Tony Ward: Connacht can upset odds if they play the opposition and not the occasion
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
'You have to pinch yourself at times, don't you? It's huge. We've got one more game after this, and he just gave me a wry smile.' The realistic summing up post-Glasgow of hardened skipper and the one pinching himself John Muldoon with the loaded grin coming from a certain Robbie Henshaw.
In a squad of heroes thus far this season - and bear in mind they have still won nothing yet - where the arrival of Bundee Aki has taken the level of on-field ambition to another level, it's fair to say that in Muldoon and Henshaw you have the prototype 'local heroes'.
And while I wish the still-developing ex-Marist centre wasn't making the switch to Leinster, we have to respect his right to make the best and most strategic move he can in his career.
That's the elephant in the room out of the way so let's concentrate on the here and now. Well almost . . . for I did notice a diplomatic 'sitting on the fence' response from the Henshaw in midweek when probed as to whether beating Leinster today would make it difficult for him when he walks into the Belfield training complex in about eight weeks' time. His answer was a politically correct yes and no so let me answer it for him.
Connacht winning today is the only item on the Henshaw agenda. So expect no rush of blood to the head to affect him as it did the Montpellier-bound Ben Botica when playing in the Challenge Cup final for Conor O'Shea's Harlequins against the same opposition a couple of weeks ago!
It might sound a strange thing to say but in a squad of emerging stars, particularly over the second half of the season, Connacht's most highly prized asset has been something of an unsung hero and here I would draw a very definite parallel between the man wearing eight for Leinster and the Connacht outside centre.
Henshaw is to Connacht what Jamie Heaslip has been and continues to be for Leinster since his arrival on the professional scene. Henshaw wants to win today more than any other Connacht player because of the circumstances surrounding his final game (for now) for the province. There is only one way to walk into that Leinster dressing room in July for training, Robbie, and that's as a Pro12 winner and let no one kid you otherwise.
Nor would the Leinster players expect it any other way. I have watched Henshaw particularly closely since the Six Nations and his work ethic in the Pro12 and Challenge Cup has been exemplary. He wants to go out, as he says, "leaving the club in a better place". A win today and he'll do just that.
But what a challenge. The equally outstanding Muldoon suggested mischievously that "as four-time Pro12 winners and three-time European champions we must be 50/1 rank outsiders". Not quite, but point taken.
Leinster are the favourites and with good reason. It is not quite Ireland versus Connacht but again Pat Lam's irony is understood. Fourteen Leinster representatives against five from Connacht set to tour South Africa - even allowing for Henshaw's upcoming move - sees the playing field gradually levelling out.
When Connacht beat Munster in Thomond back in late November - Round 8 to be precise - it was then people began to sit up and take notice. Yes, it was the fact that they won in Limerick for the first time in 29 years but more than that was the manner of the win and the ability to play keep-ball with purpose.
Like many, I saw something in Connacht that particular evening which was much more substantial than anything that had gone before.
Comparisons with Newcastle of the Kevin Keegan era were a little unfair given that the Magpies' approach was based on the premise of whatever you score we'll score more. I think what really did it for me was the final game (prior to the play-offs) against Glasgow. Here was a winning desire bordering on ruthlessness that I hadn't seen from Connacht up to that point.
Maybe it was there before - the home wins over Leinster and Munster being two obvious cases in point. But against the Warriors - for me the outstanding team (and squad) in the competition - there was an edge that suggested a corner had been turned. Maybe it was Grenoble and that Challenge Cup lesson learned.
To repeat it two weeks on at the same venue only copper-fastened that view. But can they replicate that type of performance again today and well away from the Sportsground? Yes is the simple answer but, as alluded to by Lam, they are going to have to do it the hard way in the ultimate final. Take that as a call to arms for the most complete performance of this extraordinary season to date. And that is what it is going to take in a final that, despite the venue, could be a belter.
Leinster showed against Ulster just what they are capable of when they manage to hit the groove and early. They had an undoubted advantage over Ulster in the tight five but I can't see that materialising today even in the enforced absence of Denis Buckley (another destined for international honours).
Of course there has been patching up, not least to star turn Aki, but if there is one player Connacht cannot afford to be without it is the former Waikato Chief.
While it would be wrong and unfair on Leo Cullen and Girvan Dempsey to suggest our leading province has come a long way in a short time under the fledgling coaching duo, I think it more accurate to suggest smaller steps being sensibly taken back to the ways of old.
This is not a rehash of the Gordon D'Arcy/Brian O'Driscoll era and all that entailed but it is much closer to the core values that underpinned that generation and made them great.
Irrespective of the outcome today, Cullen, Dempsey , Kurt McQuilkin and John Fogarty have done a really competent job in steadying a listing ship. Despite the bum rap given to Matt O'Connor, that ship was never sinking but had undeniably drifted off course.
There is too much talent coming through the underage system for Leinster not to be competing annually on days like this. There is a salary cap inequality still to be addressed by EPCR but we'll leave that another issue for another day.
Let us concentrate instead on the here and now. It's crazy that we are all heading to Murrayfield for an All-Ireland final. It is not the greatest playing surface but given the time of year should be in reasonable nick. It is a wide pitch which should suit both sides' attacking aspirations.
The die has been cast by Joe Schmidt in terms of Ireland selection for South Africa and, if I'm honest, given the nature of the uncompromising three-Test series, I do get the rationale behind most if not all 32 selected to travel.
That said what an opportunity today presents for those on the fringe for now. Specifically, I am thinking of Garry Ringrose, Mick Kearney, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony, Jack Conan and Luke McGrath, while for Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy, Ronan Loughney, Eoin McKeon, Dave Heffernan, Shane O'Leary, John Cooney, Sean O'Brien, Andrew Browne, JP Cooney and Peter Robb, obviously dependent on game time, opportunity also knocks. This is far more meaningful and much more searching than any Final Trial from times past.
If both teams deliver to form then Leinster have the quality and experience to prevail. Connacht need to deliver a collective effort sent from heaven with negativing the Heaslip/Eoin Reddan/Johnny Sexton/Ben Te'o axis central. But they can do it and both sides know it.
It may be stating the obvious but as long as they play the opposition and not the occasion they can make this their Leicester day.
I know Leinster folk will get it when I say a Connacht win could be great for Irish rugby. Head still says Leinster but on this romantic occasion I'm going with heart. Come on the boys in green.