Thursday 19 April 2018

Connacht continue to write history while looking forward to their future

John Muldoon: 'Pat has given us a game-plan which we enjoy. If plan A doesn’t work, plan B works, and if plan B doesn’t work we move on to plan C. That is the beauty of our game, we have plans in place for everything and we all know it.' Photo: Sportsfile
John Muldoon: 'Pat has given us a game-plan which we enjoy. If plan A doesn’t work, plan B works, and if plan B doesn’t work we move on to plan C. That is the beauty of our game, we have plans in place for everything and we all know it.' Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

To get a handle on the history involved here consider that between Leinster, Ulster and Munster the aggregate of top four finishes in the Pro12 comes in at 29, more than the other nine clubs combined. In 16 years of trying, this is Connacht's first.

As for their opponents in the Sportsground on Saturday, Glasgow, this is their sixth semi-final, and their form of the last three seasons - winners, runners-up, semi-finalists - illustrates where they are in their development.

By comparison, Connacht have been trotting after them. In which case their win in Galway last weekend raises that to a gallop at least. So we're not talking about comparisons with a cup match where the underdog gets a draw the first day and is wary about what's coming in the replay. Connacht stopped living their lives that way when the light went on that what they were doing was working - against all comers.

To illustrate the point, Ulster's Andrew Trimble recalled the circumstances of how he got binned against them in Kingspan last month, one of only seven defeats Connacht suffered in the league this term. "They've been doing it all season, for 10 or 15-minute periods they just get their tails up and throw the ball about and they really stretch defences," he said. "They got into their typical shape, and even though you know that shape and you know what's coming, it's still very difficult to defend."

Trimble wasn't the first man this season to end up in the bin while trying to shut Connacht down. The strength of their shape is the range of options built in, and the confidence the players have in carrying it out.

"We came into this with Pat (Lam) having an open mind and the players have bought into it massively," says their captain John Muldoon. "And that's the main thing. Pat has given us a game-plan which we enjoy. If plan A doesn't work, plan B works, and if plan B doesn't work we move on to plan C. That is the beauty of our game, we have plans in place for everything and we all know it. And that is instilled through the many meetings we have with Pat. And there are many meetings."

There have been a few points along the way where things threatened to break down. Around the turn of the year it got ropey with five defeats on the bounce, between Challenge Cup and Pro12. The last of those was in Llanelli. When the Scarlets came to Galway a few weeks later it was make or break time for Muldoon's mob, who at least had the relief, in the interim, of stuffing Enisei STM in Europe.

"To beat Scarlets at home with a bonus point was a real turning point for us," Muldoon says. "We had a week off to gather ourselves and reset our goals and we came out in the next block of games and got three or four bonus point wins in a row. We had our little wobble on the road where it could have all gone wrong but the fact that we were able to gather ourselves and get that win against the Scarlets at home was huge for us and that gave us a big boost to go forward into the year.

"The biggest lesson we got around that time was: 'Yes, not everything is perfect, but if we stick to what we are good at and we continue to improve and get better and not throw everything out the window and panic, and we all stick to what we know and are doing, then it will come. And it'll turn around."

For Glasgow the pain of losing - primarily financial - in Galway last weekend is at least balanced by the fact that they are still in the competition, and the prospect of retaining their title is very much alive.

"The great thing about this game is that we get to put those lessons into practice," coach Gregor Townsend says. "We're playing the same opposition at the same ground and I'm sure guys in the same position this week will have learned. They know it will be noisy; decisions may go against us; there might be aggressive parts of the game that we have to handle as a club and make sure that we are focused on our task, which is winning the game."

Interestingly Muldoon admits to thinking beyond next weekend. As in the bigger picture.

"We have to maintain that (progress) and it will be a big focus in pre-season and on into the future that Connacht are up there and it's not just a flash in the pan," he says. "We've got a lot of young fellas hungry to play rugby and hungry for success and international honours. We should be in a good place for a few years, and if I can hang on the back of that a little while longer I'll be delighted."

They are in the business of writing their own history.

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