Tuesday 12 December 2017

Tony Ward: Lam's winners show more than one string to their bow

Connacht rein in their attacking instincts as they play conditions and opposition to perfection

Connacht captain John Muldoon, left, and Robbie Henshaw leave the field after the victory over Glasgow Warriors. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht captain John Muldoon, left, and Robbie Henshaw leave the field after the victory over Glasgow Warriors. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There are many ways to skin a cat, as Connacht demonstrated on Saturday when tweaking their game-plan to beat Glasgow.

It would be wrong to give the impression that Pat Lam's side abandoned the extravagant modus operandi that has taken them to this point, but what we did witness, probably for the first time this season, was a Connacht team playing the occasion, playing the elements and most crucially of all, playing the opposition too.

This wasn't winning ugly, lest anybody thinks I am suggesting that's the way to go; it was sensible rugby, winning rugby.

The Connacht set-piece was top-notch - Tom McCartney is the best lineout thrower, by a distance, plying his trade in this country, in our otherwise well stocked hooking larder.

Captain John Muldoon, pictured, and his fellow pack members Aly Muldowney, Denis Buckley and Ultan Dillane go head-to-head for the main award along with backs Bundee Aki, Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy SPORTSFILE

Glasgow's lineout also functioned well, but in the scrum, Connacht came out well on top - and that was without first-choice props Denis Buckley (above) and Finlay Bealham (forced off in the third minute); Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You and JP Cooney made light of their absences.

You can be sure the Glasgow scrum will be targeted again on Saturday week.

The set-piece was important, but for me, the biggest difference between two squads designed to run was desire.

If Glasgow had expected a large dollop of finger-tip handling and pushing the pass from anywhere, then they got it badly wrong.

Glasgow's cause wasn't helped by the sending-off of Sila Puafisi, but the game was won by Connacht's relentless intensity around the breakdown, allied to their line-speed and physicality in the tackle.

It was a different aspect to the Connacht game from what we have seen this season.

They cut their cloth: they really put their visitors under pressure when they didn't have the ball and kicked with far greater variety and purpose than usual.

Kieran Marmion is tackled by Glasgow's Fraser Brown. Photo: Sportsfile

Even when Kieran Marmion (above) went too long from the base of the scrum, the kick chase made good any overcooking.

The wet conditions made ball handling difficult, but for a change, Connacht were the better prepared side, mentally and practically.

I have no doubt that the Warriors will turn up with a much different mindset next time out.

Quite frankly I was disappointed in their attitude. They hit the ground running, but one team wanted it more, and that team wasn't wearing blue.

A couple of botched penalty attempts from Finn Russell didn't help and once Connacht posted that opening-quarter try through Bundee Aki - who was again outstanding, as were Robbie Henshaw and locks Ultan Dillane and Aly Muldowney - everyone knew it was game on.

The bottom line is that Connacht have the home semi-final they crave, and the golden opportunity they deserve.

Much like Clare and Waterford in the National Hurling League, you can expect another close game when these sides meet again on Saturday week, with no more than a score in it.

For all the doom and gloom surrounding the World Cup and Champions Cup, it has been a pretty productive Pro12 campaign, with all four provinces qualifying for the European top table, three reaching the play-offs and two securing home semi-finals.

One thing has bugged me recently, though - all these end-of-season awards dinners. On Saturday evening, for example, both the Leinster and Connacht bashes took place, and on Sunday the Pro12 awards for 2016 were dished out.

Am I missing something here? How does 'end of season' apply when the silverware has still to be decided?

16 April 2016; Bundee Aki, Connacht, following his side's victory. Guinness PRO12 Round 20, Connacht v Munster. The Sportsground, Galway. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

I can't argue with Bundee Aki (above) picking up the Pro12 Player of the Season award, or seven Connacht players being named in the Team of the Season. Right now I would find it difficult to question any single one.

But say either Glasgow or Ulster goes on to win the competition, how can the champion club be justified with just a single player (Craig Gilroy for Ulster and Leone Nakarawa of the Warriors) in the Team of the Season when the losing semi-finalists in such a scenario would have ten between them?

Or what if Jack McGrath, for example, picks up the ball on his own line at the RDS on Friday week and sidesteps his way through all 15 Ulster players for what would be the Try of the Season, yet that particular gong has already been handed to Tommy Seymour?

Can you imagine the Football or Hurling All-Stars comprising ten players from the beaten All Ireland semi-finalists?

Point being that end of season awards should be just that - end of season awards.

No doubt there are commercial and corporate reasons as to why and when these events take place, but what price credibility?

Irish Independent

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