Friday 9 December 2016

George Hook: Johnny Sexton's boot the biggest obstacle in Connacht's way

Published 27/05/2016 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton impressed for Leinster against Ulster
Johnny Sexton impressed for Leinster against Ulster
Connacht's Jake Heenan Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Strictly in economic terms, the stories may not be run on a parallel. But as sports upsets go and in the realms of unlikely sporting romances, Connacht's journey to the final of the Guinness Pro12 is on a par with Leicester City and the Premier League this season.

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Leicester City, through grit, determination and a kinship that belied the fickle, shallow world of soccer millionaires, silenced the doubters with their unity and self-belief, as they achieved what only months previously had been thought impossible.

And while the scale of Leicester's achievement towers over Connacht in sporting anthology terms, it is still incredible to think that a province that was on the verge of being tossed on the scrap-heap only a decade ago is now closing in on a professional league title.

In order to crown their date with destiny, Connacht will have to defy the odds one last time and see off Leinster in the final tomorrow. One wonders how much of a physical toll the back-to-back victories over Glasgow have had on Pat Lam's courageous squad.

Bundee Aki was immense at the Sportsground last weekend and Connacht's hopes of an upset might well depend on another Herculean effort from the New Zealand-born centre.

Leinster's victory over Ulster last weekend was a stinging rebuke to the criticism and scorn that has dominated their season thus far. That win, in front of a packed RDS, will do little to camouflage the remnants of a lacklustre European campaign, but it has certainly given Pat Lam and his coaching ticket plenty of food for thought.

But as good as Leinster were last Friday, Ulster must take their fair share of responsibility for the result. The promise of a ferocious challenge by the Northerners never materialised. It was as if Ulster froze in the spotlight. Connacht cannot afford to make that same mistake tomorrow.

A wide Murrayfield pitch will play into Connacht's hands and if the passing game sticks, with minimal room for error, Connacht will look to exploit the pace of Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun on the wings.

The fight for supremacy in the centre has the makings of an all-out war and while Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have the edge in power and muscle, Ben Te'o and Garry Ringrose have been developing a fluid understanding in the Leinster midfield over the past few months. That four-man collision will go a long way towards deciding the final outcome.

Connacht will do as they have done all season and look to dominate possession. Leinster, presumably content to allow Connacht time on the ball, will exert pressure at every opportunity and attempt to force Connacht into handling errors. Here, John Muldoon and Jake Heenan have massive roles to play, both in protecting AJ MacGinty from the Leinster back-row and in securing Connacht ball on the deck.

Leinster's ambitions will hinge on another dictatorial performance from Jonathan Sexton. If Leinster can pin Connacht back inside their own half and force Pat Lam's side into errors, Sexton's boot could be the winning of the game.

Connacht's strength all season has been predicated by the sum of their parts working in perfect cohesion. Leinster, in Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa, have the star quality to cause Connacht problems, but like Leicester City, Connacht's unity and team spirit can carry them through. One would hope that they can deliver a performance fitting of the occasion. And should Healy produce another thrilling cameo tomorrow; if Tiernan O'Halloran outplays his opposite number once again, I would love to hear Joe Schmidt's rationale for selecting the out-of-form and injury-prone Kearney brothers for South Africa.

It was interesting that the Ireland coach announced his 32-man panel in an email yesterday, with no opportunity to question his selections. No place for Ulster player of the year Stuart McCloskey? No room, either, for Healy, O'Halloran, Ringrose or Tommy O'Donnell? I could go on.

Quinn Roux didn't cut the mustard during his two seasons at Leinster and he isn't good enough to make the Connacht starting XV tomorrow. What is the thinking behind that one? Is Eoin Reddan, at 35 years of age, the future for Ireland at scrum-half?

Threat

Rob Kearney's form for club and country has been below-par for some time now. Based on last week's semi-final at the RDS, Kearney should not start in Murrayfield tomorrow. Isa Nacewa provides much more of a threat at full-back. Why is Kearney travelling to South Africa? Schmidt's squad selection is in keeping with his overtly conservative nature and by ignoring Ireland's form players for this summer tour, he is muzzling the development of some key talent ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

The lazy excuses about protecting Ireland's World Cup seeding do not stack up. To buy into that would be to suggest that Dave Kearney would do a better job on the wing for Ireland than Matt Healy. Or that Tommy O'Donnell, instead of the uncapped Sean Reidy, would somehow weaken the squad?

No doubt Healy will once again prove Schmidt wrong tomorrow. Unfortunately for him, the Ireland head coach is not for turning.

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