Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: Hi-de-Hi Connacht! - Now you have your yellow coats, don't go back to being chambermaids

For so long the chambermaids, the Westerners have shaken off the shackles of mediocrity are now finally moving up to 'yellow-coat' status

Bundee Aki, Connacht, celebrates his side's victory at the final whistle. Guinness PRO12, Round 8, Munster v Connacht. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Bundee Aki, Connacht, celebrates his side's victory at the final whistle. Guinness PRO12, Round 8, Munster v Connacht. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Paul Shane
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Beeb used to run a sitcom years ago called 'Hi-de-Hi!' which was a play on the hugely popular Butlin's holiday camps of the 1950s and '60s.

The cast were a collection of washed-up former 'stars', wannabes and oddities who got an undignified living out of entertaining holidaymakers during the summer. All the entertainment staff wore yellow coats around the camp to identify them as 'stars'.

One of the recurring themes was that of put-upon chalet maid Peggy (Su Pollard) who was portrayed as common, dowdy and unattractive. She did, however, have burning ambition and a dream that one day she would make that jump - "I want to be a yellow-coat."

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Hi-de-Hi actor Paul Shane in the BBC television show
Hi-de-Hi actor Paul Shane in the BBC television show

Her days of hope would revolve around walk-on, walk-off and demeaning bit parts in the daily shows. A human being of no singular talent, but a grim determination to fulfil her dream eventually gets her to her goal. In the final episode of the last series she is presented with a yellow coat.

Her goals attained, you were moved to wonder whether this was a beginning or an end. Most yellow-coats saw the camps as a stepping stone to the West End. Peggy knew where the boundaries of her talent lay.

Hi-de-Hi Connacht! It's been a long journey but this season Connacht have become yellow-coats. They haven't won anything but they make the step up because of a conscious effort and recognition of the need to improve and cast aside the shackles of mediocrity.

The thing is, though, that once you become a yellow-coat you can't go back to being a chambermaid.


With envious eyes, Ulster looked at what Leinster and Munster had achieved since the northern province won their only Heineken Cup in 1999. Ulster were acutely aware of their shortcomings and their quest more than anything was to catch up to Leinster and Munster.

What, I wonder, was going through the collective minds in Connacht? Endless winter! The odd starburst or a spectacular against a marquee side that showed some weakness and got caught - other than that it was losing season after losing season.

We have been in this position before. A run, a series of encouraging results, creeping excitement and then a blow-out at the back end of the season when Connacht run out of gas.

I can't say with certainty that this season will be any different - but he who rides the tiger is afraid to dismount. Connacht continue to win and surprise. The win in Thomond was a signal moment.

Last season at the turn of the year Connacht got a taste for beating Munster - it is an enjoyable feeling. They went to Thomond last Saturday mentally sure that there would be only one outcome from that match.

For Munster, it is one they will have to ponder. There is a reason why Connacht had not won in 29 years in Thomond - but losing in the Sportsground to Connacht is one thing, losing in Thomond is an entirely different matter.

Connacht’s man of the match Bundee Aki
Connacht’s man of the match Bundee Aki

As the man said, 'I knew I had problems when the laundry rang and said they had lost my shirt. I knew I had real problems when my stockbroker rang and said the same thing."

That was a strong team that Munster put out and normally no matter how far short they fall of an acceptable performance, they usually have enough in the tank to deal with a side like Connacht. You will note that the terms usually and normally are variables.

For a side that normally treat Connacht with disdain, it was incredible to see them struggle for control of the ball all the way through the game. That first 40 minutes against the wind was the best half of rugby I have seen Connacht play.

They backed it up with an intelligent rearguard and formidable defensive effort in the second half. They also were able to fashion a winning try late in the game - the key ingredient being confidence.

Connacht coach Pat Lam acknowledges supporters after his side’s landmark win over Munster at Thomond Park
Connacht coach Pat Lam acknowledges supporters after his side’s landmark win over Munster at Thomond Park

Every change in direction of play just seemed to be the natural course. The quality of the passing was remarkable; what made it so wasn't its accuracy but that it was sustained.

Connacht over the years have been guilty of either running out of ideas or players or both after they have gone several phases. Their sustained phase play, particularly in the first half, was a different level. There seemed to be forward progress in nearly every phase. It has to be said that Munster's defence was hardly unflinching.

So a week into December and we have to assess where we are here. Connacht have won more matches at this stage than they normally do in a season. I reckon another six wins and a bonus point here and there will see them play Champions Cup rugby next season all off their own bat.

Maybe I am completely out of kilter with Connacht's aspirations and Champions League qualification is just the minimum requirement for the season.

A Pro12 play-off spot is certainly well within their scope if they continue to play as they have all season.

Their Christmas schedule will tell all. I think the game of the season will be the match-up with Leinster on New Year's Day in the RDS.

The problem with being a yellow-coat, as Leinster will tell you, is that life is tough at the top table all of the time. I don't know if any of you saw Toulon lay waste to Clermont in the Stade Michelin last weekend.

Anyone who wins 35-9 in that furnace has to be congratulated. I hate Toulon and everything to do with that club - so all they will get from me is a nod.


I see a cumulative points total of 50+ against heading Leinster's way in the back-to-back against Toulon. I see more pain against Munster in Thomond just after Christmas.

By the time New Year's Day comes, I suspect Leinster will be scrabbling for a win of any kind and so will play a limited form of the game against Connacht, who will pass, hold the ball and play with confidence and intelligence - just like Leinster used to.

Leinster could be prone to being turned over big time in that match. In what is an 8-10 pointer that one could be the difference between Champions Cup and Challenge Cup for both sides.

Before the delights of the Christmas season, Connacht have some unfinished business to attend to over in Cardiff this weekend. Last season the Westerners were coasting along nicely. They got beaten thanks to some questionable refereeing and a dreadful TMO call. They lost 18-17 and their season unravelled as a consequence. If they are serious about themselves, they need to seek redress in Cardiff - a place they do not seem to profit in.

The last question that needs to be answered is whether Connacht manage to get any players into the national squad. An acknowledgement from Joe Schmidt that there is merit in selecting some of them not based on their results so far this season but on their improved skill levels.

Many people had Kieran Marmion pencilled into the 2015 Six Nations squad but a below-par display against the England Saxons in Independent Park left huge question marks about his viability at the highest level.

He seems to have reapplied himself and that New Year's Day match-up against either Eoin Reddan or Luke McGrath could be for the bench slot against Wales in February.

Last week in Thomond, Munster had six non-qualified Irish as opposed to Connacht's two. On the basis of what we have seen so far this season, and what was essentially an Irish trial with eight foreigners, Connacht hold the upper hand. Buckley over Cronin, Masterson over Copeland and Connolly over O'Donoghue for the aspirants.

Connacht have some very handy players all over the park. If their season continues on its current course and some of them continue to play as well as they are then there might be a few new yellow-coats for the Six Nations or South Africa during the summer.


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