Saturday 22 October 2016

Neil Francis: Connacht must not let this chance of a lifetime slip

Published 05/05/2016 | 02:30

Ultan Dillane (SPORTSFILE)
Ultan Dillane (SPORTSFILE)

The Pro 12 regular season concludes this Saturday. On reflection we notice that ditch water does indeed have its compensations.

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We look too at the Premier League in wonder - a chorus of Handel's Messiah at the mention of Leicester City's journey.

The unspoken subtext here is that the Premier League contenders didn't contend and a team imbued with pluck and intestinal fortitude and a smidgeon of skill show how it is done in a rotten, rotten league bloated with overpaid shadow boxers who have not the remotest idea of their own true value and how their performances each week pale beside the sinful extravagance of their weekly wages.

The Leicester City story is not about the triumph of ambition and desire over talent and money - the feelgood factor - and it is universal - is the failure of the wealthy contenders.

How is it that they are so arbitrarily poor? That they are undone by the very tangible characteristics of resolve, belief and determination? You take it for granted that when you are paid £250,000 a week that at the very least you turn up mentally ready before the off.

Sad to say England's soccer league is chaff, as evidenced by a team like Leicester winning it. The feelgood factor ends when they set foot in the Bernabeu or the Nou Camp.


Connacht's rise ? Well you would like to think it is more to do with the recognition that they have stirred themselves. No-one can question the improvement in skill levels, the type of rugby they attempt to play and the way they engineer a game-plan.

I am not a bandwagon jumper but I applaud them for their brio and sense of purpose - their rise though has been facilitated by the palliative decline in the traditional powers in this league.

Connacht's flight, though admirable, masks just how s***e the league has become and pretty much like Leicester, next season the feelgood factor will dissipate after half an hour in the Stade Michelin or Allianz Park. Connacht have had good days in Europe - beating Toulouse in Toulouse still ranks as one of the great results in the competition's history.

It is important so that Connacht get something substantive out of this year's adventure.

Given the effort and the bravery of their players, it just doesn't cut it that they head back to Eyre Square, drown their sorrows and say 'that they will learn from this season and come back stronger next season.'

This is their season and at this stage they must recognise that because next season the loafers and underperformers may just regroup and get their act together. As the saying goes 'you have to take the opportunity of a lifetime within the lifetime of that opportunity.' That lifetime is the next four weeks.

That loss to Treviso last week . . . well I can't really see anything beneficial deriving from losing to an awful Italian side. Defensively I think Connacht were a long way from where they needed to be.

There was a little bit more than 'something missing' in that performance and you got the feeling that, after finishing on average in ninth place over the last 10 years, Connacht may be fraying at the edges primarily because this Saturday is normally the end of the season for Connacht.

Now they are in new territory and instead of taking off for a holiday they have to produce their best performances of the season. The type of performances they pulled out against Munster and Leinster will have to be produced again, pretty much on demand.

I have watched Glasgow coming up on the rails, and predicted here about six weeks ago they will finish top of the league at the end of the regular season and they will win the cup as well.

The 46 points that they put on a very handy Scarlets side in Parc Y Scarlets was one of mesmerising efficiency. They will beat Connacht on Saturday and do so with a good bit to spare. Sticking this article up on the dressing-room wall won't make that much of a difference.

The clash in the Sportsground will hinge on momentum. Three sides have that factor at the moment - the two combatants in Galway and Ulster.

Leinster are playing like a little old lady in a 10-year-old Nissan Micra 200 metres from the traffic lights but with the foot on the brake waiting for the lights to turn orange. The other teams are going through the junction no matter what colour the lights are.

It is all about mindset and it is very hard to change that. Glasgow come to Galway in unstoppable form and we watch this match for many reasons - the main reason though is that it is the last time we will see the best player in Europe play on these shores in this league.

Leone Nakarawa is leaving Glasgow at the end of the season to join Racing 92 - the Fijian's quality was obvious long before he obliterated Paul O'Connell in last year's final - not an easy thing to do. Glasgow's fluid style is backboned by the Fijian - nearly every try they score seems to come from an intervention from him.

Bewildering pace, breath-taking dexterity and the softest of hands - he is the offload king and quite how it took this long for one of the big French clubs to nick him is a mystery.

Leinster, who did know about him, should have had a fire sale of some of their driftwood to ease up some funds. He is worth as much as Dan Carter. Nobody in Europe has anywhere close to his natural ability.


If I was Pat Lam I would spend a sizeable amount of time trying to neutralise this guy's influence. He will carry about a dozen times and he will cause real damage every time he does.

There are many reasons why this match is compelling - but the likely match-up between Ultan Dillane and Nakarawa is top of the list.

Glasgow are also strong at tight and have an aggressive, intelligent and dynamic back-row. They have any number of offensive weapons in their out-field including Stuart Hogg.

The guy they missed, though, was Finn Russell and he pulled all the strings in that Scarlets demolition and I fancy him to control the game for Glasgow - un-fussed and unhurried by anything that happens around him.

A loss to Glasgow might conversely prove a fillip to Connacht if indeed their challenge has begun to wane.

I figure that the final standings at 5.0 on Saturday will be Glasgow, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster in that order.

What more motivation would the western province need than to meet a horribly mis-firing and under-motivated Leinster side in the RDS? The mere sight of the Blue Dandies trotting out onto the park would be enough to revitalise Connacht's challenge.

It's Showtime folks!

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