By Rob Murphy at the Sportsground.
The message is muddled at the moment. On the face of it, Connacht lost a rugby game on Saturday and exited a European competition at the quarter final stage. They lost to a good side from England that had more power, guile and accuracy when the game was in the balance and they could have few quibbles with the idea that Gloucester are simply a better team. However that is only scratching the surface of this story.
Head coach Kieran Keane felt far from despondent after the game and listed character, effort, teamwork and their ability to problem solve as key reasons for his positive mood. He spoke of it having been a great occasion, he highlighted his team’s naivety at key moments but stressed that he looks at a performance like this and feels as though he has something to work with for the future. His message to the fans was for them to “hang in there, it is going to happen, stay the course”.
The striking post game media huddle only served to underline how confused the Connacht project is right now. The PRO14 campaign has seen a major regression, just six wins from 18 outings. Europe offered hope but a pool with three struggling opponents proved far too easy and created a false impression that Connacht were contenders. Shipping four tries to a slightly above average Premiership side at home would confirm that they are not.
The face of this team always seems to be the coach, from Warren Gatland to Michael Bradley and from Eric Elwood to Kieran Keane with one Pat Lam in between. No one can say for sure that the ship can’t be righted in the next twelve months and it is quite possible that the highly regarded New Zealander is, right now, half way through a rejuvenation project that will bring long lasting consistency to the team.
He seems to believe he has what it takes. Yet when he arrived in the summer of last year having left his long standing and successful assistant position with the Chiefs (the Hamilton based Super Rugby franchise) to take up his first ever elite level head coaching slot in the west of Ireland, there was no message of rejuvenation or rebuilding from the top table at the media conference that include Keane and his new boss Willie Ruane.
Long before Keane arrived, It was taken as a given that Connacht had bags of character and effort from way back when the Elwood days at the helm. More nuanced team play and problem solving was then able to be developed in the Lam era and this was key to the enormous success in the PRO12. As for ‘great occasions’, well the 2001 Celtic Cup semi final or the 2003 semi final with Harlequins were great occasions. Those days were long gone. Connacht fans expect more.
Yet it now seems that the project direction has changed, Connacht started on Saturday with eight internationals to Gloucester’s seven. None of the Gloucester players have Premiership medals with the cherry and whites, all bar a handful of the Connacht starting lineup have PRO12 title winning medals. This was hardly a plucky bunch of underdogs trying to usurp some English powerhouse.
The build up to the contest had been turbulent as for some unfathomable reason Connacht used their two additional non front row slots in the European squad to register Andrew Browne and Cormac Brennan meaning that back row Sean O’Brien, who had started the previous four games in the PRO14, was unavailable for this tournament.
This was no error according to Connacht, at least if it was an error, it would make some sense as tactically it makes no sense whatsoever. Browne is still rehabilitating from injury, Brennan would only be needed if there were three further serious injuries in the backline. One wonders how that news was received in the dressing room and whether it affected the focus all round.
Against that backdrop the game was a little all over the shop too. James Hanson had a try as early as the fourth minute. Connacht had stolen the lineout but as the ball was slapped down on their side, it bounced awkwardly into the hands of the opposing hooker who burst clear to score from 30 metres out. Another bad start for the westerners.
The response was good, two tries before the midway mark with Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki getting them (the second coming during a Ben Morgan sin bin) Jack Carty was having a nightmare with the boot and missed both conversions. By half time however Connacht were completely on the back foot, as even with 14 men, Gloucester had set up camp in the Connacht half and notched a second try just after the sin bin ended with Tom Marshall scoring.
By the break, the lead was seven for Gloucester as centre Henry Trinder had added a third try and the Sportsground was silent but for the 500 or so traveling Gloucester supporters. They were even more boisterous after the break when Connacht shipped an early penalty after looking static and unclear of their roles during a few phases of possession just inside their own half.
The excitement wasn’t finished despite the struggles and Connacht had some more attacking highlights to come but these moments were sporadic and interspersed with errors and more score concessions. Niyi Adeolokun’s try from a Marmion kick through was the score of the game but it was answered quickly by the visitors and while another sin bin, this time to Lewis Ludlow allowed Connacht back in once more with Matt Healy’s try, Gloucester spent most of the remainder of the game camped in Connacht’s half.
This was a disjointed chaotic effort from Connacht lacking in cohesion and consistency from the very outset. The PRO14 form came back to haunt them and in hindsight, expecting them to just turn it on for one big game was probably asking too much. The bench didn’t offer any impact outside of Ultan Dillane (whose exclusion from the starting line up left many baffled) while key men in the starting line up led the error count.
By and large Connacht supporters probably don’t expect the dizzy heights of what Leinster and Munster are experiencing right now and the burning embers of 2016 won’t disappear any time soon, yet the overall direction the team is taking is key to their loyalty. They want to see progress on and off the field, even if that’s just a lick of paint on the goal posts or a hard hitting assessment of some mistakes that have been made. Staying the course would be a whole lot easier in that environment.
Connacht Rugby: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Thornbury, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Butler, J Muldoon.
Replacements: D Heffernan for McCartney, U Dillane for Roux, and C Ronaldson for Carty (all 57 minutes), C Carey for Bealham (61 minutes), P McCabe for Buckley (67 minutes), E Masterson for McKeon (71 minutes),
Gloucester Rugby: J Woodward; C Sharples, H Trinder, M Atkinson, T Marshall; O Williams, W Heinz; V Rapava Ruskin, J Hanson, J Afoa, E Slater, J Thrush, R Moriarty, L Ludlow, B Morgan.
Replacements: J Hohneck for Ruskin (50 minutes), R Ackermann for Moriarty (60 minutes), F Balmain for Afoa and Matu’u for Hanson (67 minutes), T Savage for Thrush and B Twelvetrees for Williams (71 minutes) B Burns for Trinder (72 minutes), C Braley for Heinz (78 minutes).
Referee R Poite