Sunday 22 January 2017

Daring of Pat Lam's charges the story of a season full of twists and turns

Jim Glennon

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Sportsfile

The final round of the Pro12 league marked the beginning of the end of a long and eventful season, one which started with optimism but quickly became one of the most challenging of recent times on all fronts, except of course on the Western front.

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For the Pro12 itself, and despite the challenges facing it, there was a welcome sense of climax to the season. Admittedly, that might not have been as strong had the teams performed better in Europe, but we are where we are, and the league is the be-all-and-end-all this season.

The culmination of the regular phase of Connacht's season was an apt one. The visit of reigning champions Glasgow to Galway for a game sold out a week and a half in advance provided an appropriate conclusion to an epic term. Injuries have tested the squad right through the season and yesterday was no different but the atmosphere was as anticipated, as was the team's intent and ambition.

The confidence and daring of Pat Lam's squad has been the story of the season. The ethos imbued by the Samoan has resulted in something special being built in the west. The Sportsground is now a destination for sports fans from around the province and beyond - the only problem being that in its current shape, fans will struggle to get their hands on a ticket. Nobody will begrudge them their semi-final there in a fortnight's time, not even Glasgow, who'll travel with something to prove after yesterday.

Munster's play-off hopes were written off weeks ago, and having ground out a result in Cork against Edinburgh last weekend, they disposed of Scarlets yesterday. There were welcome wins to wrap up Anthony Foley's difficult season but one can't but think of how times have changed. The miracle matches nowadays are for qualification to participate in the tournament.

Leinster and Ulster have had seasons best described as luke-warm, despite their qualification for a semi-final showdown at the RDS. Leinster, save for a couple of very disappointing performances, of which their hammering in Belfast was a prime example, negotiated a course through the league with little fuss, controlling games and winning most with relative comfort but little sparkle.

Their loss at Ravenhill last week wasn't a major shock in itself but the losing margin and the manner of the performance were definite surprises, however, and it must be a concern too that Johnny Sexton has been quoted more than once in recent weeks bemoaning slippages in the 'culture' within the squad and wider organisation during his time in Paris.

Reduced spending power relative to the major franchises has put a premium on the respective 'cultures' of all four provinces and, in this regard, Connacht certainly stole a march on their three neighbours this season; nor is it something that can be changed at the flick of a switch either.

Fortunately for Leinster, Treviso did not put up much opposition and the ancipated bonus point was achieved with ease.

A somewhat enigmatic Ulster, on the other hand, have hit great heights on occasion during the season, with their offensive back play particularly striking at times, but their form has been interspersed with lengthy slumps too. The emergence of Stuart McCloskey and the ability of Luke Marshall to remain fit has provided Les Kiss with a potent centre partnership which, outside quality half-backs in Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson, has given them superiority in this sector over most.

Their inconsistency through the season meant that their objective in Swansea yesterday was to cling on to fourth place and it's accompanying semi-final berth. The manner of their performance against Leinster, however, had left them in the right frame of mind for the challenge to which they duly rose. They're now tasked with repeating both performances at the RDS in a fortnight.

I've written on occasion during the season of the challenges facing the league. Poor officiating, teams' diminished purchasing power, some poor pitches, and a questionable quality of play at times, are all significant challenges, not to mention the fragmented nature of the broadcast media coverage - for current and potential fans to engage, it's imperative that these issues be addressed.

That said, however, interest in the league this season, especially from an Irish perspective, has reached a new peak. The dual-influence of Connacht's genuine challenge for honours combined with the absence of the other provinces from the business end of the Champions Cup has meant that the Pro12 has been the only show in town.

With no obvious sign of imminent change in those circumstances, the importance of the Pro12 is increasing. This season has, without doubt, been it's best in recent years but there remains a long road ahead - without even hinting at the question of just how long the continued involvement of the Italians, in their current state, can be tolerated.

All that's for the future though - yesterday's wins for all four provinces mean that while Munster's season ends earlier than usual, the Connacht dream lives on and Glasgow are the only non-Irish side remaining in the competition.

Their presence is anything but token too.

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