Sunday 25 September 2016

Tony Ward: Hopefully Robbie Henshaw stays put as Connacht continue to rise

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

Connacht coach Pat Lam acknowledges supporters after his side’s landmark win over Munster at Thomond Park
Connacht coach Pat Lam acknowledges supporters after his side’s landmark win over Munster at Thomond Park

In terms of snatching an historic victory from the jaws of defeat, it didn't quite match Michael Quinlivan's dramatic injury-time goal for Clonmel Commercials on Sunday but Bundee Aki's 77th-minute touchdown the previous night was right up there with it.

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It sealed a hard-won but richly deserved success for Connacht, the team who played all the constructive rugby from the outset at Thomond Park. But, in tandem with the humility of coach Pat Lam in the aftermath, let us keep a lid on what was a landmark victory for Connacht rugby in the professional era and for a talented group who are representing the western province with such promise and such excitement right now.

To quote the head coach: "No medals are handed out in November". His point is well made and May is a long way away but we'll park that and concentrate on the factors alluded to by Lam in his post-match interview where he referred to the emphasis in training on skill development.

Now I'm not suggesting that any other professional team on this island does not work on individual and unit skill development on a daily basis but what was clear in two contrasting first-half styles at Thomond Park (even allowing for the wind blowing into the Ballynanty end) was that Connacht were a side entrusted by its coach to replicate under pressure what it was attempting to do on a regular basis in training.  

Exhilarating

Yes, you can still have systems and structures in place but the main plank of trust here is built between players and coach.

Of course the type of exhilarating rugby we witnessed from Connacht is high risk but so too was that of New Zealand and Argentina in the World Cup but when players are given the freedom to play the moment and not the blueprint it opens up new windows of opportunity entirely.

Yes, of course, it is high risk when compared to mauling and going through the phases as the fundamental means of holding on to the ball but when you do it often enough in training and in matches then variation becomes part of the system.

It also leaves players, and I am specifically referring to forwards here, comfortable on the ball with both Ultan Dillane and Aly Muldowney totemic in that respect and in many other respects as well. John Muldoon too was pure inspiration. But even in defeat when is he any different?

He is the consummate leader who walks the walk every time. Little wonder that young guns like Shane Delahunt, James Connolly, Eoghan Masterson and Sean O'Brien are thriving in his company.

And if you are looking for the definition of management trust in a squad then look no further than the stat between the 47th minute when Jack Carty replaced AJ MacGinty to Darragh Leader's arrival for Tiernan O'Halloran on 69. Seven subs - most either side of the hour - had come on to play their pre-defined roles.

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Almost all were on for the bulk of the final quarter when the deal was finally sealed by way of Aki's match-winning try. You can't put a value on that sort of trust. Instead of the frantic rush to empty the bench in the final minutes - sometimes seconds - under the guise of 'game time,' what we had was a squad on a collective mission.

In days of yore replacements were there to make up the numbers, had little part to play and were made feel that way. That mindset has not been totally eradicated but certainly on Saturday Pat Lam's prudent use of replacements - no doubt much of it through necessity - provided proof positive of what can be achieved when all are committed to the one cause.

Saturday night was great for Irish rugby. It shows the IRFU that increased investment in Connacht Rugby is paying off. As I have said here many times before, and I repeat again now - you cannot put a value on what it means having a shop window side to which young boys born and bred in the province can aspire.

To wear the Connacht green at the Sportsground is the stuff of dreams. It is representing Mayo in football or Galway in hurling rolled into one.

Furthermore, and while it might appear a total aside, I loved the shot of the squad afterwards together as one singing the 'Fields of Athenry'.

To the best of my knowledge it was and is a Galway song, so by extension a Connacht song, written by the great Pete St John. Great to hear at Parkhead, Anfield, Thomond, the Aviva and stadia further afield but best of all at that little ground on the College Road which is growing in notoriety by the season.

From Kieran Marmion to Robbie Henshaw, the backline looked comfortable in possession - looking to test the tackle in search of space and/or a timely offload with Henshaw's sidestep and guided pop to Aki the icing on the cake.

I sincerely hope that the province's star turn stays put. What a message that would send out, not least to Lansdowne Road, who I would hope will respond by way of an appropriate deal in kind, one befitting the former Marist starlet's new-found status.

From a Munster perspective, although whipped in the first half there were signs of some innovation when forced to chase the game into the wind in the second.

Niall Scannell looks another hooker off that amazing Munster supply line, while Jack O'Donoghue is the heir apparent to Peter O'Mahony.

Francis Saili too looks the creative business in midfield. But it's Connacht who have raised the bar and with it upped the pressure for Cardiff on Friday.

Irish Independent

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