Focus on skills pays off as Pat Lam's Connacht troops show way forward
Published 30/11/2015 | 02:30
As Connacht celebrated history at Thomond Park, the words of Rob Penney in May 2014 came to mind.
Back then, the New Zealander was nearing the exit door at Thomond Park and as a result felt free to speak his mind on the issues of the day. Connacht had just signed Mils Muliaina on the back of out-bidding Munster for Bundee Aki and Penney wasn't impressed.
"What's it doing for Irish rugby?" the former Munster coach asked. "They need a bit of a hand-up, but let's keep it real. Connacht just seem to get it a little easier. I'd just wonder if it's the right thing for Irish rugby. There are a lot of good Irish lads who are just not getting access."
Penney is now in Japan, but he keeps a keen eye on his former club and would have raised an eyebrow at yesterday's result.
Yet, if he looked beyond the headlines after Aki's try sealed a first win for the Westerners away to any of their neighbours in 38 games since 2002, he would have seen that the other 14 players are either Irish-qualified or Irish raised in AJ MacGinty's case.
Only John Muldoon, Nathan White and the excellent Aly Muldowney were born when Connacht last won here in 1986 and the average age of the other 12 players is 23 and a half.
Yet here they were beating Munster the New Zealand way, keeping the ball through phase after phase while retaining their wide shape, stretching the home defence and forcing them to make, and ultimately miss, tackles.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, many lamented Ireland's attacking capacity and, in particular, their skills yet here was a largely home-grown collection of young players from the country's least fashionable province showing huge skill-levels on a dirty day in Limerick.
"How I like to play the game is pretty simple: it is all about the ball and ultimately we want to be a team that can go through a team, around a team or over a team," Pat Lam explained.
"Basically there is all the players' core jobs but there are skills that we get everyone to do: catch, pass, running lines, holding lines, tackling and even the jackal, get on top. Tonight you had Matt Healy put in a jackal, AJ MacGinty going on top. You had James Connolly, Denis Buckley. . . across the board.
"When I first arrived I did a little bit of a survey just to see where guys were and I could see where we were deficient.
"One of the reasons I brought (skills coach) Dave Ellis over - and all of us are skills coaches - was to improve the skills because as a coach if I have got 15 guys out there who can do all of these things, then we can play the structure.
"I never want Connacht to be known as a team that kick everything. I don't want to be known as a team that run wide all the time. I don't want to be known as a team that just tuck it under the jumper. I want to be known as a team that can adapt and be comfortable to do what it takes to win a game."
They achieved history playing the game the right way - and the winning try, with home-grown hero Robbie Henshaw skinning Keith Earls before off-loading to marquee signing Aki who finished brilliantly, summed up the part that skills played in their display.