THESE are challenging times for Connacht. Home form since October has been the saving grace for a team beset by bad luck and reeling from post title squad departures. Well the home form has taken a dip now too with this vital inter-provincial defeat at a miserably wet Sportsground on New Year’s Eve.
While most of the world welcomed 2017 with a sense of relief and hope after a year generally described with negative connotations, Connacht fans might be dreading what lies ahead and yearning for a chance to go back.
The year 2016 will forever be regarded as a glorious breakthrough one for rugby in the west, but no one thought this new found place at the top table was untouchable and even before the players boarded that plane back to Knock from Edinburgh, trophy in hand, everyone knew that the squad for next season was already shorn of some key frontlines.
Fast forward seven months from that great day in Murrayfield and Connacht are now treading water in terms of the race for a top six finish. Of course a spring surge – if some much overdue luck with injuries comes their way – might yet see Pat Lam’s men work their way back into contention, but they trail Ulster by 12 points in the standings and are back in the old familiar position of needing favours from others.
The home form this season has included wins over Edinburgh, Ulster, Toulouse, Cardiff, Treviso and Wasps. A vital run of results that has helped steady the ship from a awful start. Saturday night was never going to be season defining as Munster are always a serious force at the College Road venue and arrived on the back of a run of eight wins in nine.
Yet Munster made 11 changes from their first choice starting lineup that defeated Leinster. They were smack bang in the middle of a run of seven games which included two encounters against Leicester, that home derby with the men in blue and forthcoming games against Racing Metro, twice, and Glasgow.
This was the game they had to sacrifice in terms of selection but such is the mentality of Rassie Erasmus and his squad these days that they weren’t about to give up on the result. With just 38% of possession and 43% of territory, they outfoxed, outsmarted, outmanoeuvred and outfought the westerners in a way that just isn’t meant to happen to the reigning champions.
Connacht were hoodwinked here, tricked into playing for tries when kicks at goal offered a match lead, sucked into giving away turnovers, cajoled into giving away two scrum penalties, despite total and complete domination in that department, and made to look completely at odds with their own plans when it came to the much maligned lineout which once again misfired in a major game.
Full coverage in this week’s Connacht Tribune