Wednesday 17 January 2018

When you swim with sharks, you will get minced or eaten whole at some stage

Louis Picamoles scores his side’s fourth try
Louis Picamoles scores his side’s fourth try
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

THE Work in progress that is Connacht didn't become the finished article with that famous victory in Toulouse -- nor did it fall apart in defeat in Galway last Saturday.

What was achieved at the Stade Ernest-Wallon seven days before will rank as one of the greatest achievements ever by an Irish team in this great competition.

To have to face the same opposition so soon -- and crucially minus the key element to how they burgled European rugby's most iconic club -- in a sense made for a no-win situation for the minnows on their own patch.

But that is the nature of swimming with the sharks at this level; at some stage, inevitably, you are going to get minced or eaten whole.

John Muldoon, Dan Parks, Craig Clarke and the rest didn't go down without a fight before their own faithful. That much was a given.

But it would be wrong to suggest that anything other than the French aristocrats gaining sweet revenge was the bottom-line requirement for their arrogant ineptitude of the previous week. They also snaffled the bonus point coach Guy Noves demanded.

Just as Connacht deservedly won -- albeit by a close margin -- on the road, so too did Toulouse, but with a lot more to spare.

Whether the flu virus was instrumental in Pat Lam's squad running out of steam only he and they know but, either way, the better team playing the better rugby to meet the occasion and the conditions emerged with all five points.

Connacht gave it their best shot and never threw in the towel (not that we would expect any different on that count) but, much like Northampton Saints in Dublin, it was the side hurting from what transpired the week before that brought the level of intensity and brute physicality required to ensure it didn't happen again.


Yes, it was 'get-even rugby' in the Aviva and the Sportsground but that's what great clubs do when the chips are down and their professional pride is on the line whatever sport they are involved in.

In specific terms, Louis Picamoles, Census Johnston and Christopher Tolofua (not yet 20) wreaked havoc by way of the route-one tactic that is usually the domain of the host team on wicked Sportsground nights like this.

Pick-and-drive basics -- I think it's called 'jamming' in modern parlance -- laid down the marker for a victory that, save for the opening salvo, was never in doubt.

They did all the right things with the ever astute Dan Parks playing for field position and keeping the scoreboard ticking with almost every opportunity that came his way.

If ever that well-worn adage that 'forwards win matches -- backs determine by how much' applies, this was it.

The groundwork was laid up front and, this time out, the team in green had no answer.

That said, they were individually and collectively courageous to a man, meeting the demands of the occasion -- if not the scoreboard -- and the expectant crowd.

And that is the real issue here. Connacht are no more going to win the Heineken Cup in 2014 than Sligo (with respect to our Sunday Independent colleague and true Rovers fanatic Eamonn Sweeney) are going to win the Champions League.

That is the comparable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots of European sport.

But what Connacht have done in the past nine days is to make themselves known to the wider sporting world.

In addition to that, and much more relevant in my opinion, is the interest it further engenders locally.

Young lads involved in underage rugby, whether through clubs or school, now aspire to one day wear the same green jersey belonging to Muldoon, Robbie Henshaw, Gavin Duffy, Eoin Griffin, Darragh Leader, Eoin McKeon and the rest as of now.

Connacht is still very much the fourth province in the IRFU's priority order but it is every bit as important to the game's development in the west as is Ulster, Munster and Leinster in the north, south and east respectively.

Yes, they were eventually hammered on Saturday but not before they had given it everything they had.

No coach can ask for more than that. Lam knew what he was getting into when he took the job.

For myriad reasons, the last fortnight has been special for Connacht and Irish rugby.

Far from letting anyone down, the men from the west further embellished this great Irish sporting story. Long may it continue.

Irish Independent

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