Wednesday 11 December 2019

The clash against Scarlets could define our season

Looks like we're in direct fight with Welsh visitors for European spot

Mils Muliaina goes through a stretching routine during training
Mils Muliaina goes through a stretching routine during training
Connacht's Eoghan Masterson wins possession in a lineout

Johnny O'Connor

We might have expected Connacht to have a nice cushion built up ahead of tomorrow's game with Scarlets, but an unexpected win for them against Glasgow means there is just a point between the sides.

What was a critical game has now been turned into a bit of a season definer.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but the way the table is panning out, the two games with Scarlets could decide if Connacht make it into the top six or not.

There is a gap appearing between the top seven teams and the rest, so it looks as if it could be a battle between Connacht and the Llanelli side for the coveted sixth place.

Given that Connacht face three Irish derbies in a row after this game, points will be hard earned, so this is now a must win.

But I think Pat Lam's side can back up their great result last week with another win to make it six victories from nine league games.

We all thought the win would come against Zebre, but I was impressed with how they went about it. There was no complacency: they kicked their early penalties, took their chances and made the most of the try-scoring chances when they arrived. It was clear to see lessons had been learned from the Cardiff game.

All eyes were on Mils Muliaina to see how he fared on his debut after such a long lay off but he looked pretty sharp. He is flawless under the high ball and at times the fact that it was him carrying the ball seemed to create gaps.

Dave McSharry and Bundee Aki went well in the centre, but it will be very interesting to see how they line up once Robbie Henshaw is reintroduced. The raw materials for a stunning back line are now in place, from Kieran Marmion right back to Muliaina.

Even Matt Healy and Danie Poolman are on top form.

There will be concern about the lineout though, it misfired again and only for Zebre were pretty poor it could have cost Connacht. Fingers may have been pointed at Jason Harris-Wright and Tom McCartney, but it was more than that.

Collective

The lineout is a collective thing rather than being about the individual. It is too easy too pick on the hooker or the lad calling the lineout.

Often I would have been at the back of the lineout and I would miss a lift and cause the lineout to misfire. Other times you'd nail the lift but I would be in the wrong space. I'd say there is plenty of work put into that this week from Dan McFarland and Co though, because Scarlets are a strong lineout outfit.

Tomorrow I'll be looking for a few questions to be answered. I expect Connacht to field their strongest team for this game, that means there will be no place for Craig Ronaldson in the centre. So who is the team's kicker? Does Ronaldson start at 10?

Jack Carty has the talent, but perhaps an injury has hindered his kicking. Ian Porter won't start ahead of Marmion, and Daragh Leader is unlikely to elbow out Muliaina. It's an interesting thing to watch develop.

I expect Connacht to gain the upper hand at the scrum again, especially with McCartney likely to start. He seemed to add a bit of bulk to the front-row when he came on. But I will also be keen to see who starts in the pack, especially in the back-row.

George Naoupu was man of the match against Zebre and it was also notable that he was named player of the month for October. He looks to have rediscovered his form. He certainly seems to have put some much-needed bulk back on again after losing it last season. Having that punch is vital for someone who wants to play No 8. I'm delighted to see him playing well.

I will also be interested to see how Connacht cope defensively. Against the top teams they have faced, they have been picked apart at times, so it will be revealing to see how they cope against a side that has lost only one of their last six Pro12 games.

But you have to ask, are Scarlets a better side than Connacht? I don't think so. They will play attractive rugby and if you are lazy they will open you up, but I think the class Connacht now have to call on is at a different level. A home win.

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