It 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.
Out-thought out-played out-coached no complaints. Connacht worthy champions Pat Lam & co have done @IrishRugby & @PRO12rugby proud.— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) May 28, 2016
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