…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