WOUNDED BULL Westport’s Sean O’Boyle, seen here in action against Castlebar recently in the Connacht Junior League, was forced off during the first half of last Sunday’s defeat to Sligo.
Time for passion play in Limerick
NEXT Sunday at the ridiculous time of 5pm, Connacht will face into a game that could define their season. If they win, it could mark a turning point for professional rugby in Connacht.
Munster in Thomond Park is a fixture that will bring nothing but bad memories to all involved with Connacht rugby. Not since 1986 have Connacht won there and for that to change this weekend, the mindset of this current crop of Connacht players will have to be perfect.
Since the inception of the Celtic League in 2001, Connacht have visited Thomond Park three times. They have yet to even come close to doing themselves justice. On each occasion, they have been brushed aside by Munster teams that never even had to consider hitting top gear.
Connacht have stood up to the Munster men when playing at home in recent seasons. Two mammoth battles in the rain at Dubarry Park and the Sportsground will not be forgotten, but in Limerick Connacht have failed to deliver. Last season was no different – there was plenty of endeavour but no composure and a collapse in the end.
Too often this season Connacht players have failed to deliver when in a position to win and that has got to stop here. Munster will be at full strength but history has shown that they never perform to their maximum the week before Heineken Cup action. This was proven in October when a full-strength side lost at home to Edinburgh.
Thomond Park in Europe is a fortress. In the Magners League it’s just another venue and Connacht players will have to realise this before they achieve anything. Sunday provides this Connacht team with an opportunity to stand up and show they belong with the elite or once again be brushed aside.
To win Connacht will need a huge performance from their front eight. The set pieces need to be spot on. Stephen Knoop is back and will probably start. If he is to be really respected as a tighthead he should be able to nullify Puccerillo. John Fogarty may get a chance to lead from the start once more. If he does his lineout throwing will need to be perfect; no excuses. At loosehead the nod could go to Ray Hogan. He is more than capable of delivering against John Hayes in the scrums and attacking Munster’s scrum will be crucial to victory.
David Gannon and Andrew Farley will face an incredible battle in the second row. The back row struggle will also be fascinating. Colm Rigney could come in at number six, a position that may suit him better. Connacht will need a massive performance from Rigney and he will be aware that he has to deliver.
Chris Keane will get the nod at scrum-half and his defence will keep Peter Stringer guessing. On Connacht ball, Keane must be quicker at the breakdown. There will be no time to set up the perfect move; the ball must be moved quickly to keep Munster on the back foot.
Out wide Connacht have options galore. If they stick with Keith Matthews and John Hearty, that duo must offer more in attack than they did against Cardiff, and keep up their defensive form. Darren Yapp needs to rediscover his form of last year to make up for the huge loss of Matt Mostyn, and Conor McPhillips must grasp this opportunity to find some form of his own.
Finally it goes without saying that no one outside of Connacht has ever heard of Daniel Riordan. The nation is too busy talking about the admittedly promising Luke Fitzgerald. If Munster are ignorant of Riordan’s talent then they will be punished and he needs to get involved as much as possible from full-back.
So there you have it. A lot needs to go right but if it does Connacht have a chance of causing a massive upset. To do so, the entire team will have to rediscover something we have seen far too little of in the recent past: passion.
They need to find within themselves that Connacht spirit that was the cornerstone of the Warren Gatland era. It’s been too long since Connacht stood up and delivered, as was the case in Donnybrook against Leinster in 2003, or in the comeback wins over Narbonne of recent years.
Logic suggests Munster will still have too much but if Connacht can’t find a performance within themselves for this one then they may as well throw the towel in right now. So for that reason there will be no more than a score between them. It’s not on TV so travelling is a must.
WESTPORT’S TITLE BID ENDS PREMATURELY
WE HAVEN’T even reached December and already we are writing off Westport’s title hopes. But it’s a harsh reality that the Bulls players will have accepted at this stage. Barring a complete collapse from Monivea and a slip-up from Sligo, they will not be retaining their title.
Where it all went wrong this year is hard to pinpoint. The opening round defeat to Loughrea was a key defeat and they really didn’t need a trip to Monivea in round two. They were not ready for that match-up and never looked like beating the current league leaders. Since then the revival has been impressive. Six straight victories had the Bulls within four points of Monivea, who still have a few tricky ties to negotiate. If they had found a way past Sligo than they could have realistically remained in contention.
Injuries didn’t help them on Sunday. Peter Corcoran was out before kick-off and then David Keane and Stephen Keane had to be replaced before the break. That isn’t to say that Roger Martin, Michael O’Brien and Matty Burke didn’t step up – they did and can be proud of their efforts.
Overall though, leaving injuries aside, they just don’t seem to be as strong mentally this season. Brief sparks of attacking play on Sunday suggest that they still have the quality to make an impact in the cups. Trying to remain positive and focused in the meantime will be a major challenge.