Tuesday 12 December 2017

Johnny O'Connor: Challenge now is to cope with favourites' tag

Lam's men must maintain fearless approach to kick on and push for the play-offs

Pat Lam
Pat Lam
Pat Lam has instilled real belief in his Connacht squad, with captain John Muldoon (pictured) leading the way

Johnny O'Connor

I was quietly confident that Connacht would have too much for Munster at Thomond Park last weekend. It had been 29 years since they beat them down there, but this is the best Connacht side to have travelled to Limerick in a long time.

Not just individually, but in terms of mindset, the structures that are in place, and the momentum they have built up.

I don't think there is any doubt now - Connacht are playing the best rugby of the four Irish provinces, and they deserve to head the Pro12 table.

It's a fantastic effort from all involved and hopefully they can keep the run going this weekend away to Cardiff, because it is a league not a knock-out competition.

You don't get any extra points for beating an inter-provincial rival, and it would have been straight back to business on Monday morning. But that's not to belittle this achievement. Plenty of good Connacht teams have travelled to Limerick and come back with nothing.

This team have beaten Munster in pre-season and again last weekend, and that comes on the back of the hard work by the experienced guys - fuelled by a younger brigade who have no inferiority complex.

These guys have come through a really successful academy at the Sportsground and they are well-used to winning interpros and beating Munster at underage level.

They go to Munster thinking they can win every time and the fearlessness shown by Sean O'Brien and James Connolly encapsulated how Connacht have evolved.

With all of this success - eight wins in a row - comes expectation, and pressure too.

And that made the win in Thomond Park even more pleasing. Connacht might not have been favourites against Munster, but they handled the pressure that comes with being at the summit of the Pro12. They played like a team that have won seven of their first eight matches in the league this season.

Connacht have invested really well in the academy, and the skills side of their game is another massive reason why they are doing so well. In the early stages, Connacht starved Munster of possession and that dictated the way the entire match was going to be played.


Connacht set their stall out, they weren't going to be bullied by Munster, and instead they called the shots, even against the breeze. It was a smart half of rugby and even though they only led 10-5 at half-time Connacht had made their statement.

Munster did come into the game that bit more after the break, but again the composure from the Connacht players was admirable, especially when John Muldoon got sent to the bin.

A lot of refereeing decisions have gone against Connacht in recent years, and there was always a chance the heads would drop but Aly Muldowney held the side together.

The challenge now, and every other week, is to keep the momentum flowing and with Robbie Henshaw and Denis Buckley added to the injury list it becomes more and more difficult.

But I am fully confident that Connacht can go to Cardiff and win. It certainly won't be easy because Cardiff are traditionally a top-quality side, and have been tough to beat at the Arms Park in recent years.

However there is a serious depth and an air of confidence about Connacht presently and they are taking on a side who have won just once in the Pro12 this season. If Connacht want to challenge for a top four spot, they need to see these sides as being very vulnerable, and look to cut loose against them.

The only win Cardiff have had so far was at home to Zebre in Round 1 - since then it's been seven straight defeats in the Pro12.

On paper this game should go one way, a Connacht win, but if Pat Lam's men don't have the right mindset going over there they could be brought down to earth very quickly.

When you are top of the table, you know your opponents will be gunning to upset the odds that bit more. It's an interesting scenario for Connacht to be in, but one they must learn to cope with.

'Rugby geek' Conor makes players shine

Last weekend's historic win over Munster brought to the forefront how structured Connacht is at the moment.

Everything works in unison and the team have prospered on the field as a result, with their style of play a product of Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips' influences.

Conor is a rugby geek, he knows everything there is to know about rugby and it's no fluke that Connacht are opening teams up.

He's assistant attack coach this season, and Connacht have gone on to score 25 tries in eight games. It's a fantastic return and as a former Connacht great it shows that you don't need to go too far afield to get the right man for the job.

Jimmy Duffy is another fantastic coach; he's involved with the forwards, and after the loss of Dan MacFarland they have just picked up where he has left off and evolved further.

But outside of the coaches, everything flows perfectly at Connacht now. The academy has a lot of bright rising talent about to make their impact on the main stage. James Connolly did that last weekend, and with a lot of local talent around the group I'm sure it adds a real sense of unity.

Irish Independent

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