Wednesday 18 September 2019

Expect Friend's troops to bounce back from Ospreys shocker against Dragons

Kieran Marmion returned to action for Connacht last weekend. Picture: Ben Evans/Sportsfile
Kieran Marmion returned to action for Connacht last weekend. Picture: Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Noel Mannion

When Connacht rested the big hitters like Bundee Aki, Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion for the Challenge Cup game against Sale, they probably headed off to Bridgend with some degree of optimism. But that was a very tough defeat to take and they must regroup for tomorrow's clash with Dragons.

It won't be an easy game either but you expect Andy Friend to be able to inspire a big win as the players head into the break. A bonus-point victory would be a fantastic way to banish the demons from the loss against Ospreys.

When you consider that Ospreys appeared to field a second-string side, it was an impressive win for them. It was a very young starting 15 and they had two 18-year-olds on the team, which was a big move. Connacht would have said they probably should have won.

But it was a strange result when you consider the age profile of the Ospreys team. They went at it hammer and tongs for the first 15 or 20 minutes and Connacht couldn't cope with their approach.

Space Allen Clarke wrote an article in early September about rule changes. It was regarding creating more space and one of the rules he was advocating was that if an attacking team kicked the ball into the opposition 22, landed it in-field and it went into touch then they would retain the lineout.

His idea is that the opposing winger or full-back would have to stay back and leave a bit of space out wide and create a gap for the attacking team. That was never followed up on obviously, but it appears to me that Clarke was working a tactic like that at the weekend.

I have never seen a team kick so much of the ball, particularly in the first half; every chance they drove the ball downfield. Tiernan O'Halloran, Cian Kelleher and Niyi Adeolokun were all over the place. They were completely disorientated with what was going on.

If you are not used to that kind of game that can happen. Ospreys were just trying to turn Connacht around and Connacht never got any pattern to their play. The two early tries came from a scrappy clearance by Tiernan which came off the back of an Ospreys kick. The second try came from a mistake by Kelleher. He was chasing back and carried the ball over his own line before he touched it down.

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Ospreys should have been 14-0 up but they converted neither try and then Connacht got it back to 10-3. At that stage Connacht seemed to have gotten to grips with it. But then the game languished at that scoreline.

Connacht had got sucked into that kicking game and for the third try they got caught when they failed to defend correctly from a kick-chase. The play was broken and suddenly Ospreys were in for a 17-3 lead. It was a panic stations from a Connacht viewpoint.

But in fairness to them Connacht got fresh legs on the pitch, got hold of the ball, and worked it into the right position to score from.

When Connacht had it back to 17-17 they really had the game in their hands. The momentum swung. The type of game that Ospreys decided to play can be very tiring and that looked to have cost them dearly.

At 17-3, Connacht would have taken a draw, but once it got to that point Connacht should have taken the win. But then unfortunately there was another loose kick in the wrong part of the pitch and a few missed tackles later and Ospreys were back challenging the Connacht line.

It looked like Evans had knocked on in the process of scoring but in fairness to the referee he seemed to make the right call. The decision could have gone either way - it was just unfortunate from a Connacht point of view.

But this game was lost in the opening minutes. When you go over there, get caught early and fall behind, only to then get yourselves back into the game, you have to kick on and win it. Connacht did the hard work and never finished the job.

If Jack Carty could have had a bit more patience when it came to the drop-goal attempt, and Connacht could have worked another phase or two, it could have made a difference.

Stunned I was stunned with the way Ospreys addressed the game, they had two left-footed kickers and one right-footed kicker and that proved a nightmare for Connacht's back three. Ospreys mixed the game up completely and the Connacht defenders couldn't get into any rhythm either.

But Connacht should bounce back with a win tomorrow. In Galway, even allowing for recent results, Connacht should be well capable of taking Dragons.

The only problem is the mindset. Player, talent and skill-wise they should be well up for it. Friend needs to shake that defeat off and get rid of it. He took a bit of a gamble with the Challenge Cup. He looked at the game against the Ospreys as the last opportunity where he would have the internationals for a couple of weeks. For the first half of the Sale game the gamble probably paid off but in the end the home team pulled away.

Then all the eggs were in the Ospreys basket and the manner in which they were beaten was probably tough to take. But they have got get a win here and I am confident Connacht will.

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