Connacht are preparing for a backlash from Edinburgh when they visit the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (6.45pm ). Both sides have enjoyed their best starts to the Guinness Pro12 this season, but while Connacht recorded a notable first victory in 11 years over the Ospreys in Swansea, Edinburgh lost their first match of the season when they fell to Zebre in Italy.
As a result Connacht coach Pat Lam says they know what is ahead in their bid to post their fifth win from this opening six games. “There is no doubt they will have some guys from the World Cup, but we focus on the fact that they will play Edinburgh’s style, Edinburgh’s physicality, an Edinburgh team that will be hurting from last week, and there is no doubt they will be disappointed [having lost to Zebre].
“I know for sure in the build up to this game, they will have had a pretty physical training, so we know what is coming.”
Edinburgh came away with the spoils at the Sportsground last season by 16-13, and it is those types of losses that haunt Connacht when Champions Cup rugby is at stake. Last weekend Connacht showed their growing maturity when seeing off the Ospreys, and more will be demanded on Saturday to see off Alan Solomon’s Edinburgh, who, just four points behind, be treating Pat Lam’s side with all the respect they deserve.
With winning comes a different pressure, and Lam says last weekend at Liberty Stadium, his young squad passed the test. “Before the game I put the pressure on the team, saying it was an opportunity to take the learnings from last year. The way the results happened the night before, we knew if we won we would be siting on the same points as Scarlets, so we applied that pressure, and the way to deal with that pressure is by doing the job and staying in the systems. Fair play, it was a young side we put up, and both Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion drove the game.”
On Saturday Lam will have an opportunity to select some more experienced players, including hooker Tom McCartney, whose physicality up front could be needed. Both World Cup players Robbie Henshaw and Nathan White returned to training this week, but Lam is hesitant about starting the two, giving them time to readjust to Connacht’s systems.
“We will have to see how they integrate this week. Obviously it’s great to get them back, but there is a bit to pick up on. We will make a call later in the week. There are 14 games to go in this block, but the key point is making sure they know their job. Obviously with a talented skilled player it is great, but he has have to make sure he can do the job as far as Connacht goes.”
Also in doubt is fullback Tiernan O’Halloran who is undergoing return to play protocols, John Cooney (rib cartilage ), and Danie Poolman. Fionn Carr is expected to be fit again, while Jason Harris-Wright is ready to get some club games under his belt.
After last weekend’s long overdue win, Connacht may not yet be swaggering, but there is reason for optimism. The stats do not lie. Connacht currently have the most points posted, and the most tries scored. The challenge is to maintain it. Lam says it was a good milestone, but everyone knows it just gets tougher from here on.
Importantly, however, Connacht learned some of the lessons from last season, particularly how to close out a game. Not since 2004 had Connacht overcome the Neath-Swansea outfit in Wales, and never in the Liberty Stadium, but with the clock ticking down, Connacht forced a 76th minute penalty to secure the points.
After both sides exchanged early penalties, Ospreys’ World Cup player Eli Walker produced a break up the left wing which No 8 Dan Baker finished for an 8-3 lead. Connacht, having spurned two try-scoring chances, were finally rewarded for their endeavour when outhalf Jack Carty reduced the arrears with a 30th penalty.
Eight minutes later a super scrum provided the platform for Matt Healy to cross for an 11-8 lead at half time. Man of the match Bundee Aki, who had led from the front throughout, extended the lead after the break with a second try, and Ronaldson added the extras to give Connacht an 18-8 lead.
With returning World Cup players Paul James, Justin Tipuric, and Aaron Jarvis sprung from the bench, the home side enjoyed both territory and possession, forcing six penalties. Sam Davis kicked a 56th minute effort, and they drew closer when Tipuric crossed out wide to leave just two points between the sides.
However Connacht produced 10 minutes of sustained attack and organised defence, sensibly keeping ball in hand as they ran down the clock before Ronaldson posted a 77th minute penalty to complete a remarkable victory.
Connacht: T O’Halloran (cpt ), D Leader, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, S Delahunt, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, E KcKeon, N Fox-Matamua, E Masterson. Replacements, Adeolokun for O’Halloran (13 ), J Muldoon for McKeon (57 ), U Dillane for Roux and D Heffernan for Delahunt (62 ), R Parata for Adeolokun (64 ), F Bealham for Ah You (69 ).