There’s been plenty of good news from the West in recent times. The coup of Leinster’s Nathan White last month was followed up by the capture of experienced outhalf Dan Parks. Equally positive is the revelation that all four of Dave Gannon, Paul O’Donohoe, Dave Moore and Kyle Tonetti have extended their contracts beyond the end of this season.
Earlier in the campaign, the highly promising trio of Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry tied themselves to their home province for at least another two seasons. It’s a hugely encouraging sign that these ambitious prospects want to be part of a progressing Connacht.
Unfortunately, it’s been a frustrating campaign for Elwood and his squad to date. Their infamous 14-game losing streak from the end of September until mid-January wasn’t a totally fair reflection of their performances. Of those 14 games, only 5 were lost by more than 10 points, and came against powerhouses like Toulouse, Munster and Ulster. Many of the losses came by narrow margins, due to the lack of accuracy in Connacht’s finishing and an inability to close out winning positions.
That’s not to excuse the bad run, a loss is still very much a loss and there were some poor displays along the way. Momentum is a vital factor in any league and not just in regard to winning. Anyone involved in a side racking up consecutive losses will know that the momentum of losing can be hard to stop. Connacht did it manfully, with their heroic 9-8 Heineken Cup win over quarter-final chasing Harlequins. That night at the Sportsground will never be forgotten in Galway.
The fact that Connacht were in the Heineken Cup at all was certainly a contributing factor to their poor PRO12 form. Compared to the massive squads at Munster, Ulster and Leinster, Elwood’s player base is small. The combined demands of the PRO12 and HC stretched the squad. The coach had very little room for rotation, making minimal changes from week to week. Big efforts and narrow misses in Pool 1 against Harlequins away, and both ties with Gloucester took a lot out of the players.
The signings of Parks and White could make an influential difference next season. New Zealander White has been impressive in his 16 appearances for Leinster this season. He will add leadership on and off the pitch, as well as strong scrummaging at tighthead. With Brett Wilkinson packing down at loosehead and the likes of Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers providing cover and competition, Connacht look like being well-stocked in the front-row for next season.
Parks is an interesting acquisition, but the deal makes sense. At 33, concerns will be raised that Parks is past it as this level. However, age is not really a concern here. Much like Ronan O’Gara, Parks’ playing style and strengths have never been reliant on physical attributes. He will kick the corners to put Connacht into good positions, he will release his outside backs when it’s on, and most crucially, he will take any points on offer.
The Scot is the all-time record scorer in the PRO12/Celtic League with 1338 points in his 128 games since 2003. This season, he has kept his rate up with 75 points in 9 games for the Blues. Parks’ reliable boot is what Connacht have missed at times this season. Niall O’Connor has done well in patches, but too many times Connacht have come away from good territory with nothing to show on the scoreboard. Parks will convert a high percentage of any penalties on offer and if nothing’s on, will try the drop goal.
White and Parks should improve the team next season and if Elwood can add one or two more players of decent quality, Connacht will be heading into next season with higher expectations. With the young players hopefully continuing to improve, Connacht will hope for a Leinster, Munster or Ulster Heineken Cup win and the top-tier European qualification that would bring.
For now the focus is on a strong finish to the PRO12 season. Connacht sit 10th coming into tomorrow evening’s clash with Munster in Galway. There’s 5 games left including this derby, and Connacht can rise up the table with a good run. Munster at home, Dragons away, then Ulster and Aironi at home will all look like winnable fixtures to Elwood and his management team.
9th is the highest Connacht have ever finished in this league. Treviso in 8th are only 5 points ahead and that should be the target. 4 wins from the 5 in these remaining games would also allow the western province to equal their record for most amounts of wins in a league season, set at 8 all the way back in 2003/04. It’s a big ask but certainly achievable. Time to ‘front up, rise up’.