Overall record

Played 15, Won 9, Drawn 1, Lost 5 [sixth in Pro12, second in Challenge Cup Pool 2].

High point

The win over Leinster in round three of the Pro12 campaign sticks in the memory. Not only was it an excellent standalone performance, but the victory in Galway also underlined that Connacht’s pre-season words about improvement would be backed up.

Henshaw celebrates a superb win over Leinster in Galway. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The defensive effort from Pat Lam’s side was extraordinary, as they refused to see their tryline breached despite intense pressure from Leinster in the opening quarter. Kieran Marmion’s stunning try ensured the Sportsground crowd had a memorable evening.

Low Point

The back-to-back inter-pro defeats to Leinster and Ulster in the last fortnight have been hard to take, perhaps underlining how far Connacht have come. Two difficult away fixtures, but no longer losses that are accepted.

Most hurtful was the narrow defeat in Ravenhill on St. Stephen’s Day, particularly as it was a game that Connacht could have won. A high error count was restrictive, however, and now Lam’s men look to their New Year’s Day clash at home to Munster as the chance to show inter-provincial progress.

Try of the season so far

Source: shk7619/YouTube

There have perhaps been better team tries from Connacht this season, but Marmion’s individual effort against Leinster was pure brilliance.

A typical snipe around the left fringe of a ruck 40 metres from the Leinster tryline exposed a disjoint between Ian Madigan and Cian Healy, as Devin Toner trundled back into the defensive line.

Marmion’s acceleration was sharp and then the sidestep of fullback Rob Kearney was sensational. Another marker in the young scrum-half’s progress and something Connacht fans expect to see for Ireland in the coming years.

Player of the season so far

Denis Buckley spent the off-season adding eight kilogrammes of bulk to his frame, and the benefits have been clear. Importantly, the loosehead prop doesn’t appear to have lost any of his longstanding mobility and fitness.

Buckley has been almost ever-present for Lam’s side. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With 12 starts across both competitions, Buckley is already an important player for the province at the age of 24. He has excelled at scrum time against more renowned props, while his carrying and breakdown work continues to improve.

Joe Schmidt has admitted to having been impressed by the Buccaneers man, meaning international honours could be the next step in his development.

Breakthrough talent

Jack Carty is already a crucial player for Connacht, while the likes of Darragh Leader continue to make strides of progress. Instead of looking at those more established breakthrough talents, we examine the next layer of potential in Connacht’s squad.

Caolin Blade has the best name in Irish rugby, and judging by his first three appearances for Connacht, he has the ability to go with it. Two tries and a generally excellent 80-minute performance against Bayonne this month underlined the scrum-half’s potential.

Monivea man Blade delivered a sublime performance in Bayonne. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 20-year-old has just one Pro12 appearance on the CV, but that looks likely to be added to sooner rather than later.

Equally as impressive has been wing Niyi Adeolokun, who has excelled since signing his first professional contract last summer. The 24-year-old has impressed with his strong defensive reads, work-rate off the ball and his pace in open spaces.

Adeolokun has pushed ahead of the likes of Fionn Carr in the wing pecking order. Source: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

Having also bulked up considerably, Adeolokun was deservedly handed a new two-year contract in November.

Playing style

Lam has been insistent that he wants his side to have the ability to play in a range of different styles. He doesn’t want Connacht pigeonholed as a running side alone, his men must be able to kick well, play 10-man rugby, or dominate the set-piece.

Depending on the opposition, weather conditions or refereeing, Lam says his side must be adaptable. It’s a laudable sentiment, and we have seen evidence in the various game plans the western province have used.

At times intent on keeping the ball tight, at others focused on controlling territory, but then offloading and running from deep in European games, Connacht have kept their opponents guessing with a clever variety in their approach.

One thing to work on in 2015

Bundee Aki should help Connacht to score more tries in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

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More tries. Seven teams in the Pro12 have scored more five-pointers than the westerners, even if it is not a glaring issue in their game. In the likes of Marmion, Robbie Hensaw and Bundee Aki, there are gamebreakers aplenty.

Lam’s men will simply look for more consistency in their conversion of chances into scores. They have been more clinical in the Challenge Cup, with 15 scores in four games, although the organisation of Bayonne and La Rochelle’s defences has helped there.

Marks out of 10?

Lam’s men get a seven for their season so far. There is nothing decided at this stage in terms of a top-six finish, but Connacht have left themselves in an ideal position from which to ensure they are in the mix.

Onwards and upwards.

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