Sunday 25 September 2016

Tony Ward: Shades of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle as Western verve wins neutrals' hearts

Lam reaping reward for giving his players licence to use initiative, but Munster have serious problems

Published 19/04/2016 | 02:30

Connacht coach Pat Lam watches on during the closing stages of the win over Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht coach Pat Lam watches on during the closing stages of the win over Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

You couldn't fail to be impressed by Connacht's latest masterclass in ball control and self-belief during Saturday's humdinger in the Sportsground.

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Despite Munster hitting the ground running with two converted tries, the hosts quickly dispelled any notion that there would be a hangover from their Challenge Cup defeat at Grenoble.

Of course the yellow cards issued to James Cronin and Billy Holland in the second quarter had a bearing, and while Munster could dispute the former's sin-binning, the reality is that cards - whatever the colour - invariably come on the back of pressure.

The key difference between the sides was Connacht's superior composure under pressure.

Munster had addressed the issue of defensive line-speed so glaringly inadequate when the sides last met in Limerick in November. But when it came to soaking and applying pressure, the difference between red and green in Galway was marked.

When Munster have the ball, you wonder where in the world, Simon Zebo apart, a line-break might emanate. It would be unfair to suggest that possession is a liability for them, but certainly they appear ill-at-ease with ball in hand.

Maybe I'm being overly simplistic here but it looked like one side was playing with the worries of the world on their shoulders and the other with a collective smile.

Bonkers

Connacht have a clear game-plan; they clearly play the way they train. The end product is bonkers at times - as in the lead-in to Mike Sherry's try for Munster - but a joy to behold.

As John Muldoon half-jokingly suggested in the post-match interview (and I'm paraphrasing him here), 'yeah it's crazy at times but we're great to watch'. Amen to that.

Connacht under Pat Lam remind me of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United. I doubt there was a neutral out there who didn't want Connacht to prevail.

There is a comparison with Claudio Ranieri's Leicester in the Westerners' composure - which also manifests itself in the respective coaches' general demeanour and ease of personality. Lam has Connacht playing exactly how he wants them.

The Connacht players know Lam wants them to use their initiative. He backs the players to make what they believe to be the right call in the heat of the moment, and even if it goes belly-up, he backs them in making that shout.

Already a Champions Cup place has been achieved. The next target is a top-two finish and a home semi-final. The Glasgow game on the last day will pretty much decide that.

All four provinces are out of Europe, but there has never been such interest in the outcome of the PRO12.

But back to Saturday where from Joe Schmidt's point of view there were big performances from Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw, while Niyi Adeolokun continues to show that Matt Healy is not the only Connacht wing in the mix for an Ireland place.

As for man of the match Bundee Aki, this adopted Tribesman will soon be up for the freedom of the city of Galway. He has been a sensation in midfield since arriving in summer 2014. Connacht's silverware hopes could hinge on the prognosis on his knee.

New Zealand-born hooker Tom McCartney and flanker Sean O'Brien (even at this early stage) are two more guaranteed to be attracting Schmidt's interest.

And then there is Muldoon, Connacht's rock and every referee's friend mid-match! That ability is an art and the skipper has it fine-tuned to perfection.

From a Munster perspective it was another game best forgotten. At least their Champions Cup destiny is in their own hands, with all three contenders - Cardiff, Edinburgh and Munster - having to play each other (Edinburgh having to play both).

Munster's next game against Edinburgh in Irish Independent Park is crucial. Having it at the Cork venue might just prove a blessing in disguise given the difficulty in attracting numbers to Thomond Park of late. The atmosphere should be heaving.

Munster in the Challenge Cup next season doesn't bear thinking about. One or two decisions might have gone against them in the Sportsground but the fundamental problems go deeper than that in terms of structure and confidence. To go three-quarters of the game without registering a point and conceding 29 tells its own sorry tale.

Connacht were so dominant that even CJ Stander barely featured as a ball carrier. How often could that be said this season?

Munster started so well and with that 11-point cushion in times past would have blown Connacht away.

There is still immense potential but as of now they are trailing the other three. Champions Cup is non-negotiable.

Irish Independent

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