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Connacht 10 - 47 Exeter Chiefs - Connacht Start Slowly


By Rob Murphy @ Knockon.ie
August 18 2011

Hitting the ground running is made all the more difficult for a squad with 17 new additions and it’s fair share of injury concerns. That said, Saturday’s 47-10 drubbling in Athlone at the hands of the Aviva Premiership’s Chiefs will not be completely dismissed by team or supporters from Connacht any time soon. writes Rob Murphy, Knockon Editor.

The Dubarry Park pitch and facilities were in great nick for Saturday evenings opening salvo in the Connacht season. The crowd was in the region of 600. The game was a damp squid.

Never before has a season promised so much out west. Heineken Cup rugby has rugby folk on their toes and itching for action. However, it probably needs to be pointed out that somewhere between the draw for the competition in June and the first action last Saturday, the Connacht family forgot just how enormous the challenge is going to be.

Caption: Action from Saturday’s game. Pic: Mike Silke, Buccaneers RFC.
We don’t doubt that Eric Elwood and his management team of Dan McFarland, the newly acquired Bill Mallard and Mike Forshaw have not lost sight of that fact but the rest of us have been so caught up with talk of a close to 400% increase in season ticket sales, a new supporters club, new stand and a pro active PGB (Professional Games Board) that we might just have lost sight of the basic reality for a brief second.

Saturday’s defeat was comprehensive. The Chiefs built up the lead clinically through the boot of the excellent Gareth Steenson, scored a deserved try from Bryan Rennie and an intercept from the aforementioned Ulster born out-half.

 

The game was dead by half time with the scoreline at 27-3 and they left a young and brand spanking new look Connacht flailing in their mist as they kicked on with four more second half tries. It was two sides in different worlds by the end but that’s not cause for complete panic.

We’ve seen Connacht take pre-season tankings before (just last season in fact) and bounce back. We’ve seen them put in stunning pre-season performances and fail to build on them too. The result is not vital at this stage, the manner of the performance is a little worrying all the same.

Some of the mitigating factors are straight forward, just one player survived from the last game of last season, they’ll need time to gel. Gavin Duffy and Johnny O’Connor were kept back as a precaution, Brett Wilkinson and Andrew Browne are on the injured list, Keith Matthews is a long term absentee.

Of the other injured players, it’s hard to disagree with the theory that they are interchangeable with those available. Miah Nikora might be the one exception there but for the moment he isn’t clearly first choice ahead of O’Connor.

Connacht will be sharper for Thursday’s clash with Ireland at Donnybrook. John Muldoon got 40 minutes under his belt here and will benefit. Duffy and O’Connor are expected to return. It will all help.

A detailed analysis of this performance is futile and it would be far too early to look into the performances of some of the debutants in minute detail. Paul O’Donoghue and David Moore showed enough at nine.

They, along with Niall O’Connor and Matthew Jarvis got very little front foot ball to work with at any stage in the game, so their performances suffered. Henry Fa’afili showed some nice flashes and linked well with Eoin Griffin.

Up front, Connacht were out-fought at the breakdown and failed to adequately protect on their own ball. Exeter were hungrier sharper and tremendously well drilled. This is their Aviva Premiership side that finished eighth last season.

The spirit in the Chiefs camp was evident, with a real sense of working for each other and a clear appetite for a big win to kick start their campaign. They are in a different place then Connacht at the moment and the hope will be that all that will change come September 3rd in Treviso.

Connacht’s biggest concern in the player turnaround from last season is how they will fill the gaps left at tight head and out-half with the frustrating departures of Jamie Hagen and Ian Keatley.
Sean Cronin’s loss is almost as big but the hope in that regard is that Adrian Flavin’s experience and the arrival of Ethienne Reynecke will fill that gap.

But the number three and 10 jersies are the concern and Rodney Ah You left the field looking a little dejected on Saturday having conceded some key penalties during his battle with Brett Sturgess.

Ah You will be encouraged by the fact that the Connacht management team felt those calls against him were a case of different interpretation rather than him being outscrummaged. He’ll also garner conifdence from Elwood’s praise of his side’s efforts in the scrums but the big Kiwi will need to up the performance ahead of next week.

With a clash with Ireland on Thursday night in Donnybrook and then a trip to London to face Saracens on August 25th, Elwood has a lot to ponder in the key positions.

Moreover, the injury crisis makes the likelihood of another couple of heavy defeats all the stronger. His options are limited now after David Nolan was added to the long term list.

The Galwegian second row was having a fine game until the 54th minute when he landed awkwardly in a lineout and broke his right leg. A dreadful blow to a man who has little luck with injuries. A lot of hope surrounds him this year but he’s going to have to spend the early part of the season back in the physio room.

Overall, it’s impossible to tell how much of a benefit the game will have been to Connacht. When taken in context with the two games to come, we might be able to draw some conclusion but for now Connacht will need to focus on retaining possession, creating more in the backline then predictable running lines and upping the intensity and work rate at the breakdown.

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Connacht 10 -47 Exeter Chiefs - Connacht Start Slowly
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