Saturday 18 November 2017

Johnny O'Connor: Big response needed from Connacht to be fired up for Dragons

Mistakes must be cut out if Lam’s men want to win away to Dragons

Connacht’s George Naoupu is tackled by Scarlets duo Peter Edwards and Steve Shingler
Connacht’s George Naoupu is tackled by Scarlets duo Peter Edwards and Steve Shingler
Connacht’s Matt Healy is tackled by Harry Robinson, Scarlets

Johnny O'Connor

Unfortunately, my S4C stream was a wee bit wonky out in Qatar, but from what I saw Pat Lam has every right to be annoyed with his side's performance against Scarlets. He'll look for and they'll need a lot better this Sunday against Dragons.

Mistakes happen in every game, but when they end up costing you tries they become a major issue. Lam spoke about missed tackles and system errors that cost his side three of their four tries. In crucial games like last weekend against your key rivals, they cannot happen.

Connacht have now lost their last two Pro12 fixtures to their closest rivals for the top-six finish. A win on Sunday will go somewhat towards repairing that damage if Edinburgh and Scarlets lose as expected to Ulster and Munster respectively, but points are critical in the next few games.

Looking at the game at the weekend, it might look like Connacht lost out in the second quarter when they conceded three tries, but the big self-inflicted damage was done in the first ten or 12 minutes.

After Jack Carty kicked them into the lead and Scarlets flanker John Barclay was sin-binned, Connacht had a try ruled out for blocking. Instead of building on their lead, they actually ended that sin-binning 6-3 behind after Stephen Shingler landed two penalties - that was crucial and they never really recovered from it.

Looking at the Scarlets team before the game and who was absent for them, I was pretty satisfied that Connacht had the ammunition to win. I didn't think it would be easy, but I thought they'd kick on to victory. They have a bit of a fight on their hands now to get a few points on the board.

Since Connacht beat Scarlets last back in November they have now lost four of their last five Pro12 games. That win against Munster looks to have been pretty crucial now, but getting at least two wins from Sunday's trip to Dragons, the home game with Treviso and another Welsh tie with Cardiff is vital. With Munster, Ulster and Glasgow to follow after that, the games don't get any easier.

Sunday's loss is a disappointing result, but it is not the end of the world either. Just when we thought Connacht looked down and out after the loss to Ospreys, they kicked back with back-to-back wins.

Absence

While other teams are missing out on quite a few players to international squads, the absence of Robbie Henshaw to Ireland and Bundee Aki to injury is beginning to look significant. Those two lads hit it off as a partnership immediately and it was no coincidence that Connacht's best run of form came when they were both starting. Danie Poolman and Dave McSharry's partnership is still a work in progress - they are both excellent rugby players - but sometimes it can take a few games to settle in.

Connacht still missed the experience of Mils Muliaina at the weekend too. I'm sure the coaches are delighted to have Nathan White back there at last - no doubt he'd have been involved for Ireland only for his injury.

When a game is going against you, you need to have a cool head to realise you can take the game from moment to moment rather than losing your composure. Mils would have that calming influence and he will be missed, but lads like Nathan will certainly bring that.

I was pretty surprised to hear Dragons beat Leinster and deserved to do so. Their position in the league tells us they have not been very consistent all season and struggle to do it two weeks in a row.

Connacht will miss Kieran Marmion though because of his shoulder injury and with John Cooney gone back to Leinster as part of his loan deal, there is now a big responsibility on Ian Porter and Caolin Blade.

It is always difficult to go away from home and win, but you'd still think that Connacht have what it takes to go to Newport and win. If they beat Dragons over there, it wouldn't be a shock but there is no guarantee at all.

Maybe we didn't account for how good Scarlets were going to be on their own patch and neglected to recall how close it was when they came to the Sportsground. Dragons, too, were unlucky when they visited Galway so don't expect an easy win. We'd take a sloppy one-point victory.

Ireland have the look of champions

Another day, another win for Ireland, who look like the team to beat in this Six Nations competition

I fancied Wales before the competition started, but the way Ireland have managed to switch plans for different opposition gives me confidence.

England are also sitting pretty with two wins from two and have been pretty physical and ruthless in their destruction of Wales and Italy. But like a rugby version of MacGyver, no doubt Joe Schmidt has a plan. Right now, Ireland's ever-changing style of play makes them a pretty unique side in the northern hemisphere. Against France, they weighed up the opposition, identified their physicality and tried to move them around, which eventually opened them up.

The rewards all came from penalties, but who cares? Johnny Sexton deserved great credit for the performance he put in after 12 weeks out, and he was brave to the point of recklessness at times the way he put his body on the line.

England have a few big units too and no doubt Schmidt will keep them turning as often as possible, and will have a few intricate variations to his game-plan.

Irish Independent

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