Monday 19 November 2018

Connacht possess the artillery to go back to the future

Jack Carty of Connacht Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Carty of Connacht Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A few weeks ago in the aftermath of the Irish clean sweep over back-to-back fixtures in Europe, a Connacht supporter took me to task for not acknowledging their performance in the same light as the other three teams. He was wrong.

There is no comparison between the standard of Champions Cup and Challenge Cup - just as the Champions League and Europa League in football are light years apart.

Connacht's achievements have never been understated in this quarter, but to suggest beating Brive in the shadow event somehow equates with the cut-throat intensity of the greatest club tournament in world rugby is delusional.

However, what that magical fortnight in December did offer, particularly from Kieran Keane's perspective, was an opportunity away from the Guinness Pro14 spotlight to put into competitive practice against different opposition the principles he is clearly trying to impose since taking the coaching reins from Pat Lam.

In getting the better of Brive twice and then Ulster so convincingly on St Stephen's Day (bear in mind the last match before those Challenge Cup games resulted in a 24-10 defeat away to Zebre), there were definite signs of a pattern emerging.

Today's match at the RDS is massive in that context and should be very informative but, if I could use the phrase 'going back to the future', then that is where I see John Muldoon and company at this point in time.

Every newly-appointed coach in whatever sporting code wants to impose his or her modus operandi and Keane, much like Johann van Graan at Munster, is no different.

Given what his predecessor achieved by way of a winning style of rugby that was so easy on the eye, the new Connacht head coach would be plain daft not to try and build on everything that effectively the same group of players achieved under Lam.

The last three weeks have shown that there is a way to return to that all-embracing brand of possession rugby and still come out on top but it must be mixed with a dose of pragmatic decision-making.

While it is a high risk buy-in - for the coaches every bit as much as the players - the key going into 2018 is balance. And in that respect I like what I am seeing.

Specifically, I would highlight the input of Ultan Dillane, Jarrad Butler and, most particularly, Jack Carty. Let's call a spade a spade here - Connacht have struggled at out half since AJ MacGinty's departure to Sale.

The former Blackrock player was a revelation in his year out west. But even he had his moments of madness when running from everywhere and anywhere in that great year.

In Carty, I see the components to make him a really dominant out-half but for whatever reason, whether it is missed kicks at goal or the odd handling glitch in a match, much like Ian Keatley (one of his predecessors in the 10 shirt), the head drops and confidence wanes.

When Connacht Academy manager Eric Elwood walked on to the pitchin that position, whether for Lansdowne, Connacht or Ireland, he oozed presence and confidence.

I trust that he and the current incumbent are sharing the odd cuppa.

Put simply, if Carty (and indeed Kieran Marmion who has been excellent) can draw that line between time to play territory and time to play ball then Connacht under Keane could well and truly go back to the future.

No great shift in emphasis is needed for today's match - just minor tactical tweaks.

Both Carty and Marmion will be put to the test against the quality of their immediate opposites Johnny Sexton and Luke McGrath.

The McGrath/Marmion tussle will be akin to a final trial to make the shadow scrum-half position to Conor Murray for the upcoming Six Nations.

Once again, Leo Cullen has mixed and matched with yet another formidable team.

Only Dan Leavy and James Lowe survive Limerick with still no sign (for various reasons) of Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Isa Nacewa, Rhys Ruddock or Seán O'Brien.

The pack looks a little more vulnerable but even that is relative. And for Seán Cronin and Max Deegan opportunity knocks, albeit in different ways. Deegan is yet another star in the making.

Leinster are favourites but Connacht will rattle their cage.

Irish Independent

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