Sunday 20 May 2018

Tony Ward: Why the future is bright for Connacht despite Keane departure

Connacht’s Jack Carty, in action against James Lowe, stood out for the Westerners in their Leinster clash last weekend Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht’s Jack Carty, in action against James Lowe, stood out for the Westerners in their Leinster clash last weekend Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

No matter how you dress it up or tone it down, John Muldoon's bon voyage at the Sportsground was astonishing. Just how good Connacht were - or how bad Leinster were - is in the eyes of the beholder.

What we can all agree on is that for the home side it represented the most complete performance of the season, which will be little consolation for Kieran Keane who is now leaving the province after one season in charge. For Leinster, however, it was their worst by a mile. Does it carry any relevance for the Guinness Pro14 semi-final and Champions Cup final ahead?

I don't believe there's even the remotest link but only performance in the weeks ahead will determine its relevance.

Against that, neither is it nor the result against Benetton a 'blessing in disguise'. It is something Leo Cullen and his management team could well have done without. The real blessing for the Champions Cup finalists is that they have a contact weekend off to recharge and reassess.

It is a hugely relevant break they have earned through topping the Conference by way of consistency throughout the season.

On Saturday, they were in the fight for half an hour until Tiernan O'Halloran's intercept try turned the game on its head. After that, the respective performances went in diametrically opposite directions.

It would be unfair to Connacht to describe it as a return to the Pro12-winning formula of Pat Lam. I make that point because despite losing their definitive all-time warrior great in Muldoon, and despite the paucity of the Leinster performance following O'Halloran's momentum-shifting try, there was a real hint that the missing piece from the 2016 jigsaw is finally being addressed.

Specifically, I refer to Aly Muldowney and the linking role he played in the 'keep-ball' tactic that made that unit such an exciting, if at times fragile, attacking force. Keane demanded a different set of qualities from his tight forwards in broken play, but he, at least, helped develop a playmaker of substance in Jack Carty and that gives his successor out West something to work on.

Whoever followed AJ MacGinty was always going to have his work cut out and for Carty it has not been easy. He still has the occasional goal-kicking glitch and that too will be addressed but what he does have is an innate ability to read when the time is right to kick for possession and/or vary the play and, most importantly, the tools to do it.

We all wallowed in Connacht's aesthetic style under Lam, and count me at the head of that queue, but there were times when percentage logic ought to have prevailed and kicking for territory became a need much more than an option.

In Carty, they have the type of player to ape the MacGinty role but one with a more pragmatic approach. And at 25, the former Marist man is coming into his prime. Against a Leinster side that psychologically threw in the towel he was but one of so many in green to stand out. In Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt (a most deserving man of the match) and Finlay Bealham, they have a serious foundation to launch a scrum.

Buckley is one of two ex-Blackrock students alongside Gavin Thornbury in the tight five with full internationals Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane also in the mix.

Thornbury has gone the long way via New Zealand to earning this break now. Watch him. With Robin Copeland set to replace the magnificent Muldoon, Connacht fans have reasons to be optimistic, even if they don't yet know who will be calling the shots next season. Time will tell but Munster's loss could well prove Connacht's gain. While in Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler, Eoghan Masterson and Seán O'Brien, they are well stocked on either side.

O'Halloran was again outstanding at the Sportsground, so too both centres with Bundee Aki particularly good and while Matt Healy got little opportunity, Niyi Adeolokun had that old hunger and gas back in abundance.

Put it all together and, irrespective of how poor Leinster were, it sets the ultimate warrior on his way leaving behind (for however long) a great legacy. If I was a Connacht fan I would be grabbing my season ticket and looking forward with relish to the season ahead.

As for Leinster? No room for complacency but equally no need for worry. Granted there were few to shine with, ironically enough given the trend, both wings doing their bit.

That said James Lowe was at fault for the intercept try but in terms of involvement his work rate is infectious, while Barry Daly continues to look like a contender.

The key area of contention is of course out-half and on this latest evidence it is Ross Byrne suffering from the fallout. Joey Carbery, like Jordan Larmour, is too good to have on the bench.

Leinster Rugby, and by extension Irish Rugby, has a massive problem in need of urgent address. Watching Johnny McPhillips in action for Ulster on Saturday, I see a player with the talent to grow into the out-half role like Paddy Jackson did. I do get the need for a second specialist number 10 at the Kingspan but not at McPhillips' expense.

Whoever said Performance Director was an easy job?

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