Wednesday 11 December 2019

Neil Francis: Why Connacht will lose their unbeaten record in Glasgow

The Connacht squad gather in a huddle during squad training ahead of tomorrow's match against Glasgow Warriors
The Connacht squad gather in a huddle during squad training ahead of tomorrow's match against Glasgow Warriors
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Tomorrow night Connacht go to battle with the Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun.  They will lose this match for two reasons – the first is that they simply are not good enough to beat Glasgow away from home. 

If it is a dry game, the Scots will win convincingly – too much firepower up front and much more than just a high-tempo game. They have watched Leinster enviously over the years and have tried to replicate their style and improve on it. It is a quick-quick-slow style or even slow-slow-quick. 

Leinster go through their phases at moderate pace, but once they find a gap or source a weakness they have this remarkable ability to jump to hyperspace and ramp up the pace of proceedings and too often their opponents who have defended at one pace are left floundering.

It’s the dog shit principle – once you smell it, it’s too late: you’ve already walked in it. Leinster are in under the sticks before you even know it. Glasgow have the ability to shift gears quickly and are a dangerous side and Connacht will find it difficult to stay with them.

The second reason Connacht will lose to Glasgow is because they won the Super Bowl last Saturday in the Sportsground. Connacht gave a performance of rehearsed competence and unflinching effort.  All effort was expended on the playing field and this was reflected in the tackle count. 

Connacht made 161 tackles to Leinster’s 90 – some of those tackles were out of the top drawer. If Connacht tackled like this in all of their Guinness Pro12 matches, they actually might make Europe. The reason they won’t beat Glasgow tomorrow is because they are mentally spent and will find it – as usual – too much of any ask to get themselves up for Glasgow after last Saturday’s heroics and histrionics.

Connacht always reserve their best performance of the year for Leinster and then capitulate meekly to sides like Ospreys or Llanelli away from home. As long as they continually underachieve on the consistency front, they will never contend.

One of the things that they might do while they are over in Glasgow is ask Glasgow how they actually became contenders. Back in the 2010/11 season – which is not that long ago – the Warriors were a waste of space.

Shambles

They finished 11th that season – just ahead of Aironi. How is it that a team that bad has become a real contender? A team that played in the final last season and has been top four for the last three seasons is unrecognisable from the stultifying shambles they were four seasons ago. Gregor Townsend and the brand of rugby he espouses and attention to detail he imposes on his players is the key. 

Last week Connacht won because they were able to stop Leinster playing rugby and as always their frightening lack of respect for their own bodies does enough to put Leinster out of their stride. That is not good enough anymore. 

They target the Leinster fixture – they have it on their radar from months away. Have they thought about reproducing the same type of effort against Glasgow? No, they have not – it’s too hard to reproduce.

Connacht have over the last four seasons averaged seven wins in their annual campaign. You would bet on them beating that average this season. Despite that seismic result away to Toulouse, they had a poor season last year. They finished 10th and only won six games.

The PR machine that surrounds Pat Lam have done a tremendous job. He hasn’t come close to Eric Elwood’s record and there was no sign of any gradual team improvement last year. 

This season is where he will have to take responsibility for his results – we are, are we not, always reminded that this is a results-driven business? Looking further forward only on an each-game-as-it-comes basis, Lam can, if we are to believe in Connacht, knock off the Cardiff Blues at home and Benetton away in rounds 5 and 6.

The Cardiff Blues have the collective heart the size of a pea but traditionally they have too much football for Connacht. When they come to the Sportsground without their Welsh superstars and Connacht look to knock them off, it rarely happens. If we are to believe in Connacht this year – that must be a win. The two Italian sides home and away are imperatives – they must be wins and then suddenly there is belief. If Connacht get knocked off by either of the two Italian sides then all bets are off .

If Leinster were to play Connacht next week and Pat Lam in a charitable gesture told Matt O’Connor that he could choose any of his players, I would suspect that O’Connor would respectfully decline.

Of the three Connacht players that you would even consider – Marmion, Muldoon and Henshaw – none would make the Leinster starting XV which is why the result in Galway is to most unexplainable.

Although those Connacht players mightn’t be considered by O’Connor, Joe Schmidt might take a different view. Rhys Ruddock had a more-than-useful season last year and had a big game in the second Test in Argentina. Muldoon, who is a rapacious tackler and a serious proposition on the blindside, is good enough to get into the squad – but probably no further.

Marmion did his prospects no harm on Saturday but his box-kicking and distribution are still far behind that of Eoin Reddan. The blue No 9 is such a clever player and if he stays uninjured will get into the playing 23.

The World Cup squad will have three scrum-halves and here Marmion has a real chance but needs to iron out any inefficiencies – he has quality but is far from the finished article.

The guy I’m not sure about is Henshaw. He did the smart thing by staying in Connacht.  He would have struggled to get into the Leinster starting XV and possibly the Munster one as well. A big fish in a small pool but superstar reviews without any superstar performances.

He has size, athleticism, pace and football – simply the prerequisites you have to possess at this level but at this moment in time his hands are not good enough to play at international level.

Henshaw has scored five tries in nearly 50 games for Connacht – one try every ten games is not nearly a good enough strike rate. We do have to remind ourselves who he is hoping to replace. He is a good full-back trying to play at outside centre  – it takes time .

He was unlucky not to go to Argentina – Schmidt either goes with him all the way or decides that he is not ready for international level for this year through to the World Cup – there will be no middle ground.

Even though Henshaw had a big night in defence last Saturday, Madigan, D’Arcy and the hugely underrated Brendan Macken outperformed him offensively. Eighty minutes against Jean de Villiers would tell us all we need to know.

We will talk about Mils Muliaina later – Connacht have a squad that can be winners. Time now to produce or switch off the PR machine.

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