After a rough month in the RaboDirect Pro12, the Heineken Cup has offered Connacht some relief, even if they extended their losing run to five games.
The defeat to Saracens in Galway last weekend saw Connacht give their best 80-minute performance of the season so far and suggested that Pat Lam’s men are beginning to make progress.
The former Blues coach has brought a fresh philosophy and playing style to the western province and he is keen to see his side retain possession and attack from inside their own half. While Eric Elwood had been attempting to broaden the attacking palate in recent years, Lam’s approach has involved some teething problems.
The insistence on playing out of their own half has been particularly ineffective in the Pro12 so far, never more obviously than in the round three loss at home to Ulster. Another concerning aspect of their displays up until the Saracens game had been the tendency to fade out of games in the second half, finishing poorly.
Against the Premiership leaders that habit was reversed, as a poor start was followed up by an impressive 60 minutes in which Connacht dominated Saracens for extended periods. Similarly, the problems encountered when running the ball from deep were avoided as Dan Parks used his boot to allow an aggressive kick chase to cause panic in the Sarries’ ranks.
Further encouragement came in the individual performances of so many of the Connacht squad. Brett Wilkinson and Rodney Ah You performed strongly at scrum time, Danie Poolman was dangerous on the wing, Robbie Henshaw was dynamic in midfield and Gavin Duffy was assured at fullback. Kieran Marmion was the star of the show with a mature, intelligent performance at scrum-half and the 21-year-old looks increasingly like an Irish international.
Those were just some of the positive, but two costly defensive errors will have caused dismay and regret post-match as both lead to Saracens’ tries. The first came in the sixth minute as the visitors managed to create the elusive first-phase try. From Connacht’s point of view, it showed the challenges associated with playing an untested centre partnership of Craig Ronaldson and Robbie Henshaw.
As you can see in the screenshot below, Henshaw has bitten in and left Chris Wyles completely unmarked. Ronaldson is also lining up a tackle on David Strettle, but the Saracens wing manages to get his pass away and Saracens score. A simple lack of communication, misunderstanding or a bad decision from Henshaw could explain the error but whatever the reason, it proved costly.
Fortunately, both players recovered swiftly and went on to have excellent games, but there was another important defensive error from Connacht almost immediately after the above example. Saracens restarted deep to the right following Wyles’ try, Marmion box-kicked out of the Connacht 22 and the English side went straight on the counter-attack.
Michael Swift and Craig Clarke were the chasing players as Alex Goode ran the ball back and they looked to have him covered. However, the England international fullback sold a dummy to send Clarke towards the sideline and then burst past Swift to create a line-break. While Swift was cleverly (and illegally) blocked by Mako Vunipola, as displayed below, he will still have been disappointed not to have halted Goode.
Connacht were immediately into a defensive scramble and just a single phase later, there was another defensive slip-up when Ah You failed to take down Vunipola. That meant more progress for Saracens and created the quick ball from which Chris Ashton scored his try. All three of those mistakes will have been analysed and dealt with by Connacht, and they should now focus on the positive aspects of their performance.
They travel to Italy to take on Zebre in Saturday’s second Pool 3 fixture and it’s a wonderful opportunity to kick start their Heineken Cup campaign. One of the problems for Connacht in recent years has been a failure to back up their best performances the following week, so doing that will be a real focus for Lam.
The loss of John Muldoon to a calf injury is a blow, but the province has been working towards building depth in their squad and someone like Andrew Browne now needs to step up. Equally, the players who were so excellent last weekend need to deliver similar showings away to Zebre.
There are many reasons to be confident about Connacht’s chances of recording their second win of the season on Saturday. The fear would have to be that the Saracens performance was a one-off, a peak in their performance levels and that they will return to their mean level against Zebre. However, another strong outing would show that Connacht are indeed making genuine progress under Lam.