Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
# keeping focus
Pat Lam's Connacht need to move swiftly past Muliaina distraction
A disappointing first-half performance from the western province needs to be addressed urgently.

WITH FIVE MINUTES remaining at Kingsholm and Connacht applying attacking pressure on Gloucester, the thought occurred that even if Pat Lam’s men didn’t equalise, the head coach could wrap the performance up as a positive one.

Mils Muliaina Cathal Noonan / INPHO Muliaina's arrest removed the focus entirely from Connacht's defeat. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

14-0 down at the interval after a half in which they were jarringly poor, the westerners grabbed hold of possession and territory thereafter.

Despite coming up short at 14-7, Lam’s post-match review could certainly have framed the game as a boost to the province before their intense Guinness Pro12 run-in over the coming six weeks.

A spirited near-comeback in front of the famous Shed, individual players who recovered from disappointing first-half displays to improve, a maul that threatened repeatedly [how much will Dan McFarland be missed next season?]; there was plenty in those second 40 minutes for Lam to focus on before the league visit of Ulster on 11 April.

And then came the shock of Mils Muliaina’s post-match arrest. If there were suggestions that the Kiwi’s move to Zebre – announced on 1 April – was an April Fool’s Day prank, then this was a surprising development on an altogether more serious scale.

How does something like that affect the rest of the squad? Perhaps it depends on how much of a leader Muliaina really is within the group, but those present in Kingsholm reported that Connacht’s management appeared as shocked as the rest of us.

It had been yet another disappointing night for the All Black centurion, who retired injured after an ineffectual 35 minutes at fullback. His arrival was widely greeted as a positive off the pitch in a young squad, but the performances on it haven’t sat well.

Pat Lam Cathal Noonan / INPHO Lam will identify much to work on in Connacht's performance. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

This is no place to be commenting on the circumstances of Muliaina’s arrest and that’s certainly not the intention. That process will be dealt with by police in Cardiff and by Connacht’s legal representatives.

For Lam and his players, re-focusing their attention on playing matters as swiftly as possible is the pressing concern.

That meeting with Ulster next weekend is the latest in a long line of vital Pro12 fixtures, and beating Neil Doak’s side at the Sportsground will not be a straight-forward matter.

Connacht’s fixture list after that Ulster clash reads: Glasgow Warriors [H], Zebre [A], Ospreys [H]. Two more of the current top four teams in the league arriving in Galway means it’s not the easiest of run-ins.

Comparatively speaking, it’s not difficult to argue that the Scarlets and Edinburgh – the western province’s direct rivals for sixth position [and automatic Champions Cup qualification] – have more manageable closing schedules.

To miss out on that sixth position after a season of positivity and growth would be damaging to Connacht.

The encouraging second-half showing at Kingsholm last night shouldn’t mask the deficiencies that occurred before the break. Extremely loose kicking hurt Connacht time and again, leading directly to Gloucester’s first try through Charlie Sharples.

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A dejected Robbie Henshaw Cathal Noonan / INPHO Robbie Henshaw shows his dejection post-match. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Lam has repeatedly backed 22-year-old Jack Carty at out-half this season, and may reap huge benefits from that in the near future, but it wasn’t until Craig Ronaldson appeared off the bench that there was more assured playmaking.

Carty isn’t the only one with improvements to make in the coming weeks. There were unforced errors in handling, an over-reliance on the grubber kick and several delayed arrivals at the breakdown.

The accuracy in individual skills that Lam emphasises so much was sorely absent. Better teams than Gloucester [namely Ulster, Glasgow and the Ospreys] will be far more clinical in punishing that sloppiness.

This was one bad night in a season that has seen many good ones, and as Lam strives to push his team to further growth there are many lessons from last night’s disappointing display in Gloucester.

There were positives among the negatives [how good is Denis Buckley?] but strides of improvement are need before facing Ulster next weekend.

Off-field issues cannot become major distractions from a playing point of view, there’s simply too much on the line for Connacht in the coming weeks.

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Mils Muliaina arrested at Kingsholm Stadium after Connacht defeat to Gloucester