Sunday 25 February 2018

If we win the breakdown, we win the war

Confidence high in camp ahead of decider thanks to six-try win in Italy

Connacht’s Bundee Aki releases the ball under pressure from the Zebre defence
Connacht’s Bundee Aki releases the ball under pressure from the Zebre defence
Conor McKeon gestures to team-mates during Connacht's victory in Italy

Johnny O'Connor

It's Super Saturday tomorrow in the league - you look at all the fixtures all starting at 3pm and it makes everything a lot more exciting in comparison to any other year.

There is something to play for all over the place. When you think there's a big interest in a game between Scarlets and Treviso or Edinburgh and Leinster on the last day of the season, that says it all.

People wouldn't normally really care but because of the league table and what is on offer now, it's a brilliant format. In fairness to the people that came up with this method of qualification for the Champions Cup, it has definitely worked wonders for the league.

And after last weekend Connacht are going to be right there in the thick of things tomorrow afternoon - a six-try victory in Italy and Edinburgh's defeat to Dragons means they can snatch seventh place and a play-off spot although Scarlets look to be in control of the final automatic spot.

But the score Connacht posted and the manner in which they put Zebre away on their home patch really has to be appreciated.

It was Mauro Bergamasco's last home game so you would have thought the Italians would have a bit of fight in them, especially because they are vying for Champions Cup qualifications themselves.

Connacht have been looking to find a run of form for some time now. That's a big win for them and there's not too many sides that have gone to Zebre and come back with that sort of scoreline.

They executed their game-plan very well, made a lot of good decisions and were clinical at the end of the day. I really admired the way Pat Lam wasn't afraid to make some brave calls. Kieran Marmion has been one of the stand-out players for Connacht in recent years but hasn't really been performing up to that level lately.

They gave John Cooney a shot and it just shows the coaches are not afraid to make those decisions. Although it is tough for Marmion, it doesn't make him a bad player by any means. He came on and played quite well when he did but it will rouse him now to try and get back into form - sometimes that's all you need.

I'm not criticising him or questioning his attitude, but sometimes you get a run in the team for so long that you become comfortable. As a result, it's easy for your form to dip.

You want that competition now and you would hope Cooney picks up where he left off against the Italians in his next game because he has all the attributes to become a really good player too.

A win on the back of a few defeats in a row can also build morale in a team and with the way Connacht put Zebre away last weekend I see no reason as to why they can't go out against Ospreys and pull off a shock.

But Ospreys are a very, very good team and there's a reason why they are top of the standings at the moment. They are very smart in the way they control the breakdown and put in just enough players to cause disruption.

They are a very experienced team as well. I certainly wouldn't go as far as calling them cheats, but they are one of those teams that does the simple things well, excellently in fact.

There would be a little trip here, a little nudge out of the way there and all of those things help to create a bit more space for them elsewhere. Certainly around the breakdown they are a difficult team to play against.

Connacht are obviously still setting their sights high and hoping Treviso can shock Scarlets and beat them over in Italy but it will probably to come down to what happens at Murrayfield.

Funnily enough, Connacht could have to rely on Leinster once more to get them through to next season's Champions Cup or at least provide them with a chance in the play-off.

If Leinster beat Edinburgh, seventh is there for the taking but Connacht need to focus on their own job and if they play like they did against Zebre, I believe they can do it.

It's already been a fantastic season, you could probably say it has been a success already but I'm sure Pat Lam will be asking for one more big performance. And then two more in the play-offs.

Injury curse opens door for youngsters

A major positive from all of Connacht's injuries is that a number of young players have gotten game time which will certainly benefit the team next season.

We saw on Saturday the likes of Shane O'Leary picking up a try, Conor McKeon landing a couple of conversions and Eoghan Masterson, who is having a very impressive end to the season, scoring as well.

It's great for the young lads to get this time in the Connacht shirt especially with a Champions Cup place on the line because the experience of playing with this pressure will no doubt hold them in good stead for the future.

The added bonus of the youth players breaking through is that there is perhaps more money to spend on a big summer signing.

Huge credit must go to the academy, Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy in particular.

They've a certain style of player they want to breed which is an intelligent player who can play football and not all physicality.

If they can keep educating and producing players who are rugby-savvy and can take the correct decision in a match, then it definitely bodes well for Connacht rugby.

Irish Independent

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