Thursday 19 April 2018

Internationals aiding Keane's play-off drive

Fringe players are making big impact during a key part of the season

James Cannon beating Ospreys’ Rob McCusker in a lineout. Photo: Sportsfile
James Cannon beating Ospreys’ Rob McCusker in a lineout. Photo: Sportsfile

Ronan Loughney

This time in the rugby calendar always sees excitement among supporters reach an annual high.

With all the analysis, discussion and coverage of the Six Nations, the PRO14 games can often fade into the background.

However, for many teams lying lower in the league table these fixtures are a good opportunity to acquire some valuable points.

These fixtures have a heightened importance for teams with less internationals within their ranks who come up against teams who have been depleted by international selection.

Teams with less international representatives benefit massively from consistency of player availability and selection during this period.

While Connacht currently have the most international players they've ever had in their squad, there were only three in the Ireland match-day squad last weekend.

Leinster had 12 players involved, and while their squad size and resources are more suited to deal with this strain, the inexperience of their squad was telling in their loss to Edinburgh.

Connacht's game against Ospreys came with a heightened importance given that the Welsh team lay just below them in the table.

And Craig Ronaldson's late penalty to deny Ospreys a losing bonus point has given Connacht even more momentum, but it must have been a painful sting in the tail for Ospreys who came away with nothing.

It also topped off a strong individual performance by Ronaldson.

As someone who has been unlucky with injuries over the years it was pleasing to see him put in a good 80-minute shift and his accuracy from the kicking tee kept the momentum flowing for Connacht throughout the game.

Tom Farrell and Eoin Griffin had strong performances in the centre again.

Farrell's slick footwork again created the space to allow him to cross for his fourth try of the season on 68 minutes.

His hunger for involvement and industry off the ball all contribute to impressive individual stats from his appearances this year.

He has made 11 linebreaks so far this season, equal to Tiernan O'Halloran and only beaten by Matt Healy.

Strong

Caolin Blade also had a strong performance at nine and it is encouraging for the coaching staff that in the absence of Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux, players are taking their opportunities for game time and staking their claims for future selection.

Given that the Ospreys shared 50pc of possession it was Connacht's defence that played the central role in them getting the win.

The home side made almost 100 tackles more than the visitors and while this reflects poorly on Connacht's protection of possession in this game it does say a lot about how improved their defence now is.

The defensive system really seems to be firing much more consistently and is allowing individuals to use their strengths and make big hits and win tackles within the system.

Zebre travel to Galway this evening after an industrious but ultimately fruitless performance in Thomond Park last week.

Despite the fact that Munster ran out easy winners in the end, Zebre stuck in the fight until just before the hour mark.

Connacht need to continue their home form and be clinical against a team that has tasted victory against the home side before, albeit never at the Sportsground.

This is an opportunity for Connacht to pick up five points and if Munster can secure a win in Cardiff tomorrow, Connacht will go into the next European window in fourth place but with that final qualifying spot in their grasp given the Cheetahs' ineligibility for Europe.

After a slow start to the league Connacht have rallied and garnered momentum over the year. They are now edging out games without comprehensive performances.

This is crucial to success in any league - being able to win ugly. Tonight may not be the most glamorous of games, but is a crucial fixture in the lead-in to the final leg of the season.

Irish Independent

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