Thursday 19 October 2017

Player diary: French trip to visit Aly helps clear mind ahead of frantic season finale

Pat Lam in conversation with Leo Cullen before Saturday’s clash in the Sportsground. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Pat Lam in conversation with Leo Cullen before Saturday’s clash in the Sportsground. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Denis Buckley

Depending on workload, games played or injuries, some of the senior squad had a few days off this week. I took the opportunity to take a short trip to France to visit Aly Muldowney.

We've had a lot of rugby in the last few weeks, particularly away from home, so it was nice to get a bit of a mental break from it all. The Champions Cup play-offs are just around the corner and you need to be in the right mind-set for those knockout matches.

If we do get on as well as we would like, we could be playing another three weeks of rugby on top of the regular season. I fell this break will stand to me in the long run.

Aly was one of my good mates at Connacht. And since he has moved over to Grenoble, I haven't been able to get over to see him. It was great to get some sun, and have a look around Grenoble from a different perspective.

Back at base it's Champions Cup weekend and I think there's a massive chance of an all-Ireland final.

It's very tough to back against Leinster or Munster at the moment. Particularly Munster - they are the in-form team in Europe. Saracens are one of the best teams around, but I would go for Munster.

Togetherness

They are playing great rugby and really have a purpose and togetherness this year.

It reminds me a lot of us last year, and how you get into that winning mentality. Winning becomes a habit and you can see that in their performances right now.

Leinster's game is a little bit tougher because it's in France. But I still think Leinster will have too much for a really good Clermont side.

As we know only too well, they are playing good rugby and they have a fantastic squad with depth in every position.

Last weekend we felt we had their measure, maybe not on the scoreboard, but when we looked back on some of the stats, during the review, we had 27 minutes of possession and they had 15.

We had over 60pc territory. Our metres made was considerably higher than theirs, as were the numbers for defenders beaten and offloads.

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If you just looked at the stats and the scoreline, you wouldn't know which stats belong to which team. But they deserved the win, because of how clinical they were.

We had so much ball and territory, and opportunities. But unfortunately we coughed up possession at the wrong times. We gave them some soft scores and just came out the wrong side of it.

It was a tough scoreline to take. Some of their scores were intercepts, or dropped balls, and it all just made for a really tough day at the office.

The turnovers killed us in that game. And with some of the exciting backs that Leinster have, they will punish you every time.

But I wouldn't look at it like Leinster have really improved this season, or that we have gone backwards, just because we beat them twice at the end of 2015-16.

It really is small margins that makes the difference. In the review we saw that there were countless opportunities where we had five-on-threes and just took the wrong option. There was space and too many times it was the last pass where we went right instead of left. A few small changes would have transformed that game.

Defensively, even though we conceded five tries, we were pretty good for the majority of the game. The tackle percentage was 93pc. Nine times out of ten that would help you win the game.

At their breakdown, we had a lot of guys getting over the ball. We slowed down their ball well and put them under pressure, and there were a lot of great turnovers for us too.

Coming out on the wrong side of the small margins is a reflection of our season.

But it's not doom and gloom. When you look back at our games, especially the Leinster one, it really is a small fix and we need to sort that out now. That will have a big effect on our performance going forward.

There is a lot of change coming up at Connacht Rugby over the next few months but one thing for certain is that everyone is going to be sad to see Pat Lam leave.

I definitely am. I have got a lot of time and respect for him. He has brought my game on loads since he arrived around the same time as I was trying to get my Connacht career going.

And he put a lot of time into my performance and what I do on the pitch.

But you have to embrace change too and how a squad evolves is so important in the modern game. With Kieran Keane coming in, we all know that a new coach freshens things up and he might tinker with the game-plan a bit as well, which can be a great thing.

It will be interesting to see. Everyone will be sad to see Pat moving on but at the same time we wish him all the best and we are excited for a new challenge and a new coach and what that will bring.

You start from scratch when a new coach comes in and you have to earn your stripes. No players will have any credit in the bank with Kieran here. It's up to lads to step up and to earn their position in the squad, and that should be a good thing for everybody.

Connacht is going in the right direction and we are determined to achieve our goal of Champions Cup rugby for next season.

Irish Independent

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