Saturday 29 April 2017

Connacht's higher calling getting louder and louder

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you watched the endgame from the Sportsground on Friday night, then you couldn't have missed the vision of the home team playing similar opposition in the Heineken Cup. And bringing the same passion and commitment to the scene. In a better stadium. This was quality rugby.

Lowly Connacht against flashy Toulon and it made for compelling viewing.

First Connacht have another problem on their hands. Or rather their coaching staff have a problem. In the bad old days of Irish rugby -- coincidentally when Michael Bradley used to ply his trade in a green jersey -- one of the press corps could always be relied on, in the wake of another heavy defeat, to ask the same question of the coach of the day: "Do you think you'll find it hard to lift the lads?"

Bradley will need a forklift to pick them up tomorrow morning. On Friday, they go to Ravenhill to fulfil a fixture which just over a week ago looked attractive. Back then Ulster were in desperate trouble and Connacht had a pleasant view in a few directions. Now they trail Brian McLaughlin's team by five points and their mental and physical state must be close to exhaustion.

So most likely they are relying on an Irish winner of the Heineken Cup if they are to get into the same tournament themselves. Friday night gave us a clue as to what would happen them if they got there.

If you want an accurate reading of a team's value and form, then the league table is your best guide. Connacht are bottom because they don't have the resources to be higher up -- well certainly not in the upper reaches -- and they haven't got the experience to win games like Friday night's.

In a way it was reminiscent of Ireland against France in the 2007 World Cup. In front of the biggest ever travelling support in our history, an Ireland side low on confidence and energy were giving France no end of grief by playing either pack and jam or one-out rugby. The forwards were loving it, making metres every time and scaring the daylights out of the French. Then, for no better reason other than they were deep in the French 22, they shifted the ball wide and turned it over.

In Galway on Friday night, with the clock counting down and Connacht chasing a seven-point lead, Conor O'Loughlin, one of their best servants over the years, spread a ball wide in the Toulon 22 when picking and jamming had got them to that point. The ball was turned over and the game was lost.

"Yeah, we had our chances and didn't take them, which is frustrating," said Ian Keatley. "It's very disappointing to have come this far and to lose out and it's hard for the supporters. There's a feeling that we let them down. They were great."

When teams don't have much experience of winning frequently, they read the signs wrong. In that instance the sign said straight ahead. That they were still in the game at that point, however, was an achievement given what they had endured at the end of the first half.

It will be interesting to see how the referee assessors rate Wayne Barnes' handling of the eight-scrum sequence at the end of 40 minutes. Which made it 50 minutes. Remarkable that. Connacht were blessed not to concede a penalty try or lose a man to the bin, and then, just when they thought they had survived, they get their defence all wrong to concede the try to Kefu. And still they came back.

Much of the rugby Connacht played in the second half was accurate and appropriate and if they ever get into Europe's premier competition we will see more of it. It would force the IRFU to increase their budget but it would be rewarded in the attendances. The crowd lapped this up and deserve more. So do Connacht.

Sunday Independent

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