The Connacht marketing gurus settled on the slogan “Front Up Rise Up” for this historic season.
While there's no doubting Eric Elwood's men have shown the ability to get the first half of that pledge done, sadly the second has eluded them and if ever there was a single match that highlighted the difficulties they're facing it was this one on New Year's Day.
Even more sadly, there's not much evidence to show that 2012 will be any different for them.
I know the remit of HarpinOnRugby is to be a Leinster blog, but I really can't write about this match without making Connacht the focus. Besides...it's a special relationship we have with our Western cousins...it's almost like they're our “little brother” in that we always want them to do well so long as, of course, they never actually upstage us.
That may sound horribly patronising, but the truth is that's how the provincial system has been set up in the professional era. A look at the two team sheets proves it. On the Leinster side, names like Hagan, Cronin and Carr, all of whom went in one direction with their careers on the up...on the other, names like O'Donoghue and Tonetti, who went the other way and may not necessarily be on a down slope but are sideways at best.
And the focus of my negative attention has to be the scrum-half Paul O'Donoghue. I was really impressed with what I saw of him when at Clontarf, but last season when he was called upon by Leinster I never got the sense he was up to the pace the level demanded. While I haven't seen every Connacht outing this season, I really don't understand why Elwood insists on picking him ahead of Frank Murphy for the big matches.
Now just so we're clear, it wasn't all bad for the home side on Sunday, far from it – they should have won the match (as should London Irish & Clermont have in 2010 - we really do get lucky when it comes to opposing kickers don't we?), and it was largely due to the contributions of prospects like Tiernan O'Halloran. But you see that's exactly where their problem lies – even though the youngster is a locally-born talent you can't help presuming that he will be snapped up by one of the “big brothers” before long if he continues with the line-breaking and the try-getting.
In every aspect, Connacht just could not catch a break on the day. Actually that's an unfortunate choice of words, poor Brian Tuohy suffered a broken leg. The chronically poor kicking of Matt Jarvis (very tempted to make my headline “Jarvis Cockup” but that's not something one does to one's little brother is it) and Miah Nikora didn't help them much either. And yes, I'm counting the last-minute attempted ROG impression as a poor kick.
While we're on the subject of kicking, what can be said about Isa Nacewa that hasn't already been said. Actually, quite a bit.
As if the blustery conditions & the banana-skin nature of the contest weren't enough pressure, he had to deal with “The Elephant On The Pitch”™ that was the recently-announced IRFU dictat which basically told him he was no longer welcome on these shores.
Yet consummate professional that he is, the man somehow managed to slot all five penalties on a day when he'd be forgiven for missing at least two. Whereas other Leinster players, skipper Leo Cullen included, seemed hell bent on handing victory to the opposition, with this display alone Nacewa probably tacked another 10% onto his asking price when the Top 14 or Super Rugby inevitably come a-knocking.
Elsewhere on the Leinster side of things, there was huffing and puffing but let's face it – as an offensive unit they played like they were up well past the singing of Auld Lang Syne the night before. I'd have to single out Rhys Ruddock not just for his unnecessary coughing up of the ball on the Connacht line towards the end but for overall invisibility. I'm seriously questioning the wisdom of handing him the captain's armband during the World Cup, a time that could have been better spent letting him focus on the three different positions he was asked to play.
Of course it's churlish of me to moan about our performance since we returned to Dublin with the spoils AND a renewed 6-point lead in the league, but with a tricky trip to Cardiff around the corner where mostly fringe players will be selected, there will be many wishing to leave their cobweb-filled displays at the Sportsground.
But going back to the home side, I really hope they can get out of this rut they're in. When normally coaches would look to rest key players for a match, especially one that's away from home, that comes a week before a Heineken Cup series, I wonder if Eric Elwood can afford to do this when they travel to Viadana next Saturday – the losing streak really needs to be halted at 12 and no offence intended but when it comes to brotherly relationships Aironi are the Fredo to Treviso's Michael Corleone in Italian rugby so this has to be seen as an opportunity to turn the tide.
You'd really like to think that even with a few injuries, with their best available XV Connacht can go over there, win 2 tries to nil for the second week running, only this time finishing ahead on the scoreboard that matters. I'd wish nothing less for our little brother and hopefully it can spur them on to an improvement on their two European pool points and then they can "rise up" the Pro12 table down the line.
Because if things don't improve, whatever deals have been done recently, there's always the danger that Daddy will banish him from the house altogether. JLP