Saturday 7 December 2019

Connacht trip no walk in park warns Costello

Elwood's men ready to test Leinster

Fionn Carr is one of the many Leinster 'graduates' to prosper with Connacht.
Fionn Carr is one of the many Leinster 'graduates' to prosper with Connacht.
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

FROM Wembley to the Sportsground is the path less travelled, but it's the journey Leinster will make on Saturday afternoon.

And it is, as Victor Costello points out, a whole new challenge. Instead of Wembley's luxurious surroundings, they'll cross a dog track to the pitch in a compact ground where they haven't won in almost three years. A few Leinster old boys, eager to prove a point, are thrown into the mix for good measure.

Costello had a brief spell out west in the early '90s. Honest and straight-talking as ever, he admits he had no great desire to go there, but went there to put himself in the 'shop window'.

He's part of a long line of players to use Connacht as a leg up in their careers, with Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley and Jamie Hagan just some of the Donnybrook boys who moved to Galway for game time.

Currency

However, under Eric Elwood, the mood in Connacht has changed. On his appointment, Elwood set out his stall. Moral victories and near misses are no longer the province's currency, he announced. Winning is all that counts.

"No disrespect to Michael Bradley, who did well in his time there, but Eric speaks their language. He is of the cause and for the cause," Costello said.

"What used to annoy me was that a win over Leinster or Munster would make their season, but that won't do anymore. They've done well against Leinster recently and if they can beat Leinster, there's nothing to say you can't put a dent in the Magners League.

"They are building under Eric now and you can see that. They're no longer a bunch of angry guys with a chip on their shoulder."

Five teams (including Leinster) lie between Connacht and their regular haunt at the foot of the table.

Even allowing for the introduction of the two Italian sides, these are heady heights for the province. Their new attitude was underlined in the Round 2 35-33 defeat away to Scarlets.

The electric Carr had just grabbed the first hat-trick of his professional career, but afterwards he could only speak of disappointment: "I didn't really celebrate because we were bitterly disappointed in losing the match," said Carr. "The defeat overshadowed everything."

Carr is just one of Leinster's litter to up ship and move west. Out-half Ian Keatley is a couple of years younger than Carr and as a 2007 U-20 Grand Slam winner under Elwood, time was on his side.

But, like Carr, he wasn't prepared to wait at Leinster where Jonny Sexton was still looking to break into the team behind Felipe Contepomi. The pair travelled out west together in the same car and haven't looked back.

Keatley has since picked up a couple of Irish caps and is the Magners League's leading points scorer, a sign of his developing maturity with the boot.

Despite his omission from the squad for the November Internationals, Carr's first cap is surely soon to follow and he currently sits in third place in the league's try scoring charts behind Tim Visser and Jonathan Davies.

Hagan also missed out on an international call up on Tuesday, but as a 23-year-old prop, he has more time to learn his trade than anyone.

"I saw them against Cardiff and they were organised and probably a little bit unlucky," Costello said. "They had a solid defence and set-piece and throw in a player like Carr, and you've got a very decent side."

Of course, they are not all blow-ins in the Connacht side.

Expect them to frequently field the indigenous back-row of Andrew Browne, Johnny O'Connor and John Muldoon, with Mayo's Gavin Duffy another mainstay of the side. They are operating on one-year contracts, which hardly inspires long-term confidence, but Costello dismisses that as an excuse.

"Rugby is about passion and contact. If you're going out there worrying about your contract, you're not going to do anything.

"The IRFU are running a business and the trick (for Connacht) is to perform and get the results. The Sportsground can be a real fortress and Eric is there now and he's there to stay."

Connacht bounced back from the embarrassing defeat in Italy to Cavalieri Prato in the Challenge Cup with a win at home to Bayonne. At the same time, Leinster were at the other end of the club rugby spectrum, culling Saracens and their mountains of South African beef at English football's HQ. For Costello, it was a performance by both team and head coach that erased any lingering doubts as to whether they were a good fit for each other.

"He (Joe Schmidt) got everything spot on from tactics to team selection, especially in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll. Away wins in the Heineken cup are crucial, but particularly in that pool. In victory he was very subdued, unlike (Saracens coach) Brendan Venter. I thought he was outstanding.

"But they've a whole new challenge now this weekend. Connacht away is awkward. You'd think they'd have too many street-wise players to get caught, but you never know. There is pride in Connacht's players and Elwood will demand a lot from them."

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