Monday 26 June 2017

Lam calls for Cup overhaul after romp

Tiernan O’Halloran tries to escape the clutches of Maxime Mbandà. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tiernan O’Halloran tries to escape the clutches of Maxime Mbandà. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

A wild west shoot-out in Galway that may have kept lingering hopes of a great escape from the pool stages alive for Connacht but must, surely, re-ignite the debate about the merits of maintaining an Italian presence at Europe's top table.

Connacht 61 Zebre 21

This latest Zebre submission represents an embarrassment for European rugby overlords and, despite the revolution in the boardroom that has over-hauled this competition, the presence of hopelessly ineffective Italians remains a blight.

Kieran Marmion of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's ninth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Kieran Marmion of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's ninth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

As it stands, one of Zebre and Treviso, currently residing in their familiar status at the basement of the Pro12, will automatically qualify for next season's Champions Cup via a system which is supposedly designed to be meritocratic but instead is anything but.

Nominally, the top seven in the Pro12 join the top six from the English and French leagues but that top seven must include a representative from each of the Pro12's four participating countries.

If it doesn't, then one must be included. This is diluted meritocracy. Pat Lam agrees there must be change as the integrity of the competition continues to suffer from an Italian presence entirely unfit for purpose.

"The main thing is it's important that Italian rugby is strong and I think that there's no doubt Conor O'Shea is making a difference," says Lam of the Irishman who was in Galway in his role as Azzurri rugby tsar.

Matt Healy of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's sixth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Matt Healy of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's sixth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"You saw the result against South Africa. All I'll say is that in the competition, there's no doubt even talking to their coaches as well, that the top seven should come through from the Pro12.

"If that means there's no Irish team in it, there's no Irish team in it. If a Welsh team, Scottish, Irish, Italian isn't good enough to make it through for that season then so be it. They go into the Challenge Cup.

"I think the changes they've made have made a big difference already. It's great but I think that's the next one; pure meritocracy. Either you make the top seven or you don't make the top seven."

Ironically, Connacht were beneficiaries of diluted meritocracy in the past, qualifying under the former European administrators when they twice gained entry to the top table thanks to Ireland providing a winner.

Kieran Marmion of Connacht is tackled by Marcello Violi of Zebre. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Kieran Marmion of Connacht is tackled by Marcello Violi of Zebre. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

A further irony is that Connacht's current struggles in the Pro12 may see their return to the top flight endangered next year unless they return to the top six or emerge from a series of convoluted play-offs.

This season was the first time Connacht qualified for the Champions Cup under their own steam following their Pro12 win and while teams in other fraught pools may enviously look across at the guaranteed 10 points available in Pool Two, Lam defended his side.

They truly did earn the right to gobble up the free 10 points as their title success guaranteed them top seed status.

"How did we get in this pool? That's all we've got to remember. If we didn't win last year, then the team who did win, it might have been Leinster, they'd be here.

"So if you want to get to this pool and the way it is, you better win your competition. We earned the right to be here. We can't control it.

Craig Ronaldson of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's fifth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Craig Ronaldson of Connacht on his way to scoring his side's fifth try. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"In previous years, Connacht were in the fourth tier. We were tier one because we're the champions. We earned the right to be here. It's not our fault who they put in there. Anyone who's complaining? Win your competition."

As for winning this competition, their hopes have been undeniably boosted by having an Italian in their pool, as they remain the most likely to qualify as a best-placed runner-up if they can extract something from next week's trip to Toulouse.

There are many complicated calculations therein but Lam is hoping to obviate the maths by simply focusing on replicating their win there in 2013; however, conceding three tries to the Italian mugs may make it a mug's game at Stade Ernest Wallon next Sunday if they defend as softly as they did in the opening quarter in Galway.

Despite an early 7-0 buffer, Connacht fell 14-7 behind before recovering to secure the five-pointer in the 28th minute through Finlay Bealham; two more tries gave them a 40-14 lead at the interval as Zebre conceded men, impetus and focus with swift haste.

Toulouse, beaten at the death in Wasps, will not be as generous.

"We need to get everything right, especially on defence," said Lam, enjoying the luxury of a full training week with his starting 15 for the first time in a month.

"There's no doubt we scrambled well. But if guys don't tackle well, some guys fell off tackles and it stresses other guys.

"The second try, we had five guys on the sideline, I could see it in the box and highlighted it at half-time.

"So we're short two guys and then Matt Healy flies up to make a bad read, they got around to the end, we shoot off the line and miss the read again.

"It starts with us not working hard enough. We need to work hard on that because Toulouse will punish you."

The confidence gained by being able to work with available materials will be a help and, as Leinster showed in knocking over Montpellier, a turkey shoot can inject the sense of tempo and pace required in the build-up to facing a Top 14 behemoth.

"It gives confidence," he assents. "You get through some of the plays you've been working on so it breeds confidence.

"But also the quality of the training week improved by just having the numbers there. We put some real pressure on this week.

"There is a temptation to get complacent because you are playing Zebre. We saw the result but we really need to replicate it again this week.

"We've always been about process regardless of winning and losing, what you do well and what you can do better and that hasn't changed.

"Sticking to that process for four years now has enabled us to isolate the things we can do better, rather than being bogged down by thinking things are terrible."

Connacht - T O'Halloran (D Poolman 59); N Adeolokun, R Parata, C Ronaldson (T Farrell 43), M Healy; J Cooney, K Marmion (C Blade 56); D Buckley (JP Cooney 38), T McCartney (D Heffernan 50), F Bealham (J Andress 47); L Stevenson, J Cannon; S O'Brien (J Connolly 50), E McKeon, J Muldoon, capt (N Dewai 47).

Zebre - K Baker; L Greeff, E Padovani, M Bellini, G Palazzani; C Canna (S Bordoli 64), M Violi (C Engelbrecht 71); A Lovotti (A de Marchi 61), C Festuccia (O Fabiani 47), P Ceccarelli (D Chistolin 60); G Koegelenberg (J Furno 47), V Bernabo (D Minnie 60); M Mbanda, J Meyer (G Biagi 75), F Ruzza.

Ref - T Foley (RFU).

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