Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: It is hard to quantify just how good a coach Pat Lam is

Performances of McCartney and Muldowney sum up the difference between Pro12 finalists

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

All sporting triumph is built on the disappointment of others. Connacht were deserving winners last Saturday - Leinster too were deserving losers. The men in blue were not beaten into submission nor was there a capitulation, yet it was a compromise of a performance - practised endeavour and reasonable levels of energy but no real conviction.

Leinster for the last few years have been season-ticket holders in that dreadful purgatory of the conscious underperformance.

They chose to go in the bus lane when they had the wherewithal to travel in the fast lane. I don't think that they underestimated Connacht but I do think that their challenge and the preparation for that challenge was woefully ill conceived. At no stage were they ever going to outmanoeuvre Connacht strategically or tactically - never mind spiritually.

That is the galling thing - by not thinking through sufficiently what it was they were facing, they presented no challenge. John Muldoon said in his post-match speech that "Leinster didn't come here to make up the numbers" - I respectfully beg to differ on that matter.

Sport without risk is like a Bloody Mary without vodka. It is the most pleasing thing about Connacht's mental demeanour. They bought into risk-taking. You might say that the risks they were taking were minimised by the quantum leap in the reliability of their skill levels.


This is the most depressing thing about Leinster. Having forged their pedigree on risk - even calculated risk - they now ply their trade on sanitised, low-percentage plays - the smart plays. When the time comes for innovation or thinking in the matches that count they fail. They have been playing inside the harbour for the last three seasons and they are no longer able to react positively when they run into teams that cause them problems.

Leinster had more possession and territory than Connacht and never remotely put them under any kind of consistent pressure. Leo Cullen said he had 'no complaints about the outcome' - well I do. If Leinster are not complaining to themselves about what they produced, the cause is lost. They simply did not turn up to present a credible challenge to their opponents.

Watching the match again is always instructive. Connacht made quite a number of mistakes during the game - but a lot of the mistakes they made were as a consequence of risk. Leinster made a huge number of mistakes but the difference here was that they were down to simple inability to pass the ball - sometimes under no pressure.

Leinster knocked the ball on nine times. Leinster, in simple passing movements, put the ball to ground eight times. A dozen times the ball went forward or was passed or caught in a place where the man on the ball had to correct himself or re-catch the ball. How do you explain that? Leinster in 2012 were the best passing team in the world.

Can you imagine playing a whole season and arriving at the big day and making 29 errors in basic handling? Is that worse than the 31 tackles Leinster missed on the day? Connacht missed only 10 in the same game. If you knew that your team would miss that many tackles, you wouldn't let them out on the park; you would say that they had all eaten a dodgy lasagne the night before and cede the game. Thirty-one missed tackles shows you how far off the mental pitch Leinster were but that is where the distinction is most acutely observed. Handling is intuitive - tackling is mental. Both are unforgivable. If you can't pass or hold onto the ball anymore on a day when it matters, I'd start complaining.

Last season Anthony Foley's side were embarrassed off the park by a Glasgow side in the final that played rugby on a different plane to anything Munster could hope to achieve. Connacht managed to repeat that type of rugby throughout the season. They saw off, without being unduly bothered, a Leinster side that did not differ too much from the way that Munster had tried to play against Glasgow.

It is hard to quantify just how good a coach Pat Lam is. It is funny that Rob Penney, who came from New Zealand with a far better rep and CV than Lam, could not succeed with trying to alter the way that Munster played. Lam succeeded with an 'inferior' roster of players to Penney's Munster. Let's see what Rassie Erasmus can do. Will Munster buy into it this time?

Lam's influence and his selections and buying policy have been very good. There were two players who laid the foundation for Connacht's success on Saturday and throughout the season - Tom McCartney and Aly Muldowney were crucial once again.

McCartney was the best player on the park. His moment of glory fell an inch or two short when he made his break in the 52nd minute. As Connacht went about their business patiently in a left-to-right passing movement, McCartney saw his moment. Symptomatic of Leinster's performance, Hayden Triggs shot up wildly out of the line and left a gap on the inside, and suddenly McCartney was gone. Just before the 22 McCartney sees Luke Fitzgerald cover across - he steps off his left but he does so too early.

Fitzgerald surely will have time to readjust and take him down. The Leinster winger embarrassingly never touches him and it was only Johnny Sexton's quickening stride and a well-placed arm on McCartney's shoulder which deprived the hooker of the try of the season.

McCartney is only 30, the same age as Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss. Rory Best will be 34 when the season starts again. McCartney's darts and his strike at scrum time are the best in the country.

Rugby is a simple game and Connacht went back 20 years to a quick channel-one ball straight to the No 8's hands. Muldoon got away four or five times around the side of the scrum on the back of the quality of the strike from McCartney. The Leinster back-row was blissfully unaware that the ball was even out of the scrum as Muldoon swished by them. The forgotten art of the hooker's quick strike.


McCartney's darts are the best from a hooker playing in the country since . . . eh! Perfect trajectory, pace and laser straight. Strauss missed three and Cronin missed one for Leinster. The ball began to wobble on Strauss's throws the further down the line they went. A terrible indictment that neither of them can be depended on to be consistent - we have known that for seasons and yet it still continues.

McCartney's ball never lost its consistency. Muldowney was the best lineout forward in the Pro12 - but surely even Michael D Higgins would be a lineout god with those sort of darts. Muldowney is an intelligent and accomplished operator at this phase.

They say a journeyman is someone who is good and experienced but ends up working for someone else. I think it is unfair to label Muldowney any such way. During the final he got his hands on the ball 20 times. The variety of his passing and the skill to execute was astonishing.

It was no coincidence that he spent a huge amount of time as first or second receiver. He was like Kieran Read at his best. A phenomenal performance and one which Leinster just couldn't cope with. It is worth watching the game again to see the range and accuracy of his deliveries. Mick Kearney and Ross Molony may care to watch the video in a private moment.

Muldowney's skill levels illustrated the difference between the two sides. Even though he is leaving the signs are that the gap will get bigger next season. Where is that complaints department again?

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