Tuesday 23 January 2018

Westerners learned lessons from Ireland's All Black heartbreak

Connacht's players celebrate after beating Toulouse in the Ernest Wallon stadium
Connacht's players celebrate after beating Toulouse in the Ernest Wallon stadium

Trevor Horgan

Mental ammunition is invaluable in rugby. It is the key to the intensity and aggression we saw from the Irish team a couple of weeks ago, who had been given no chance against the All Blacks.

Again, Connacht were written off against Toulouse – 200/1 outsiders, given no chance of even getting a losing bonus. Given last week's collapse against Edinburgh, and Toulouse's formidable home record, the signs were ominous.

But this all just fuelled the mindset for the greatest win in the province's history.

Even conceding Jean-Pascal Barraque's try just before half-time didn't shake their resolve. The response early in the second half and the manner in which they attacked, the skill level and accuracy in the interchange between Robbie Henshaw and Fionn Carr showed this wasn't simply a backs-to-the-wall performance. Yet it was their heroic defending in the closing stages that will stay in the memory.

It was as if in those final two minutes the Connacht men were thinking of the way in which the Irish line-speed dipped in the last 30 seconds against the All Blacks. Here, the Westerners increased the tempo, sprinting off the line, with great chop tackles from Denis Buckley, Jake Heenan and John Muldoon. There was no way Toulouse were getting into penalty range.

It was phenomenal mental strength to have that level of hunger and self-belief in the closing phases.

Having lost eight games in a row, being bottom of the Pro 12, the natural reaction would have been to start doubting themselves. But the opposite is what happened.

This ability to use the underdog status and bitterness at past defeats to drive passionate performances seems to be a trademark strength for Irish sides.

Leading into their game against Leinster on Saturday, with the pain of their defeat in the 2011 final still raw, Northampton appeared to have the motivation needed to fuel a massive performance, with Tom Wood declaring: "We do owe them one."

Yet, from the kick-off, Leinster's intensity and hunger dwarfed Northampton's, as they produced one of their most complete and focused European performances.

The huge disappointment of missing the knock-out stages last year, the back-to-back losses against Clermont this time last year, maybe even all the 'revenge' talk from Northampton fed into a ruthless Leinster mindset.

In the opening quarter, Leinster's determination was clear in so many areas. Their urgency at the breakdown was again massive, with Jamie Heaslip getting a great early poach, while Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock and Mike McCarthy stopped Northampton getting any momentum with a series of choke tackles.

Leinster's work in attack, particularly their tempo and ability to recognise the gaps in a disorganised Northampton defensive line, highlighted their intent. A lot of the attention in this regard rightly went to Brian O'Driscoll's vision and skill. His grubber kick when identifying Ken Pisi was out of position, and then his outrageous between-the-legs pass to Rob Kearney, directly led to two of Luke Fitzgerald's outstanding finishes.

In all of this, Eoin Reddan's ability to dictate the pace from the base of the ruck was crucial. It was Leinster's lines of running in the 'nine' channel that set the platform for the dominance out wide.

Reddan's great skill is the way he runs a small arc, after picking the ball, tying in the first and second defenders. This gives the Leinster ball carriers the opportunity to run hard into the space that these defenders have left and they ran riot on Saturday.

RUTHLESSNESS

Leinster's ruthlessness was reflected in the focus on their faces even after they had gone 26 points up. There was barely a glimmer of satisfaction in the opening half at all, despite their dominance. The mantra of the 'next ball, the next play' was evident, as they set about completely shutting down any prospect of a Northampton revival.

Even after getting his hat-trick, Fitzgerald didn't allow himself a smile, as he set about focusing on the next job – two minutes later getting another steal at the breakdown and then dragging Tom Collins into touch.

This attitude was reflected throughout the Leinster side, epitomised in the work rate of McCarthy, who on several occasions chopped down George North, and Ruddock's massive steals and carries.

There is also a genuine culture of humility within this squad that underpins their relentless drive for success.

After the match both Fitzgerald and O'Driscoll deflected attention away from their own outstanding performances, with Fitzgerald's main concern being about a loose pass he threw to Reddan, saying, "I'm going to get killed in the video room."

This is the approach that will drive them to repeat the process next weekend, conscious of how Northampton turned around a similar defeat to Ulster by winning at Ravenhill.

Irish Independent

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