Connacht’s hopes of retaining their Guinness Pro 12 title took a nosedive after poor festive results, and it does not look any rosier with a deepening injury crisis ahead of Saturday’s visit to the Ospreys in Wales.
Ireland international Ultan Dillane is the latest to be sidelined, ruled out for at least five weeks with an ankle injury, while backrow Nepia Fox Matamua is unavailable having dislocated a rib, and captain John Muldoon, having recovered from a groin strain to play last weekend, is now ruled out with a hamstring injury from Monday’s training session.
Coach Pat Lam is just crossing his fingers Jack Carty, having picked up a “minor calf strain” training with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad on Monday, will be fit. Ditto for Finlay Bealham and Matt Healy, unavailable to train after suffering stomach bugs, while Tiernan O’Halloran is on “an overdue few days off”, and Kieran Marmion is also on leave. The result is a week of limited training due to a shortage of fit bodies.
Lam says Dillane will see a specialist this week to determine a treatment plan for the high ankle sprain he suffered playing against Ulster, but the best case scenario is five weeks.
“If it’s rehab, then it could be five to six weeks; if its surgery, then it will be longer,”, but it will almost certainly rule the 23-years-old lock out of Ireland’s opening Six Nations on February 4 in Murrayfield.
“Backs is the problem this week. We had a walk through and that was basically it - there were a lot watching. Every year we have had it [injuries] around this time, but I’ve never seen it as bad as this.”
Scrumhalf John Cooney is the only player due to resume training, and is expected to start. However, Lam says Marmion remains on standby, and scrumhalf Caolin Blade is covering the No 10 jersey in Carty’s absence.
“Kieran Marmion has to be given his week off following the November series, so he’s away on his break, but he’s gone to see his mum in Wales, so I told him to take his boots just in case if Cooney doesn’t make it through, and Jack Carty can’t train, Blade is training at outhalf.”
Although Shane O’Leary (concussion ) and Craig Ronaldson (thigh ) are “not far away”, Carty remains the only dedicated outhalf in a decimated Connacht squad. Lam confirmed this week that the IRFU refused to allow Lam’s son Mitch to cover for a month because he was a foreigner.
“We were trying to get Mitch for three weeks because he knew all the plays and all the systems, but he was down as a foreign player even though he played for the Connacht Eagles.
“Obviously if you go to a foreign player, it costs you a bit more, except for Mitch, who wouldn’t have cost us anything - I was not going to charge Connacht Rugby. We could get another Irish 10 who plays club rugby, but again, he’d have to learn all the plays and the moves, so thankfully we have got through so far. My worry is Jack [Carty] can’t train this week, and if he doesn’t make it this week, then Blade will play there.
“It is just the process we must work through. No one wants to have all the injures we have, but you follow the process and I think the process is important, that is what makes Irish rugby stronger.
‘Yes, we are down on numbers, but you just have to get on. There is no point moaning about it, complaining about it, or worrying about it, just get on and be positive and make sure the next guy steps up.”
Having failed to get a home win against league leaders Munster on New Year’s Eve, Connacht now face Welsh pacesetters Ospreys in what could be turn out to be a damage limitation exercise.
“They are the most successful home team in the competition and they are playing the best rugby out of everyone, in the style they play. They have threats everywhere,” says Lam.
Despite Connacht overcoming Ospreys in Swansea for the first time last season, Connacht have struggled in Wales, and in the last four games, Lam’s starting XV has not been the team which trained during the week.
“There’s a lot stacked against us, but that is exciting, it’s a good challenge for us, a massive challenge, particularly in the current situation, but that is what life is about - you face the challenge, embrace it, look forward to it. There are only only two ways, face it head on or quit.”
Lam travels still with the expectation of winning.
“Our expectation is we go there to win, I expect us to win, and that is why the Munster game, the Ulster game, we were frustrated, because we look at it and know we could have won, so I’d be more worried if we had guys not giving it all and that is not the case, what kills us is errors.
“The boys are working hard and I am confident we will turn the corner.
“I know people say excuses, but it’s not. I am very positive, that’s the way I am. It’s the way you approach it, the mindset. There is doubt it affects our performance. Last week was crazy, where McKeon starts at No 8 during the week because Muldoon’s groin is not right, then McKeon gets a tummy bug, so Dawai trains for the second half of the week, and then Muldoon passes his test late in the week.”
However Lam says there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
“If you go back and look at calendars on this date, we are in exactly the same situation in my time here. You look at injuries, where we are, and what excites me is what has happened in January, February, and March in our seasons. As long as we keep doing what we are doing with the right attitude and the right frame of mind, we will get through this.
“A lot of rugby still to play and let’s see where we are then. To be honest with ourselves, we should be higher, if you look at games we lost, we are disappointed. We’ve had opportunities to win and we haven’t take it.”
Last weekend’s 16-9 loss to Munster was a case in point, he says, when Connacht failed to grab the opportunity to go ahead after 60 minutes.
Weather at the Sportsground played its part, handing the edge to Munster’s pack which dominated the breakdown, with turnovers coming from the Connacht backs.
“A lot of big effort, but ultimately the stats show we had 24 turnovers - 19 from the backs - and those turnovers were crucial to us, either in possession, territory or points. There were hardly any system errors in defence, the shape of the defence was good - and defence always shows your character - unbelievable effort which highlights culture and character, but on attack, we turned over ball, dropped ball, the breakdown - those sort of things. They are fixable and that is the challenge, but we had enough opportunities to win that game.”
Munster were ahead 6-3 at the break - two from Ian Keatley on song for Munster and one from Carty on 30 minutes. In between Marmion came close to scoring a try, Carty missed a penalty, but by the 50th, the sides were level.
“We all know the turning point. The whole momentum had gone from 6-3 down at half time, to work ourselves to six-all, to work ourselves to a genuine chance to go ahead, and I would have been pretty confident that we could have closed it out, but it wasn’t to be. Errors cost us.”
Despite edging both territory and possession, Connacht conceded a vital try when hooker Rhys Marshall touched down from a rolling maul. Keatley added the extras and a drop goal, but Connacht deservedly earned a late penalty which Carty kicked to ensure Connacht earned a losing bonus point.
Connacht v Munster: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, P Robb, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 70 ); D Buckley (JP Cooney 77 ), T McCartney (D Heffernan 59 ), F Bealham (J Andress 71 ), Q Roux (N Dawai 60 ), J Cannon, N Fox-Matamua (S O’Brien 29 ), J Heenan (L Stevenson 73 ), J Muldoon.