After the euphoria of the great win against Munster, which was against the odds, and some encouraging displays from the A side, albeit against far weaker opposition than the first team will ever face; the Ospreys were brought well and truly down to earth in Galway. It would be remiss to not constructively criticise such a performance and analyse how a repeat performance could be avoided.
Of course results and performances like this can be put down to being outliers, as indeed could the Munster performance. There is no doubt Toby Booth's hands were tied by the need to not field some key players after the Autumn series, and some of the other absentees could only be explained by injury or unavailability. So clearly and objectively a victory on the road with that selection should not have been expected, but a comprehensive dismantling was not either. It was particularly frustrating as the effort put in by the team was not in question. They just could not stay in the game because Connacht could run through the outside channels at will. The cohesion in midfield was poor, and the difference between the defensive capabilities and collective covering speed of the back three against Munster and last night was rather notable. We were virtually killed off by their speed of ball and attack in the outside channels in the first twenty minutes, when at times we looked like statues and despite showing signs of revival, even against a strong wind, we were eventually killed off, yet again, in the outside channels with the resultant penalty try and yellow card.
As Toby Booth said in his post-match interview that game is now in the history books, and we prepare for a vital home match next weekend. In a home and away league, road wins will always be difficult to gain, but dropping home games must be avoided. We have to hope the availability for selection will allow him to pick a stronger and more balanced side.
People who watch a lot of top-class rugby will have noticed how important it is to build a squad with starters and finishers. Most attacking rugby nowadays takes place in the first fifty minutes and the final thirty becomes all about closing out a position. A powerful and experienced bench allows teams to close out games. However in that first fifty minutes, you need players with foot speed who can create the defensive line speed needed and the lateral agility to cover changes in direction. It is not being critical of a player to suggest his attributes are better suited to the bench as a closer, rather than as a starter who needs to inject speed and coverage capability over the first fifty minutes, when the game is faster, and teams are taking more risk than they are prepared to do in the closing stages of tight games. There are signs this is being recognised but it is not applied it across the board.
Our attacking structure to date appears relatively limited, relying heavily on a kicking game and rarely attempting to play with width, which in turn has defences queuing up to smash down our carriers and then cleverly resource the breakdown to win penalties and turnovers. It is therefore vital our defensive lapses are sorted out as soon as possible. A strong bench closing out only works if you are still in the game when they come on.
It is going to take some time for the team to successfully build width into their attacking system, but defence is easier to sort out more quickly, and we urgently need to address what is going on in those outside channels, as the vast majority of our tries are conceded there. The hoped-for return of Michael Collins should help the midfield defence and a return to the Munster back three should solidify what was a shaky back three in the conditions against Connacht. However, that will be unlikely to be enough if we do not recognise how important speed and intensity is in that first fifty minutes. In modern rugby, very rarely do you win games in the first fifty minutes, but you can certainly lose them as we saw at the weekend.