By Linley MacKenzie
It has been a poor couple of weeks for Connacht. Losses to Glasgow and Zebre have been compounded by the nature of the defeats – games which could have been won by the chances created. Now, however, Connacht need to show their true colours, and secure a play-off for next season’s Champions Cup.
It is certainly not the Connacht team that took the Pro 12 by storm last season. After a poor start due to a lack of pre-season competition, Connacht looked like they were finding their championship winning form again, and then coach Pat Lam dropped his bombshell. It is hard to believe his departure to Bristol announced several months ago has not had some effect on the team. And at a time when other clubs are announcing signings for next season, Connacht is unusually quiet. Hopefully that will change in the near future.
But losing to a Zebre outfit that has been rooted to bottom of the table most seasons, was a new low.
“It was disappointing, but you know it’s going to happen,” said Pat Lam in the aftermath of a first loss to the Italian outfit by 25-22 in Parma on Saturday. “What is more disappointing and no different from Glasgow, when you know genuinely that you had the opportunity to win. I thought we handed it on a plate, but they still had to take it.
“There have been a lot of losses that I have been extremely disappointed by, and so it just jumps in there as well. It goes with all the other losses where we should have won. No point beating yourself up and no point crying, but it’s about making sure this is an opportunity from which we take the learnings.
“Look at last week, we lost two props – JP Cooney on Tuesday and Ronan Loughney on the day we were leaving. Then at the airport Naulia Dawai had visa problems so we had a last-minute change. You get all these disruptions and there are a whole lot of factors, but ultimately we could have won the game and should have won the game. There have been a lot of games regardless of the opposition that we should have won.”
Lam says Connacht, having started well, were 12-3 up, but were denied a third try scored by Andrew Browne because there was no TMO.
“We had to live with that one, and then we had about five other chances inside the 22 in the space of 10 minutes to score. With all those opportunities, we should have been long gone by half time, so we blew those through execution. The possession stakes were in our favour, they didn’t have much, but they took their chances – one try from a rolling maul which the boys thought had collapsed, another from an up-in-the-air from a turnover, then another 90 metre try when we were going for the rolling maul and they managed to pinch it. The probably had four chances, they took three; we had 15 genuine chances, and took three of them, and that is probably the frustration.”
However Lam says Zebre were deserving on the day.
“You have to give credit to them, they brought the crowd into it by holding us out.Straight after half time we needed to score, but from a turnover they scored again and then they turned into supermen. They played really well, put us under a lot of pressure, and they could sense a bit of history. They had 11 internationals back and their key guys played well, and we only have ourselves to blame.”
Lam says mental toughness has been an issue at different times during his tenure. “In my first season, last year when we went to Treviso and should have beaten them. Every season we have these moments, and when asked, everyone has a different answer.
“You have to be mentally tough and I’ve always said mental toughness is being able to do what you need to do when you need to do it.”
Now Connacht need to pick themselves up quickly and efficiently to see off Edinburgh tomorrow evening after a week of some soul searching.
“We’ve had a lot of reviews in my time. It was probably one of the easiest – it was pretty obvious why we lost the game – tough to go through, but the truth hurts. It’s about professional players, you just have to nail the job. We all get things wrong, but it’s costly,” Lam said.
“The main thing for us is there are points we have to get, the goal is still to get to Champions Cup for next year’s team, that is still alive. The importance of winning is more around getting the points, and the only way is to convert opportunities we create, which comes back to everyone being more ruthless and doing what we do at training.”
Edinburgh, some 18 points in arrears, can keep alive their slim hopes of catching Connacht with a win.
“This time of the year, regardless of top or bottom, everyone has something to play for. They are still fighting for play-off as well, and we know if we win this week, the play-off is secured.”
In what has been a disappointing season to date, Connacht need this win, and they need the play-off.
“There are a whole lot of reasons [for disappointing season]. The biggest factor when look at the season is that every game lost, we could have won. We have four matches to go and ultimately I will summarise the season after that.”