Connacht have every reason to feel positive about Saturday’s visit of the Ulstermen, writes John O’Sullivan…
Connacht entered Friday night’s game away to Cardiff knowing that their early progress under Pat Lam would be gauged by their result against a team they finished on identical points to last season, and whom they beat on the road.
But, going by the result alone, a 21-10 victory for the Welsh side, is skewed, given Connacht’s superiority, the difficult conditions and a clear bias towards the home side from the match official.
Okay, Connacht were far from their best, knocking on copious amounts of ball and making several sloppy errors, but the sheer number of penalties awarded to Cardiff was mind boggling. It’s an unwritten rule in rugby that the attacking team should always get the benefit of the doubt from referees, but time after time after time Connacht’s attacking bravado was punished by the referee. True, referees are only human and they are vitally important to the game, but, as we saw with Romain Poite at the weekend, games can hinge on their decisions, and Friday evening’s game certainly did.
Cardiff are a strange team. In terms of talent, they are a sight better than their ninth placed finish last season, but there seems to be a collective apathy amongst their players and a very poor chemistry and cohesion in their play.
The surface at Arms Park, a new 4G surface, was saturated with rain and, inevitably, put free flowing rugby at a premium. Connacht, nonetheless, were undeterred and started the game with a bloodthirsty gusto. Dan Parks, who wasn’t at his best, in terms of kicking, last time out against Zebre had another abject day with the boot, relative to his high standards.
Indeed, a strange sequence of play saw Parks presented with the chance to give Connacht an early lead through a penalty, but he missed. Parks’ kick off went straight into touch, but Connacht, with kudos going to the props, White and Wilkinson, forced a penalty against the head at the ensuing scrum. When presented with the opportunity of a three point lead, the former Scotland international missed; but it wasn’t to be long before Connacht got on the scoreboard and gave Parks another chance with the boot.
Much of the pre match talk centred around the return to the Cardiff team of Lions winger Alex Cuthbert, but, in terms of wingers, the show was stolen by a lesser known name in the rugby world: Matt Healy.
With each passing performance, the fact that Healy has had to wait until his twenty fourth year to be rewarded with a professional contract seems more and more mystifying. Surely someone in his native Leinster could have identified his obvious talent and taken a punt on him. Still, on this occasion, Leinster’s loss is Connacht’s game. I grimace when I think of what the former Lansdowne man was doing to AIL defences a mere season ago.
Kieran Marmion, a livewire all evening with his sniping and incisive passing, spotted a gap in the Blues’ rear-guard and offloaded to Healy, who’s clever angle of running saw him slide in under the posts unopposed for the game’s opening try, after twelve minutes. Parks made amends for his earlier mistake for the boot and slotted the resultant conversion to take the score to 7-0 to the visitors from the West of Ireland.
Connacht’s try elicited a come back from the hosts, and, though, he missed two of his penalty attempts, fly half Rhys Patchell began to erode Connacht’s lead with successive penalties. With the scent of the lead in their nostrils, the Blues began to press and were eventually rewarded, not by a try, but by a Patchell drop goal, giving the Arms Park side a slender 9-7 lead. However, not to be outdone by his opposite number, Parks kicked another penalty to give Connacht the slenderest of leads at half time, 10-9.
The men in green, given their ascendancy, would have been slightly irked to be only leading by a solitary point at the interval. In many ways, it was a vintage Connacht attacking performance. Plenty of blood and thunder, but not the requisite guile to unlock the oppositions defence.
Cardiff, to their credit, began the second half brightly but they still could not find the way to the whitewash, finding a stubborn Connacht defence insurmountable. Instead, aided by both the referee and the boot of Patchell Cardiff began to kick their way into the lead, the fly half kicking four second half penalties to give the Welsh side a scantly deserved 21-10 victory.
Despite the loss, there were a lot of positive for the Westerners. Firstly, Robbie Henshaw looked a constant menace in his return to his school boy position of outside centre. It’s indicative of how highly he is rated at the Sportsground that I’m suggesting he could one day become the Irish number thirteen. Another locally produced talent, John Muldoon, excelled on his 200th appearance for the province, carrying ball and, as ever, looking extremely industrious. And to cap a good night for the Connacht academy, Kieran Marmion played with the nous of a player ten years his senior. It’s not beyond the Welsh born scrum half to become Conor Murray’s back up for Ireland, considering both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss are getting on in years.
Connacht will dust themselves off and look forward to their next game, the visit of interprovincial rivals Ulster to the Sportsground.
Will Ulster have a backlash after losing their first two fixtures of the season or will Connacht extend the Northerners barren run? Either could happen in what is sure to be, like last season’s encounter in Galway, a cracking game.
John O’Sullivan (@JohnOSullivan91) part time student, full time sports nut. I love rugby and am currently the PRO of Connemara RFC as well as admin for the Rugby Banter Facebook page. I also do some radio work for my local station. One day, I would love to be a Sports Journalist/Broadcaster.