Wednesday 21 August 2019

Pat Lam hopes for 'the gift of healing' as battered and bruised Connacht search for momentum

Ultan Dillane falls to the ground under pressure from Ulster’s Sean Reidy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane falls to the ground under pressure from Ulster’s Sean Reidy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Connacht coach Pat Lam may have run down the stairs of his house yesterday morning with even more giddy excitement than some of his children.

"I'm hoping that I might get the gift of healing this Christmas," he told us ruefully on Friday night after another chastening experience for his battered and bruised squad in Belfast.

He may have been disappointed; knowing Lam's current luck, our rotund, benevolent friend of the north probably twisted his ankle coming down their chimney.

Last season's unlikely Guinness Pro12 champions head into 2017 situated in depressingly familiar circumstances, jettisoned further from the leading contenders after Friday's dismal 23-7 defeat to Ulster at the Kingspan.

Now eighth, it is not just the two places that separate them from Champions Cup qualification but also the seven-point gap, not to mention that the sixth-placed side, Glasgow, seem unlikely to get worse before they get vastly better.

Connacht are struggling for any momentum in this league and, whether it is psychological or otherwise, they have reserved their best performances for Europe, an eerie similarity to 2016's other surprise story, Leicester City, who have also sunk like a stone in league combat despite thriving on the continent.

"We'll keep going until the final day," said Lam, his efforts at engendering some sense of enthusiasm and excitement almost as unconvincing as his team's had been.

Connacht were never in this contest but remained a distant threat to Ulster nonetheless, which in itself demonstrates how poorly a considerably stronger Les Kiss' outfit managed to negotiate the evening.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

Storm Barbara had taken a nap before kick-off; if she had played, she might have livened up a torturous affair.

Tries in either half from Stuart McCloskey and Clive Ross back-boned the win, Paddy Jackson's now pleasantly unerring boot doing the rest of the scoring.

"A win was the priority but there are some things we'd like to do better," said Kiss with unwitting understatement.

"Under the conditions and the way Connacht play, it was handy to get the result with the game we have still in hand.

"But we know Leinster will be super-strong. At least Christmas dinner will have tasted nice with the beer or whiskey."

We needed either to sit through this 80 minutes, only briefly sparked to life by a Charles Piutau dance or three.

The fact remains that Ulster were 20-0 up with 53 minutes; any side with title aspirations, especially with a full house backing a full-strength team, should be zooming into bonus-point territory.

Instead, Ulster coughed and spluttered, allowing Connacht the softest of scores, as they bizarrely claimed the final quarter 7-3, despite finishing with 14 fit bodies on the field.

All of which confirms why Ulster's yawning wait for silverware will probably continue this season; they may not even make the play-offs on this patchy form and they now have to send a weakened team to Dublin.

Connacht hadn't won here since 1960 and never looked likely to end that miserable run on Friday, despite their bravery amidst the crumbling wreckage of their team that is falling apart at the seams.

One almost expected the Westerners to travel home in an ambulance rather than their usual coach.

Finlay Bealham shipped a heavy blow to the head early on, staggered on for a while before staggering off; Danie Poolman needed a HIA as well.

Ultan Dillane came on and then came off again with suspected ankle trouble; Niyi Adeolokun, the same affliction. Tom McCartney, their prized hooker, had to be registered on the bench as a prop.

Noel Mannion and Ciaran Fitzgerald may get a phone call before Munster pitch up in Galway on New Year's Eve.

"I was extremely proud of the boys," added Lam. "We will have our 16th man against Munster and that will be important.

"We had nine backs this week and no training session. We were undone twice in that midfield because the guys literally only got their training from a bit of video and a walk-through, I can't fault anyone for effort.

"We're disappointed and have nothing to show for our efforts. It is a hard place to win particularly when we make it harder for ourselves."

They look vulnerable regardless what team Munster send north; Ulster, too, when they head down the M1 to Dublin without their leading lights; Iain Henderson will be such a huge loss on this form.

Indo Sport

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport