Tuesday 26 September 2017

Numbers don't add up as Lam's men sink further into quagmire

Connacht 9 Munster 16

Connacht’s John Muldoon attempts to charge down Munster’s Duncan Williams at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Connacht’s John Muldoon attempts to charge down Munster’s Duncan Williams at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Such has been the alarming rate in which Connacht numbers are dwindling of late, it was a surprise that Pat Lam didn't opt to ferry his remaining players two by two into a makeshift ark.

"The good news is it's a new year next year," he told us in 2016. "We will wake up and go again."

Munster's Dave Kilcoyne is tackled by Denis Buckley, left, and Kieran Marmion of Connacht during the Guinness PRO12 Round 12 match. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Dave Kilcoyne is tackled by Denis Buckley, left, and Kieran Marmion of Connacht during the Guinness PRO12 Round 12 match. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Their destination seems uncertain; they may play more than their two remaining Champions Cup games this month but then, next season, confront the alarming prospect of not playing any top-level European fare at all.

All of which made the quite farcical ending to a first home defeat since September even harder to swallow.

Sonny Liston once said he didn't mind who was in charge of his fights once they could count to ten.

You'd expect rugby officials to stretch a tad beyond that, at the very least; instead, a whole host of them managed to miss the fact that Munster had a full complement of players on the field for the final moments of this game when they shouldn't have.

Connacht's Jack Carty of Connacht kicks a penalty to make the score 6-6. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Connacht's Jack Carty of Connacht kicks a penalty to make the score 6-6. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

As the game entered the red, and Munster already down Dave Kilcoyne in the bin, Duncan Williams joined him.

At precisely the same moment, Kilcoyne was sprung back into the action - joined by Jack O'Donoghue, sacrificed earlier so that James Cronin could come on to scrummage.

Binning

And that was the rub; Cronin had no business staying put but nobody - aside from the half-dozen Connacht water boys and medics effecting a St Vitus Dance of protest on the sidelines - pointed it out at the time.

Connacht's Jake Heenan is tackled by Munster's Jack ODonoghue during their Guinness PRO12 Round 12 match at Sportsground in Galway. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Connacht's Jake Heenan is tackled by Munster's Jack ODonoghue during their Guinness PRO12 Round 12 match at Sportsground in Galway. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

To be fair to Dudley Phillips, the referee, who got quite a lot of other things wrong on the night according to both sides, this was not his rap; his responsibility in binning players does not extend to inviting them back on.

Apart from two penalties, tapped quickly by Connacht, there didn't seem to be the break in play necessary to allow Kilcoyne back on in the first place; Munster will argue that Williams' binning was itself in a break of play.

Rules, eh. Made to be bent. Especially in rugby. In any event, the sanction, if the offence were spotted, would merely have been another penalty.

"We were supposed to be playing 13 men, but the fourth official got it wrong and there were 15 on the field when we're trying to go for it," said Lam, who muttered about "appropriate channels" and the likes.

Still, after what happened here against Wasps - when Connacht scored a winning try from an utterly illegal final play - this won't be a subject upon which anyone out west will deploy the loud hailer of protest.

It was, nonetheless, a momentary farrago of high farce but, in reality, it didn't affect the result in the slightest.

Connacht were attacking from deep in that final play and, given that they had made a quite considerable mess of attempting to score from one-metre away from the whitewash, it was frankly barely credible that they might do so from 70.

"The fourth official obviously controls that," Munster coach Rassie Erasmus observed. "Duncan got a yellow card and the game wasn't stopped and the guys were allowed on. I'm not sure how that was organised, the timing was tough. I'm not sure what happened there. The fourth official controls that.

"I guess the next stoppage but there wasn't one because the referee just let the game go. At the next stoppage there is time to settle and say, 'You must go on, you must go off.'

"At the next stoppage there was a penalty and the guys ran on and then there wasn't a stoppage again. To be honest with you, I'm not sure how they could have controlled that better. I've never seen a situation like that in my life before."

This game didn't turn in the 81st or 82nd minute but in the 60th; this was the moment Connacht, at last playing directly and aggressively into the gale which they had chosen to attack for the second half, sensed blood with the teams poised at 6-6.

However, as Connacht attempted to maul, the wonderful Rhys Marshall nobbled John Muldoon in what seemed to a replica of a similar theft by the home side earlier - and for which they had been penalised.

"If you look at the one where we gave away a penalty and three points, and compare like for like that's probably where the frustration is, but it's a hard job," said Lam dolefully.

"We'll go through the process and have a look at it. If it was illegal, we've got to go through the process."

As the maul floundered, Connacht flapped; Denis Buckley was an unwitting recipient; prone, he panicked and offloaded to Tom McCartney, who compounded the error by spilling the pill.

They were over the line alright; they had just forgotten to bring the ball with them.

Ian Keatley, no stranger to hurricanes in these parts, gobbled up the leftovers and, with alarming alacrity, tried a cross-kick.

"But then the backs were getting bored," he noted wryly. It was, in actual fact, the game-changing moment.

Andrew Conway dashed from 22, Keith Earls scampered after a box-kick and another grubber from halfway ensured Connacht were now defending a lineout drive.

This time on their own line. They couldn't defend it, Rhys Marshall plopping upon a puddle to score; Keatley's unerring sideline conversion and a subsequent drop giving his side a sustaining cushion.

In 60 seconds, the changing fortunes of the respective sides this season had been neatly encapsulated.

"You just have to swallow it and accept that against a team that is very hungry at the moment and very committed, we needed to be accurate to beat them," said Lam, swallowing, with difficulty, the messy ending.

"Unfortunately, there were too many opportunities that we had that we didn't take."

They head to Swansea next week and their desperation for league points seems to increase in direct disproportion to Lam's sustained faith in his squad to remain amongst the European elite.

"At the end of the day, there's still a lot more rugby to go," says Lam, who still steadfastly believes that his side will be playing rugby in May.

Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, P Robb, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 70); D Buckley (JP Cooney 77), T McCartney (D Heffernan 59), F Bealham (J Andress 71), Q Roux (N Dawai 60), J Cannon, N Fox-Matamua (S O'Brien 29), J Heenan (L Stevenson 73), J Muldoon (capt).

Munster - A Conway; R O'Mahony, F Saili, D Goggin, K Earls; I Keatley, D Williams; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 54), R Marshall, S Archer (T Du Toit 49); J Kleyn, D Foley (C Oliver 71); B Holland (capt), T O'Donnell (R Copeland 71), J O'Donoghue (J Cronin 72).

Ref - D Phillips (IRFU)

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