Friday 23 March 2018

Connacht nursery needs nurturing, not knocking

Sean Cronin has been another example of emerging talent picking up vital big-match experience with Connacht
Sean Cronin has been another example of emerging talent picking up vital big-match experience with Connacht
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Whatever else, justice was most certainly not done at the RDS last Saturday. The better team playing the more committed rugby came second to the one playing, as Michael Cheika rightly put it, "within themselves".

"We were lucky. In no way am I going to say a win's a win -- that was mediocre at best," said the Leinster head coach.

That was a refreshingly honest assessment of a poor performance after a result that takes the Magners League pace-setters four points clear with a match in hand and with just five series of games to go.

It is a pretty good place for Leinster to be but Cheika knows full well if his side repeat last weekend's performance over the season-defining games in Limerick on Friday or in the RDS against Clermont Auvergne the following week, then the finish (to the successful coaching tenure) he dearly craves could be blown into oblivion.

I have grown to like his ways. The Australian has been good for Leinster rugby and despite losing it on occasion -- not least with match officials -- he has never been afraid to call it as it is. He has never resorted to singling out individual players for post-match criticism, but equally has never shied from pointing the finger at specific sectors of his team when that need arose.

If one departing Michael was lucky, the other was most certainly not. For Bradley and Connacht, Saturday should have marked another special day for the perennial underdogs from the west. They worked themselves into a match-winning position and then blew it. Sean Cronin was unlucky in coming to within a fingertip of making the whitewash, but Ian Keatley should have sealed the deal with two straightforward but botched drop-goal attempts -- the second from point-blank range.


By contrast, Jonathan Sexton provided that decisive touch of match-winning class and temperament when it was most needed. But it was difficult not to feel for Gavin Duffy, Frank Murphy, Johnny O'Connor and the rest. And unless the touch-judge picked up on something missed by the rest -- TV cameras included -- the decision to sin-bin Duffy for effectively the final match-winning phase was harsh in the extreme.

That decision helped dig Leinster out of a hole, for the better team playing the more attacking rugby and containing the most influential player on the park was robbed of the winning result it deserved. The fact that he is a product of the Leinster underage and Academy system added to the satisfaction of this latest Fionn Carr tour de force.

Bradley's comment that "Leinster don't have patience to let guys develop a little bit" is unfair. The problem is an imbalance in resources. Of course Leinster rugby has the will to "let them try, fail and come back again". The problem is too much talent for too few playing opportunities. It is one of the two main reasons why I remain full-square behind Connacht's continuation as a full-blown professional entity. The 'West' cannot be abandoned by the IRFU.

It is not because they pull the occasional big performance out of the hat, but because of the opportunity they presents for young and emerging players to make their way and garner valuable big-match experience. It is well documented what time out west has meant to players such as Jerry Flannery, Bernard Jackman, Cronin, Denis Fogarty (coincidentally all hookers), Jamie Hagan, Keatley, Eoin Reddan, Murphy and so many more. It is a critical developmental area I'd like to see the IRFU probe even further still.

There are far too many non-indigenous players on the Connacht books and in the first-choice XV. It threatens what is for me the prime reason why Connacht rugby must survive: the need for a shop-window side to which underage local-born players can relate to and aspire to.

And while on the subject of identity, I have one other gripe -- the reluctance to use Dubarry Park, even on a rotational basis. Could there be a finer, better-located facility with ease of access to major centres of population much further afield?

Let me declare a playing-day bias here. I hate the Sportsground as a rugby venue. It has improved immeasurably -- there weren't even changing facilities in our day -- but is still largely devoid of big-match atmosphere.

The potential in Athlone to present the Connacht brand to a much wider audience is clear. For anyone privileged to be present at the Challenge Cup quarter-final against Pontypridd in 2003, the Dubarry case rests.

Despite losing at the RDS, the level of performance will have boosted Connacht morale for Friday's difficult match with Edinburgh followed by the really big clash with Bourgoin eight days on.

But for now, the focus of national attention switches to Thomond Park for the big one on Friday. In terms of timing and what is on the line, this one is huge.

Not that Munster or Leinster need any added incentive, but with the Heineken Cup champions leading the way and the defending Magners League champions next in line, the significance of Friday's result to play-off qualification needs little elaboration.

I'm certain Leinster will up the ante but home advantage, key injuries in the visitors' camp and that four-point gap make it a match Munster dare not lose. Cheika and Tony McGahan will both have targeted its significance in terms of Heineken Cup preparation from a long way out.

In the likely absence of injured trio Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Shane Horgan, it would appear to be the perfect springboard for Munster to push on. But the meeting of Munster and Leinster is more tribal than ever.

Needless to say, the spotlight will be focused firmly on the two out-halves. The challenge is as much psychological and emotional as it is anything else.

Ronan O'Gara, by dint of experience, has the clear advantage, but equally it is an occasion made for Sexton to come of age. Other factors, not least the forward platform, will determine much as to how each performs.

Not many sporting clashes capture the imagination of the nation like this. The country will grind to a halt for a couple of hours as our two foremost rugby tribes go to war. Who needs alcohol on nights like this?

Irish Independent

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