Connacht taught a lesson the hard way, says Keane
Connacht 15 Cardiff Blues 17
Connacht coach Kieran Keane defines himself as an emotional man. This doesn't automatically mean he wears his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes he has to cover it a bit, while at the same time intimating that there's a whole heap of stuff he'd like to expose, but this it neither the place nor the time.
That was certainly the impression he conveyed in the media room in the Sportsground on Saturday. Minutes earlier, his team had managed to lose a game they had battled manfully to rescue. The neat little bundle here was that the team they had just lost to - Cardiff - had themselves lost the previous weekend by a point to the same side with whom Keane reckoned there was a bit of déjà vu: Glasgow. They had beaten Connacht first up, after which the coach said his lads had been naive. So, more of the same, except worse.
"Similar conditions, similar set-up, so yeah, we didn't learn too many lessons," he said.
That was the opener. Then the interviewer, a local radio correspondent, sounding like he wanted to rescue something positive from the engagement, immediately offered a crumb of comfort: how dramatic it was that Connacht had been much better in the second half when, unlike the first 40, they dominated territory and possession. "Yeah, it was. You're right."
In a fair while running around this particular block, it was impossible to remember five words - spread over two sentences - with such a payload. The coach had about as much interest in pulling scraps from the wreckage as he had in running buck naked around Eyre Square. Next question.
On Friday night, he takes his team to Wales to face the champion Scarlets. Then to Ravenhill to face Ulster, who may well be unbeaten by then. And the next week, Munster are on their dance card. In the circumstances, one win from four games wouldn't be your ideal preparation. When presented with this statistic, Keane responded: "Yeah I think it is a bad start to the season. Any time that you're one from four . . . yeah, I'm not a dummy. I can count."
Not a happy man then. And how could he be? His team seem to have cornered the market on doing the hard stuff, only to let the easier bits undermine them. A lead of 3-0 with the gale-force wind at their backs - well, diagonally at any rate - didn't look too good going to half-time, only for it to become a good deal worse at 3-7 with a try from man of the match, Willis Halaholo.
Then twice in the second half - a period in which their work-rate was top drawer - they squeezed themselves in front, only to blow it both times a few minutes later. Eoghan Masterson and Ultan Dillane had been carrying well - Dave Heffernan managed a phenomenal 27, but given the traffic, he struggled for yardage - and their set-piece was sound enough.
Yet just after they horsed through some 30 phases to get Darragh Leader over in the corner, they conceded a penalty to give Cardiff back their lead. And then when Shane Delahunt did his bit, they somehow managed to lose the plot defensively and let Halaholo in for his second try - beautifully converted by replacement Jarrod Evans to steal the game.
"I think we switched off a fraction and paid the price," Keane said of his side's inability to catch their breath. "It's pretty clear to me that had we been bit more clinical about how we got out of there - we had two minutes on the clock (at the finish) and we should have used them. But we didn't. So we lost it."
In fairness to Cardiff, they took full advantage of Connacht's defensive frailties as well. When the home defence failed to scan what was in front of them, they got burned by a team who up to this point have struggled to light a match.
"I put it down to panic," Keane said. "When I looked from up on high, you could see everything unfolding from that (last) scrum. Everybody was too tight. Nobody was looking up. Everybody was trying to react with their gut and not their brain. They weren't talking to each other and there were about five people on two players, so that created space for other people.
"I mean, that's Defence 101, but you've got to take into consideration that they'd fought all that way back and were playing with their hearts and for their crowd and for their families. And they showed a lot of guts and determination. But the smarts went out the window, didn't they? In the last minute and a half, they paid the price."
At least Cardiff were delighted. It was their first win of the campaign, and for a club struggling as much off the field as on it, they skipped out of the Sportsground looking like they had turned a corner. It might be a bit early to come to that conclusion.
Kieran Keane will be hoping, too, that what happens in September doesn't have to set the trend for what unfolds through to springtime.
"Lessons are sometimes hard learned, aren't they?" the coach asked. "And we're learning them the hard way. There's no other way to say it really."
Connacht: D Leader; C Kelleher, B Aki, C Ronaldson (T Farrell 52), R Scholes (S Ili ht); A Deegan, K Marmion (C Blade 68); D Buckley (D Coulson 73), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 68), F Bealham (C Carey 64), U Dillane, Q Roux (G Thornbury 66), E Masterson (E McKeon 66), J Muldoon (capt)(yc 33-43), J Butler.
Cardiff: R Williams (M Morgan 72); A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, T James; S Shingler (J Evans 72) L Williams (capt); B Thyer (T Williams 66), K Dacey (E Lewis 52), T Filise (K Assiratti 46), S Davies, D Welch, J Turnbull, N Williams (O Robinson 50), J Navidi.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy).