Monday 25 September 2017

Connacht's Easter rising a testament to enduring faith

Connacht 7 Leinster 6

Kieran Marmion scores Connacht’s try despite the efforts of Luke McGrath Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Kieran Marmion scores Connacht’s try despite the efforts of Luke McGrath Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Bundee Aki and his Connacht team-mates celebrate following their side's victory Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ronan Loughney celebrates Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

When the reverend Pat Lam delivers his Easter proclamation, one understands just how his inextricably unified team can deliver the try of such coruscating beauty which, effectively, was the difference between these teams.

His message is a novel one in these parts, where so often the mood music has been of only occasional dutiful defiance, a resigned belief in one's place in the pecking order, a commitment to boot and bollock because you're worth nothing else.

Lam's gift has been to marry age-old caricature with an enlightened philosophy; the old and the new testament.

"Rugby's more than a game," he tells us. "It's about life. You build relationships, you go through things together and you build and create memories.

"When you think of all the things we have been through and that's just another one of them. We've been there before.

"This group work hard for each other. I said it before the game, I say it all the time. This game is not about individuals, it's about what we do.

"It was such a big occasion but we channelled all of that into the structures, our systems. Keep backing your skills. Don't go into your shell.

"Sometimes we made some decisions, maybe they weren't right. But overall, it was tremendous effort. There's a lot of people in the crowd shouting 'kick it' but I said to the boys, 'Would you rather run or rather tackle?'

"And a lot of them prefer to run and so they just keep working off the ball and we went through lots of periods of phases into a strong wind. We just had to look after it and put them under pressure."

Their try was a thing of beauty; the highlights reel won't show you its genesis; all three back-rowers in a narrow channel, swapping passes with alacrity, spreading the defence, before the lightning switch to the opposite wing, where Niyi Adeolokun's chip and chase set Kieran Marmion, and his side, free.


Trust, togetherness, dependence on natural ball skills regardless of the weather - take note Ireland! - and a damning indictment of stellar opponents who seemed almost afraid to deploy theirs.

"We're the team that throws the most passes in a game," says Lam, the clear favourite to succeed Joe Schmidt, who has made no commitment to stay beyond next year.

"All these guys are getting more and more comfortable on their skill level and their understanding of each other."

It is inherent difference between sticking to your principles or flightily being stuck somewhere in between.

The clocks went forward an hour on Saturday night; Connacht are moving at an even quicker pace. During the week, the squad targeted a five-point haul from this game; they are not visibly embarrassed to tell us this afterwards either.

Lam visibly exults; he showed his side their scorching 15th minute seven-pointer at half-time to practically imbue them with even more self-confidence after their 50th try of a quite spectacular season of joyful and eloquent rugby.

"The boys know that I cannot stand running straight into people," he reveals. "They know I've prepped us to have options. I wasn't a big back-rower and the last thing I ever did was run straight into somebody.

"Of course, sometimes you have to, but you need to ask questions of the defence, and that's what I said.

"'Fellas, alter your mindset. Do not hold back. If it's on, move the pass.'

"Even at the start of the game, the first time we counter-attacked, it went from Aly Muldowney to Denis Buckley to Tom McCartney, out the back; it was just hands, hands, hands.

"I could probably cut training and show you that. It's tremendous, and I'm really pleased, because you've got front-rowers and you've got forwards that can pass back and then all of a sudden you can put pressure on with the ball.

"So yes, Kieran got the try, fantastic work, but there's a lot of effort gone into it."

There is a swagger about Connacht now, and not just due to their five internationals - two of whom didn't start by the way, while the other scratched after just five minutes.

Instead of wallowing in a literally provincial mindset, they have a broader scope, yet without abandoning their sense of place (and the wonderful, heaving 7,300-capacity, coruscating support).

"Pat has come over and he probably thinks about the game a little differently to maybe the other provinces," says Marmion.

"I don't particularly say it is risky, you saw them try and exit out of their own five-metre line about five times and it probably didn't go anywhere."

Expectations have risen exponentially; instead of being inhibited by them, as before, they are now inspired.

"Without a doubt, that's all part of the territory," agrees Lam.

"And that's why I keep saying to the guys too that I want everything here to be as close to international rugby.

"Even our team meetings, and the way we do our standards, because when they step into the next level it shouldn't be too much of a shock for them, and I think you saw that with the five boys.

"It's fantastic all the support and everything that's going on around us, the huge crowds and so forth, but, again, I've had the privilege to play in front of 80-90,000 people and one my learnings there was they're still the same posts that you focus on in other games and you perform at that level.

"So I made it really clear: 'Fellas do go out there trying to make the Irish team, you do your job for Connacht and on the back of that, things will happen for you.' It's not about the individual, it's about making this sustainable across the whole province."

All the while, they continue to accumulate milestones; John Muldoon immediately targeted a maiden win in Belfast but a six-day turnaround, added to Nathan White's HIA and the felling of a third out-half, AJ MacGinty, may stymie them.

Nonetheless, Connacht are where they expect to be. "The number one goal is the Champions Cup. I've said that from the beginning."

Now they have a free shot at the Pro12 title and who should doubt them? Certainly, no longer, do they doubt themselves.

Connacht - T O'Halloran (C Blade 66-71 temp); N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb (R Henshaw 49), M Healy; AJ MacGinty (S O'Leary 61), K Marmion (C Blade 75); D Buckley (R Loughney 70), T McCartney (D Heffernan 70), N White (F Bealham 6), Q Roux (50), A Muldowney, S O'Brien (J Connolly 66), J Muldoon (capt), E McKeon.
Leinster - I Nacewa (capt); F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald (Z Kirchner 38); I Madigan, L McGrath (E Reddan 61); C Healy (J McGrath 48), R Strauss (S Cronin 50), T Furlong (M Ross 61), R Molony, H Triggs (D Toner 61), D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock (J Heaslip 66).
Ref - N Owens (WRU)


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