Connacht will do well to stay within touching distance
Pat Lam's side have been struggling and it won't get any easier for them today, writes Jim Glennon
The pre-Christmas back-to-back fixtures have become one of the more interesting aspects of the European Cup calendar and until recent seasons Connacht were on the outside looking in. While they remain very much the poor relation of Irish rugby, they now find themselves on the inside, competing with the big boys for the third season on the trot.
We've seen glimpses in this season's tournament of what they are capable of. A narrow defeat at home to Saracens in the opening round would have provided great heart and belief for what lay ahead. However, even with an away win in Italy under their belt, Connacht are certainly not in a good place, metaphorically and in reality – there are few more difficult places to play at any time, and especially in their current predicament, than today's venue, Stade Ernest-Wallon, Toulouse.
Two wins against the Italian franchise Zebre, one in the league and the other in the cup, is the sum total from Pat Lam's first 11 games in charge. This is some way short of what would have been reasonably expected.
Nobody was in any doubt as to the difficulties involved in replacing Eric Elwood, who drove the province's team for the best part of 20 years, and a new coach is always entitled to a settling-in period, but nine losses from 11, regardless of the extent of the injury list, is approaching the crisis category. And yes, injuries have been a major factor, but this is a fact of life for all, and they must be dealt with in the same way.
Early indicators are that Lam doesn't cope too well with pressure, a pre-requisite for the job, one would have thought.
Recent statements in the aftermath of last week's hammering in Edinburgh and last week in relation to a possible short-term contract for Lote Tuqiri gave rise to more questions than they answered.
At the start of the season we had the unusual situation where the coach announced what was effectively a panel of captains made up of Michael Swift, John Muldoon, and Gavin Duffy – three stalwarts of the province – sharing and rotating the duties. Just how that works in practice is anyone's guess but, to me at least, it's evidence of indecision on the part of the coach, and is likely to have instilled some uncertainty in the minds of his squad.
The signing of Waikato Chiefs captain and second-row Craig Clarke was a coup for Lam and a signing that any top-level team would have been proud of. Clarke, a proven leader, appears to have made a real impression within the squad and last week he was appointed as onfield captain, with the aforementioned trio retaining their off-field duties.
Hopefully the arrangement will be successful, but the functionality of such a dynamic is difficult to visualise and, regrettably, the image which comes to mind is of a ship coming adrift in inclement weather, with a major storm looming on the horizon, the crew depleted and disorganised.
Prior to Clarke's recruitment, Elwood's signing of veteran outhalf Dan Parks was the most significant made by the province in recent years and it's one which has delivered a reasonable return.
An experienced, tactically strong, kicking number 10 was what was required for a team which struggled at times under a lack of top-quality players. Connacht played to their strengths, which happened to coincide nicely with those of their outhalf.
Undoubtedly Lam has his own views on the game, forged in the course of a lengthy and distinguished playing career, and knows the type of rugby he wants his team to play; there is however a view that a more conservative game plan oriented towards a strong kicking game and set-piece would be more suited to his team. The name of the game is victory, after all, not aesthetics.
In terms of today's game, avoiding a trouncing would be a reasonable outcome. The fitness of Robbie Henshaw, forced off during the embarrassing loss at Murrayfield, is a major boost in terms of providing something of a spark in the wider channels, but the quantity of quality possession he may receive is an issue.
Toulouse will target, mercilessly and relentlessly, their set-piece and breakdown and while the Connacht forwards will undoubtedly be game for the contest, just how long will they be able to mix it physically with the Toulouse eight, plus five powerful replacements?
It's by no means lost on me that pieces similar in tone to this were all over the sports pages of the Sunday papers just a fortnight ago; the feeling is almost identical – competing, and remaining in sight, would be viewed as an acceptable outcome.
Connacht might just pull a performance out of the bag to surprise everybody, and I'd be delighted were they to do so, but the odds, and the millions of euro in budget differentials, are stacked against them.
If they do manage to stay in touch today, then a packed Sportsground next Saturday evening will be a great place to be.