Thursday 22 February 2018

Brendan Fanning: Irish provinces must make early statements of intent in new Pro12 campaign

The launch of the Guinness PRO12 2016/17 Championship at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
The launch of the Guinness PRO12 2016/17 Championship at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Two meetings, two different stories. In the aftermath of Connacht’s nail-biting win over Glasgow in last season’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final, coach Gregor Townsend sat his squad down to retrace their steps.

 The following week a virtual home final would be hosted in Edinburgh. With a blistering eight wins in a row going to the last regulation round, away to Connacht, Glasgow were not just the defending champions but the form team. It was all teed up for them.

Then they lost twice in Galway in the space of a week, first in that regulation game, followed by the semi-final. If you had cracked a smile at that squad meeting the next day you would have been deemed to be unwell.

“From our perspective we can still taste that disappointment,” Townsend says. “That has driven us through pre-season and it will drive us during the week leading up to this Connacht game (on Saturday). We’ll be giving it everything.”

As for the tournament winners, when they reconvened in June after their end-of-season break, it was with a meeting where the trophy had pride of place at the top of the room. Still feeding off the glow from their achievement, they ran through how many kilometres had been covered on the training field, and how much sweat had been left on the floor of the gym, en route to the title. It had started with a home win over the Dragons in front of about 3,500 people. More than twice that number had fetched up for the semi-final in the same venue. Winning works.

The consensus at the squad meeting was easily reached: if they wanted to be looking at the same silverware in the same place next May, another massive effort would be required. And they were up for it.

Sky Sports are unaccustomed to visiting the Sportsground this early in the season. It’s a sign of the times. And bringing together the champions of 2015 and 2016 is the perfect start to a tournament desperate to impress. You’ll hear that leagues aren’t won in September, but by definition every game carries the same weight so a good start contributes to a healthy finish. In Connacht’s case the value of getting quickly out of the blocks is significant.

When you look at the ins and outs across the dozen sides in the competition the trio of Robbie Henshaw, AJ MacGinty and Aly Muldowney comprise the heaviest casualties of any club. Glasgow’s loss of Leone Nakarawa is, literally, massive, and Leinster have holes to fill now that Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan are gone, but that Connacht trio robs the Sportsground of two playmakers, and a strike runner of international class.

Seemingly it won’t change a great deal how they want to play. And, by a distance, the most impressive aspect of that style last season was their absolute faith in the system when under pressure.

“There’s a misconception out there that we can’t kick the ball,” John Muldoon says. “We have parameters to how and when we can kick. Pat and the management nail the lads hard if they don’t do a successful kick, and I suppose the other side of it is if you’re going to kick the ball into a gale force wind what’s the end goal of it?

“Everyone remembers back to the Leinster game. They didn’t kick well in the first half: they tried a few box kicks and they ended up going back over their heads and actually losing territory, and the ball on occasions. We chose to look after the ball and if we have it they can’t score. It was a risky move but ultimately it paid off. We’ve tried to upskill even more this season so we’re more comfortable on the ball. The key thing is we can kick, and we’re allowed kick, but it’s about doing it right.”

Interestingly, when they picked up Ulster man Lewis Stevenson from Exeter Chiefs Pat Lam needed to establish what party piece the second-row liked to perform most. Stevenson’s response was more along the lines of meat and two veg than song and dance. At 32 the new recruit will be expected to change his tune. If Lam can teach that old dog new tricks then it will bode well for the chances of his own squad producing a second album as popular as the first.

Uniquely the other provinces are happy at this time of year to have Connacht’s name in lights. Especially Leinster.

It’s been interesting to watch them limbo dance their way under the radar this month. Jamison Gibson-Park, fresh from Wellington with his Super 15 medal in his kit bag, has been almost a fortnight in the country yet didn’t see the light of day until Friday night in Donnybrook, against Bath. While Ulster and Munster have been busy posting coverage of their every move in pre-season, Leinster have been drawing a veil over their preparations. Two weeks ago before a full house in Navan a largely second/third-string combination had a very useful run-out against Ulster, in which centre Rory O’Loughlin did himself no harm.

It was actually a really good occasion, decent weather and a good game with lots of new talent on view. When asked for some footage on said talent, Leo Cullen did the hedgehog routine. Clearly he is feeling the heat before a ball has been kicked in competition.

Cullen has been quick to praise the input of Graham Henry, who we understand picked up a handy €60k for his consultancy which involved a lot of interaction from distance before a fortnight’s worth of ‘boots on the ground’.

Hiring someone of Henry’s experience made sense for an operation so light on the same commodity, albeit recognition that the lads on site are struggling. In the circumstances the news that Kurt McQuilkin is soon heading back to New Zealand, for family reasons, is little short of a disaster.

Cullen hopes to have something to announce on that front in the next few weeks, but despite speculation that it will involve former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford, recently shunted from Bath, it won’t. Neither seemingly will it feature Eoin Reddan, Shane Jennings, Trevor Hogan or new Academy manager Peter Smyth, each of whose names were run past Leinster’s Professional Games Board.

So Cullen’s crew will be relieved their Pro12 campaign starts against Treviso, at home on Friday. The main interest will be who starts in place of the injured Johnny Sexton. Joey Carbery is the clear favourite, though evidently it took his form in the AIL last season — and the comments from Joe Schmidt after the outhalf’s stellar performance in the final — to make the point in Leinster, who had him on their books as a scrumhalf. What was that about? Carbery was good again on Friday night. His ability to leave a defender standing is better than any other outhalf in Ireland. The other bits of his game will be filled in soon enough.

Not as sexy is the issue of tighthead, where Leinster are currently trying to shift Jeremy Loughman to back up Tadhg Furlong and Mike Ross. Those problems are small beer compared to Ulster however where Rodney Ah You is their only professional tighthead available for duty.

This presents the appalling vista of a marquee backline spending most of their time on the back foot. And the shiniest star in that firmament is All Black Charles Piutau.

“He’s pretty impressive,” Tommy Bowe says. “His ideas around the game are super as well. He speaks up at meetings; he helps some of the young lads and talks about what they should be doing. It’s not just a case of bringing him in for the exciting stuff on the pitch. Talking to some of the young lads they’re almost in awe whenever he’s trying to talk them through different areas they can improve.”

Munster’s version of Piutau came last season in the shape of Francis Saili. He made a decent impression in a team that was struggling, and to be without him now until Christmas suggests they are jinxed in the overseas market. Mark Chisholm’s future with them is still unresolved, so for Tyler Bleyendaal to put together 52 minutes unharmed on Friday night, against Worcester, is cause for celebration.

Given the loss of Johnny Holland, on top of another outhalf, Bill Johnson, who two months ago suffered his second major shoulder injury, Munster don’t have much room for manoeuvre at 10.

This has detracted from the double bonus that was the new coaching team, headed by Rassie Erasmus, and the new, unified, set-up in UL. Only in Ireland could we have had a tale of two cities stretching so far into the professional era. Mercifully, it is over.

The impact on the group socially, as well as no more wear-and-tear suffered on the journeys between Limerick and Cork, can only be positive. Munster’s start in the League gives them three Welsh sides back-to-back before Edinburgh at home. By then we’ll have a better handle on where they’re going.

As for the champions, the get-together for the media last week to kick it all off was a different rendition of the same old song for John Muldoon.

“I’ve been at these (tournament) launches too many times now and you’re watching the success of other Irish teams, and the jealousy — maybe I didn’t show it but it’s down there in the pit of your stomach, looking at other teams doing really well. Then you turn that on its head and suddenly we’re the champions, and you feel that success and you feel that goodwill and everything that goes with it.

“You get greedy. You want to feel it again and you want to experience those big days out again. And you want to experience that feel-good factor of what you went through and what your family went though. I think that’s ultimately what we all chase. Whether that’s a coach or fan we all want to be back there in May and be a part of that again. But we know if we only play to the same level as last year we’ll fall short. We’ve got to get better.”

Off you go so.

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