Tuesday 25 October 2016

George Hook: Lam's bold tactics a joy - but Pro12 is the poor relation

Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30

Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

For the record, this weekend Leinster and Connacht won their way to the Pro12 final at Murrayfield next week, with home wins over Ulster and Glasgow Warriors.

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The victories prompted much 'oohing' and 'aahing' on air, in vision and in print. Leinster, we were told, were back at their imperious best - and Connacht were continuing their inexorable drive towards success.

The reality was that Leinster played slightly above and Ulster slightly below their form.

Meanwhile, Connacht - yet again - played rugby against Glasgow Warriors that was not the fare served up on a regular basis by the other provinces. It made for compelling watching - even if the Westerners were lucky for the second time against the Scots.

A home tie came courtesy of a win over a 14-man Glasgow outfit and, this time, a horrendous but accidental clash took out two influential players, fly-half Finn Russell and prop Zander Fagerson, in the first minute. At a stroke, the visitors were on the back foot.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt was in Galway, and one would have given much more than a penny for his thoughts as Pat Lam's charges played rugby with a verve and invention that would have merited a post-match scolding from Ireland's notoriously conservative head coach.

There is a suggestion that Schmidt may take a number of Connacht players to South Africa. On their return, Lam may need a cult deprogramming specialist to clear the negative thoughts implanted by the national team.

Bundee Aki was man-of-the-match but, in truth, the palm should have gone to a coach that has proved that rugby can be played by teams in the northern hemisphere on a par with its southern opponents.

Of course, Robbie Henshaw will be at Leinster next year - which may improve his career prospects, but his attacking flair will suffer.

The Connacht centre partnership was immense in attack and defence.

Yet again, Matt Healy showed his pace and vision and made a mockery of the selection policies at national level.

On the other wing, Niyi Adeolokun, who is hardly a household name in Ireland, was astonishing. All this was backed up by Tiernan O'Halloran at full-back.

This was rugby where backs ran at space, used imaginative angles and offloaded with a devil-may-care attitude.

The ball did not always go to hand, but the team covered with aplomb. It was like being in H G Wells' time machine watching rugby in a bygone era.

On Friday, we were told that Johnny Sexton controlled the game with his precision kicking. AJ MacGinty, Lam's number 10, is cut from a different cloth.

Despite being capped by the USA, MacGinty is no superstar - but his coach has given him a confidence to play. The out-half rarely kicked the ball but, if the pass was not on, he tested the defence with an individual thrust.

It may be an exaggerated comparison but he was reminiscent of Ollie Campbell, such was his physical courage, awareness of space and willingness to employ his outsides. Rare praise indeed.

Up front, the pack was comfortable with ball in hand, and John Muldoon increasingly resembles the thinking man's Sean O'Brien.

As Irish hookers continue to show their frailty at the lineout, Tom McCartney was accurate and a powerhouse in the loose.

At 31, he may be too old to benefit from residency status, but like the Nigerian on the wing and the Islander in the centre, this Kiwi has helped to make an exciting team.

The umbilical cord between backs and forwards was Kieran Marmion - and he looked the part. At worst, he is now the second-best scrum-half in Ireland.

Sadly, this was all in vain, as Schmidt is not for turning - and South Africa and the summer tour will see a continuation of the sterile policies of the past.


If David Nucifora and Schmidt had the health of Irish rugby at heart, Henshaw would not be going to Leinster. He will join Garry Ringrose, and the bright sparks of Irish centre-play will be reduced to hewers of wood and carriers of water. Meanwhile, Jared Payne continues to prove that his best position is at full-back.

This competition and these matches must be put in perspective. The semi-finals were made up of three teams that did not trouble the statisticians in the play-off stages of the European Cup, failing to qualify and losing a combined 13 games from 24.

The problem for the administrators of the game is that the Pro12 is not fit for purpose. It does not, in the main, provide competitive matches that prepare players for the bigger tasks ahead. Leinster, the favourites next week, were ranked 21st of 24 in this year's European Cup.

Sell-outs at the RDS and the Sportsground mask the inadequacies of this tournament. The profit and loss statements at the provinces will determine if Ireland can match the big spending and consequent dominance of France and England.

It will be a fun weekend in Edinburgh - but Europe is where it is all happening.

Irish Independent

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