Saturday 24 February 2018

Focus on skills makes Connacht a cut above provincial rivals

Connacht's John Muldoon (SPORTSFILE)
Connacht's John Muldoon (SPORTSFILE)
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even when you're injured at Connacht, the work doesn't stop, according to captain John Muldoon, who says the sight of players working on their skills while balancing on crutches is an unusual one around the Sportsground.

It is all part of the focus that coach Pat Lam has put on the skills of the game during his three-year tenure in charge of the western province, and the results are becoming more and more evident by the week.

Connacht's approach against Ulster last Friday night was in stark contrast with the fare that followed a day later as Leinster and Munster played out a turgid derby at the Aviva Stadium.

Lam's side weren't at their best at Kingspan Stadium, but they kept faith with their philosophy of keeping possession and inter-linking backs with forwards, scoring an excellent try in the process thanks to the soft hands and clever running lines of Muldoon and Eoin McKeon setting up Caolin Blade.

And the skipper says the impressive skill-set on display is the result of hours and hours of hard work behind the scenes.

"It's not something that's happened overnight," he said. "Pat, (skills coach) Dave (Ellis), (backs coach) Andre (Bell) and the other coaches have been involved over the last few years.

"It starts on day one. In the past you'd be going into a strength and conditioning block for maybe three or four weeks and then you'd start into rugby scenarios, but from day one we start skills and it may be low intensity skills; just getting the basics of passing back together, getting your hand eye co-ordination going.

"Then it's about building that up to week on week, doing more and more and then it becomes against other bodies and decision-making drills, passing under pressure to the point where we get into season and as the season goes on you've your own skills to do.

"Each year, we've probably adapted and tried to bring it forward. This year, it's about awareness from the individual; what skills do you need to do?

"Last year, we used to fill out sheets and go to see the management. You'd go in and tick off certain stuff . This year, you send in an individual sheet on a Sunday night or Monday morning to all of the management to show them what you're doing and then it's up to you.

"You say, 'on a Tuesday afternoon, I'm going to do X, Y and Z'. You try and pair up with somebody around you that's doing the same thing and you fill in with them on a Tuesday or a Thursday.

"It's become player-led, as opposed to coach-driven which maybe it was over the last two years.

"For example; if I wasn't happy with my breakdown work, my handling. . . you drive that yourself and if the management see something that you're not aware of or you've chosen to ignore they'll give you a poke in the right direction."

Lam agrees with his skipper and believes the senior men no longer need their hands held.

"It shows how far we've come," he said. "I brought sheets in to understand what we've done well and what we didn't do well.

"It was training them into that process but now, some of the first-year guys have to do it and the young academy guys will have to be trained, but most of the squad can run it now. It's just become part of what we do."

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