Monday 26 September 2016

Alan Quinlan: Connacht need to learn how to win ugly instead of losing beautifully

Alan Quinlan

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

Connacht's Matt Healy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Connacht's Matt Healy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Rugby is still alive. Sadly, Connacht's Challenge Cup adventure is not. After an incredible game in the French Alps, there is hope for the game's future.

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All the talk about rugby's death, of sterile, defensive tactics ruining it, can disappear for a bit. We saw something special on Saturday night, how an ambitious approach can not only win over the hearts and minds of supporters, but can also win you big matches.

Grenoble were brilliant, so too Connacht. Yet when Pat Lam sits down with his team this morning, he'll cut to the chase. His message will be clear. "You have to retain your positivity," he will say. "You have to continue to believe that width works, that ambition works and that our philosophy works. Don't allow this defeat drain your confidence."

But then there will be the stinger. Do Samoans know the meaning of the term, 'cop on'? Well this one will after Saturday.

Twice his team had big leads - 19-3 during the first half, 29-16 during the second. And twice they gave them away. And it got me thinking about Ronan O'Gara.

Back when we were fighting for European Cups, O'Gara used to seize the initiative in matches of this nature time after time. We'd score. We'd have a lead. And he'd look at the clock. Ten minutes to half-time.

Controlling

"Right," he'd say. "Give me the ball." And we did. And he'd kick it long, pinning the opposition back into their own half, slowing the clock down, controlling events.

Had he been there on Saturday, when Connacht had gone 19-3 ahead, he'd have dropped into the pocket, taken Kieran Marmion's pass and booted it long. Of course ROG wasn't there. Shane O'Leary was. And rather than go for territory, he opted for glory, launching a crossfield kick which ended up with Grenoble having a lineout, from which they scored their first try.

And all of a sudden, 19-3 was 19-10. All of a sudden, the Grenoble players must have been saying to themselves, 'this is great, we've been on the attack, we've been turned over and they have just gone and given us another chance to score'.

That try changed the course of this game. It allowed Grenoble - a team who are used to fighting to the death - to go again, to believe that no matter how many points they'd concede, that they were facing a team they could outscore.

Rugby is a game of incidents. Some you can control, some you can't. But what Connacht and Lam have to learn from Saturday is that their approach works. Their willingness to have a go from anywhere - to take risks, like the pass Bundee Aki threw in the lead-up to Niyi Adeolokun's opening try - has a payback.

Don't forget that Connacht scored four tries on Saturday. Don't forget they were brilliant. So it's crucial that they don't over-analyse the defeat and believe they have to change their approach. Because they don't.

But they do have to get smarter. They have to learn how to play the scoreboard and play the clock as well as the opposition. So if that means winning ugly rather than losing beautifully then so be it.

They don't have to become a negative team but they do have to become a more streetwise one. At 19-3, they need to get in a huddle and decide that from there until half-time, they are just going to keep it simple and have ten minutes of no-frills rugby at the expense of looking pretty on the eye.

That's how you win quarter-finals. And had Connacht won, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they'd have taken Harlequins in the semis. The Sportsground would have been rocking. Quins would have been shaking.

So that's what the difference is. Had they played it safe and conservative for those 10 minute periods after going 19-3 up and 29-16 ahead, they could have forced Grenoble into a bit of panic and a mistake or two. Who knows, they might have been awarded a penalty on the back of this approach. With that, they'd have won.

None of which would have left people saying they were a negative team. But this morning, right around Europe, they are being called a naïve one.

So they need to learn. They need to improve their game-management while retaining their have-a-go strategy.

I remember when we learned that at Munster.

So much so that by the time the 2008 Heineken Cup final came around, we knew what we had to do from eight minutes out.

We killed the game, boring the life out of any neutral who was there watching that game, frustrating the Bejaysus out of Toulouse. They still talk about that today, those Toulouse players, any time we meet them. "So negative," they say. Yet eight years on, who else remembers what happened in those closing eight minutes, when we shut up shop and just kept possession? What people remember is that the trophy came home with us.

And I make no apologies for how we won. Okay, it was not stylistic in the final eight minutes. But it was effective.

That is what grinding out wins is all about. And Connacht need to learn how to win ugly. The way you do that is by making smarter decisions when you build up a lead. Much of that stems from your half-backs, in their case Kieran Marmion and Shane O'Leary. They simply needed to control the game a bit better.

If that partnership needs to be looked at, then so in a different sense does another all-Irish pairing, of Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast.

You have to admire these guys. They've gone to France, where the pressure and scrutiny is as great as it is here, and they've won people's respect.

Attitude

In many ways, they are a French version of Connacht. The smaller budget. The way they play. The ability to score tries from anywhere. The attitude that, okay, we will concede plenty today but we are good enough to outscore anyone.

Under Jackman and Prendergast, Grenoble have punched above their weight, taking big scalps at home and away. And back here, people are beginning to take note. They're seeing a couple of guys learning their trade in a tough environment and making a name of themselves.

Can you see them coming home and working under the IRFU? Absolutely. Big jobs in Ireland lie ahead for these guys.

The big job for Connacht now is making sure that this isn't the moment their season falls apart but the time when they learn from their mistakes and push on.

A place in the Pro12 semi-finals is theirs to lose. I don't believe they will - providing they learn from Saturday.

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