Friday 20 October 2017

Alan Quinlan: Connacht have nothing to lose and can have a real cut

A win in Toulouse would silence the doubters and prove that last season was no fluke

Pat Lam makes his point. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Pat Lam makes his point. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki, centre, is congratulated by team-mates Tiernan O’Halloran (left) and Ultan Dillane (right) after scoring a try against Toulouse in October. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

The dressing room was unusually small. Normally - for a game of this importance - you had plenty of space.

Not here, though. Not with 15 sweaty rugby players and half a dozen backroom staff squeezed inside it, all of us noticing the airlessness of the room, made worse by the fact the radiators had been turned up full blast.

It is October 2000 and we've reached half-time in Castres, midway through a crucial Heineken Cup pool match, long before television companies screened every game live. And maybe it's just as well no one back home has witnessed this because we've stank the place out, failing to come true on the promises we made to ourselves.

All week, we'd stated in team meetings how we wouldn't let ourselves get bullied, how we'd match Castres physically, keep our discipline and stick to our game-plan.

And guess what happened?

Nothing happened.

A game was on but we hadn't shown up.

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Castres had. Two tries - one scored in the opening five minutes - had set the tone. They were 20-9 ahead and on their way, not just to a win, but to reclaiming their interest in the competition. Something had to be done, something had to be said and Declan Kidney didn't shy away from saying it.

"What have we spoken all week about?" he asked, deliberately letting his words hang in the air, allowing a silence to envelop as he looked around the room, making sure he had all our attention.

And then he raised his voice. "WE SAID WE WOULDN'T GET F****** INTIMIDATED."

He had our attention now, alright, because the thing with Deccie was that he rarely swore. For the most part he was calm and measured - and liked to encourage the players to find our own answers to problems.

But this time we had to be told.

Mentality

We hadn't been good enough. Worse than that, we were lazy, not in terms of our work rate but in terms of our mentality. Five months earlier we'd reached a Heineken Cup final and had supposedly come of age.

Yet that had happened against the odds and everyone in Europe expected us to fade away the following season: for 1999/2000 to be a once-off.

We spoke about that regularly, pledging to one another that we wouldn't allow that to happen - that we could use our experience from the season before to make us stronger. But now, two months into the campaign, we were suffering pangs of self-doubt and Deccie could see it in us.

"I thought you told me how much this meant to you."

I knew what he was at. As a group of players, we regularly responded to the arm-around-the-shoulder treatment - but occasionally, we needed something rougher thrown at us, too. And this was one of those times.

"Do you care as much as you say you do?"

He looked right through us.

"Do you not realise you are good enough to win? You need to believe in yourselves."

And then he looked at the replacements - who were standing near the door - before looking back down at the starting XV who were seated, scattered around the room.

"Don't let those guys down."

We didn't. An 11-point half-time deficit turned into a three-point win and somewhere between Declan's words in the dressing room and the short walk through the corridor of the grandstand, we all decided that the 1999/2000 season wasn't going to be a one-off, that our breakthrough season would be followed by the deliverance of another great year.

And it was.

So fast forward to tomorrow.

Like Munster 17 years ago, Connacht are underdogs in the south of France, following on from a season when they defied their doubters and claimed the first trophy of their history.

Repeating that trick was never going to be easy. Not when you consider their losses from last summer - Robbie Henshaw leaving for Leinster, Aly Muldowney for Grenoble; AJ MacGinty for Sale. Throw in the fact that Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki have subsequently picked up injuries and you are left with a scenario whereby a third of their starters - and best players - have gone.

That has to hurt. In the same way that Munster would never have won the 2008 Heineken Cup if they had have been deprived of Paul O'Connell, Donnacha O'Callaghan, ROG, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi, so too have Connacht struggled to carry over their form from last year's Pro12 into this season.

And yet, in Europe, they've impressed. Notwithstanding the fact they were in a pool containing Zebre - thereby gifting them two easy wins - you also have to acknowledge that they earned their top seeding on the back of last season's Pro12 Championship win.

Plus, they've backed that up by taking Toulouse and Wasps' scalps in the Sportsground - leaving them in the position they are in this weekend, where a win will guarantee them a quarter-final place, and a place in the last eight could yet come on the back of a losing bonus-point.

Yet in the same way that we were faced with a hostile environment on that Saturday evening in Castres 17 years ago, Connacht too have to consider throwing caution to the wind.

"This is the biggest game in our history," said Pat Lam, earlier this week, which may have seemed strange, given the overall importance of last season's Pro12 final, where they landed the province's first piece of silverware in 132 years.

Yet I understand where he is coming from.

In top level sport, once you win a trophy, you tick a box.

"What's next?" you ask.

For Connacht, it had to be Europe.

They've been in Heineken Cups before - but this time they're here off their own steam. They're eyeing the knockouts as evidence that they're not one-hit wonders and can justify their presence at European rugby's grand banqueting hall without having to stop and show ushers their invitation cards.

What I like about Pat Lam and this Connacht side is their attitude. They aren't just in Europe to compete but also to win.

Yet even though they have won in Toulouse before, their task this time is probably even harder than it was four years ago, because this time they are going to come up against a team who will remember 2013 and feel they owe them one.

For me, the benefits of a win would outstrip the implications of defeat - because even if Connacht do slip up tomorrow there has been far too much good work done in the last few years for a defeat to leave irreparable damage.

Yes, Henshaw, Muldowney and MacGinty have gone. And yes, Lam is also due to leave. But Dillane, Aki and others have signed new contracts. Their academy is continuing to produce players and the structures are in place for the club to have more success.

Yet, tomorrow's game is a crossroads moment.

The sign of great teams are those who can back up championships by retaining their hunger and desire and who can stare adversity in the face.

Setbacks

In Connacht's case, the recent injuries to over 20 squad players - but in particular to Aki and Dillane - have been serious setbacks. Yet if they believe in themselves and can cope with some difficult moments tomorrow, and find the balance between respecting their opponent while not fearing their environment, then they have a chance.

That was the decision we made at half-time in Castres, 17 years ago. We believed in ourselves then and if Connacht can bring that self-confidence with them to Toulouse tomorrow then they have a fighting chance. In my eyes, they need to have real cut at them. What is there to lose in Toulouse?

Irish Independent

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