Wednesday 17 October 2018

Keane edge can propel Connacht in push back to Europe's top tier

Keane: Making a mark Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keane: Making a mark Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Some defeats are accompanied by different emotions.

It was just over a month ago since Connacht were comprehensively beaten by Zebre, when the mood in the sheds was so difficult to taste or smell because so few of the players could manage to get a finger-tip hold of the sense of it all.

Bemused and befuddled, the worst thing was that they couldn't grasp the how and the why of the defeat. It's impossible to find a solution to despair if you don't have a map to guide you away from it.

As a mildly-entertained public were gradually learning, their new coach Kieran Keane was also occasionally struggling to identify the whys and wherefores, often questioning the team's character and commitment as he seemed to fumble in the dark for enlightenment.

The mood music did not seem promising but 2017 ended in such an upbeat manner that even the bum notes of this New Year do not seem as discordant as they might otherwise be.

That's because, particularly in the case of the agonising near-miss in Dublin against Europe's outstanding form side, Leinster, on New Year's Day, Connacht finally acquainted themselves with the understanding of defeat.

Anger.

Now, they could lay bare their emotion, salting the wounds of a setback which was rendered all the more painful because they knew precisely why it should have been them celebrating success, not drowning in commiseration.

And to think just a matter of weeks ago Connacht were seemingly incapable of telling the difference.

This realisation will serve them well as they begin the second half of the first season under Keane's tutelage.

He remains a wonderfully enigmatic figure to those on the outside looking in but the priority for those on the inside looking out is that the relationship between the new man and his new squad has finally clicked.

That in itself will not guarantee anything in terms of results, let alone performance, but it is a fundamental nonetheless.

Before he arrived in this country, we mentioned the story of how the school-teacher turned coach once sent one of his less intellectually strong pupils into the yard to count the stones.

Dismissive when the earnestly dutiful kid returned with an answer, the teacher sent him off to count them again. Recounting that tale now, and re-visiting Connacht's toils in the early months of this season, it is a little easier to trace the progress of those doing the teaching and those being taught.

It was always going to take time for players to adjust - mentally, never mind physically - to a coach whose approach was far removed from a predecessor who had instructed their every footstep and breath.

Indeed, everyone in the organisation had to adapt to the changing wind. Which explains just why Connacht tanked in some of their games.

But when it gets them to a situation where they can humiliate an Ulster squad housing better players and (supposedly) superior coaches and much, much more dosh, it shouldn't take long to work out that, right now, the boys in Galway are managing things much better than their counterparts in Belfast.

Of course, the expectations are lower out west and, imperceptibly, seem to have remained so despite that PRO12 win two seasons ago, a title that now seems to hover between miracle and mirage.

Still, it is much easier to be upbeat about their progress now.

There is a growing mutual respect between the coaches and players as their cohesion grows and, as Ultan Dillane and others have observed, there are many more voices emerging in the dressing-room who are not merely making noises but making sense too.

Like the boy counting the stones, the players have been offered the chance to assume responsibility and they are becoming much more comfortable within the framework of someone who is more of a task-setter than task-master.

The coach's primary demands are for the players to take it upon themselves to make decisions, not to have decisions made for them in advance.

He offers them a shape and a picture and, belatedly, it seems to be working much better for them.

They've got this far, now they can push on.

A Challenge Cup quarter-final top-seeding awaits and, in all honesty, no other side in that competition should be feared as Connacht seek a return to the top tier of European competition.

The revival of Ospreys has imperilled their chances of qualifying via the PRO14; they must be wary of chasing two hares and catching none.

At least now they know where they're going.

Irish Independent

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