad that erstwhile stars like Ultan Dillane may be frozen out this week as the province’s season fizzles out.