Connacht, in need of some much-needed New Year cheer when they host Munster at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday, have a record number of players sidelined through injury.
With no light at the end of Connacht’s lengthy casualty list, coach Pat Lam has 22 players carrying injuries ahead of the New Year’s Eve interprovincial with Pro 12 league leaders Munster. And, after a poor result against Ulster pre-Christmas, a cherished win against Munster would certainly help ease that pain.
However such hopes have little foundation now as Lam reports limited training sessions this week with 20 players and only 10 backs in training earlier this week. Academy prop Jack Dineen filled in at loose head to allow the pack to do scrummaging, and with a number of players unable any contact, and others sick, it has been nothing like the preparation Lam would like for a big clash with Munster.
“The hardest thing is training over the Christmas” says Lam. “The last two weeks have been six days turnarounds, but even now with a normal week to build, we don’t have enough to have quality training - if you go too hard, you run the risk of another injury.”
The full list is injured players is: Front row: Finlay Bealham, head injury v Ulster, following return to play protocols; Ronan Loughney, minor surgery on his knee injury and unavailable for six weeks; Conor Carey, injured his foot against Wasps, out for three months; Dominic Robertson McCoy, undergoing rehabilitation for a shoulder injury sustained in training; Ivan Soroka, continuing foot rehabilitation, due to return to play in mid-February; Locks, Ultan Dillane, ankle injury in the final minutes v Ulster, waiting a scan to determine the extent of the injury; Andrew Browne, continuing ankle rehabilitation, due to return to play in February; back row, John Muldoon, minor thigh injury v Ulster, monitored this week; Jake Heenan returns to training this week after knee and ankle injuries v Wasps; Eoghan Masterson, knee rehabilitation, due to be available in the coming weeks; scrum half, John Cooney, thigh injury in training, undergoing rehabilitation; Outhalf, Marnitz Boshoff, shoulder surgery, out for three months; Shane O’Leary, graduated return to play protocols for concussion; centre, Craig Ronaldson high rehabilitation, due to be available in mid-January; Peter Robb, returns to training with the squad this week following his thigh injury; Bundee Aki, ankle surgery , due to return in mid-February; Stacey Ili, ankle rehabilitation, returns to running this week; Eoin Griffin, chest muscle injury, due to return in March; back three, Cian Kelleher, hamstring, returns to running this week; Danie Poolman, head injury v Ulster, return to play protocols; Josh Rowland, ankle rehabilitation, due for a return to play in the coming weeks; Darragh Leader, hand surgery, returns February.
Of those players there are hopes John Muldoon, Jake Heenan, Peter Robb, Stacey Ili, and Cian Kelleher might be cleared, if not ready, to play. With such an extensive list, Connacht is looking at bringing in players, but, Lam says, all must be Irish qualified, which also rules out his son Mitch. “We are looking at different options, but it can only be Irish players and at the moment no one is available. Some guys [Ireland squad members] will have to be managed, if not this week then next against Ospreys, it doesn’t help because we are short.”
As a result, expectations of another win over Munster have been lowered, and Lam says it will be a huge challenge for his struggling side.
“They have strong squad, and they are humming. Everyone can see and it’s pleasing to see, definitely a team that is all on the same page, They have a really strong cause to play. Motivation is high, and it’s obvious through the body language in both attack and defence.
“Certainly what we expect this week is a great challenge. They are top of the table and deservedly, so it’s a big game for us. There has been a lot of change since last season - there is a collective culture and spirit in that team at the moment and it’s fantastic to see, and that is what makes them dangerous. You can see in their body language, so it’s a tough, tough proposition.”
Lam says it is frustrating, particularly being unable to train fully.
“The biggest one at the moment is when you can’t train or train the way you want to - having to throw a player into 12 who has never played there before. When you are a team that relies on each part, it has its effect. Squads with bigger resources can manage it better - that’s their advantage, it’s not an excuse, but its the challenge we face, and it’s hard when you can’t get replacements as easily as other teams.”
Lam said he was proud of the way the team stayed in the hunt against Ulster, despite the injuries. However, the long wait for a win in Ravenhill continues into its 57th season, losing, with injuries to Finlay Bealham and Danie Poolman (replaced by Academy player Ciaran Caffney ), Connacht were once again left with a patched-up team.
“I was extremely proud of the boys. There are three things you need for a championship winning team - a good game that can beat anybody, a culture, and leadership, and what we were frustrating with mostly is that our game put them under pressure, but we didn’t execute. We made errors, and we missed an amount of chances.
“But as far as the culture goes, it was outstanding. The boys with the sort of week we had, I couldn’t fault the effort they put in, and then the leadership was really good too, but we are disappointed. We got nothing to show for our efforts, except for some learnings. It’s a hard place to win, particularly when you make it harder for yourselves.
On a blustery and cold night in Kingspan, Connacht produced their best rugby in the opening quarter, but they were unable to covert it into points. A lost scrum, lack of support from a trademark Kieran Marmion break, a lost line-out all contributed to their failure to score.
“The first 20 minutes, we came out really hard. We are a team that needs to start well, but there were missed opportunities - just execution - and it was disappointing.”
Connacht were unable to capitalise on three successive penalties, and then Ulster grabbed the initiative, posting a first penalty kick after 20 minutes. Seven minutes later, and on the attack, a dummy from Luke Marshall gave Piutau room for Stuart McCloskey to finish in the corner, with Paddy Jackson converting. When Jackson added a penalty before the break, Ulster were 13-0 in front.
It didn’t get any better for Connacht. Despite some strong defence, and a sterling effort from Tiernan O’Halloran to prevent a try.
Ulster had all the momentum. And they made it count when flanker Clive Ross eventually crossed. Jackson’s conversion put them well in front by 20-0.
However, to their credit, Connacht fought back, and propelled by a turnover from John Muldoon, a big Ultan Dillane carry, and some good footwork by Matt Healy and O’Halloran, outhalf Jack Carty, from a Marmion pass, ran a nice line to score. His conversion put Connacht on the scoreboard 20-7 after 55 minutes. It did not, however, propel Connacht. Rather a series of replacements for both sides took the puff out of the game - Ulster adding a 66th minute penalty to finish the game’s scoring.
Connacht v Ulster: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, D Poolman (C Gaffney 37 ), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 66 ); D Buckley (T McCartney 77 ), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 66 ), F Bealham (JP Cooney 28 ); Q Roux (U Dillane 55 ), J Cannon; S O’Brien, N Fox-Matamua (N Dawai 64 ), J Muldoon (E McKeon 67 ).
Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, (T Bowe 74 ) J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 54 ); A Warwick (C Black 57 ), R Best capt (R Herring 67 ), R Ah You (W Herbst 57 ); K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, R Wilson (S Reidy h-t ).