Wednesday 22 February 2017

Alan Quinlan: Naive Connacht will be judged by their reaction to crushing blow

Alan Quinlan

Published 23/01/2017 | 13:00

Craig Ronaldson and his Connacht team-mates after conceding a third try
Craig Ronaldson and his Connacht team-mates after conceding a third try

When you're in a cup situation, it's all about winning, and finding a way to do so is what separates the best teams from the rest.

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Playing away from home in these big games, especially in the south of France, you're inevitably going to be under massive pressure and your back is going to be against the wall.

We were certainly handed a lesson by Colomiers in the quarter-final in 1999 but the following season, we won our quarter-final against Stade Francais and got to the final. The success of Munster was built from there.

Something had clicked within the squad and without getting over that final hurdle, we had a fair idea of what it took to manage those intense situations.

Cup rugby is about territory, possession and pressure, and Connacht didn't have enough of those in Toulouse yesterday.

The step up is huge. It's quite close to Test match rugby and the players will learn from this. It was a massive opportunity lost.

Matt Healy fails to collect a pass close with the try line in his sights during the second half of yesterday’s Champions Cup clash in Toulouse. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Matt Healy fails to collect a pass close with the try line in his sights during the second half of yesterday’s Champions Cup clash in Toulouse. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

When you're playing at this level, if you want to be making the knockout stages, you have to have that ability to change your game-plan when it matters most. Throughout the Pro12 last season, Connacht didn't do that because they didn't need to.

Looking back at their defeat to Grenoble in the Challenge Cup quarter-final last season, their attack was absolutely brilliant but their game management and defence weren't where they needed to be to win cup game.

They stuck to their expansive style, which is all well and good, but you don't always need that. Sometimes you need to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and realise the situation that you're in.

Yesterday, Connacht didn't hold onto possession that well in the first half and there were mistakes made in midfield for Toulouse's first two tries.

I couldn't help but wonder how different it might have been had Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw been playing. They brought an aggression that frightened defences. But even still, Connacht's work rate were hugely impressive against a really powerful side.

You get punished by the better teams and Toulouse had that know-how to get themselves over the line.

A dejected John Muldoon after the game. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
A dejected John Muldoon after the game. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Connacht will rue their mistakes. There were opportunities there for them and none more so than with about 10 minutes remaining.

They would have known that three points would have put them back in pole position to go through.

They had possession inside the Toulouse 22 and instead of working the ball into position for a drop goal, they went wide and Matt Healy knocked it on.

We all admire Connacht for playing that way but the percentage play in that instance would have been for Jack Carty to drop back in the pocket. How many times did you see ROG do it for Munster over the years? There is nothing wrong with winning ugly.

Toulouse’s Gael Fickou bursts away from Connacht’s Kieran Marmion. Photo: Getty Images
Toulouse’s Gael Fickou bursts away from Connacht’s Kieran Marmion. Photo: Getty Images

You've got to give yourself a chance of getting the three points. That would have brought them back to within six points and then it's all about working incredibly hard for the final 10 minutes.

It was naviety on Connacht's part and even though it is difficult to change your game-plan off the cuff, the top players are able to take the responsibility and control. That's part of the journey that Connacht find themselves in.

Naive sounds harsh but it's not. It's all about having that experience in pressure situations, and the only way guys can develop is by learning from it.

I remember when we went down to Clermont in 2008, we managed to come away with a crucial losing bonus point. It took a 73rd-minute penalty from ROG to get us that point and it meant that we finished top of the pool - tiny margins that end up being massive in the grand scheme of things.

It's not about being negative or completely moving away the attacking game that has served Connacht so well. It's a fine balancing act.

Experience counts for a lot and you could see that John Muldoon was doing his best to rally the players but you can't depend on one guy to get you through these kind of games.

Yoann Huget celebrates after Toulouse turn over possession during the final Connacht attack. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Yoann Huget celebrates after Toulouse turn over possession during the final Connacht attack. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

You're talking about the top table in Europe and ultimately, that's where I believe Connacht deserve to be.

There's a little bit of inexperience in the team and to compete at this level, you need vocal leaders. All the top teams in Europe need seven or eight guys who are comfortable in those kind of situations.

Connacht need new leaders to grow into the role. Those around Muldoon seemed a little bit quiet but there is no doubt that the other players will learn from the defeat.

They have no choice but to and that's the harsh reality that they find themselves in from now until the end of the season.

It's always incredibly difficult to pick yourself up after you get knocked out of Europe but there is too much at stake for Connacht to dwell on this.

They have to make sure that they are playing in the Champions Cup again next season but they've left themselves an uphill task because of how they've been going in the Pro12.

You could argue that they have had very little luck this season but you make your own luck.

Losing eight of 12 games will put an element of self-doubt in the players' minds, but there is enough quality in the squad to get themselves out of this hole.

I fully believe that Connacht can come back stronger again next year but they have to find that consistency that has deserted them this season.

A new coach will be in place and that will bring a fresh enthusiasm with it but it would be a major blow if they are not playing Champions Cup rugby.

Learning from your mistakes is crucial but you also have to learn from your success. We won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and followed that up a really disappointing season.

When you win something, it can be really difficult to maintain that momentum. We bounced back and won the Heineken Cup again in 2008 but not before we asked a lot of questions of ourselves.

We needed to get fitter, improve our skills and get better in general as a team. We didn't take those necessary steps and we paid the price.

Having experienced that type of situation, it makes me believe that Connacht can bounce back.

Connacht will rue their pre-season. For various different reasons, their preparations weren't as good as they should have been.

As champions, you go into every game with a target on your back. Everyone wants to beat you. But by losing that momentum, you're making life even tougher for yourself.

Pat Lam's achievements at Connacht have been incredible and nothing will take away from that, but he will want to leave on a high.

Toulouse looked very good in spells yesterday but they won't fancy a trip to Limerick in April. It's a dangerous game to say you're pleased with a draw at this stage, but deep down Munster will be happy.

Leinster weren't at their best on Friday night but the job was pretty much done beforehand. It was a bit too close for comfort but they're in a good position. They'll definitely feel they owe Wasps one after they got two big hidings from them last year.

For Ireland to have two teams in the last eight, and another getting so close, is a remarkable achievement after last season's disappointment. It's a big boost for the Pro12 to have Glasgow there as well, after England and France dominated last year.

Fifteen European Cups have been shared between the eight teams that are left and they've also won the last 14 titles; Toulouse 4, Toulon 3, Leinster 3, Munster 2, Wasps 2 and Saracens 1. It doesn't get any more heavyweight than that.

Connacht will know that they could have been amongst them and that's what will hurt the most when they wake up this morning.

How they react will be the making of them.

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