Friday 30 September 2016

Sinead Kissane: Fearless brand of rugby makes it easy to support Lam's free spirits

Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30

Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

When John Muldoon walked into the media room in Connacht earlier this week he did a quick scan of the room before he said under his breath: "Oh Jesus, full house".

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There were around 10 journalists and reporters, three TV cameras and a couple of photographers; not a big presence but bigger than previous European Challenge Cup quarter-final press days in Connacht in the past. But Connacht aren't just the story of the week because none of the other provinces are playing in Europe. They're the story of the week because they're the story of the season.

The reinvention of Connacht with their gung-ho brand of fearless rugby could not have come at a better time. They're not just shaking up the natural order of the provinces; they're showing up the other provinces who have bigger budgets and a larger number of marquee players.

Connacht are showing us that the world won't end if you decide to roll the dice and run the ball out of your own 22 and offload like it's second nature.

Space

They're showing us that a rugby field actually has a thing called space. Who knew? They're showing us that skills can be taught and worked under pressure. They're showing us that playing high-risk rugby should never be redacted.

They're showing us players who actually seem to enjoy playing rugby. They're showing us that it's exciting to watch rugby in the northern hemisphere. Fancy that.

Connacht have a head coach who says stuff like: "The boys know I cannot stand running straight into people. They know I expect some expression, I expect us to have options." Hallelujah. Excluding the kind of exceptional talent the Heineken Cup-winning Leinster team had, Connacht are showing us that a province can play the same style as the boys in the southern hemisphere and not make it look like the Munster of the Rob Penney reign a few years ago with its lateral plays down culs-de-sac.

Sure, there are times when Connacht are also frustrating to watch - like the first half against Ulster last weekend with their high error-count and towards the end of their recent win over Leinster which seemed like rugby's version of masochism as they ignored the shouts of "KICK IT!!" before the full-time whistle.

Connacht have a knack of getting you involved with what they're doing whether you realise it or not. Whether it was the way Kieran Marmion ran down to score that try in the Leinster game or the way they defended with just 13 players against Ulster. With Connacht, you're drawn in, you're roaring at the TV, you're losing the run of yourself, you're smiling at their brand of fantasy rugby irrespective of whether you're from Connacht or not. Connacht appeals to that part of us which makes us love rugby. And all of this against the backdrop of Connacht's horrendous injury-profile this season.

No-one more than Muldoon illustrates this shift from the old to the new Connacht. This week Pat Lam has been using what Muldoon did to set up their try against Ulster as an example to the backs.

That's right - the skill-set of a 33-year-old forward, with only one season left on his contract but who is playing better than ever, being shown to their classy young backs. They would have seen again how Matt Healy passed to Muldoon, how the Connacht captain held the ball in both hands, straightened the line, shimmied to pass outside him before offloading to Eoin McKeon who was running up on his inside which resulted in Caolin Blade's try. Lam said Muldoon's expression and the way he confused the Ulster defence "epitomises what we're after".

Now more people want in on this Connacht elixir. It was almost typical of the province that when I walked into their reception on Tuesday, there was former star Gavin Duffy (Connacht's sponsorship manager) temporarily manning the front desk and answering the phone.

Earlier he took a call from a man in Leitrim who wanted to know where the Sportsground was and who Connacht were playing next. After that win over Leinster, Duffy said he's never seen as many fans stay around the Sportsground after a match and savouring a great win.

"People just didn't want to go home. They knew the buzz was here and they wanted to be part of it. That was incredible to see," Duffy said.

Even the sun was shining for one of Connacht's final training sessions ahead of today's quarter-final with Grenoble. Standing on the back-pitch at the Sportsground for the opening part of their training, I wondered what the secret is to Connacht this season. But the secret is, there is no secret.

Before they started their drills, Muldoon called the players into a circle. The Galway wind blew a bit of what he said to the players in our direction but it was nothing he hadn't said in the press conference a few hours earlier which included words like accuracy during training.

It was this date three years ago that Lam was officially introduced to the media following his surprise appointment as Connacht head coach. From the off, Lam seemed to have a holistic vision allied to his rugby one. When I asked him how he would describe himself, Lam said he's a family man: "I believe in family and extended family. And you don't have to be blood to be family. It's about people."

Lam is the man with the masterplan for Connacht and that continues today as they try to book a home Challenge Cup semi-final. There is no secret to their season. Connacht play like they love rugby. Which makes it easy to love Connacht rugby.

Irish Independent

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