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Half-term report: Kiwi influence finally starting to bear fruit at Connacht

To call Pat Lam’s start out west ‘slow’ would be an understatement but victory over Toulouse gives fans reason to believe.

Overall record

An underwhelming record of four wins from 14 matches but recent signs of a corner being turned. Connacht have posted three excellent outings in the Heineken Cup and a home defeat to Toulouse that had an unkind scoreline but was littered with brave performances by a flu-hit squad.

The Pro12 has been poor for new coach Pat Lam, with victories coming over annual underdogs Zebre and Newport Gwent Dragons. Not many teams have blown Connacht out of the water but too many of the arm wrestles have went against them, most notably Ulster and Scarlets at home and Leinster away.

High point

imageDave McSharry celebrates the province’s greatest ever Heineken Cup win. INPHO/Billy Stickland

Without doubt, the away win over Toulouse. Nobody fancied Pat Lam’s men to see off the four-time champions but Connacht started well and played some superb, attacking rugby to shock the European aristocrats. John Muldoon, Craig Clarke and Jake Heenan combined for 53 tackles while Kieran Marmion scored a try and cause Toulouse trouble all afternoon during the remarkable 16-14 victory.

Low point

Losing in the closing stages to Leinster at the RDS. Connacht were the better team for 70 minutes yet made crucial errors, and failed to take plated-up points, in the second-half. The Leinster push came in the last 10 minutes but Connacht repelled them three times only to cough possession straight back.

The pressure told in the closing stages as George Naoupu and Marmion were sent to the bin. Backs Tiernan O’Halloran and Craig Ronaldson were forced to scrum down with the Connacht pack after two yellow cards were brandished and referee David Wilkinson gave a penalty try as the make-shift front eight crumpled. A tough 16-13 defeat to swallow.

Try of the season so far

Marmion’s tunnel-vision against Toulouse, featuring a stunning Robbie Henshaw offload to Fionn Carr [go to 0:25].

YouTube credit: nemetonSPORT

In second place, Matt Healy has scored some fine tries for Connacht so far this season but this team move, with an excellent Marmion offload, takes the biscuit:

YouTube credit: RaboDirect PRO12

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Player of the season so far

Kieran Marmion has brought his game on about three notches since an impressive debut season in 2012/13. He returned from his summer away with Ireland with, in the words of former teammate Adrian Flavin, extra timber to his frame and is now able to ride tackles and make offloads.

He has also backed himself to make sniping runs, leading to four tries. The scrum-half has taken some of the decision-making responsibilities from Dan Parks and his kicking from hand has improved. Dived over for a crucial try against Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Breakthrough talent

A lot was expected of former New Zealand U20 captain Jake Heenan when he signed up during the summer but few expected him to produce the goods so promptly and regularly. The openside has put in a number of excellent performances in league and Heineken Cup action and has not let the reputation of opponents phase him.

Superb at the breakdown, always open for carries and a possessor of that Kiwi ability to offload despite heavy pressure from tacklers. Healy and Ronaldson have also done well this season.

Must try harder

It may be a little harsh on the Irish-qualified prop but Brett Wilkinson gets the dubious honour. The 30-year-old can be a devastating scrummager on his day — as evidenced away to Toulouse — but those days are not frequent enough. Lam often asks Wilkinson for 60 minutes of supreme effort and will need the loose-head to deliver more often in 2014.

Marks out of 10

Four. Underwhelming in the league but a force to be reckoned with, and respected, in the Heineken Cup.

imageCraig Clarke and Aly Muldowney. INPHO/James Crombie

Craig Clarke’s winning influence is starting to show and a climb to Pro12 respectability is on the cards if Connacht can replicate European performances in ‘bread and butter’ league games.

One thing to work on in 2014

Connacht’s best performances come from committing numbers to attacks and playing a high, aggressive defensive line but they are susceptible to try-scoring opportunities if they are turned over at the breakdown. Coming up with a scramble defence option and deploying a backline defence leader — Eoin Griffin at 13 would be ideal — should shore up a big gap. Also, cut out the early concession of tries.

‘Kieran Marmion was on a hospital drip 48 hours ago’ – Pat Lam

‘Connacht went into an arm wrestle with the Kings of Europe and won’

About the author:

Patrick McCarry

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