Saturday 20 January 2018

Lam hopes to unleash Clarke on Ulster

New Connacht signing Craig Clarke is hoping to be fit to play against Ulster on Saturday
New Connacht signing Craig Clarke is hoping to be fit to play against Ulster on Saturday
Conor George

Conor George

CONNACHT hope to have new signing and former Chiefs captain Craig Clarke available for Saturday's Pro12 clash against Ulster at the Sportsground.

This positive development is, however, tempered by the news that Miah Nikora must undergo surgery on a dislocated shoulder and has been ruled out for the next five months at least. It was a day of contrasting emotions for coach Pat Lam.

"Miah's news is a big blow to us. To lose a player of his experience is a massive blow. We'll get on with it – that's the nature of sport – but it is another obstacle for us," said Lam.

Clarke's capture was one of the most eye-catching pieces of business conducted during the summer by the Irish provinces.

The 30-year-old second row, who stands at 6' 7", joined Connacht from the Chiefs, having captained the New Zealand side to successive Super 15 titles.

They won their first title in 2012, when Clarke's performances won him a place in the Super 15 Team of the Year as well as his club's Player of the Season award.

Clarke then helped the Chiefs record a thrilling come-from-behind 27-22 victory against the Brumbies in the 2013 final at the start of August before joining Connacht.

Unfortunately, injury has delayed his competitive debut for the westerners, but Lam is hopeful he has recovered from the calf injury that sidelined him for Connacht's opening two games of the Pro12.

"Craig came through training today so we will put him into contact training tomorrow and take it from there," said the coach. "It would be good to get him on to the pitch on Saturday."

It is impossible to have a conversation about rugby in the northern hemisphere and not reference the on-going drama involving the Heineken Cup.

Connacht's Dan Parks played in Scotland and Wales before joining Connacht and the competition is just as important there as here.

"I know from my time in Glasgow it is something all the players look forward to," said the former Scotland international fly-half.

"With Cardiff it was something we targeted as the competition we wanted to do well in. Players are judged on their performances in the Heineken Cup, and you judge yourself on how you go in it too.

"Now I feel very fortunate to be involved with Connacht in the Heineken cup. I really enjoyed last season, it was amazing and I know how much everyone did enjoy it.

Survive

"Obviously we want to be in there every year if we can and we want the competition to survive."

Parks will face-off against Paddy Jackson when Ulster come calling on Saturday. The Ulster fly-half has come in for criticism for a lack of consistency in his opening two performances but Parks is a fan of the youngster.

"Looking at what Ulster have done over the last few years, Paddy has been pretty integral to what they have achieved. He has certainly got all the talent and I think he's proved already that he is a fine player," Parks said.

Meanwhile, Lam believes the scrum can be improved further if referees are stricter on prop-forwards on the 'bind' instruction.

The Connacht coach wants referees to take the time to make sure the props have a proper grip of each other's jersey before calling for them to 'set'.

He is confident that, if referees take that extra second, the scrum will be further improved.

"It's so much better than last season. They're certainly on the right track but it does need to be tweaked a little bit," said Lam.

"If you have a proper look at the ones that have collapsed, it's the ones where the bind isn't solid that cause the problems.

"If the referee is on top of the bind it could make another huge difference to the competition."

The "crouch, bind, set" sequence, aimed at reducing the impact on players of the 'hit' and cutting scrum collapses, has been introduced for an initial 12-month trial period.

The number of collapsing scrums has decreased but Lam wants even more clarity from the referees.

"I don't think they're all receiving the same message," he said. "In Super rugby the referees and the coaches receive the same messages and education. It's the same in the Premiership.

"In the Rabo we're across four Unions. We need to ensure all the referees, coaches and players receive the same message and it will clean up the scrum area even more."

Lam referenced the tightness of the jerseys worn as a reason why referees should take time to check the binds.

"It's not like the old jerseys we used to play in. These uniforms are skin-tight. They're not easy to grip, especially when it's wet. Sometimes the referee is not even looking at the bind.

"He is immediately going to set and the scrum is going down.

"Once that is sorted there will be another improvement in the stats and everyone will be happier. But the referees need to control it."

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