Connacht send out warning that they will be no pushover
Eric Elwood's men showed on Friday that they can mix it with the big boys, says Jim Glennon
NONE of us expected a fairytale at The Stoop on Friday night, but Connacht took their place at rugby's top table with a minimum of fuss and dined well with a performance which was almost enough to pilfer a losing bonus point.
Connacht's place in the Heineken Cup was won on merit, fully justified, and one which they are, on this performance anyway, capable of exploiting to maximum effect for the development of the game west of the Shannon.
Their hosts, Harlequins, under the tutelage of former Leinster and Ireland fullback Conor O'Shea, maintained their 100 per cent record for the season by registering their 11th win -- on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Their status at the top of the English Premiership led many to believe that their visitors, the traditional poor relations of Irish rugby, were on a hiding to nothing and that an effective damage-limitation exercise was a realistic summit for their ambitions. This, though, was to ignore the extent of the progress made by Eric Elwood and his backroom team.
Connacht set about their task on Friday night in an organised and methodical manner from the start and maintained their composure and effort to the end, putting their high-flying opponents to the pin of their collar before finally succumbing, and being denied a bonus-point that was well within their reach.
The fact that they managed to do so will come as a surprise to many, particularly Gloucester and Toulouse, and will surely serve to steel their resolve in the search for the home win which will mean so much to them in their first season in Europe's premier club competition.
I suggested last week that such a win may well be beyond them, and, while that may still be the case, the odds against it have been shortened dramatically by the quality of Friday's effort. Its foundation was typical Connacht -- passion, grit, physicality and a real intensity of application. Married to these qualities however was a very high level of skill throughout the team, from a vastly experienced forward unit and a highly-efficient halfback partnership through a youthful threequarter line to an outstanding captain, Gavin Duffy, at fullback.
Nor was any advantage conceded in the tactical battle between O'Shea and his counterpart and friend Eric Elwood. A highly-effective defensive strategy, rigidly implemented, provided the basis for the Connacht effort and the anticipated advantage of an apparently superior Quins bench was effectively negated by a boldly proactive substitution strategy on Elwood's part, even when hampered by the loss through injury of flanker Ray Ofisa.
The pack conceded little in the tight, and their work-rate was of the highest order, particularly that of the vastly-experienced second-row partnership of Tony Swift and Mike McCarthy, well supported by John Muldoon on the flank. Miah Nikora at outhalf showed good game-management skills, not unlike those of the coach in his heyday, and Eoin Griffin in the centre continues to impress. At the back, Duffy showed all his keen football brain after a dodgy enough opening, and some of his line-kicking late on was out of the top drawer.
Regrettably, however, a consistently high penalty count against them, together with a similarly consistent concession of turnovers at the breakdown, ultimately yielded a zero return. In the end there were few doubts which was the superior outfit.
The Londoners were deserving winners; the challenge mounted against them was such, however, that what was always going to be a tricky trip to Galway in January for the return game will now assume an element of real danger.
The tournament's aristocrats Toulouse, next week's visitors to Galway, will have been watching closely and will now be looking forward to their trip to the Sportsground, ominously adjoined as it is by a graveyard, with even less enthusiasm than before.
A crucial factor for Connacht, both next week and for the remaining ten weeks of the competition's pool phase, will be squad-management and injury-rehab. Their relative lack of resources will be tested severely. They have little if any room for manoeuvre and so will be hoping that Ofisa's injury is short-term.
It is also ironic that of the three frontliners from last season who left to join Leinster during the summer, only one, hooker Seán Cronin, even made their bench yesterday, although he did make a spectacular impact when he came on to score a try. I wonder how prop Jamie Hagan and winger Fionn Carr felt as they took the field in Esher for the Leinster A team in the British and Irish Cup. Faraway hills are indeed often greener, but familiarity breeds a form of contempt too.
In the rugby context, the hills of Connacht have never been greener, and the process continues next week.
Sunday Indo Sport