After a remarkable evening’s rugby last Saturday even the most avid Leinster supporter found it difficult not to be pleased for Connacht
By Phil Rice
When the rugby season came to a close at the weekend as the curtain fell on the Pro12 final, it was still hard to grasp that in the space of eight months Connacht had become champions of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
For so long the also-rans of the league produced a performance of such quality that, try as they might, Leinster could find no answer to the Pat Lam master-plan. For the first 12 minutes Leinster looked like they would blow Connacht away as they bombarded the Westerners line but Connacht never wilted and when they struck back it was with the precision of a skilled surgeon.
A loose kick by Eoin Reddin was fielded by winger Matt Healy, he side-stepped his way past would-be tacklers and set up Tiernan O’Halloran for the first try. Leinster never recovered as Connacht visibly grew in confidence.
Healy and O’Halloran must be wondering what they need to do to be included in Joe Schmidt’s Irish squad, as they completely outplayed their much vaunted opposite numbers. All season they have been the top performers in their positions in the league, with no national recognition.
Lam’s game-plan allows the back three to counter attack, knowing there will be support on hand when they run into traffic. It was captain John Muldoon and prop Finlay Balham who provided the link for O’Halloran’s try.
After the game Pat Lam gave some insight into his tactics: “When the opposition put the ball in the air my players know that if I see anyone walking, they are asking me for more fitness training! The boys know that but they work to a shape so that they can pure counterattack.” He continued, “I set the guys a goal to make Connacht one of the best counterattacking teams. That allows them to express themselves and I think that’s the key.”
Lam went on to say: “You can run the ball back but if you don’t have the clearout on the back of that, then you don’t have any shape and you’re asking for trouble.”
You may say ‘That isn’t rocket science,’ but the crucial ingredient is the complete commitment of the entire squad to the strategy employed by Lam. Everyone knows what is expected of them and they carry it out to the letter. The understanding that generates is immense. It is the model employed by none other than the All Blacks, who so clearly all sing from the same hymn sheet.
There is no place for prima donnas and the team ethic is everything. Mistakes are quickly forgiven and forgotten in the pursuit of the ultimate goal.
The result on Saturday can do nothing but good for Irish rugby. It is to be hoped that the ‘head-hunters’ sniffing around the Connacht players, with attractive offers to ply their trade in France and England, will not undermine the work that Lam is carrying out.
There was a real irony in the case of Robbie Henshaw who has pledged his future to Leinster from next season, as quarters completely out-played their opposition. Leinster’s attack looked very one-dimensional by comparison.
Bundee Aki has been the fulcrum of much of Connacht’s best efforts this year and Joe Schmidt must be hoping the new regime at the RFU delay their expected extension of the 3-year national qualification rule, to allow the South Sea Islander to qualify for Ireland at the end of next season. Henshaw in particular has benefitted greatly from the opposition’s defensive focus on Aki and the space created by the muscular runs he makes deep into enemy territory.
The anticipated pairing Henshaw will have with Ringrose at Leinster, and possibly Ireland, will provide a very different style of attack. There was much for Leinster to digest after Saturday’s match. Coach Leo Cullen admitted his first season had provided him with “a lot of learnings.”
Captain for the day, Jamie Heaslip acknowledged Connacht’s superiority: “The better side won today. If you give Connacht any sort of quick ball or let them play that wide-wide game without putting pressure on them they will test you.”
With limited resources Pat Lam has created something very special at Connacht and it will be interesting to see if other coaches start to adopt his simple but very effective tactics.
The scenes of celebration around this historic win have lifted the hearts of hundreds of thousands of fans!+8