Tuesday 10 December 2019

Jim Glennon: Reality hurts but lack of resources is cruelly exposed

Pat Lam might be better off without the pressures of the Heineken Cup next season

Jim Glennon

When Dewi Morris appeared somewhat surprised to be asked in the course of his Harlequins-dominated pre-match presentation on Sky Sports for his thoughts on Connacht's likely contribution to the day's entertainment he was, uncharacteristically, lost for words, however briefly.

Having recovered his composure, he suggested they'd be "eh, competitive, and eh . . . , eh . . . , tenacious". An hour later, his studio colleagues were more gracious, and indeed more realistic, unanimously commenting that "Connacht had come to play".

Eric Elwood would have been uncomfortable had he heard the comments, but is enough of a realist too to acknowledge their veracity. A final scoreline of 48-8, while seriously disappointing, is by no means a grossly unfair reflection of the gulf between the sides and of the positions they occupy in their respective leagues – top of 12 in the Aviva Premiership and 10th of 12 in the RaboDirect.

A day which started for Connacht with an unusually-timed announcement (7.30am on a Heineken Cup day) of the well-trailed confirmation of Pat Lam's appointment as Elwood's successor reverted to type on the field of play from the outset with a characteristic high-octane opening-half performance serving to camouflage an adverse penalty count of nine to one and a handling-error count of seven.

However, Harlequins' penalty-try on the stroke of half-time left the scoreline at 16-3 and determined that the second half would be little more than an exercise in mathematics. While those handling errors were their principal undoing, other deficiencies in choice of options, ball retention and loose-kicking significantly diluted the advantages accruing from a magnificent work rate.

The second period evolved predictably overall, although some of the detail was slightly unusual. Connacht, their energy reserves having already been seriously depleted by the demands of the opening period, certainly could have done without the disruption of having, however briefly, no fewer than three players in the sin-bin at the same time.

Equally, having lost back-rower Eoin McKeown to injury as early as the 15th minute, further injuries to Tiernan O'Halloran and Michael Swift seriously hindered the overall effort. Both had been outstanding performers; Swift, in particular, a Trojan in terms of his overall work rate.

The underdogs weren't in receipt of any favours either from referee Neil Patterson and his officials, one particular award against scrumhalf Kieran Marmion for a crooked feed to the scrum was ludicrous.

Interesting too to note that the Scottish referee, in his 10 European Cup games, has now awarded three penalty-tries, and has issued yellow cards on 15 occasions – a tendency which wouldn't have gone unnoticed by Harlequins' pre-match analysis team.

So where to now for Connacht? I received some reaction to my suggestion some weeks ago that their efforts would be better directed at improving their league position. In the interests of clarity, I should say that I was not suggesting that Elwood had misplaced his priorities. He can only deal with the fixtures as they arise, and within the restrictions on his already limited squad resources. The opportunity of European Cup football in Galway was an experience which had to be grabbed and pursued with vigorous enthusiasm.

Zebre, the new Italian franchise, visit Galway next week and in so doing will probably bring down the curtain on Connacht's European Cup adventure, for the foreseeable future at least.

In a perverse way, this may well be advantageous for them in that they simply don't have the resources to mount a sustained effort in the continent's premier club competition, and a break could well facilitate a regathering of the forces, with a view to the development of a stronger squad in the medium term.

It must be said too that their management of the recruitment process for their new coach hasn't covered them, or their new CEO Tom Sears, in glory. Its very public nature, and their apparent rejection by their two preferred candidates, reflects poorly on rugby in the province, not to mention the manner in which Eddie O'Sullivan was dealt with.

Lofty aspirations are the very essence of sport, but realism provides their foundation. Unrealistic talk of a new stadium, and even of a European Cup victory, is, for now the stuff of fantasy and runs counter to the progress made by so many volunteers in clubs right across the west – men and women who, like Elwood, must deal with reality on a daily basis.


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