Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tony Ward: Pat Lam's high flyers have delighted us all but they must learn to win 'ugly'

Connacht head coach Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)
Connacht head coach Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Given the stage of the season we're at, I think it fair to draw a comparison between Leicester City at the top of the English Premier League and Connacht Rugby leading the way in the Pro12.

The gap at the top is narrower and, of course, we are not comparing like with like but in terms of substance and style the analogy is a fair one. The work ethic at both professional entities is underpinned by a refreshing attacking approach.

With respect to Tottenham, Arsenal, Man City, Man U and the rest, I would love to see the Foxes go the whole way. Yes, because it is a Cinderella story but much more because of the way they have gone about their football business with Claudio Ranieri oozing pragmatic humility every time he speaks.

From Casper Schmeichel through Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez to Jamie Vardy, the spine of the team is strong. Their efforts this season deserve the ultimate return but, of course, professional sport doesn't always work like that.

In times past, Connacht Rugby has flattered to deceive, generally benefiting from the window of opportunity when competing teams were minus their top stars on Test duty, specifically during the November and Six Nations international periods.

With five players on board with Ireland in the tournament just finished, the times they are a changing out west with more set to follow that quintet's path to the green jersey.

And for Ranieri in Leicester read Pat Lam (pictured) at Connacht. I love what is going on at the Sportsground in terms of the way the western province is going about its business under Lam. It is not at the level of Super Rugby but it is well on the way to it. If anyone still wonders why New Zealand rugby is in the position it is, so far ahead of the rest, then tune in any weekend morning to see any Kiwi franchises in action.

The Australians, chiefly through the Brumbies, have never been that far behind but they like the newly-arrived Argentinians (the Jaguars) and, most encouragingly of all, the South Africans through the Lions (Transvaal), Stormers (Western Province) and even the Bulls (Northern Transvaal) and Sharks (Natal) are following suit.

There is a revolution taking place because there has to be if the pro game is to survive as a spectacle going forward. While there were some green shoots in the latter stages of the Six Nations, we are still caught up in stone-age rugby by comparison.

But back to Connacht where my earnest desire would be to see the westerners earn Champions Cup Rugby by right and not on the coat-tails of others' success as they have done with Leinster in more recent times.

Here too, and even in the absence of Eoghan Masterson, the spine is strong in Connacht and in every line from Tiernan O'Halloran through Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, the still developing AJ MacGinty and take your pick from Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Nathan White, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You, Aly Muldowney, Quin Roux, Ultan Dillane and more than anything the indestructible heart and soul of the team that is John Muldoon.

Does that mean they will win this table-topper against Leinster at a sold-out Sportsground later on this afternoon? Of course not. It guarantees nothing.

They are hugely up against it in a powerful Leinster squad growing under Leo Cullen and Girvan Dempsey. Lam is not playing mind games when he suggests Leinster are pre-match favourites. Having taken five of the last six encounters (10-9 to Connacht in 2014 the last home success), they are chasing down both European ranking and Pro12 knockout qualification every bit as much as Connacht so something's got to give.

The one guarantee however - weather permitting - is how Lam, Muldoon and Connacht will go about their attempt at dismantling the Leinster machine. They will play as they train and yes they will make the occasional error in turning over possession but that is the Lam way, the Connacht way, the Super Rugby way and, at the very top of that food chain, the All Black way.

Connacht are not the All Blacks but they must be admired for trying to follow their template. And even though they lose their way from time to time, I just love what they are trying to achieve under Lam.


Can you imagine just how good Ireland might be if David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt had a word in the ear of the other three provincial coaches suggesting the Lam way as the declared way to go. It would represent a change in a cultural mindset - think Rob Penney at Munster and you get the drift - but as Argentina have shown and now through their Jaguars in Super Rugby, if the mindset is right and with everyone singing off the same sheet, everything and anything is possible.

Now I'm not expecting Barbarians-style rugby from the home side today. Better I think to draw comparison with the said Premier League football club across the water based not a million miles from Welford Road and point to four league wins from the last five on a 1-0 scoreline.

Some call it winning ugly and while the Premier League leaders are learning as they go the art of closing out a game 'ugly' has still to be learnt by the men from the west.

Today offers a very real challenge in that regard or, as former Connacht player Mick Kearney put it so colourfully in midweek, "There's a massive chip on the shoulder, a huge 'F you' attitude when they (Leinster) come up the road. From my experience any inter-pro when you're in Connacht is a fairly violent week in training to be honest".

The trick for Kearney's former team-mates is in carrying that intensity from the training paddock and marrying it with the quality of rugby and playing style that has taken them this far.

Leicester, despite those 1-0 scorelines, are still doing just that. They are playing with an energy and natural vibrancy that befits their trail-blazing status. The Connacht run-in, Treviso apart, could hardly be more testing with three inter-provincial derbies, as well as reigning champions Glasgow, but at least the matches against Leinster and Munster are at home.

Leicester and Connacht might still end up with nowt in terms of silverware but they have both made a lot of people happier along the way. I'm sure I am not alone in hoping they both get their just reward.

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