Monday 17 December 2018

Surfing Connacht's rising tide of optimism

Tiernan O'Halloran's rise with Connacht is more than just being the right man at the right time

Tiernan O'Halloran
Tiernan O'Halloran
Tiernan O'Halloran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?

Tiernan O'Halloran has this as his bio line on Twitter. He's not sure of its provenance - it's from the most quoted coach in the history of NFL, Vince Lombardi - but he stumbled across it a couple of years ago and liked it. So he copied and pasted.

The interesting thing is that only now does it actually fit his profile, for it is only now that Connacht are at a point in their journey where they start a race expecting to come first.

"I got a bit of stick from the lads over it but I stuck with it," he says. "We all compete at the end of the day. And you don't compete to lose. That's why it's up there."

The latest leg of the journey was on Friday night in the Arms Park. A year ago at this venue their coach Pat Lam had his knuckles rapped for understandably losing the plot with a referee who himself had lost track of time, among other stuff. To return there with a team that had eight changes from the side that rewrote history in Limerick last weekend, play half the game with a wing at scrumhalf, and still run it to the wire, was a bonus point hard earned.

There have been a lot of troughs along the way for both O'Halloran - who was excellent again on Friday night - and Connacht. The peaks, like the uncanny ability to nail Leinster in the Sportsground, were welcome distractions, and then there was the odd stunner: beating Harlequins in 2012, and in December 2013 the Christmas gift that was winning in Toulouse. The latter remains one of the greatest upsets in the history of European rugby. That the campaign ended with a 64-point hammering from Saracens only reinforced the capricious nature of it all however.

If the aim in pro sport is to win as often as possible then a close second is to lose with something to show for your efforts, as on Friday night. You can't hope to find that rhythm unless you have a decent squad who believe in what they are doing. And Connacht are in that groove.

"I think that's a massive confidence thing that's come in the last couple of years, since Pat's come in I suppose," O'Halloran says. "He's brought in this style of play. Maybe the first year or so we were getting used to it. He's put a big emphasis on skills - really basic skills and he put it across like we don't have six or seven world-class players, but we all trust and back ourselves that we can do the basic skills of rugby.

"If we all buy in to that, and do things that don't require talent, like the speed you can get up off the ground and back into line, basic passing, rucking drills, the speed you get to a ruck. That doesn't require you to be the most talented player in the world: you've just got to work hard. Small things you mightn't even realise: like if you're at the bottom of a ruck Pat's watching you to see if you're walking or jogging to get back in the line? I think lads are getting into that shape very quickly and we're set early in defence and we're able to read what they (the opposition) are doing. With more time you make better decisions, so there's a massive emphasis on that.

"We all trust each other. There's a massive bond between us. I think in years gone by we didn't have the depth and we were kind of relying on the 15 who were there, whereas now lads are really pushing each other in training to do things and work hard, and if you're not really doing it you won't be in the squad the following week."

Since the win in Limerick there has been a rush to worship at the altar in the West. Soon there will be a grotto to Pat Lam. In the wake of the World Cup, after which the buzz word was 'skills', his team have suddenly been presented as the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby.

Clearly they're not, rather their relentless work on the basics is paying off. And it's very good to watch.

They prepare very well. Before the players fetch up for the first session of the week they have been given a map of the following few days, and their roles in it. So when they arrive to the Sportsground they are already on the right page. That means clarity in training, less time spent on meetings, more time spent with ball in hand.

At only 24, O'Halloran's role in all of this belies his age. A colleague of his remarked a few weeks ago how the Clifden man had developed once Mils Muliaina was off the premises. Having thought his time had come when Gavin Duffy, a part of the furniture, had gone off in the removal van, along came Muliaina by special delivery. At last the number 15 shirt is his.

Tiernan O'Halloran's background is pretty solid. His dad Aidan played Gaelic football for Offaly in their golden years and was desperately unlucky to lose his place in the winning All-Ireland final against Kerry in 1982. He broke his nose playing a soccer match in the gap between the semi-final and final and, in a highly competitive squad, couldn't regain his spot.

"He doesn't like telling the story but he gets asked about it a lot - even at dinner parties," says the son, for whom his old man is a hero. "And you can tell it really did hurt him. Especially as it was a really simple thing as a soccer match. Like, who plays a soccer match two weeks before an All-Ireland final? You can tell he's still got massive regret over it. I suppose that's why with me he'd always be telling me to be careful with things, like going playing a bit of five-a-side soccer over the holidays."

The son's chosen sport was up for grabs until his late teens. Aidan's job in the bank took him to Clifden, and his youngest son was brought down to the local Connemara rugby club as a nine-year-old. From then it was a diet of rugby and Gaelic until Tim Allnut in the Connacht Academy took him under his wing when O'Halloran was at school in Roscrea. Two years on the Galway minors suggested a career with the round ball. But the prospect of earning a living from the other code was too much to pass up.

He had barely introduced himself to the other Academy lads in Connacht when he was bumped up to a development contract on the back of sorting a spot in the 'A' team. Rapid progress for sure, but in an organisation that was still second rate.

"The mentality was very different back then compared to where it is now," O'Halloran says. "You don't want to be slating what was going on back then but in training weeks of away games we didn't prepare ourselves as best we could have. It wasn't like we were targeting certain games back then - it was a mental thing. We just weren't switched on an that's why we ended up shipping 30 or so points at times.

"Even before Pat came in that had started to change - in my second or third year we started to realise there was the potential there and we could give it a go away from home. It was just the mentality of Connacht rugby back then. It wasn't intentional from senior lads, but it was just passed on and passed on."

Not anymore. On Friday night, the Sportsground should be heaving for the visit of Newcastle in the Challenge Cup. It's not that the Falcons are the hottest draw in Europe, rather it's Connacht's first home game in three weeks, and their fans will want to welcome them back.

"The crowd really do make a big difference for us," O'Halloran says. "I know a couple of weeks ago in the European competition at home to Brive I was captain that day and in the last five minutes we really should have put them away earlier on but they were in our 22 with a couple of minutes to go, really putting pressure on us to win the game, and the crowd really got into it and it made a massive difference. We're hoping that's going to be the same all year.

"In fairness, they've always been great, and given the conditions sometimes here in Galway they always show up and make a difference. It's amazing how much the Clan Terrace has transformed the ground. These back-to-back games are going to be very important to us. If we get two from two there we'll be in a very strong position going into the Enisei game."

The longer the season goes on, the better his Twitter line looks.

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