Tuesday 20 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: The party is over and Connacht's hangover has kicked in - the excuses must end now

Excuses must end now if Connacht are to dig themselves out of a hole

Bundee Aki shows his disappointment after Connacht’s defeat to Ospreys. Photo by Ray Ryan/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki shows his disappointment after Connacht’s defeat to Ospreys. Photo by Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

The renewal of the Connacht-Leicester City comparisons have an ominous air. Just like last season, the Irish province are following a Leicester-like theme. Only this time, it isn't celebratory.

After two games, two defeats and the concession of 73 points and 11 tries, it isn't just Leicester City that Connacht are drawing parallels with. Think GAA and the Down footballers in 1992, the Donegal team of '93 or the Derry one of '94.

Or perhaps you should cast your minds back to the Clare hurlers in '96 or 2014. All of the above were breakthrough teams, champions one year but a shadow of their former selves the next.

That so often is the case with sides who have landed their first piece of significant silverware in a long time. The following year regularly turns into the sporting equivalent of a hangover. The party is over and no one really wants to climb out of bed to clock in for work.

Is this how it'll end up for Connacht? It doesn't necessarily have to but there is little doubt they are in a spot of bother, as there was something subdued about the way they went about their business in pre-season.

And it showed on the opening day of the season against Glasgow.


Whereas Glasgow looked sharp; Connacht seemed rusty. Glasgow looked like champions, Connacht like a team who were hanging onto the glory of last season but who had forgotten what it took for them to reach the top: hunger, hard work, fear.

Things were somewhat better last week against Ospreys. Yet they still lost and they still ran out of steam; when I saw the Ospreys run in those tries late in the game, it got me thinking: how can a team that was far and away the best side in the league in May suffer such a major dip in form come September?

And it may stem from their preparation.

Physically, they are undercooked. Pre-season needed to be better. Two games got cancelled and some sort of contingency plan should have been put in place.

They should have booked a charter and flown out to France, should have rung up Saracens, Leicester, or someone of that ilk and asked to play their A team - because in rugby you cannot come into a new season without a proper hit-out under your belt. You need minutes in the tank.

Instead, by the end of their two Pro12 games this season, Connacht were running on empty.

Who is to blame for this? It hardly matters. What matters now is that they learn from their mistakes and quickly get up to speed, starting today against Zebre, a team they'd have expected to beat quite easily last season but who will be looking at Connacht's sloppy start and saying, 'we fancy having a go here?'

Now it has to be stressed that this is not a bad Connacht team. But what we are seeing is a side who do not look match-fit. They may argue that point out with me and say I am insulting them but I am not trying to insult anyone, rather I am stating the thing that is apparent before my eyes. They lack cohesion in attack, and mental sharpness in defence.

Rugby is all about imposing yourself. So if you are soft in the tackle, or soft in your carry, then you are in trouble. And that's what has happened to Connacht thus far this season. You can go to the gym as often as you want but when you are in the middle of a competitive match, when you need to make tackles, get up off the floor and back into your line, that is when you need match fitness.

While circumstances have conspired against them, with Aly Muldowney, AJ MacGinty and Robbie Henshaw departed, and that Quinn Roux, Jake Heenan, Sean O'Brien and Andrew Browne among the 20 players on their injury list, my fear is they may also have lost that chip on the shoulder attitude that served them so well last season.

Get that back and they'll be winning again soon. Yet they also need Browne back because their lineout is not functioning as efficiently as it did last year, when Muldowney ran it with military precision.

By now, they have discovered how life is tougher in 2016/17. The shock element has gone. Glasgow were out for revenge; Ospreys to show they have improved. Now it is Zebre's turn. This is their chance to lay down a marker.

An expectation surrounds Connacht now. Their fans expect them to deliver.

Watching from a distance, I wonder if their players have allowed excuses to creep into their heads. Are they thinking, 'Henshaw has gone, MacGinty has gone, Muldowney, too. Can we point to their absence and say, it's not the same team therefore we shouldn't be expected to deliver the same results?'.

If that is what they are thinking, then they should have as open and as frank a discussion as possible - something we, at Munster, did in 2007 after a season that began with promise ended in Stradey Park in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

In May that year, we gathered together in a hotel in Limerick. Declan Kidney was in charge and he brought in Killian Keane, a respected former player, to oversee the think tank.

Within minutes, we'd broken off into groups. We spoke. From the heart mainly but also from the head.

Strong words were said. Yet we all had to hear them. It was clear that we had lost some of the things that had made us European champions. We needed to have a greater intensity in training.

We made a vow then, that when the following season began, we would deliver a big performance and a statement of intent from the get-go.

We knew there was a little vulnerability about us (Leicester had ended our unbeaten home record in the Heineken Cup) and when we spoke in that hotel function room, one of the first things we said was that we had to turn the tables straight away.

And we did. When we re-appeared for the start of the 2007/08 season, no-one questioned our desire or self-belief. We brought intensity into the season. We improved. Our new signings improved us in one way, our renewed attitude improved us in another.

During that think-tank we asked ourselves, 'do we want more? And if so, what do we need to do?' The answer was staring everyone in the face. "We have to make sure we can get the best out of ourselves," one player said.

And that was precisely what we did the following season.

And that is precisely what Connacht have to do today.

Irish Independent

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