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Half-term report: Pat Lam's Connacht put themselves in promising position

The western province sit second in the Pro12 table.

DESPITE LOSING THEIR two most recent games, the first half of the season has been extremely positive for Connacht.

Currently second in the Guinness Pro12 and top of their Challenge Cup pool, Pat Lam’s men have also been the most exciting Irish province to watch.

John Muldoon celebrates with try scorer Bundee Aki Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Record: 

Guinness Pro12 – Won 7, Lost 3

Challenge Cup – Won 3, Lost 1

The 2015/16 campaign has been an excellent one for the western province so far, but the truly testing times lie ahead. Connacht have put themselves in a prime position to secure automatic Champions Cup qualification and now must seal the deal in 2016.

Last season, Lam’s men ran out of steam at an important time, losing five of their last six Pro12 games and therefore ensuring that they had to face the Champions Cup qualification play-offs rather than going directly into the top tier of European club rugby.

Lam is fully aware that such a loss of form late in the season would be ruinous again, although Connacht have at least managed to accumulate seven wins already (they had a total of 10 in last season’s Pro12).

Talk of Connacht competing to win the Pro12 outright is certainly justified, but the number one priority remains a top six finish. The westerners have shown more than enough to suggest that that will prove to be the case.

Try of the season so far:

Source: PRO12 Rugby/YouTube

Connacht’s second try in their historic win over Munster will be remembered for the actions of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, but the phases that preceded it were sublime too.

Matt Healy’s clever grubber and gather allowed Connacht deep into the Munster half, where Kieran Marmion proceeded to direct the forwards. There was some sharp passing from the big men, as well as a few intelligent pick and jams.

It all added up to create the space for Henshaw to work his beautiful left-footed step inside Keith Earls, before a sumptuous offload found Aki and the former Chiefs centre finished wonderfully.

This is a low:

Connacht’s injury profile this season has almost been beyond belief. Indeed, they even had to travel to Newcastle in the Challenge Cup with only a 22-man squad this month. Defeat understandably followed, though Lam has been at pains not to accept the obvious excuse.

The real toll of this injury list, which is now beginning to ease but saw Connacht deprived of more than 20 players at one point, may not have told fully just yet. Certainly, Lam has been unable to rest or rotate players as freely as he might have hoped.

John Muldoon dejected after the game Connacht lost out to Ulster on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht fronted up for their inter-pro derby against Ulster on Saturday, but the result on home soil was majorly disappointing. Though they have had inter-pro joy this season, their shocking run against Ulster was extended.

The New Year’s Day meeting with Leinster at the RDS offers an opportunity for another derby win, but defeat would make it three on the bounce for Connacht.

As good as it gets:

A first win over Munster at Thomond Park in 29 years is the clear highlight of the season so far for Connacht, and the manner of the victory was as impressive as the end of the losing streak itself.

Connacht’s attacking shape and intent stretched Munster to breaking point in the first half, before the defence showed up in determined fashion after the break. Bundee Aki’s stunning try, assisted by Robbie Henshaw, was the perfect cherry on an utterly deserved 18-12 win.

The clearest sign yet that Connacht are no longer content to be the whipping boys of provincial rugby in Ireland.

Player of the Season so far: Bundee Aki

There are numerous candidates in this area, but we’ve gone for the dynamic centre Bundee Aki.

Lock Aly Muldowney has been delightfully skillful, Denis Buckley was playing superbly before injury, Craig Ronaldson has been excellent in the 12 shirt, Matt Healy in flying form on the wing, while several others have stood out too.

Bundee Aki Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Aki gets the nod because of his constant impact on games, both with ball in hand and through his aggressive defence. The 25-year-old, who will qualify to play for Ireland in 2017, has started every single one of Connacht’s Pro12 games so far.

Connacht have a foreign player who has clearly bought into what the province means, while his physical prowess means Aki brings a dimension that would otherwise be missing from their side.

Coach calls:

Having wrung improvement from Connacht in each of his three seasons so far, it’s difficult to question the job Pat Lam is doing.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the province is the manner in which young academy products are being brought through. While the aforementioned injury crisis has made that a requirement, Connacht’s young players are swimming rather than sinking.

Nigel Carolan deserves major credit on this front too, but Lam’s man management skills have contributed. He’s sending young players onto the pitch with confidence in their ability and a belief in how the team is attempting to play.

Tactically, Lam has always stressed the need for Connacht to be able to play in many different ways. That goal has been furthered by the impressive up-skilling of the players, who are backed to express their handling and footwork abilities on match day.

Lam’s vision and philosophies are paying dividends for Connacht’s tactics, motivation levels, squad culture and bond with supporters.

The big question in 2016:

Connacht are bigger than one player, but the debate over Robbie Henshaw’s future will continue until the player makes a decision. The western province’s form will have made the 22-year-old think far more deeply about leaving, but Leinster continue to attract him.

Jack Carty and Robbie Henshaw celebrate after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Henshaw is one of the many players who came through Connacht’s academy to earn a senior spot and he has developed well under Lam’s tutelage. Will he stay beyond the summer or will he go?

More generally, Connacht have to answer the question of whether they can close out the season strongly. They have achieved much in the opening portion of the campaign, but can they finish the job?

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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