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Ospreys 1314 Marmion- Rob Murphy

As the Heineken Cup kick off draws near and the rumbles over the competition’s future continue Connacht are just getting on with business at the moment.

Saturday’s six try to two loss to the Ospreys did have some positive signs despite the lopsided scoreboard, in attack Connacht do look sharp. Once again injuries were a problem with the hugely impressive Matt Healy and out half Mark Ronaldson having to go off with knocks during the contest. Michael Swift is also an injury concern and it is possible Pat Lam will rest him this weekend for their trip to face Treviso on Friday (at 7:30pm live on TG4). Connacht return home the following week to face a star-studded Saracens outfit as the Heineken Cup kicks off.

Use of possession in their own territory and costly turnovers are a key problem at the moment, if they can sort that and some holes in the defence, the potential is there with a sharp incisive attack plan having notched seven tries so far. But before all that, let’s look back at last week in detail. For a second week running Connacht were bossed and bullied in a Rabo Direct Pro 12 game, despite having a fundamentally sound set piece at scrum and lineout time. Saturday’s 43-26 defeat to the Ospreys certainly didn’t play out to script even if the end result was predictable.
The returning Lions added size and nous to the visiting Welsh outfit but weren’t the only reason they won on Saturday. In some ways, Connacht improved on their previous outing despite conceding six tries compared with two against Ulster. With ball in hand in attacking positions, there were more signs that there is a new ruthless streak emerging, however when in possession in their own territory the picture remains bleak. For the moment at least, Connacht are incapable of locking a game down and frustrating an opposition after they strike for key scores.
When the mood took, the Ospreys were ruthless in picking off scores. Pinning the home side back, then benefiting from the westerners inability to conjure up a way of releasing the pressure. The British and Irish Lions were back for the Ospreys, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Adam Jones and Duncan Jones were part of a thundering tight five while Justin Tipuric at openside produced a breathtaking display that the small Connacht crowd of diehards, who skipped the hurling, would have grudgingly enjoyed. It was world class from the Welsh star.

Yet beyond that, talk of the Ospreys being some sort of untouchable superior force is exaggerated. Their scrum was well marshaled thanks to a fine display from Brett Wilkinson, Nathan White and Sligonian Sean Henry - making his first start at hooker. The breakdown was more even than last week and Connacht hit their man on the first 13 lineouts. We say all that to note that despite a tight five made up of four international class stars with a fifth, Richard Hibbard, coming on for the final quarter, Connacht broke even in every area in that department. Even in the back row - where Tipuric reigned supreme - Connacht had their moments with Jake Heenan once again looking like a huge asset. This is an Ospreys team with a brilliant pack but a backline that shouldn't make Connacht teams feel inferior. Richard Fussell, Jeff Hassler, Eli Walker and Tito Tibaldi scored tries in this contest, hard to see any of them lighting up the Six Nations before their careers end. Jonathan Spratt and Ben John aren't household names in Neath, never mind Wales. Six tries to two would make more sense had this quintet of top class forwards come to Galway and bulldozed Connacht, they didn't, they profited from mistake after mistake with ball in hand from the westerners. Poor decision making cost Connacht and meant that all the good work in a strong second half fightback was to no avail.

The game should have been done and dusted by the 30th minute, The Ospreys had three tries on the board at that point, the first a gift of an intercept finished off by Dan Biggar, the second stemmed from some baffling poor defence and a series of missed tackles on big lock Ian Evans before Fussell finished in the corner. Then came a third try from Eli Walker in the corner and but for the boot of Craig Ronaldson, the visitors would have been out of sight, he kicked four penalties but went off injured before the break and did have that intercept pass as a blot on his copybook.
Connacht showed life after half time too, for 14 minutes they dominated possession and territory and eventually it led to a try after some brilliant work by second row replacement Aly Muldowney who burst through one tackle out wide, then popped off the ground, as he was brought down, into the arms of Danie Poolman, who sprinted home. As was the case in the Ulster match, Connacht’s try only stoked the visitors into a swift and merciless response with Hassler finishing off an overlap as the home defence was stretched. Connacht showed character and skill to come back again and score a second try through Kieran Marmion from close range after great work in the build up from Poolman. But that was as close as they got, with the Ospreys adding two tries in the final ten minutes.
The second half highlighted some key changes in this season’s Connacht side. In attack they are strong, with ball in hand in opposition territory they can do damage. The average try per game count is 1.75 right now compared with 1.45 last year. However, ball in hand in their own territory is a whole other story. Deers in headlights is a simple analogy. In tight situations with plenty of traffic, ball is being ripped from hands and turned over at the breakdown when they try to kick clear of danger, the accuracy is awful and the general decisions made at half back are wrong time and time again.

The stats say it all, they were shipping 1.9 tries per game through 22 games last year, after just four games this year - including three at home - that reads as an alarming 2.25 per game. There is no doubt that when there's a coaching change, things can take time to settle - Joe Schmidt lost his first four games in charge of Leinster as he settled and tried to install a new way of playing - but this will be a concern. Followers turned up for this game - which infuriatingly clashed directly with the All Ireland Hurling final - expecting a tough outing because of the strength of the opposition on paper. That was how it turned out but the full make up of the story was a little off script and alarming as a result. Treviso this Friday has become a huge bellwether game for this young group.

Rob Murphy covers Connacht rugby for the Connacht Tribune and Sentinel, Galway Bay FM and is the creator of
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