Thursday 19 April 2018

Connacht facing troubled times with new regime already playing catch-up


Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Treasures can often be mined from troubled times.

"We're hoping to put a little bit of polish on the rough diamond," says Connacht coach Kieran Keane.

Except that the last place you'd probably choose to go looking for a golden glint would be the home of the Guinness PRO14 champions, in a town where your team has never won a game in the professional era.

Not to worry. Belfast beckons a week later, where the westerners' losing streak only dates back to 1960 and some 34 matches. Or, perhaps, it is 33 or 35. Mercifully, no history books record the exact figure.

Connacht's immediate problem is not necessarily the twin peaks that face them over the next two weekends, rather the slippery slopes from which they tumbled over the last two.

An egregious defeat at Rodney Parade - mercifully it was not televised but our Connacht friends tell us it was one of the worst defeats of recent memory - was swiftly followed by a quite different experience, a calamitous clutching of defeat from the teeth of victory in a ruinous botched final play against Cardiff.

Losing to Glasgow at home was a manageable reverse; perhaps, too, the inevitability of continuing their sequence of away-day despair in west Wales and Belfast, as history and current form seem to indicate is more likely than not.

However, Connacht had alighted upon the back-to-back games against the lesser lights of Wales, as well as the visit to Galway of the currently wretched novel additions from South Africa, for some initial succour as they bed in their new coaching staff.

Those plans now lie in ruins and an embattled squad and equally beleaguered head coach Kieran Keane find themselves firmly on the back foot.

Of course, this is all Pat Lam's fault. Well, mostly Lam's fault. Let's blame the players too while we're at it. Oh, and a good portion of the Connacht Clan.

For this is what happens when you become victims of your own success. Expectations rise. Demands soar. Patience thins.

With the glorious championship success of a mere 16 months ago still lodged firmly in the memory banks, the precipitous decline in form since then has unfurled darker memories of the decade and more of under-achievement that had preceded it.

This was not the script that was supposed to follow the fairytale.

It will, of course, take time for a new coaching staff to bed in, with all the attendant focus on structures, process and game-plans that herald regime change.

But the question searing into the minds of Connacht supporters will justifiably be - how much time do they have?

We have been here before, of course. Indeed, the fairytale of May 2016 began with a run of results that was much more nightmarish than that currently being witnessed.

Except then, few beyond their borders cared very deeply and more noticed less. Because nothing was expected of them from beyond their own dressing-room walls, save the odd flutter of passionate one-upmanship.

Lam began his tenure with a victory but followed that opening-day success with eight successive defeats.

Hauled before the province's PGB - the Professional Games Board - effectively his employers, operating on behalf of paymasters, the IRFU - Lam was forced to defend himself and justify the road he was paving.

His side subsequently struck gold in Toulouse and, incrementally, the path to glory became more easily sign-posted.

This season, as a result of last season's decline, Connacht's opening European foray will take place well beyond the public glare, in Geneva, against Oyonnax, in the unfashionable second-tier Challenge Cup. The glory days seem ever distant now.

Last Saturday, in Galway, Connacht should have secured their second win of the season but for an unforgivable meltdown in the final two minutes, conceding a try just when it seemed that their own try had given them the edge.

The silence in the Sportsground when Jarrod Evans struck his conversion to steal the points spoke volumes.

Keane was shocked, not into the silence that greeted the final whistle, but into a slightly surreal state of staccato dialogue in his live TV interview afterwards.

Suffice to say, the video review of a performance that clearly angered the new Kiwi coach offered far more eloquence on Monday morning as the province painfully attempt to negotiate what could be another difficult few weeks.

While results are paramount, defeats can be manageable; it is the decline in performance which must worry supporters.

Their attack is limp, their defence lamer, their breakdown work is shoddy but, most shockingly of all compared to the side that thrilled two seasons ago, the decline in the basic skills of the game have been apparent for all to see.

While there have been changes to the style of play, the impact has been negligible. Keane appears to be a coach who wants players to, in the modern parlance, play 'heads-up' rugby; presumably, contrasting to Lam's emphasis on repetition.

However, by already publicly calling out the lack of intelligence in his team's play this season, it is clear that much has been lost in translation.

Keane's CV demands respect and so does the squad's status as erstwhile champions but the initial days of this marriage are less than promising.

"We need to make a statement sooner or later," says Keane.



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