Season in Review: Connacht

As we say goodbye to the provincial season, we sign off with the last of our provincial reviews – a look at the men from the West.  We sought some external assistance for this one, and went to our own man from out west, known on Twitter as ummm, a long-standing Connacht fan, for his views on how Connacht’s first season went.

Ummm’s general mood was upbeat, and supportive of Elwood’s second season at the helm.  Elwood is something of a polar opposite to his predecessor Bradley, who targeted specific games and was happy to turn out 15 marshmallows in others.

In general, though, I think Eric has done as good a job as he can. I can’t say it’s a complete success, not with a 14 game losing streak in the middle of the season, but those depressing winter months aside we’ve been more competitive than in previous years. Even during those months we were competitve, just incapable of taking that extra step.

When Eric was named coach some were worried he was too closely associated with the Bradley era, when we would follow a good performance one week with a shocking capitulation the next. But Eric came in and promised to bring a new mental attitude. I think it shows. While we’d rather be winning, having the highest number of losing bonus points in the league shows how close we are to gaining those extra points that will make us a more competitive team. He has also brought in Mike Forshaw as defensive coach and that has worked wonders, with only Scarlets and Toulouse (both away) getting try bonus points against us this season.

The flipside of course was a horrendous losing run in the middle of the season, when  Connacht’s inability to see out winning positions bit them hard.  They were minutes from a remarkable win in Gloucester, but slipped off a tackle; a drop goal at home to Leinster dropped just under the bar.  But ummm argues Elwood had little choice but to persevere.

It’s hard to see what else he could have done. Connacht have the smallest squad in the Pro12. Any time we have rested players it has meant playing academy kids. They haven’t been overwhelmed when they have played, but it’s a massive step up for them. Inclusion in the B&I Cup will help us in that regard.

Of course, the season was all about the Men From the West’s adventure in the Heineken Cup.  Drawn in something of a nightmare group, the additional six games on top of their league commitments drained the squad.  But they did produce one monumental, season-defining win.  On a gale-force night (in Galway? Who knew such things were possible?) they defended a two-point lead into a 12-point breeze against a Quins side who needed victory to qualify.  Ummm reflected on a dream that threatetened to tip into a nightmare at times:

Ultimately it was a dream come true, but the fact that it took place during our losing streak nightmare took the gloss off. Our attendances for the home games against Gloucester and Harlequins were not that different from the visits of Ulster and Aironi this season, which doesn’t sit right with me. In the end the win against Harlequins managed to resuscitate our season, but I have to wonder where were the 9,000 who turned up for the Toulouse match.

One area where Connacht have been weak in the past is recruitment.  Sure, the budget isn’t there for marquee signings, but some of the South Sea Islanders just look like dead money, while offcuts from other provinces, such as Leinster’s Paul O’Donohue have failed to convince.  However, ummm sees some improvement.

To be honest it will always be tough with the money we can offer. Compare Connacht’s signings to the other provinces and, yes, there is a distinct lack of Rocky Elsom/Ruan Pienaar-ness, but compare it to previous Connacht signings and it’s looking good.

It didn’t help that thanks to the IRFU having impose a 1 year contract rule on Connacht the majority of the squad were out of contract at the same time. Connacht don’t really have the resources to deal with so many contract re-negotiations. A lot was made out about the Big 4 of Carr, Cronin, Keatley and Hagan leaving, but Connacht lost half their
squad before the start of the 2011 season. Recruitment may have looked ordinary, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. We weren’t helped with Keith Matthews (a great servant to Connacht Rugby) being forced to retire, but the signing of Kyle Tonetti eased the pain, he has looked very dangerous.

The experienced Parks signing is exciting. Many say he’s a spent force but he’s exactly the kind of player we need to control tight games, to turn the Losing Bonuses into wins. With our signing history it’s all relative and I’ll take an international out-half with RWC experience any day. The fact that we can attract Parks shows we are heading in the right direction and will hopefully serve to attract even better players. Some won’t be impressed with the signing, but from a Connacht perspective it’s baby steps. Parks today, Richie McCaw in about 3 years time!

All in all, ummm was happy to reflect on a positive season for Connacht.  Eighth in the table, a spirited showing in a tough HEC group, and a sense that the club is starting to move in the right direction.

Has it been a good season? By Connacht standards, absolutely. Our highest ever Pro12 ranking, all while playing in our first every Heineken Cup season. To better last seasons finish while not being able to rest players during the early Amlin stages has been an incredible achievement. If I’m honest I was not expecting that, I thought the Heineken would take it out of us.

Add to that a 105% increase of home match attendances and season ticket sales going from 800-odd to 3,500 shows there is a market for rugby in the west, no matter what the IRFU may think.

Best performance: securing a famous 9-7 win over Harlequins in the Heineken Cup.

Worst performance: losing at home to Treviso in the Pro12

Best player: Tiernan O’Halloran is a diamond in the backline and brings a running threat and finishing ability.

Worst player: Paul O’Donohue struggled at scrum half.

See you next season: Willie Faloon arrives from Ulster.  He will be required to fill the boots of much-respected opensides Ray Ofisa and Johnny O’Connor.

Thanks for the memories: Keith Matthews was forced to retire after years of distinguished service.

With thanks to ummm,  follow him on Twitter here for more Connacht and general rugby related stuff.

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7 Comments

  1. Stevo

     /  June 5, 2012

    That 14 game losing streak was a bit of a nightmare time for Connacht rugby and it coincided exactly with their participation in the Heineken Cup. This raises the question, how high up the league could Connacht have finished had they not been in the HEC?

    I know that seems an odd question in a country where Heineken Cup rugby is seen as the be all and end all, but I ask not to question their participation in that competition, but to further highlight just what an excellent job Elwood and colleagues are doing in the west.

  2. paddy o

     /  June 5, 2012

    Took in some time in the sports ground this year and was pretty impressed with the set up and the night’s craic on offer. Credit to the marketing end of things-there was hardly a square foot in galway that didn’t remind you of connacht rugby. Blind drunkenness means I couldn’t tell you much more about it and was kind of disappointed not to be able to match you guys’ johnny o’concrete story, but they are fighting a good fight out there. Agree that the signings are logical and should improve things next year too.

  3. Hang about, Johnny O’Connor hasn’t retired!

    • Not retired, but getting on a bit… Faloon his long-term replacement I’d have thought.

      • Definitely getting on, but erstwhile means ‘former’!

      • Also, while I’m hoping to see nice things from Faloon I’m looking forward to Eoghan Grace getting more opportunities at 7 as well. He didn’t really break into the team this year, getting games only while others were injured, but hopefully he’ll be more settled this year.

        Mark McCrea as well, for the same reasons.

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