Sunday 17 February 2019

Tony Ward: 'I like what I am seeing from Connacht - and also what I don't hear'

 

28 December 2018; Connacht head coach Andy Friend prior to the Guinness PRO14 Round 12 match between Connacht and Ulster at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
28 December 2018; Connacht head coach Andy Friend prior to the Guinness PRO14 Round 12 match between Connacht and Ulster at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Let’s start with a fact. Statistically, Munster’s record away from home so far this season doesn’t stack up. Two wins and a draw from eight competitive games (Pro14 and Champions Cup) should be a cause for concern but there’s more to those numbers than meets the eye.

Wins on the road in South Africa (the Cheetahs) and Italy (Zebre) plus that draw in Exeter is nothing to write home about but to suggest that Munster have a festering problem when playing away is totally wide of the mark.

In short, Munster’s form on the road is much better than the bare stats. I’ll not dissect every game but most recently in Belfast, for example, despite losing to a late Ulster surge, they gave as good as they got and could well have come away with the win the collective performance on the night might have deserved.

What is becoming more apparent, and bear in mind that Ulster haven’t lost at the Kingspan since February 2018, is that teams are becoming much more ruthless in protecting their home patch. Of course turning the home stadium into a bastion makes great economic sense in terms of attracting bums on seats. Welcome to Anfield and all that.

As long as we never hit the French route of being fully loaded at home but dipping into the Academy when away, we’ll be ok. Rest assured with the IRFU pulling the strings here that won’t happen.

So later on today at the Galway Sportsground, Johann van Graan will hope to arrest that losing trend. He could succeed but equally he might well lose a game that looks extremely difficult to call.

Even in bad times, the Sportsground was never an easy place to go. And it will be doubly so now that they are on a roll under a coach that has made a world of difference since taking up the reins.

The Kieran Keane year (well 10 months) in charge certainly helped. Whoever took over from Pat Lam was guaranteed a rough ride. The quality and at times laissez-faire angle to Connacht’s winning rugby under Lam was a joy to behold. He was to Connacht what Claudio Ranieri was to Leicester.

Positive psychology, mental fitness, call it what you will, it has a huge part to play in sport and indeed in rugby now more than ever. For that reason I am not being dismissive of a losing run away from home that could become a distraction the longer it pertains.

Are the players aware of it? Of course they are. Is it impacting upon performance when seeping into confidence? I don’t believe so. But there is one definitive way to address it and we all know what that is.

Just as winning fuels confidence so too can losing have the opposite effect. Coming second in places like the Aviva, Scotstoun, the Arms Park, Castres and the Kingspan can plant a seed of doubt and the trick is in treating it with the appropriate antidote.

That said, there are easier places to go to get the show back on the road than the Sportsground – literally and metaphorically. The western province under Andy Friend is in a particularly good place just now. Since losing to the Ospreys at the Brewery Field at the end of October, they have played seven matches between Pro14 and Europe. They have won six of those games and in truth it should be seven.

There have been successive wins over the Dragons, the Southern Kings, the Cheetahs as well as Perpignan home and away before coming up just short against Leinster at the RDS when they had that game under control everywhere but the final scoreboard.

Credit Leinster for snatching the 32-29 win with at the death but this was a lost opportunity to gain a rare win in Dublin.

The reaction to the pre-Christmas disappointment was emphatic and immediate with Ulster paying the price for the frustration shared when losing to Leinster.

Piece that all together and this is a strong phase in the Connacht redevelopment under Friend. I like what I see and, if I might add, what I don’t hear. The new head coach is low key and in terms of keeping the dressing room private that is as it should be. I like his style.

On the field, he has changed the system in so far he has adapted to certain key players moving on and here, specifically, I am referring to Ally Muldowney and AJ MacGinty. These two were at the hub when linking the possession-based modus operandi instigated by Lam into an all-embracing plan.

When it worked it was magic, not least through that Pro12 campaign culminating in the winning podium in Edinburgh. It was high risk but hugely effective. At times it led to self-destruction but in the final analysis the pros far outweighed the cons and it was so exciting to watch. 

The inability (maybe reluctance is a more accurate term) to exit cleanly (specifically from inside the 22) under Lam was only marginally addressed by Keane in his time at the helm. Now there is much more sensible balance as in when to kick, or when to run.

The role of Jack Carty has been central to that. MacGinty was missed initially upon his departure to Sale, but Carty is now the real deal in every way.

And while so much of the talk is about Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne as back-up to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, I would have no hesitation whatsoever in adding Caolin Blade and Carty to that list. I will be more than a little surprised if Joe Schmidt doesn’t see it the same.

The irrepressible leader that was John Muldoon has been replaced by Jarrad Butler – the personification of coolness. Others like Gavin Thornbury, Conor Carey, Shane Delahunt, Colby Fainga’a, Tom Farrell and Seán O’Brien have come to the fore. Exciting times out west and another massive hurdle for Munster on the road is guaranteed.

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