REWIND the clock back a couple of weeks to the half time whistle during Connacht’s Pro 12 tussle with Cardiff and all was looking bright in the world of the westerners. They led, although they should have led by more, injuries were clearing up and a top six finish seemed well within their grasp.
Since then, the negatives have far outweighed the positives with a trip to Thomond Park next up for Connacht on Saturday evening (5:15pm) to face a play-off chasing Munster side. The chances of another performance on par with the season’s best effort at Christmas in the (27-16 win) seem slim for Pat Lam’s men, but it has been a season of many surprises.
The list of things that have gone wrong since half time at the Arms Park is substantial. Jake Heenan’s season has come to an end due to a shoulder injury, the Blues scored a try nine minutes beyond the 80 minute mark to steal a win from Connacht’s hands, highly influential forwards coach Dan McFarland has confirmed his departure in the summer and Lam has received an €8000 fine from the Pro 12 for his post game comments about officials after that loss.
The three week lay off might just have added to the frustration and it is reasonable to expect a fired up performance from Connacht in the early stages in Limerick on Saturday, on a par with what we have seen for most of the season. Despite the Cardiff loss, Connacht remain in sixth place holding a three point advantage over the Scarlets but, realistically, to keep the Llanelli side at arms length, Lam’s men will need at least three wins from five to close out the campaign.
The injury news was not good for Connacht this week on multiple fronts. To start with, Jake Heenan sustained a rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder and that is set to keep him out for the rest of the campaign. The one silver lining is that he doesn’t need an operation and Connacht expect him back for the start of next season.
The 22-year-old former New Zealand Under 20 captain missed 12 matches last season with a shoulder injury and 15 of the 23 games so far this season with a recurrence of that injury. Connacht’s other natural openside, Willie Faloon is also out for the remainder of the season after dislocating his shoulder again. He returns to Ulster in the off season and so, has played his last game in green.
Back in January, the best case scenario for Bundee Aki’s injury, sustained in the defeat to Edinburgh, was ten weeks but that will stretch to at least 11 now as the talented centre is not available for the Munster match. He has missed six games so far.
Equally as worrying is Nathan White’s ongoing lumbar spine issue affecting his leg. The tight head prop is being closely monitored and is due for a specialist review in the coming days. A knee injury to Dave McSharry was the other key bit of bad news. Full prognosis on that is expected next week.
The good news is that Kieran Marmion is back fit and fully available at scrum half while Eoin McKeon also make a timely recovery as he is the likely replacement for Heenan at number seven. While the 24-year-old Galwegian is regarded more as a six or and eight in the back row positions, he has made six starts this season in the number seven role and will be a likely regular in the coming weeks.
The drama around Saturday’s fixture can only be heightened by the fact that the referee for the game, Leighton Hodges from Wales, was the target of Pat Lam’s ire in the aforementioned post game press conference. Unfairly or not, the spotlight will be on the referee, that’s a certainty.
Three of Connacht’s remaining five pro 12 games are at home to play off chasing sides, Ulster, Glasgow and Ospreys. The other is an away trip to Parma to face Zebre in early May. The challenge is tough, so ending a winless run in Munster stretching back to 1986 could be necessary. It’s a tall order all things considered.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.