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Connacht need to up their game in derbies to move to next level

Connacht’s record against the non-Irish teams in the Pro14 is impressive but their win ratio dips alarmingly when interpros are factored in.

Connacht's Oliver and Aki celebrate Aungier's try.
Connacht's Oliver and Aki celebrate Aungier's try.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE TABLE NEVER lies. But sometimes it hides a few truths.

Rugby historians who’ll revisit the 2019/20 Pro14 season will sense that. They’ll quickly realise this was the year of the pandemic when sport was interrupted before moving on to spot how Ireland provided three of the four semi-finalists in this stop/start campaign – Connacht the province to miss out.

But in sport, you get what you deserve. Don’t you? Well, yes and no. When August came and rugby resumed, Connacht picked off Ulster with an impressive win at the Aviva. What went largely unnoticed was the fact this was their first – and would also be their only – win against an Irish province in the 2019/20 season.

Now stay with us on this one. In 15 Pro14 games last season, Connacht’s record of eight wins and seven defeats smacked of inconsistency. You can’t argue otherwise.

But look again. This really was a season of two halves and not just in terms of a lockdown arriving in the middle of it. We got to know two Connachts. In nine matches against sides from the championship’s other four countries – Wales, Scotland, South Africa and Italy – Connacht’s record read: won seven, lost two.

Entering an Irish-free zone, they thrived, posting a win ratio of 77.7 per cent. Then came the interprovincial derbies and a return of one win from six games. Suddenly that win ratio dipped to just over 50 per cent and that was the difference between a play-off spot and their players hearing the words ‘pack your bags, your work is done’.

There are two things to say about this. One, you don’t get anyone’s sympathy if you consistently fail to beat the best, especially as Connacht’s other two Pro14 defeats in the 2019/20 season were against the sides who finished above them in Conference B, Scarlets and Edinburgh. You’ll do well to find anyone who can legitimately argue that Connacht were a better team than the Scots in 2019/20.

But another factor cannot be ignored. Connacht had to play Ulster, Leinster and Munster six times whereas Edinburgh and Scarlets had to do so just twice in the regular season. To their credit, Edinburgh went to Thomond Park and beat Munster by a couple of points.

But still. It stands to reason that if your itinerary pits you against the three best teams in the Pro14 on a more regular basis – which Munster, Ulster and Leinster most certainly are – then your results will suffer. Connacht’s did because they faced those sides three times as often as their Conference rivals. In fact Scarlets didn’t face Leinster at all in 2019/20; Edinburgh did once and lost 40-14.

It’s an issue that Andy Friend may have to go public about at some stage, especially if his team miss out either on a Champions Cup spot or a play-off spot because of the quirks in the Pro14’s structure.

Considering how superior Connacht’s record is against non-Irish sides – four wins from the six games they have played against Scots/Welsh/Italians in this 2020/21 season backs up that argument – they can point out to the fact they are at a competitive disadvantage to their Conference rivals.

kieran-marmion-scores-a-try Kieran Marmion scores against Dragons - Connacht's record against Welsh sides is impressive. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Yet they’ve never once raised the issue, never once complained about the structure. Instead, the message has been a consistent one of striving to improve. “From day one, the first thing that hit me about this squad of players was that we had a really honest group,” said Friend earlier this year.

“Right from my first training session with them, as soon as the players turned up, you could see that they were all eyes open.

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“I remember the first skills sessions we did and I thought ‘there’s some quality here, this is good’. But apart from that, they were keen and eager to learn. That relationship between them and us has just continued to grow.”

Friend has enjoyed the journey, from the credible Challenge Cup campaign that saw them reach the quarter-finals, to a 2018/19 run to the Pro14 quarters, through to back-to-back qualifications for the Champions Cup.

But in this calendar year – firstly in January, then December – they lost four out of four in the Champions Cup. Add in heavy Pro14 losses to Leinster and Munster in January and August and you can see where they are at.

Yes, it’s better than where they used to be – for six straight seasons, 2005 to 2010, they finished 10th in the league – but listen to them speak and it is clear they don’t want to be judged on the province’s past.

“We got praise for our performance against Racing (when they lost 26-22 in the Champions Cup) but we don’t want praise for competing, we want to be winning these sort of games,” said Friend.

They didn’t do enough of that in 2020. 

The 2020 awards go to ….

Player of the year …..Bundee Aki ….. box-office performer who shines no matter who the opposition is

Breakthrough player … Peter Sullivan Winger has got his debut in 2020, has played five times, looking better each time.

Best moment …. The win over Ulster in the Aviva was impressive, a sign of how good they can be.

And the worst …..  Losing 27-18 to Bristol ended their chances of a quarter-final spot in the Champions Cup. Worse again, they didn’t play anywhere near their potential that night.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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