Connacht's 2014 in Review
Connacht's 2014 can be summed up in one word. Growth. Gone are the nervy days where there is a sense of foreboding when Connacht play, expecting them to have a momentary lapse of concentration that earns them a moral victory and not an actual victory. Between the talented youngsters that are coming through Nigel Carolan's academy like Jack Carty and Darragh Leader, and the steel and belief that Pat Lam is instilling in his players, Connacht have been earning wins that have previously been losses.
Players like Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney and Mils Muliania have been brought in, showing the ambition that has so far been realised in Galway.
Best Match - Bayonne v Connacht
With Pat Lam resting 15 players for the trip to France, not much was expecting of Connacht. There were debuts for academy players like flanker James Connolly, while Caolin Blade and Finlay Bealham were earning their first starts. That Connacht won, in the manner that they did really gives hope for the future. There may have been the stereotypical Connacht lapse in concentration that was punished, but the manner in which they kept belief, and fought their way back into the contest to ultimately won spoke volumes of the progress Connacht have been making. Not to mention the huge morale boost that the entire squad would have got from the second stringers earning a huge victory.
Best try - Kieran Marmion v Leinster
What a step. It's ankle-breaking. Given the importance of the score - to get Connacht in the lead from 9-3 to 10-9 in a game that would finish that way was massive. This victory really signalled that Connacht's early season form could continue, and this was not another false dawn for those out in Galway.
Best Player - Kieran Marmion
Kieran Marmion has gone from strength to strength in the last 12 months. It's clear how the international camps have helped him improve. His pass is faster, and the time he takes to kick has been reduced. Overall, Marmion is making better decisions, and this is helping Connacht. It appears at times that he is so valuable to Connacht that the majority of Connacht's misfortune happens when he is off the pitch. It does appear that the emergence of Caolin Blade, together with the now settled John Cooney may decrease this dependence on Connacht's favourite Welsh son, but Marmion is a difference maker for the Galway side.
Best Newcomer - Tom McCartney
This may seem like a strange choice, but I want to give credit where it's due. Mils Muliania, Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux have been brilliant so far, while the emergence of Jack Carty and Darragh Leader have benefitted Connacht no end. But I think the arrival of McCartney gives Connacht an intelligence in the front row that they may not have had before.
I cite one example of this. Midway through the Connacht v Scarlets game, the ball drops to the floor in front of McCartney. Irish forwards up and down the country would have dove on the ball, or scooped it up and ran into contact. Not McCartney. Sensing there was an opportunity, he shifted the ball out wide, in a move that would eventually lead to Matt Healy's try. It's so simple, but it reflects a new way of thinking for Connacht, and McCartney deserves recognition for that.
It reminded me of when Jimmy Gopperth demonstrated a similar awareness of space last season, when he runs very wide before getting the ball after a turnover against Ospreys, leading to a try for Dave Kearney.
Connacht are looking pretty for the next year. In the short term, they are in a nice position to claim 6th in the Pro 12 and qualify for the Champions Cup automatically. It looks like a straight fight between Connacht and Scarlets for 6th, with the loser of that going into a playoff with Top14 and Aviva Premiership teams.
Connacht are also in a decent position to qualify for the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup, which with no Champions Cup teams entering the knockout stage could be a chance for silverware. Although at the same time, it could be a distraction for the real target of Champions Cup qualification.
Longer term, things are looking good for Connacht. A lot will depend on how they can retain for next season, with Pat Lam and Mils Muliania's contract up in June, while rumours of a Leinster switch for Henshaw persist. It's unlikely that he will leave, but even if he does, the combination of Dave McSharry and Bundee Aki has clicked very quickly this season, while youngster Conor Finn is knocking on the door for first team inclusions. There are some strong academy players about to hammer on Lam's door for inclusion, with Sean O'Brien, Ciaran Gaffney and Blade all extremely talented out west. This is the Irish province with the biggest sense of optimism going into the new year.
One To Watch - Denis Buckley
The 24 year old loosehead prop has been outstanding this season. After gaining some weight in the off season, Buckley has been dominant in the scrum all season. He's still firmly behind the Leinster and Munster pair of looseheads in terms of an Ireland call up, but he's not that far behind. I would not be surprised to see his name included in some extended Ireland squads in the coming months, and with it, an improvement in his play, much like Marmion, Henshaw and Leader have had since being called up to Ireland squads.