Friday 19 January 2018

'That's the way we've done it so far so why change now'

Former captain and current manager calls on Lam's side to carry their stylish play into final

Tim Allnutt in action for Connacht against Narbonne in 2004 (SPORTSFILE)
Tim Allnutt in action for Connacht against Narbonne in 2004 (SPORTSFILE)

Declan Rooney

The last week in May has usually been a time for Tim Allnutt to catch breath after a long nine months on the road with Connacht.

This week though he wasn't booking his summer holidays or breaking the spine of a good book; the Connacht Rugby team manager was up to his ears in preparations for the Pro12 final in Edinburgh.

Shortly after the euphoria of last Saturday's semi-final win over champions Glasgow Warriors had passed, Allnutt realised he had a mountain of work to get through and a hectic Monday and Tuesday was guaranteed.

But for the New Zealander who first rolled into Connacht to visit his rugby-playing brother Simon in 2001, it has been a long road to the grand final.

"It's great to be working towards a game at this time of the year. Opening my diary and having to make plans for this week is new to me, but it's bloody good mate, I'll be honest," says Allnutt.

"The supporters are going through the wringer trying to find their way to Edinburgh, but at least for the two teams in the final the Pro12 have two hotels booked, one for team one and one for team two. Depending on how the toss went, it decided on what hotel you were in.

"The only slight difference for us is that we didn't fancy having a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Dublin on the day before the game. So we decided to go a day early just to make sure the boys were all fresh come Friday and Saturday.

"But even getting accommodation on the Thursday proved hard. It's been mad. It being a Bank Holiday weekend over in the UK, with the marathon on, and Edinburgh in general can be tough too, so it'd been a real challenge. It's all part of the job though and a great problem to have."

As a former Connacht player and captain, Allnutt can only imagine what his squad are going through this week. The historic aspect of it being Connacht's first final could weigh heavy on certain individuals, but every effort is being made to treat this like any other away trip to Zebre or Dragons.

But the scenes that greeted Marius Mitrea's full-time whistle in Galway last Saturday means no one is immune or protected from the occasion.

"We are trying to keep the week as normal as possible. Half of Connacht must have been on their laptops on Saturday night looking for a way to get over, which is awesome. But my priority is to ensure the build-up to the game was as normal a week as possible for the squad and management.


"In the forefront of your mind it's a final. It took a while for it to settle in with me over the weekend, but trying to harness that excitement until Saturday is the key.

"But Pat is great at that, he is an experienced coach and he has been involved in finals before unlike some of us. He is key to it all in how with deal with things this week."

After Saturday's win Allnutt took some time to speak with the Warriors forwards' coach and Connacht great Dan McFarland. Being on the losing side to his adopted home was difficult for McFarland, but Allnutt was keen to recognise the part he and other former players had made in the side's progression.

"Dan sent me a picture of a quarter-final of the Celtic League where we played Glasgow in the Sportsground back in 2001. It was funny going over the names and seeing the faces again.

"We had a laugh, we would have been lucky if there was 500 people here that day, but compare that to the excitement at the weekend. We have made massive strides on and off the field over the years, and hats off to a lot of people that have made that happen.

"I got so many texts from former players after the game. It meant so much to so many people. Even Gerry Kelly, the former CEO, who had a lot of years here. Mervyn Murphy, the Irish video analyst who captained Connacht, Eric Elwood, it meant so much to them too. I met Swifty and Adrian Flavin, guys that were here and tried very hard to make the breakthrough too. This has been special season, but plenty of people have contributed along the way."

But Allnutt is clear who has been the main driving force behind their recent upturn in form. Since Lam's arrival three years ago the progression has been gradual but constant.

"I wasn't part of the process to bring in Pat, but when I heard he was coming I was excited. People around Connacht can sometimes forget how famous Pat actually is in the rugby world.

"Straight from day one, his enthusiasm was infectious. I picked him and his family up at Shannon Airport that day and I was blown away by his enthusiasm.

"In first month Pat pretty much visited every corner of the province in that first few weeks with his family. He wanted to see what made Connacht people tick, so right from day one he had a positive impact with the whole community - not just the players and staff.

"Getting to the final has been a massive achievement, but we don't want it to stop there: we want to win the last game. We know how difficult it's going to be.

"It being our first final some people might worry that the occasion might get to the players, but what we've seen this season is that we don't have any fear. We play like we have no fear, we'll have a crack at it. That's the way we've done it so far so why change now?"

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