Neil Francis: Connacht don't have the mental strength to back up big performances
Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30
I was up in Ulster during the week. Sitting at traffic lights outside a Baptist church, their 'Calling to God' poster was stark and compelling. It simply said 'Eternity. . . Where?' You kind of get the impression that there is no transfer window in hell. I think an extended stay in purgatory might be my portion.
Right now, Connacht are in purgatory, but it should have changed this season - it didn't, and a team with enough talent to get hold of some Heineken action next season looks like falling short because they didn't keep their eyes on the prize.
Since the 2010/'11 season Connacht have finished 9th, 8th, 9th and 10th in the Celtic League, winning seven, seven, eight and six matches in that order. In terms of the afterlife, they don't have Beelzebub sticking a pitchfork up their arse but neither is there a cabal of 77 virgins floating their way on a fluffy cloud.
The soulless monotony of mid-table purgatory. It's a barren and doleful existence for a professional athlete. If you had a heartbeat, if you had a sense of self, if you had ambition - you would do something about it.
Connacht brought in Pat Lam - an extraordinary player and a warm and pleasant human being, although his record at the Auckland Blues doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Whatever else Lam could or could not do, he could teach Connacht to play football. There is enough burgeoning talent and skill in their squad. Latent but evident.
The rules are simple: keep your squad together, rotate occasionally and keep them motivated, and where necessary bring in one or two players from outside - a big name even - just make sure you get value for money.
In terms of the new rules on meritocracy, it is fairly simple. The two Italian teams would have their own private battle for a Heineken Cup slot. That left six places available - plus a berth in a qualification play-off - and a grasping free-for-all to make sure you are at the top table for the following season.
To get to the Promised Land, you have to be specific about who you beat. Make sure you win home and away against the Italian sides.
The Dragons and the lamentably underperforming Cardiff Blues should be worth three wins out of four if you are serious about yourself, and then your real competition Scarlets and Edinburgh. You just have to get at least 10 points from the four fixtures here, otherwise you are p*ssing in the wind.
The contenders? Well, the thing is that Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Glasgow rarely take any guff from Connacht.
Leinster, though - well those home and away match against the 'goys' - they can't come fast enough in every season. Sure enough Connacht picked Leinster off again in the Sportsground, 10-9 in September. At Christmas time they announced themselves by drilling Munster 24-16. This was going to be a good season . . . or was it?
It is a problem for a side like Connacht that they don't have the depth of mental strength to back up really big performances - a bit like Ireland sides of the '80s/'90s. The point is that you have to be forensic about who you beat.
The strong sides will always finish up at the top end of the table - beating them, although highly gratifying, is always the exception. It is the bottom feeders and, more importantly, your mid-table rivals who you need to target in what are effectively eight-pointers.
To lose to Edinburgh in the Sportsground a week after beating Munster was unpardonable. That 16-13 loss could end up being the difference between Heineken rugby and the Challenge Cup.
In mid-February - in the middle of the Six Nations, with only Robbie Henshaw involved in the national 23 - Connacht got thumped 32-14 at Parc y Scarlets. An eight-pointer. The Scarlets knew exactly what was at stake in that match and drove home a dagger.
Three weeks later against a Cardiff Blues side without all of their international contingent, they lost again in Wales and Connacht's season was on the brink.
This was the season that Connacht could and should have got into the elite competition on their own steam. The opportunity doesn't happen that often and it should be taken with both hands when it presents itself.
Read more: 'I'm playing under a lot less pressure'
Progress and upward curves used to be acceptable, but in the new hierarchy that situation no longer pertains.
Cardiff and Scarlets will improve next year. Connacht's task won't get any easier. Commitment is one thing, ruthlessness another
This Saturday the chances of Ospreys being bonus-pointed by Connacht and Scarlets not getting at least one bonus point are remote. Sixth place - and automatic qualification - looks a pipe dream.
The way Leinster are playing they could get turned over by an uninterested Edinburgh side. That said, on the final day of the regular season there are always a few shocks.
A promising season which could have produced elite competition will likely end barren again for Connacht.
After much talk throughout the campaign, we can now look forward to the silence of the Lam.