Tuesday 17 July 2018

Keep the faith in new coach

Keane and Co can get back on track with Zebre victory

Niyi Adeolokun of Connacht is tackled by Tom James of Cardiff Blues
Niyi Adeolokun of Connacht is tackled by Tom James of Cardiff Blues

Ronan Loughney

Despite the fact that Cardiff is a lovely city my memories of playing away games there are mostly of disappointment and frustration and unfortunately that trend continued for the current team this season.

Disappointing as it was to lose after a four-game winning streak Connacht cannot dwell on this loss and will need to regroup ahead of what will be a tough trip to Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi this weekend.

The lead-in to the Cardiff game seemed to be positive with confidence and spirits high after the previous month's outings.

The team trained at Mervue United's artificial surface to prepare for Cardiff's 4G pitch and despite missing the likes of Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion to the Irish set-up, I was quietly confident that they would go over and get an all-important away win.

But another slow start left Connacht with a lot to do and while Niyi Adeolokun's intercept against the run of play and a brace of scores from Shane Delahunt put Connacht within reach of a win, it wasn't to be.

However, two losing bonus points were something positive to take from the game. It was good to see a strong involvement from Delahunt and Pita Ahki's line break for John Muldoon's try, which is doing the rounds on social media and hopefully it's just a taste of what's to come.

You would imagine that Ahki's sevens background will fit well with the brand of rugby Kieran Keane is looking for from his players and that he will flourish in an environment where players are being asked to be ambitious and express themselves. Most importantly, it adds more depth to what is already a strong group of players to pick from at centre and wing.

In previous articles, I wrote of the importance of patience when a new coach enters a set-up and I think it will be important to remind ourselves of this at different points throughout the season.

With the three different coaches I played under with Connacht their first year often felt like we were taking two steps forward and then one step back.

Moulding a team into a top-class side takes time but the important thing is to keep moving forward after a backward step. To date Keane's influence on this group of players seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

Positives

In a lot of positions now the coach has the luxury to rotate selection or not select players he feels haven't taken their chance when given it.

A certain amount of pressure to perform is a healthy thing for any player whether it is retaining their spot from the previous game or putting their hand up for a starting birth.

Connacht will have moved on from the Cardiff game very quickly and will be focusing on the challenge that lies ahead in Italy.

This is a tough fixture, this year more than any, when you look at the strides Zebre have made. We used to always talk about how the Zebre game was a potential banana skin, because you were expected to win over there but every year they would claim a few big scalps.

I have been on a team that has lost there, and when they get their tails up they are unbelievably passionate players, and it can turn into one of your toughest games.

For years the narrative going over there was if you got a few early scores and got on top of them that would kill the fire in them.

But this year Zebre are a different animal, they have scored 24 tries in the league, compared to Connacht's 20. They have demonstrated how dangerous they can be in attack and have claimed two early wins, which is more than they have had in previous seasons, and have also had two games where they have lost by just a point, they are on track for a brilliant campaign which is great for Italian rugby and also good for the league.

So it's a really different task for Connacht going over there, but it will mean that bit more if they can get a win.

It's no longer the Zebre of old where you expect to win and they expect you to win. Now you have to pull together a complete performance to come out victorious, because the Italians are operating on a different level to previous years.

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