Holding on for just one win
Connacht and Eric Elwood are staying positive after a run of difficult defeats, says Brendan Fanning
The Cawley Room in the Connacht branch office has seen a bit of action over the years.
Aside from its fair share of cut and thrust about how rugby is run west of the Shannon, this was where the players assembled hastily on a January morning in 2003 to discuss media reports of their demise. As it happened, that would be their darkest hour, for when dawn eventually broke it was with the certainty that while it might have been appealing to accountants, cutting Connacht from the picture was off the table.
Last Tuesday, the Cawley Room was the scene of the post-mortem following Connacht's 11th defeat in succession this season. Long after it was over, the windows were still steamed up, oxygen as hard to find as answers.
"It was grim," says Dave McSharry, one of the bright spots on a bleak western landscape.
In keeping with the way things are going for Eric Elwood, he will be without McSharry this afternoon for their Pro 12 tie with Leinster in the Sportsground.
McSharry's centre partnership with Eoin Griffin has been a success, and encapsulates what Connacht are about. He originally came from the Leinster schools system, and has come west to further his career -- which he is doing successfully, having started the season playing AIL with UCD. And Griffin is a local boy who came up through their own system and is now, along with Tiernan O'Halloran, the go-to man for Connacht evangelists.
For Connacht, the McSharry-Griffin partnership represents the best of both worlds. They complement each other nicely, with the Templeogue man having all the tools to cope with the traffic down the 12 channel, and his pal from Barna developing with every game at outside centre.
The problem is they have never been on a winning side together. They have been at post-mortems like this one, where Elwood and his coaches occupy that space between losing the plot at simple, game-changing mistakes, and encouraging a group with 17 newcomers that much of what they are doing deserves better, but they have yet to come off the field together sharing that winning feeling.
If Adrian Flavin's missed tackle on Jonny May in Kingsholm two weeks ago seemed like the perfect illustration of how a losing team don't make costly errors -- rather they make crippling ones -- then somehow it was surpassed in the farewell to John Hayes in Thomond last week. First we had Niall O'Connor's intercept pass ending, a few phases later, with a try for Munster's Seán Scanlon. In fairness, the best place to intercept is often 80 metres from your opponents' line.
However you wouldn't say the worst place to overthrow at a lineout is 60 metres from your own front door. And yet when Ethienne Reynecke pinged it over an unchallenged three-man pod on Munster's 10-metre mark, he got home to find the house had been burgled by Tomás O'Leary. That it was occupied at the time by the hapless Fetu'u Vainikolo added a Keystone Cops feel to the drama.
When asked how he felt at exactly that moment, Elwood didn't want to say much beyond being a bit closer to empty than full. Then he recovered.
"You know, a lot of the stuff we are doing, without sounding corny, is good stuff," he says. "It's just the consistency of our performance and the consistency of our effort is costing us because, as you know, for us to win a ball game we have to be at 100 per cent. Other teams can win when they're at 80 per cent, or when they're not at their best, but not us, so it's about getting those variables together.
"We did so much good stuff against Gloucester, and then lost it in one moment. Other teams will get away with that and we understand that. As I said to the boys yesterday: 'We've got to understand what we are and who we are and what we're about and what it takes to win rugby matches from a Connacht perspective'. Once we realise that and what it takes, the amount of effort required to get a score, to get a try, to get a win, that we have be at our best all the time, then we'll get there.
"I think we're unique -- we're different from most other teams and I don't have to go into the business or stadium or resources or pool of players -- that's well known. We use all those as motivational tools to our advantage, that it's about passion and commitment and work ethic in line with playing decent football. And we've shown that we can do that in Europe, and in some of the Rabo games, but it has to be consistent. It can't be brilliant one week against Gloucester and then we have a poor performance against Munster. That's the killer."
The maddening thing about the Munster setback is that during the week they had spoken about moving up from the Gloucester game, taking that next step. They picked the strongest possible side, while Munster were strapped. It would be all about John Hayes, yet if they minded their business and kept doing what they had been doing at Kingsholm -- mindful that Munster would have taken Niall O'Connor's game apart frame by frame -- they could slip off with the points.
Then, that next step turned out to be the 11th in the wrong direction.
This wouldn't have happened last season for two reasons: there was no World Cup to shorten the schedule and take out any gap weeks to get a breather -- 13 weeks straight is hard going on a shallow squad; and where are the I Cavilieri Estras of the world when you need them? The price of moving up from Amlin to Heineken is that you are denied those handy matches that allow you get back on track. In which case losing streaks are harder to avoid. And, right on cue, here come Leinster, unbeaten in their last 12 games.
The difference between the two operations is vast. At 10 for example Leinster bring Jonny Sexton -- bossy, gobby, and utterly consumed with winning. And Connacht have Niall O'Connor, who is either failing to stamp his personality on the game, or simply doesn't have the personality for the job. Meanwhile, at tighthead Ronan Loughney is doing a good job of reverting to a position he thought he had left behind him long ago. And if Rodney Ah You hadn't lost the plot there, Loughney wouldn't have had to swap over at all. If you have issues at outhalf and tighthead then it's hard to win close calls.
At one stage Ah You was looking like a decent replacement for Jamie Hagan who, interestingly, will be involved this afternoon. It was almost poignant to see his fist pump after scoring the final try in the burial of the Ulster under 14s in the RDS last week. The consensus is that his move back east -- along with Fionn Carr and Seán Cronin -- was the wrong journey at the wrong time. This is with the benefit of hindsight, for they had made their minds up to chase Heineken Cup rugby with Leinster before it was apparent that Connacht would be in the same competition. Even so, it is inescapable that they are playing less.
"They've got some great game time down there (Connacht), but game time is overplayed," says Guy Easterby, who has an interesting take on the idea that games make players. "A lot more goes into someone being a top-quality rugby player than game time.
"It's about the work they do off the pitch, skills work, strength and conditioning. We play a different way to Connacht and that takes time to get used to. Any players we signed last year -- not just from Connacht -- it takes time to get used to a different coaching structure. It's very detailed coaching, the way Joe (Schmidt) and the lads go about it. So it's not just those guys -- no one who's come in has nailed down a spot."
That they haven't gives you an idea of Leinster's depth. Connacht are busy trying to recruit for next season -- they have already sorted nearly all of those they want to keep -- and can't use the Heineken Cup as a calling card, unless the New Year brings a transformation to their Pro 12 form, or one of the other provinces does them a favour in Europe. As it happens, despite the awful run, they are on the same points tally as at the same stage last season, having scored the same number of tries and conceded two more. It's just that that win/loss stat won't go away.
"To be honest, we're pretty resilient about it," Elwood says. "We've actually tried to ban the words 'losing streak'. I'd a good one-on-one with Gavin (Duffy) yesterday and said I didn't want to hear those words or that kind of stuff. I've said it to the boys -- yeah, it's tough going, we're in the Heineken Cup for the first time, we've had to play 13 games on the bounce with no easy ones and it's tough times. It'll come round if everyone stays strong and doesn't lose their spirit. To be fair to them, they're rocking up every day for training and we're working hard and staying positive and that's all you can do.
"People who understand rugby will look at the run of 11 defeats and know we're close, and that we're doing a lot of good stuff. The people who just look at results will see it differently."
They need to let some air into that Cawley Room.
Connacht v Leinster,
Sunday Indo Sport