Connacht 15 - Cardiff 22
Rob Murphy at the Sportsground
A game to encapsulate a season, it had everything from the 26 previous games this season all rolled into one eighty minute contest. Neatly constructed first phase attacks leading to tries, sustained pressure converted into points, a lack of composure while leading, basic defensive errors and poor discipline when it mattered most.
It has been a bumpy ride for Connacht this year. They've scored a lot more tries with a total of 46 in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup this season compared with 37 last year - there is still one game to go in Swansea next Saturday against the Ospreys. Defensively however the tally is at 68 tries conceded compared with 56 last year and then there is that very poor goal kicking percentage that can't be ignored.
In the context of bonus points, Connacht have managed eleven this year compared with five last year. A total of four try-bonus points and seven losing-bonus points. That losing bonus points tally suggests that Pat Lam's men came close to having a very good season and considering the callow nature of the squad, there is a lot of room for continued development.
The Heineken Cup home performance against Saracens and the unforgettable win away to Toulouse combined with a spring run of four wins from five and 21 points from a possible 25 against Edinburgh, Treviso, Zebre, Newport and Llanelli points to a team making progress, a side on the rise.
Yet the six defeats to Irish provinces, a total of 15 Rabo Direct Pro 12 losses and the hammerings at Saracens and Ulster respectively point to a side with a long road in front of them as the season meanders to a close. Saturday's game in front of a big end of season Sportsground crowd on a perfect evening for rugby underlined everything neatly.
With so much road to travel, it needs to be accepted that for now at least, Connacht are not a very good rugby team, in fact, this is a pretty poor side. However, the difference between them and say the Dragons or Edinburgh who are down in the lower half of the table with them is the potential within the squad.
A lot of the reason why this side is below average as a team at the moment is centred around inexperience and naievity. Backroom resources are also an issue with a defensive coach still badly needed. Mike Forshaw left last summer and was never replaced leaving the management team one man short and this has been telling in the statistics.
If the mental approach is right this summer and if a realisation sets in that Connacht are on the right track towards challenging the top six but still well short of their destination then the hard labour might pay off. What doesn't need to happen is a feeling of 'almost there' to set in because that would be ignoring some glaring problems.
Saturday's loss had some awful moments from two of the highly rated young players both of whom proved crucial to that victory away to Toulouse back in December. Robbie Henshaw and Eoin McKeon came up with key errors in this one with the game in the melting pot and the mistakes proved a lot more costly than Marmion's little lapse.
Henshaw scored a try in this one but it was his knockon that should be the lasting memory. Carrying the ball in one hand and looking for the spectacular offload minutes after his side conceded a key score and just when they needed to be conservative and safe. The ball was dropped, then hacked forward and Cardiff scored through Lewis Jones after he easily won the race with Denis Buckley to possession.
Late in the contest, Connacht were down by seven points and down to 14 men with Aly Muldowney in the sin bin for being the third Connacht player to pull down a Cardiff maul. In possession Connacht drove forward but at the side of the maul, McKeon picked up a Cardiff forward and dropped him to the ground. He had lost his mind for a second and was sent to the bin. That was the game.
These are rising local stars that Connacht will hope to build their future round and all three neatly demonstrated how much work they still have to do to become solid players at this level, consistently good players and genuine target men for opponents because of their ability to make the right decisions at key moments.
If any of this squad things they can rest easy and just let the flow of work they're putting in off the field glide them up the table next season they can think again. Connacht are ninth in the table with six wins from 21 because they are a well below average rugby team in what is by far the weakest of the three professional leagues in Europe.
They led the game 15-3 at the 55 minute mark. Matt Healy's try, a brilliant score after a neatly placed grubber kick from Marmion having taken the ball from McKeon at the base of a scrum. It was a move carved from the training ground and helped them to a 10-3 lead at half time.
After half time, Darragh Leader rose high in the air to take a bomb and came down with it in one piece. He won the penalty there and then and Connacht launched a five minute assault on the home line with Henshaw scoring from close range at the base of a ruck demonstrating his physical prowess in the 13 jersey.
The game should have been put to bed but Cardiff, under new management, came into this with three straight wins and a pale shadow of the truly awful team they had been for most of the season.
They used a powerful scrum to earn a penalty try just before the hour mark and two minutes later profited from a mistake to score a second try and lead. Late on, Dan Fish scored but their poor goal kicking kept Connacht within a score right to the end.
The full time whistle brought a salute to the departing players with Gavin Duffy brought back into the squad after three months out for 20 minutes of action to conclude a brilliant career with the province and Dan Parks and Frank Murphy also making their final appearance at the Sportsground.
The game itself was appropriate finish to the season really, a whimper rather than a bang but Connacht have one thing that makes them a lot different than the sides around them at the bottom of this Pro 12 league and that's potentia. They have young players that keep showing us glimpses of something really impressive. If the right moves are made in the backroom team behind Lam and the squad come back in June aware that they have to improve or fail, then better days may be in front of them.
Connacht – D Leader; D Poolman, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; M Nikora, K Marmion; R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, A Muldowney, M Kearney, J Muldoon (capt), C Gilsenan, E McKeon.
Replacements: G Duffy for Leader 62 mins; D Parks for Nikora 51 mins; F Murphy for Marmion 75 mins; D Buckley for Loughney 51 mins; D Hefferna for Harris Wright 53 mins; F Bealham for Ah You 58 mins; M Swift for Kearney 58 mins; A Browne for Gilsenan 58 mins
Cardiff Blues – D Fish; A Cuthbert, C Allen, D Hewitt, H Robinson; G Davies, L Williams; G Jenkins, M Rees (capt), T Filise, B Davies, F Paulo, M Cook, J Navidi, E Jenkins.
Replacements: S Andrews for Filse 40 mins; L Hamilton for Jenkins 76 mins; S Huberstone for Davies 63 mins; L Jones for Williams 55 mins; T Davies for Jenkins 68 mins; K Dacey for Rees 68 mins.
Ref – N Paterson (SRU).
Cardiff Defeat Sums Up "Nearly" Season
- Written by Diom
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