Wednesday 21 March 2018

Dark days over as Connacht finally see the light

Adding consistency and style to their game has given province real chance to succeed

John Muldoon, who has seen worst days than most in Connacht, admits the players are in 'dreamland at the moment (SPORTSFILE)
John Muldoon, who has seen worst days than most in Connacht, admits the players are in 'dreamland at the moment (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring." - Johan Cruyff. Quite the weather for anyone brave enough to try to catch lightning in a bottle.

Connacht Rugby will have their festive clobber on parade this evening. Extra seats have been laid on, the Sky cameras are there for the arrival of big-city cousins but a frontal system approaching from the Atlantic portents gathering gloom.

There was a time when the natives would long for the levelling menace of wind and rain to consummate an unruly and messy partnership between the water and sand of the dog track.

"It's a shame because the pitch is in great nick and both teams want to play rugby," says Gavin Duffy, formerly full-back in leaner times and now the province's sponsorship manager. "There were days when we hoped for bad weather."

Not this time. Supporters oft used to rely on the weather Gods out here because for the most part they couldn't necessarily rely on their team, an anxiety that would regularly seep into the dressing-room.

Connacht could strike like lightning but rarely twice; it was an elusive dream to even conceive of capturing it for any lengthy period.

But here they are. Top of the mountain and peering down at all-comers as the Guinness Pro12 enters its ready reckoning period.

"It is a bit nosebleed territory," says their captain, John Muldoon, who has seen worst days than most in a Connacht jumper.

"It's certainly something that we are not used to but it is something that players, management and above all else, our supporters - they are in dreamland at the moment."

Pat Lam's men lead the way for enterprising rugby in the Pro12 and have been more attractive to watch than the national team and any of their fellow provinces; their stated goal was to qualify for the Champions Cup and they are weeks from confirming that status.

They have road yet to travel; aside from a sticky penultimate day trip to improving Treviso, Connacht face their other two Irish rivals and the champions Glasgow; all at once, it may seem like they might need every one of the 12 points that separate them from the title-holders.

While the league as a whole is finally basking in some sense of spotlight thanks to meritocracy - partially, thanks to the Italians - with every game meaning something in the run-in, Connacht's progress has captured the imagination of the public.

Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with Leicester City and these serve their purpose for the broad church of public support; there is a natural enthusiasm for the perceived underdog conspiring to undermine a culture of complacency.

The only true similarities to Leicester are in Connacht's eagerness to take advantage of the self-inflicted weakness of the strong.

Their Irish rivals, for starters, have stagnated, most obviously in Europe and, with the Welsh largely dozing and Glasgow stuttering, Connacht have seized their moment with an authority they had previously lacked.

And Connacht, nearly rendered extinct by their union earlier this century, have drawn much closer to their competition, or pulled away, and it can be argued that their emergence this season should have been largely expected.

A province that can recruit a one-time All Black prospect - out-bidding their Irish rivals - can no longer offer the yawning Béal Bocht as an excuse for under-performance.

"In the last four or five years that inferiority complex has dwindled away and as it's dwindled away we've progressively got better," agrees Muldoon.

"We might not have the budget that some of the rest of them have but I think that's forced us to be more creative."

A World Cup year allowed Connacht to develop a momentum that leap-frogged them ahead of many rivals but the key to much of their success this season has been quite simple.

As was the case last season, Connacht have played better than many of their opponents; unlike last season, they have maximised that superiority by beating them.

Connacht have beaten every team in the bottom five at least once; they have done the double against Dragons, Zebre, Edinburgh and Ospreys; Cardiff, just, are the only side from the nether regions to have turned them over.

Six of those have been a one-score game; Connacht's enterprising approach has undoubtedly paid dividends; they have more try bonus points than any other side (7) while nobody has more in total; effectively their bonus points are worth just short of three extra wins.

Where there is reward, there is risk - their defensive record has paid a hefty price having shipped 339 points, a concession rate higher than all of their rivals. They give opponents a chance but only because they are willing to take the game on themselves.

"And because they're playing good rugby, when you suffer defeats playing good rugby, it isn't a familiar sense of defeat," says Duffy. "There have been lessons learned. Before, we would have thought, 'How the hell did we let that one slip away?'"

Now the key is to stay where they are, as the tension mounts and the Six Nations internationals return to benches throughout the Pro12.

It is probably no coincidence that Connacht's only sustained rut of this season occurred at the turn of the year when their rivals were at their strongest; at the same time, an injury crisis had interrupted the leaders' flow.

All of this after achieving another historic first; beating Munster on their own patch for the first time in 29 years, yet Connacht undermined that achievement with their worst run of form all year.

They registered four successive defeats, two to Irish rivals, but they did, at least, manage to stem the blood loss by snaffling four losing bonus points; it reminded one of the angst when Leicester lost a late goal to Arsenal in February but won their next game from an improbable position; three points were better than two.

When Connacht avenged the last defeat of the four, in January against Scarlets, by beating them a week later in Galway, they then embarked upon a run of five in a row.

This is the difference; last season, they beat Munster handsomely on New Year's Day only for their campaign to fritter away; Champions Cup rugby was their goal last term too, remember and Leinster's demise should have helped.

Last term, they finished seven points off sixth; they threw away at least three times that number with dumb endgames and poor play; this season, they haven't tossed away points like confetti.

Hence their strut; Ultan Dillane hadn't debuted last season; now he is an international. Five of them are.

This is the new Connacht and they are like their true selves now, not like Leicester or Roscommon footballers or anyone else.

This no longer a place for occasional reverie but somewhere where dreams can become a vivid reality. And where results and quality can be happily married. And they know the sun will still come out tomorrow.

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