Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Connacht-20 Leinster-10



logo post blueIt was a season that began with a disappointing World Cup quarterfinal exit for Ireland, followed by an average Six Nations campaign that saw us finish third with 5 points...but at least it was rounded off by an All-Irish final in a major championship after which many suggested that the winning coach should take over the role for the national squad.

You do know I’m talking about the 2011/12 season in that paragraph, right?

Ironic historical comparisons aside, I do actually want to go back to that campaign to begin this writeup.  March 14th, 2012 to be precise.

These days it’s rare for Irish rugby to have a senior match of significance on a Wednesday afternoon but on that day a decent amount of fans, myself included, made the journey out to Anglesea Road to watch a hastily-arranged friendly between Leinster A and Connacht A.

One of the main reasons for the fixture was to give the newly-arrived Brad Thorn a run out, and in the end it was a comfortable one as the “home side” ran out 50-0 winners.  As I watched from the touchline the thought did cross my mind that it was a bit of a shame for the Connacht lads to have travelled all the way across the country only to have their asses handed to them.

But even then, the western province’s first team weren’t exactly whipping boys.  The 8th place finish was their highest ever in the Celtic/Magners/Rabo and they also had a brilliant win over Harlequins in their first ever Heineken Cup campaign.  Later that year a documentary came out called “The West’s Awake” which brilliantly chronicled the season under Eric Elwood.

Then under Pat Lam Connacht went on to better those record performances, achieving 7th in the Pro12 and winning 3 of their 6 pool matches in the Heineken Cup 2 years running.  But in the early stages of the 2015/16 season, it seemed like they were destined to build on those successes even more with 5 wins in their first 6 matches, with the one defeat being a 32-33 loss at the home of reigning champs Glasgow.

Yet there were the inevitable whispers about at the time, and it’s very possible I was believing them.  Perhaps Connacht were only impressing because everyone else had their stars away at the World Cup and they would probably “be shown up” in the latter stages of the season.

Fast forward to Thursday, November 5, 2015.   There was to be another friendly between Leinster A and Connacht A (aka the Eagles), this time at Donnybrook Stadium.  No World Cup winners on show this time, and with both sides having British & Irish Cup campaigns to prepare for, it’s not as though the match wasn’t of value for everyone involved.

Well, one thing was for sure...that Connacht team wasn’t coming to Dublin just to make up the numbers this time.  And they weren’t playing like it was a meaningless “friendly” either.  To a man they tackled & battled for 80 minutes like their season depended on it and they ran out convincing 43-24 winners.

And just in case there’s a cynic out there thinking “well they probably sent most of their first team”...only five from that impressive night in D4 were involved in the matchday 23 at Murrayfield.  I can’t think of any better way to describe this season for Connacht rugby.  They have had a culture of playing the game instilled in them and it has clearly gone right they way through the squad since the season began.

Which brings us to Saturday in Edinburgh.  Whatever had gone before, this was always going to be different.  I wrote a special post during the week stating that for this Connacht team to make history, they couldn’t rely on it being “destiny” or a “fairytale”.  They’d have to come to grips with the occasion as well as ironing out a few kinks in their own game, same as any other team for a major final.

I think we can all agree that they managed that and then some!  Hopefully the tweet below, posted at the final whistle illustrates my appreciation for their achievement.


Obviously I can’t speak for anyone involved with Connacht Rugby but for me, the use of the word “fairytale” is an insult.  That suggests some kind of supernatural involvement and this was anything but the case.  Having been on the verge of extinction less than a decade ago they have managed to climb to new heights and now they have earned their place among the best in European rugby.

You won’t find a better examples of the mindset and style of play that got them there in this 80 minutes in Edinburgh. 

Now having said all of that,  I do think the online reactions have been miles over the top.  The notion of “Lam’s way good, Leinster’s (and by extension Joe Schmidt’s) very bad” is far too extreme and simplistic for my liking.  And all based on one season of trophy success, which in turn implies the alternative way had produced nothing.  But just looking at this match in isolation, you certainly can see where the idea came from.

Both teams had a similar approach to defence.  In my preview I said I’d be surprised if either team cracked the 20-point barrier and Connacht just about managed it (albeit with a few missed placekicks, to be fair).  The difference was going to come in the way the two sides set about breaking through.

Just like our semifinal a week before, Leinster came firing out of the starting blocks, winning back possession right after taking the kickoff.  Then came a succession of phases which was thwarted by a knock on. 

Let’s roll the tape forward to Connacht’s first bout of serious pressure.  It was from a lineout in our 22, which for many teams is a positive attacking position, but in Leinster’s case it meant we had time to set our defensive cordon across the field and after a few goes punching away at our line we forced a turnover and we were able to exit easily enough.

So it would appear that both sides had similar approaches to using the ball?  Er, no.  One thing about Leinster’s approach is that it pretty much demands almost pinpoint accuracy.  Especially when you’re box-kicking your way out of your own 22.  And after just 12 minutes, Eoin Reddan sent one too far.

As the box kick went up, Leinster were anything but organised defensively.  The idea is for a supporting back three player to go after the kick and at least make the other guy’s catch difficult.  But when it’s way too deep there’s no chance for that.  And you certainly do want to do that against the back three Pat Lam has at his disposal.

Matt Healy started things off with a trademark run back, and Clifden-born Tiernan O’Halloran finished things off with the game’s opening try.  Both impressive, but it’s the little things in between that made it special and highlighted just how good this Connacht squad has become.

There’s a lot being said about Leinster players falling off tackles and that was definitely a worrying feature of our game on the day, but that’s not what happened here.  Healy ran towards his skipper John Muldoon who drew on every inch of his vast experience in the game to successfully block not one but two potential Leinster tacklers.  Before you come at me with hate mail, I’m not saying this was necessarily illegal.  Everyone hopes to do it in this situation, but given all the talk that Connacht might not cope with the pressure of a final, that moment certainly showed they could.

Moments later the ball needed recycling.  I remember in my days as a prop forward I was told to treat the ball like it would explode if I touched it.  But I have a feeling that Finlay Bealham was told something very different - basically that this time before Leinster had a chance to set their defence was crucial and thus the ball should be shipped into space at the earliest opportunity.

So rather than blindly driving over the ball expecting his scrum half to eventually arrive, Bealham instead does the number 9’s work himself.  It goes quickly through the hands until it gets to O’Halloran who was able to use the man outside him to bamboozle none other than Rob Kearney to get it over the line.  What a start for Connacht.

Early setback for Leinster, but still plenty of time to recover.  Rob Kearney fluffed his lines again shortly afterwards taking what should have been a routine pickup and then with our ideal starting locks already unavailable, Mick Kearney was forced to leave the field after a head knock.  But we were still holding our own; “all” we needed was to avoid making any more of the mistakes our opponents were looking for.

Cue another Reddan box kick that goes way too long.  Look...he did some good ones last week, and he certainly knows how to do them so I suppose we can’t fault his decision even with the one that went awry before.  But unfortunately, this one also went awry and it had the same result.

This time we were being attacked down the other flank, as Niyi Adeolokun had no hesitation (again, thanks to the mindset no doubt) lobbing the ball over the defender facing him and running around to retrieve...this put him side by side with Reddan but as the ball landed it hit his foot laying it perfectly into his path to retrieve and touch down.  Sorry but I don’t think he meant to do that last bit, though I still say it was to his credit that he had a go and he got just the right reward.

So there we were, 12-0 down, and unfortunately for Reddan he was also to be involved in the penalty that made the deficit 15 when he conceded the game’s first penalty after 27 minutes.

Meanwhile when we had the ball we were doing what we always do, trundling through the phases over and over, yet again and again we were thwarted by knockons, some our own doing but often forced by the line speed and the determination in the Connacht tackles. 

One first half moment highlighted our own mentality for me...a clearance from their 22 went straight to Luke who took it just over the touchline and there was absolutely no intention to take a quick throw and get the play going again.   Apparently we were only able to go from the playbook off of a lineout and on this day when it really mattered, we couldn’t make it work.

There was one area that we were getting some traction, that being the scrum.  Sadly when we got a penalty that would put us into their 22 we were either unable to capitalise with an accurate lineout, or we suffered another knockon, or we tried to use Ben Te’o as a strike runner only for him to be swallowed up by tacklers who saw him coming a mile away.

Despite now needing three scores, nobody was under any illusions that this was over.  Leinster had overcome leads like this before, and not too long ago Connacht blew an even bigger lead themselves. 

“And so Connacht get us underway for the second half and Sean O’Brien has joined the fray”

O how I wished Sky Sports’ Miles Harrison was talking about the Leinster player of that name, but unfortunately he meant the Connacht version, and the youngster was to have an impact very similar to that we would expect from the Tullow Tank himself.

But we did start the second period as we finished the first and a scrum penalty in a kickable position at least got our side of the scoreboard moving.  The overlying problem of not being able to put a serious set of attacking phases together without screwing up was also still there, however, and it really didn’t look like we could claw the deficit back in anything but three-point chunks.

Now it’s time for a word on referee Nigel Owens.  This was one of those matches where you’re going to struggle to get an objective opinion from anyone - those who didn’t support Leinster were fully behind Connacht (which is totally understandable).

So when I say it looked as though Nigel was pinging us for things at the breakdown which he was letting go for our opposition, naturally that would appear “one-eyed” although normally when I watch the match a second time I see the error of my ways and on this occasion that didn’t happen.

When it comes to the try he disallowed for a forward pass, he did get it wrong but I wouldn’t harp on it too much since we went on to get a try later on anyway and I don’t believe we were playing well enough to have gotten the two scores to bring the game closer.

But in the lead-up to Connacht’s extremely well-finished third try, Rob Kearney was pinged for a penalty where Owens did shout “you’re off your feet” but failed to identify the alleged guilty party.  As Kearney wasn’t off his feet he assumed he meant the team-mate alongside him and continued to jackle and thus the ref’s arm was outstretched. 

The Westerners never got to use the penalty but the advantage brought them to the outskirts of our 22, where hooker Tom McCartney broke through a couple of tacklers to get himself all the way to the tryline where he was (I’m being sure to point this out as nobody else did) brilliantly hauled back by Johnny Sexton and subsequently held up over the line.

Still, the pressure was on us and while a slip from Matt Healy gave us back the ball, we tried to run it out of our own 22 and unlike our opponents we just weren’t able to make the most of this “transition” period before the opposition D gets set, so Dave Kearney found himself isolated allowing O’Brien to ruck the ball back for his side.

A few more phases ensued and normally the Leinster defence would be able to handle it but we were chasing the game at this stage and in our eagerness to force a turnover Jordi Murphy tried to run in and steal the ball at the back of a ruck, taking a few fellow forwards with him, only to be sent back by Nigel.  The penalty wasn’t given but this was yet another golden moment for Connacht to strike.

Eventually US international outhalf AJ McGinty spotted the Leinster defenders rushing in unison and thus grubbered a ball through and with a seemingly telepathic connection, Matt Healy made it one try each for the Connacht back three as he sprinted through to dot down “rugby league” style and that was all she wrote.

We did manage to cross the line courtesy of Sean Cronin but it was way too little way too late.  The amazing travelling Connacht support was to be rewarded and not even the most “dyed in the wool” Leinster supporter could say it wasn’t thoroughly deserved.

Obviously being one such fan myself I am disappointed and over the coming week I plan to take stock of Leinster 2015/16 campaign as a whole before offering my full opinion next Monday. 

But for now, I am writing about just one match where a team that has been on a steady upward curve over the past five plus years reached the top in a manner that has done rugby in all four provinces proud.  Now every corner of the country has enjoyed success in the professional era.  Just how cool is that?

And when I say “reached the top” I mean no disrespect...who’s to say they won’t crack on and continue into next season’s Champions Cup?  You certainly won’t find me doubting them.   Who knows...maybe Leinster can send an “A” team out to Galway for a friendly to help them prepare.  Once they promise to go easy on us of course!  JLP

Rugby star signs with Woodland Sport

from Woodland Sport…

david barnes

David Barnes Signs Sponsorship Deal with Woodland Sport

Woodland Sport have signed a sponsorship agreement with respected former rugby star David Barnes to act in an ambassador role for 2016. Barnes, a former Bath prop with over a decade’s involvement with the Rugby Players Association has filled the role of RPA Director and RPA Chairman with great distinction.

Taking on various challenges to raise monies for specific charitable causes, he was part of a group that saw 42 people climb Kilimanjaro and raise over £225,000 for charities, including Help for Heroes, Restart and the RFU Injured Players Foundation. He also brings a wealth of knowledge from his most recent experience of working in the commercial sector.

The agreement will see Woodland Group and Barnes working closely together to ensure Woodland Sport strengthen their business in the rugby sector, an important core market to Woodland Sport moving forward.

Speaking at the announcement, Deborah Smith, Head of Woodland Sport said, “We are delighted to announce this partnership with David. He has valuable insights and his past experience as a player means that he is a great addition to the Ambassador Team. It also reinforces our commitment to the rugby sector as a strategically important sector that we are looking to expand in.”

Woodland Sport is a unique and innovative supply chain solution designed especially for the sports industry. Powered by Woodland Global, a leader in global logistics and supply chain, the operation is transforming the way in which sports clubs and organisations operate within the retail business.

Woodland Sport Ambassador and former professional rugby player, David Barnes said, “I am looking forward to working in partnership with Woodland Sport to support rugby clubs across Europe benefit from their proven supply chain solution. Having been involved in rugby as a player and administrator for over a decade, and knowing the importance of trusted logistics within the sport, I am confident that the unparalleled offering from Woodland Sport will be a huge success.”

With 15 staff based in the Irish office in Ballycoolin, Dublin, and 550 worldwide, the Woodland Group is one of the largest independent operators of freight forwarding and logistics services in the UK.

For detailed information about Woodland Sport, visit http://woodlandsportslogistics.com

Front Five - 31.05.16

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
 
Apologies for the Pro12 final writeup being late
Couldn’t be helped unfortunately
We’ll have it for you today
 
 

“Luke was sensational in (the Pro12 semifinal). One of the Leinster players who did have a good game at the weekend was Dave Kearney, he did some very good stuff."
 
 
Ruaidhri O'Connor - Irish Independent

For the majority of the players, and the coaching ticket, Farrell brings a fresh voice and a welter of experience from his time as England and Lions coach
 
 
Gerry Thornley - Irish Times

Strauss has been chosen to captain the Boks now for the opposite reason that he was denied the captaincy on those occasions when it became available during Heyneke Meyer’s tenure
 
 
Gavin Rich - SuperSport

"You can see what it meant to the fans and it’s always great to see more and more people love the game.”
 
 
Sean Farrell - The42.ie

 
 
Rugby Onslaught

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Monday, May 30, 2016

Front Five - 30.05.16

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
 
Later today on HarpinOnRugby…
our Pro12 Final writeup is titled “Westward Transition”
 
 

(Leinster) are a big club but they got dominated by Connacht. Big players did not perform.
 
 
Alan Quinlan - Irish Independent

“You always believe, but when you’re going through tough days it’s always harder to believe,” - John Muldoon
 
 
Irish Times

Dire, desperate, defensively inept, disintegration at the set-piece, blown away at the breakdown. That was really hard to watch from Wales.
 
 
Simon Thomas - WalesOnline

Even at the beginning of the tournament, New Zealand rugby writers looked at the schedule and the finals system and insisted it favoured the African Group.
 
 
Spiro Zavos - The Roar

“To me that sums up the group massively.”
 
 
Murray Kinsella - The42.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Front Five - 29.05.16

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
 
Of course we’re disappointed here at Harpin Manor
but you’d need a heart of stone not to be happy
for Connacht and their amazing fans.  Bravo.
 
 

Connacht didn’t just topple the old order, they practically ransacked Murrayfield
 
 
Gerry Thornley - Irish Times

"I'm delighted for the lads. We spoke all week about wanting to go out and perform and do what we did all year - I think we did that. It's been a good day."
 
 
RTÉ Rugby

...in the aftermath of the Pro 12 final, fans questioned many of Owens’ decisions, and some even accused him of favouring Connacht.
 
 
Alan drumm - Pundit Arena

Flogging the Pro12 is hard work for two reasons: it appeals to a fragmented, relatively small market; and it's a tournament in need of reform.
 
 
Brendan Fanning - Irish Independent

...before any Leinster fans ostracise the 82-time international from Wexford, it's worth noting that his father is from Ballina.
 
 
Balls.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Front Five - 28.05.16

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
 
 
Bon voyage to all travelling supporters
(and also best wishes to Exeter Chiefs!)
 
 

All week (Lam) has been trying to keep things as steady as possible and when I think back to (Munster's) first final 16 years ago, it's a wise policy.
 
 
Alan Quinlan - Irish Independent

Cometh the knockout stages, as is their wont, Leinster found a level of intensity and accuracy last weekend that all but blew Ulster away at the outset of each half in the RDS.
 
 
Gerry Thornley - Irish Times

“Break Rob (baxter) in half and he’s got Exeter Rugby Club written through him” - Exeter chariman (chief?) Tony Rowe
 
 
Robert Kitson - The Guardian

Watch it, read it, live it, and love it. Rugby is breaking out in a big way and for those of us that have patiently been waiting for this moment it is nice to enjoy the ride. Ruck on.
 
 
Brendan Triplett - This Is American Rugby

More than likely, they are from either the western fringes of the province (that's Leinster) or they are from a core Gaelic football/hurling area and rugby is relatively new to them.
 
 
Balls.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Friday, May 27, 2016

Preview : Pro12 Final 2016

Lein v Conn TA

logo post blueThe reaction to my post yesterday pointing out some of the negatives in the Connacht story was a lot better than I thought it would be...just the one Westerner offered a grumpy reply.


Anyway the method in my madness putting forward that offering was that I wanted to leave it separate to my preview, because while I do believe Connacht have their negatives, Leinster’s task on Saturday is to assume they will be able to overcome them as thus we will have to retain most of if not all the form we showed against Ulster last Friday.


I mean just look at that Connacht backline from 11 to 15.  A whole lot of total devastation waiting to happen.  It is mostly Leinster’s defensive organisation that got us to this point, and we will need every bit of it at Murrayfield.  Basically if we give them 2.54cm, they’ll take 1.61km (what can I say...I grew up with metric).


Unfortunately things haven’t been plain sailing on the selection front for Leinster...our skipper Isa Nacewa is going to have to contemplate doing a “John Terry” should we win but that’s not the only reason we will miss him...he has been a great leader by example on the pitch for us this season and while a fully fit Rob Kearney would be an able replacement, I’d feel better if he had more games under his belt in recent times, particularly against this back three.


Then there’s Devin Toner, another who led from the front last Friday.  But again, we’re not so badly set on the replacement front.  You’d have to assume that with a fully fit squad our starting locks would be Devin alongside Mike McCarthy, but the pairing we are going with of Mick Kearney and Ross Molony have shown their own strengths this season.


When you look closely at these two lineups, the only thing I can see as a major difference is their relative experience in matches like this, and when it comes to the crunch a key match up will be Connacht’s ability to face the pressure of the big day vs how Leinster draw on their own memories from big finals and test matches over the years.


Another key match-up will take place between those wearing the respective 12 jumpers - Bundee Aki vs Ben Te’o.  Expect big collisions, and possibly some “handbags”.  It may be Ben’s last game for Leinster but he does have an England tour to look forward to...having said that, I have seen nothing from him over the past two seasons to suggest anything other than he’ll be playing for his blue jersey on the day, and his sustained partnership in the centre with Garry Ringrose has been a key element of our overall success.


Tactics-wise I can’t see Pat Lam’s men doing much different to that which got them to this stage, which means when they come up against the Kurt McQuilkin-inspired defence we will have as close to an irresistible force meeting an immovable object as we can get in rugby.  Then when Leinster have the ball, it’s all about how well the back row can provide the quality ball for the halfbacks and I have a feeling this could be where we just about find enough to edge out in front.


I certainly can’t blame the bookies for leaving less than a converted try between these two sides - Leinster were always going to be considered favorites but with a five-point spread it’s anybody’s guess which way this one will actually go.  As we all know, be it a bounce of the ball, a questionable TMO call, a brainfart by a particular player, ANYTHING can prove the unpredictable difference in a match like that and of course that makes it all the more compelling.


But having had so little faith in my Leinster last week, I have to do better this week.  Personally, I’ll take a one point win hands down, though officially I’m going to side with the turf accountants and say we’re get over the line by four to six points, and I would be surprised if either side cracked the 20 point barrier. 


Obviously I’m a more than a bit annoyed I can’t make the trip to Murrayfield, but bon voyage to all who can; it should be quite the Irish invasion of the Scottish capital.  Here’s to a cracking contest to do the occasion proud.  Come on you boys in blue!  JLP


#COYBIB



Connacht : 15 Tiernan O’Halloran 14 Niyi Adeolokun 13 Robbie Henshaw 12 Bundee Aki 11 Matt Healy 10 AJ MacGinty 9 Kieran Marmion

1 Ronan Loughney 2 Tom McCartney 3 Finlay Bealham 4 Ultan Dillane 5 Aly Muldowney 6 Eoin McKeon 7 Jake Heenan 8 John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan 17 JP Cooney 18 Rodney Ah You 19 Andrew Browne 20 Sean O’Brien 21 John Cooney 22 Shane O’Leary 23 Peter Robb


Guinness Pro 12 2015/16 Final

At BT Murrayfield, 5.30pm Live on Sky Sports and TG4

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 136th competition game, 4th Final)

Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Ben Whitehouse (WRU)

Officials: 4 Lloyd Linton; 5 Bob Nevins; 6 Tom Mc Nicol (all SRU)

Timekeeper: Paul Cyphus (SRU)

Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR)

TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)

Front Five - 27.05.16

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
 
titled “A view of Connacht from the dark side”
 
 

Born and reared in Clifden, and having come through the ranks of Garbally College, Galwegians and the Connacht academy, O’Halloran has flourished at fullback with his licence to thrill.
 
 
Gerry Thornley - Irish Times

Sexton admitted that he struggled to settle back into his old surrounds following the World Cup but his flawless display at the RDS proved that he is back to his best.
 
 
Cian Tracey - Irish Independent

"It will be my fourth PRO12 final and the standard simply rises every year."
 
 
James Dale - Sky Sports

Connacht will attack Leinster in Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 final at Murrayfield with a combination of clever set-piece moves, their 2-4-2 shape in attack and a razor-sharp exploitation of space.
 
 
Murray Kinsella - The42.ie

...there are times when, in the heat of battle, players invariably lose their cool, sometimes spectacularly.
 
 
Gary Brennan - Pundit Arena

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A view of Connacht from the dark side

a view of Connacht from the Dark Side

logo post blueIt may surprise you to learn that I’m fully behind the underdogs competing in their first ever senior domestic championship final this Saturday…


…though it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the above paragraph was something of a “fake-out” and I was in fact referring to the Exeter Chiefs who play Saracens in the Premiership decider.


Look...there’s no sugar coating it - that clever graphic from Connacht’s apparel manufacturers BLK is extremely accurate, and in fact you could very well extend that area of green and wrap it around the rest of the rugby world. 


In fact, I have heard whispers from people who live in Leinster but aren’t quite what you’d call “dyed in the wool” fans that they “wouldn’t mind” if the Westerners won.  This, together with the other whispers you can hear if you listen very carefully (akin to “Ah go on Leinster, just let ‘em win, won’t you?  You’ve had plenty of success over the years!”) has inspired me to write this post.


Particularly in a year when Leicester City achieved the seemingly unthinkable in the Premier League, it’s very easy for the media, and in turn the public, to get swept away by the “fairytale” narrative.  And of course if Connacht were playing any team other than my Leinster this weekend, I would probably allow myself to be swept away as well.


I reckon my blue allegiance, together with my fondness for Connacht as my “second favourite Irish province”, puts me in a good position to present their current situation in perhaps a more pragmatic light?  Maybe, maybe not...but I’ll have a go anyway.


First, let us examine the province and how it is structured.  Yes, there were rumblings that it was to be folded up altogether not so long ago.  And yes, there was a time when their best players were plucked and planted elsewhere in the country, more often than not Leinster.  But that has changed.  Their overall funding has gone up in recent years plus they don’t face quite the same strictness from the IRFU with regard to signing quality imports.


Put most simply, when the decision was made to retain the programme, it came with a view to also growing it, and it most definitely has.  First we had the gradual succession of coaches which went from Michael Bradley to Eric Elwood to Pat Lam, the last of whom faced quite a challenge adapting to the way of rugby life out in Galway yet set about it in just the right fashion, making it his priority to ensure his players appreciated for whom they were playing, ie the fans and the local communities.


Then we had those imports...not all were as shiny on the inside as the packing in which they arrived (*cough* Mils) but for the most part the likes of Danie Poolman, Aly Muldowney, Jake Heenan and especially Bundee Aki have thrived under Lam’s stewardship.  And when it came to the player pool it wasn’t just the imports…Robbie Henshaw may be Leinster-bound but there can be no doubt he has spent at least two years in Galway longer than he would have “back in the day”.


So the point I am trying to make is that while Connacht’s 2015/16 campaign indeed been impressive, you can only take the comparison to Leicester City so far.  This achievement of reaching a Pro12 final is at or near the top of a steady curve of improvement for the province over the years, one which has seen a progression from one-off victories to some decent runs of success in the Pro12 culminating in this year’s second-place finish on the ladder.  Over in England, Exeter’s rise has been very similar.


And before you reach for your keyboard to send vitriol in my direction for daring to take anything away from Connacht’s celebrations, that is not what I’m doing.  All I am saying is that they are worthy of them even when you actually spell out what happened rather than make the story fit within the “fairytale” narrative.

 

Now we come to the tricky bit...Connacht’s actual style of play.  I have tried to give this portion of the article as much thought as I could, hoping I’d be able to find the right combination of words so as not come across as too “mean”...but then I saw that BLK graphic and realised that Leinster and their fans are “the bad guys” whatever we do this week so what the hell, I might as well just come out with it.

 

Assuming Leinster play with or at least near to the form they showed last Friday, Pat Lam’s men will need to focus on learning from past mistakes instead of hoping that this is some kind of “destiny”.  Yes, I said mistakes.

 

Before I elaborate on my use of that word, let me make it clear that I have been harping on the good points of Connacht’s play all season.  I was particularly impressed by the focused performance of their “A” team when they beat their Leinster counterparts in a friendly at Donnybrook at the beginning of November and that showed the culture of open rugby that has been preached right throughout the squad.

 

And you can have no better example of their attacking mindset than Adeolokun’s try against Glasgow in the semifinal.  Sure, it was a gamble for Bundee Aki to dribble the ball in behind the visiting defence.  Sure, it needed a fortunate bounce that flummoxed Stuart Hogg allowing the Connacht winger to gratefully receive the ball and run it in “sevens style”.  But this is how they go into matches.  Put the ball somewhere that will cause mischief and be ready to take advantage.  It’s brilliant when it works.

 

Then we have the defensive side of things, which can also be a sight to behold.  Their hold out against Glasgow at the end of the opening period the first time the two teams met in Galway went a long way towards deciding the match, and they can certainly do a great job working for one another.

 

But…(pretty obvious a “but” was on the way, wasn’t it?)...when appraising Connacht we can’t ignore the negatives, and there are some.  What happens if the ball doesn’t bounce the right way?  Or what happens if you’re up against a world-class out-half who has both spotted and exploited a weakness in your defence?

 

Apologies in advance, but I thought Connacht might have been a tad fortunate against Glasgow...not just once, but twice.  That’s not to say they didn’t play well, but the positive aspects have been written about ad nauseum in the Irish press.  It’s just that particularly in the first encounter on the final day of the regular season, I really do believe it was more a case of Glasgow losing. 

 

Gregor Townsend’s men left at least ten points behind in the first half, and most of that was down to a horrible day at the office for FInn Russell, of whom we have come to expect much more.  Then when it came to the semifinal and a perfect opportunity for the Scotland outhalf to make amends, he gets seriously injured with the clock frozen at just 0:59 (with their starting tighthead also removed from the equation).

 

Please, please, please don’t get me wrong.  Anyone who reads this site will tell you I’m no stranger to highlighting the negative in Leinster’s play no matter how well we’re doing.  I just want to write about what I see.  And in Connacht what I see is a great side that has achieved much this season, but I also see one that is to face a new kind of challenge this Saturday.  They definitely have the potential to meet it, but no team is without its own demons to slay first.

 

And on the subject of demons, we cannot ignore what happened in Grenoble. I’m sorry, but that game was blown.  Completely blown.  Maybe they played fast and loose even when well ahead so they could concentrate on the league?  We’ll never know.  But in cup rugby you have to know when to take risks asking questions of your opposition, and when to take the high percentage option.   We will see if they can learn from that experience should they take an early lead on Saturday.

 

Look...once again I need to make it clear it is not my intention to have a go at Connacht rugby.  I just think a lot of the opinion being put out there about them can be seen as patronizing and there’s no harm highlighting the negatives as well, particularly when a trophy is on the line.  And I certainly wouldn’t be writing an article like this were we playing any other team in the Pro12 - normally I devote all my attention to Leinster’s side of things and don’t worry, there will be time enough tomorrow after the teams are named to look at that.


Obviously I can’t go as far as to say I wish Connacht “all the best” on Saturday; but what I can say is that I hope the occasion befits the occasion both for the league as a whole and for Irish rugby.   But just in case there is even the tiniest bit of doubt in everyone’s minds, I will be supporting blue through and through from now until full time, and may the better team win.  JLP

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