How Connacht can stay on upward curve
CONNACHT spend most of their year with their own backs against the wall and the rest of the country's back turned towards them, so when they came home early yesterday morning to the warm embrace of a nation it must have come as a shock.
The Westerners are often the odd man out of the Irish rugby scene. They only had one player involved in the November internationals, their budget, player base and support is smaller than their rival provinces and they have sometimes been fighting to exist at all.
Sometimes they don't help themselves. Bottom of the Pro12 table with only victories over Zebre to their name, the Pat Lam era had gotten off to a stuttering start before their win in Toulouse.
They had history in their grasp against Saracens at home and Leinster away, but couldn't get over the line. On Sunday an even better chance presented itself and they weren't about to let it slip.
They have had once-off wins before, but there is a sense that this one was different. Beating Toulouse has opened a door and the players, coaches and staff must not allow it to close.
Centre Eoin Griffin last week admitted that the players would only get recognition through results. They did that last weekend by securing the club's greatest win in Toulouse and making headlines across the rugby world.
Anyone who watched 'The West's Awake' documentary broadcast last year could see the passion that courses through the province, certainly it was one of the main attractions for Lam when he decided to take on the project.
He linked up with forwards coach Dan McFarland, now a Connacht institution after 14 years involved in which he has been through the bad days.
Sunday felt like a watershed, now as we wonder what got them here, it is important that they focus on building on their chance.
SO, HOW HAVE CONNACHT GOTTEN TO THIS POINT?
RECRUITING THE RIGHT PLAYERS
The Professional Game Board was set up in 2010 and it worked with Eric Elwood in recruiting the right kind of player who could make an impact at the club, with Dan Parks, Nathan White and Craig Clarke the prime examples of experienced leaders who could guide the team through tight spots.
Those senior players -- linking up with locals like Gavin Duffy, Michael Swift and John Muldoon -- led the way last week as Connacht looked to turn shipping 43 points away to Edinburgh into history in Toulouse.
"That was huge, that was a very big part of the emotion of the beginning of the week," McFarland explained. "Both coaches and players expressed their disappointment.
"At the end of the day, the players did come out amongst themselves and said I don't want to see this, I don't want to see that. That doesn't describe us."
ENHANCING THE TALENT COMING THROUGH
Connacht's U-19s made history last year by winning the inter-provincial title for the first time, while their representation in Ireland underage squads has steadily been increasing over recent years.
The experience of the likes of Muldoon, Duffy, Clarke and Parks is combined with bright young stars like Robbie Henshaw, Jake Heenan and Kieran Marmion as well as a host of young players coming through.
Add to that a clever policy of identifying All-Ireland League players who have been overlooked by the other provinces and they are on to a winner.
After losing their big names before, they have nailed Henshaw and Marmion down to long-term deals despite interest from elsewhere.
IMPROVING PREPARATION AND FITNESS
Despite the club's struggles in a season that has seen them fail to beat anyone other than Zebre and sit bottom of the Pro12, Lam was convinced that his plan was working.
The stats sheets were positive, but the results weren't following. Sunday proved he was on the right track.
"We have looked at games with so many opportunities, the stats have shown the big progress we've been making but three areas have hurt us and those have been goalkicking, turning ball over and conceding penalties," Lam said.
Having fixed those issues, their fitness told in the final five minutes as Toulouse attacked.
"The lads are very fit, as fit as they've ever been. There was a big emphasis on that and the style we want to play demands that," McFarland added.
GAINING TOP-LEVEL EXPERIENCE
Leinster's success has handed Connacht a chance to learn from playing against the best and in each of their Heineken Cup seasons to date, they have taken one scalp.
"We played them a couple of years ago," Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "Although we got two wins, they were not so easy to get. So we were aware of the fact that they are a good team, even if they're ranking last in the Celtic League."
AND WHAT DO THEY NEED TO DO TO BUILD ON THEIR SUCCESS?
PRODUCING ANOTHER PERFORMANCE
They have our attention now, the next step is keeping it. As the media requests come flooding in and the tickets fly out the door, the management must get a grip on the external factors pulling at the squad and focus the minds.
Beating Toulouse once means they have another big win to cut out and hang on the wall at the Sportsground. Winning again would mark this out as special and open the door to a quarter-final.
"That's fact," McFarland said. "There is a chance of us playing in the quarter-finals. We look at Toulouse at home and we've plenty on our plate this weekend. We have an advantage in that we're coming home, there will be a natural adrenalin shot from the crowd, but that's balanced by the fact that Toulouse didn't perform. They want to win the Heineken Cup and will come all-guns blazing."
Lam spoke yesterday of culture and building a dressing-room mentality and, while the one-off wins grab attention, establishing a team that can win the less glamorous games will be key.
The coach has spoken of his frustration with young Irish players' unwillingness to move west seeking opportunity, but his hand will be strengthened if they can start to turn their statistical strength into wins and engender a harder edge that sees them through games.
"Whatever happens next week, we have to carry that kind of belief and that kind of play through to our day-to-day work which has been sporadic to say the least this season and in the past," McFarland admitted.
HARNESSING THE SUPPORT
The province remain without a chief executive right now but they have an opportunity to increase revenue through success and grow the game further after years of steady progress.
"The support here is absolutely tremendous," the forwards coach said. "We're not a traditional rugby province, but rugby grows here like nowhere else. We have a much smaller population base here than anywhere else and yet we get a fantastic support at home.
"We've been growing for a long time. I'm 14 years here and I've seen constant progress, on-field, off-field in schools rugby, everything. It is a journey that maybe hasn't gone as fast as we want to, but it is always going up."
Sunday sent it through the roof. Connacht's job is to maintain the trajectory.