Sunday 4 December 2016

Tony Ward: Connacht must add pragmatic streak to their sense of adventure

Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30

Matt Healy’s fine form deserves to win him with a place on Ireland’s tour to South Africa. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Matt Healy’s fine form deserves to win him with a place on Ireland’s tour to South Africa. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

While the parallels with Leicester City still stand, as I watched Connacht put in another dazzling performance in France on Saturday I found my mind wandering back to an article and a headline from the dim and distant past about another football team much closer my heart. The article was in relation to Leeds United and the inability to bring silverware back to Elland Road when in their pomp. It read simply, "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride".

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On Saturday when Denis Buckley shipped yellow and Grenoble registered 14 quick points, despite the gutsy John Cooney penalty that followed, my mind even at that stage had this image of Connacht as "forever the bridesmaid, never the bride".

Bernard Jackman, with typical humility, summed it up best in the aftermath when saying, "If Connacht had won that game, there'd be absolutely no regrets on my part. Connacht aren't a team who are well known in France but tonight they showed the French and the rest of Europe what we saw when we analysed them. I think they are a team who are growing and a team who believe in what they're trying to achieve".

Despite the nightmare outcome, it was another demonstration of total rugby the Connacht way but despite coming up just short by the odd point in 65, it is still the right route to winning.

Alluded

There is no grand highway without many twists and turns along the way and in Grenoble they met another pothole. The key, as alluded to by Jackman, is belief in what they are trying to achieve and in how they go about doing it.

They proved against Leinster in typical Sportsground conditions that they can cut their cloth when needs dictate. Under Pat Lam they don't do winning ugly, nor would we want them too. However, what they must add to their game is a pragmatic streak.

That will come with experience and, however perverse it might sound, there is no better way of learning this route to success than through losing.

Saturday's defeat will have hurt but give me a choice between beating the French national team through brutish kick-and-chase tactics and coming up just short against a Top 14 side (also breaking that mould) and I know where my preference lies.

There is undoubtedly a middle line somewhere between cross-kicking in your own 22 and nursing the touchline when appropriate to do so. There is nothing ugly in playing the percentages at key times in every contest. But equally I can only stand back and admire a coach in today's straitjacketed times who gives his players the licence to do whatever they want from wherever they want and back them 100per cent when they do just that.

I imagine I speak for most out there who really care about the game and where it is going when I say Connacht Rugby even in defeat makes me so proud to be Irish. From Buckley to Matt Healy and right through the replacement bench (most notably John Cooney and the still elusive Fionn Carr), they were magic in Grenoble.

In specific terms, there were fine individual displays from Buckley, Tom McCartney (is there a better lineout thrower?), Ultan Dillane (as ever), Sean O'Brien (to the manner born when wearing six), Kieran Marmion (now squeezing Eoin Reddan for the shadow scrum-half spot), Niyi Adeolokun (though still relatively raw) and more than any the electric Healy at full-back.

Bear in mind this is a scrum-half from his schooldays in Gonzaga converted to the left wing where he has been the outstanding operator in that position by a country mile and is now adding a new dimension to his and everybody else's game at full-back.

I don't want to hear what he cannot do. The national disease. Remember the oft-quoted line about a certain Brian O'Driscoll and that he couldn't kick? Spare me. Well, Healy can kick and do just about everything else as well. He is already the best out-and-out finisher in professional rugby on this island since Denis Hickie. If he doesn't make the cut for South Africa then the game as an attacking spectacle truly is heading into the abyss.

I want to believe that we now have four proud provinces of equal opportunity standing shoulder to shoulder and that despite Robbie Henshaw's defection to Leinster (which I still wish wasn't the case) no player wearing green need ever look elsewhere on the island of Ireland to advance his representative cause.

But back to the collective. In many ways the result in Grenoble was the ultimate nightmare. To give it the effort they did, to play the way they did, outscoring the French on their own patch by four tries to three, yet coming away with nothing was cruel in the extreme - yet the biggest game of the season is now but four days away. How many times already this campaign have they heard that said but Munster's visit to the Sportsground is must-win territory for a myriad of reasons.

Maybe a little bit of 'looking after the pennies (restarts, overly-ambitious kicking and such like) and the pounds (the tries) will look after themselves'. Shane O'Leary has done a remarkable job (as fourth-choice out-half after Craig Ronaldson, Jack Carty and AJ MacGinty) but he too will have learnt much from the Grenoble experience.

Connacht rugby under Lam has got to where it is not in spite of ambition but because of it. The challenge is in seeing it out and this Saturday's game, given the added European trek, is central. There must be no emotional baggage and by that I mean self-pity of any sort. Two of the last three rounds are against last year's Pro12 finalists. The hard bit of the season begins now but what an opportunity to achieve something very, very special . . .

Irish Independent

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