Connacht the best team in Ireland? After a summer of unprecedented optimism in the west, it was only a matter of time before the hype reached its logical conclusion and, as the only victorious province on the opening weekend of the Guinness Pro12, the round one table tells no lies.
Head coach Pat Lam and captain John Muldoon were happy, though, that despite a thoroughly deserved win over the more experienced and physically bigger Newport Gwent Dragons, younger heads in the squad were not being swayed by such thoughts at the Sportsground on Saturday.
Tries from Eoin McKeon and Danie Poolman, augmented by two penalties from Darragh Leader, were enough to see Connacht past a Welsh side rejuvenated by a solid recruitment programme this summer but only able to produce a Nic Cudd try and two Jason Tovey penalties while seeing skipper Lee Byrne and Tyler Morgan sin-binned in the second-half.
Having raced into the lead through McKeon’s 10th minute try at the end of some excellent passing through seven pairs of hands, Connacht had problems of their own, unable to score between the 15th and 51st minutes, during which time centre Dave McSharry was yellow carded and the Dragons tied the game at 8-8 going into half time.
Lam pointed to a drop-off in intensity either side of the interval and the failure to kill the game off once Poolman grabbed his 55th minute try courtesy of a clever kick from fly-half Jack Carty.
“Some of the options we were taking in trying to close that game down certainly had my heart going,” Lam concluded. “So there’s some things to learn from and John Muldoon hit the nail on the head in the changing room. It was probably a quite a subdued changing shed, which is something he’s not used to but is exciting for him because we know we can play a lot better than we did.
“But we’re pleased to get it started, especially when you consider nine guys in that starting group are under 23 and only two over 26, that’s good to see some of those talented guys get a chance.”
The kids, then, are all right, and not just the marquee prodigies Kieran Marmion, Leader and Robbie Henshaw, who was absent through illness.
Wing Niyi Adeolokun, signed during the summer from Dublin University, worked tirelessly and caused plenty of problems while veteran prop Nathan White formed a front row with 20-something colleagues Rob Heffernan and man of the match Denis Buckley which out-manouevred their bulkier rivals in a dominant scrummaging performance which provided the platform for victory.
So with all that and banner signings to come in the form of Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney as well as the already resident but rehabbing Mils Muliaina – on Saturday serving as Connacht’s most capped water carrier — what could possibly go wrong?
Last season’s 10th-placed league finish should be a fresh enough reminder as Lam prepares his players for next weekend’s trip to an Edinburgh side flush from a Thomond Park win over Munster.
Marmion spoke last week of too many tight games lost in the previous campaign and Lam returned to theme having this time got over the line in a game he conceded might have gone the other way a year ago.
“Possibly,” Lam said. “We were really conscious of the amount of games we lost by seven points or less that ended up costing us a really good finish. We’ve talked about it and addressed it and the biggest thing is the calmness. The senior players have led that well, John [Muldoon], Nathan [White] and Mils [Muliaina], that we don’t need to panic.
“That will have given the boys a big boost but we still need to go back and say ‘how could we have managed the last 10 minutes better?’ That’s why it’s so low key, they know we can play better and we’ve got a big job next week. We also won our first game last season and then lost eight, so we’re determined not to repeat that.”
CONNACHT: S Layden; N Adeolokun, D Leader (C Finn, 65), D McSharry, D Poolman; J Carty (M Nikora, 65), I Porter (K Marmion, 53); D Buckley, D Heffernan (S Henry, 74), N White (R Ah You, 60); M Kearney, Q Roux; J Muldoon – captain (W Faloon, 56), J Heenan (F Bealham, 79), E McKeon (G Naoupu, ht).
Yellow card: D McSharry 29-39.
DRAGONS: L Byrne – captain; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon (B Nightingale, 79), A Brew; J Tovey (G Rhys Jones, 79), J Evans (D Jones, 79); B Stankovich (O Evans, 74), E Dee (T Rhys Thomas, 60), L Fairbrother (D Way, 63); A Coombs (I Gough, 58), R Landman; L Evans, N Cudd, A Powell (T Faletau, 56).
Yellow card: L Byrne 48-58; T Morgan 54-64
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).