Wednesday 18 September 2019

Johnny O'Connor: Top four spot should be Connacht's lofty target this season

Good start to the season can be backed up with European run

John Cooney's absence will be a blow for Connacht
John Cooney's absence will be a blow for Connacht

Johnny O'Connor

Looking at it from the outside, things couldn’t be any better for Connacht at the moment, top of the Pro12 in November and the European break coming at the ideal time.

It’s quite remarkable that they have managed to win six of their opening seven games and I’m sure Pat Lam and his coaching staff will be delighted to reach their first goal.

With the internationals away on World Cup duty, and Connacht only missing two players they wanted to take full advantage, and they did.

Six wins from seven, and a one-point defeat along the way, is a fantastic return and the guys have started to play with a confidence and swagger that you see from a team that operates at the top.

I’ve heard people complain about the fact that Connacht couldn’t secure a bonus point against Treviso last weekend but you can’t just always tot them up.

They need to keep the expectations up though, if players start to dwell on the fact that they are doing so well then they might fall back into old habits, but I feel this Connacht team has shown enough maturity to push on.

Connacht will be top of the league until at least November 27 and that means the goals need to change. A top six finish shouldn’t be the aim, this team needs to look higher and a top four finish is a realistic ambition.

If Connacht are to make such strides from last year they need to pick up every point they can along the way but last week was a case of four points gained, not a point lost.

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The opposition need to be taken into account, although Treviso haven’t won all season they do have four losing bonus points, so they have never been far off the pace.

It took some smart defensive play to keep Treviso out in the first-half. The Connacht rearguard got breached three times in the game and that was more down to the skill of the Italians, rather than any defensive lapses.

Treviso’s scrum and lineout were strong so it was a good test of where Connacht are at. Crucially, Craig Ronaldson kept them on target for the win and they were patient and mature enough to wait for the tries to come.

It was disappointing to lose Tom McCartney and John Cooney though and hopefully they won’t be out for too long because after Europe, the Pro12 hots up again, right away – a top-of-the-table clash with Munster at Thomond Park whets the appetite.

But for now, Connacht need to negotiate a tricky trip to Siberia where there’s a possibility they could get turned over. If Connacht don’t move into this with their heads screwed on it could be a massive shock.

But I don’t see it happening as long as Pat Lam uses the experience he has brought with him, and doesn’t play 15 youngsters in those conditions.

Not only will the weather be hard to cope with but Enisei-STM are hugely physical.

The older and more experienced heads in the Connacht squad have a big role to play, they need to guide the younger guys. If they don’t, then it affects the whole club. It’s a big responsibility but Connacht have the right blend there and they should go half and half with youth and experience.

Europe is not going to be Connacht’s biggest concern this season, the Challenge Cup is a second-tier tournament for a reason, and if Connacht want to play at the top table again the likely route back is through the Pro12.

So it’s crucial any tired bodies are given time off after what has been a hectic few weeks. The thing with rugby is you cannot afford to rest up players and wrap them in cotton wool all of the time.

But Pat Lam can give the guys who haven’t seen much game time so far this season a place in the squad tomorrow. Rotation is the key to keep Connacht moving in the right direction and if the players can be fresh enough for that Munster tie in two weeks’ time, they could win it and what a boost that would be.

But in the meantime there’s the small matter of a trip to Siberia before a big clash with Brive at the Sportsground.

Connacht won’t want to cough up any defeats on their home turf so they will look to protect their record at their fortress, but not expend any undue energy in the process.

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