Gordon D’Arcy: Fairytale ending in reach for Connacht
Pro12 final will come down to mental strength as Leinster seek to end on a high
Leinster’s Ben Te’o and Connacht’s Bundee Aki: “At the Sportsground they seemed to come to the ultimate hard man’s agreement. It was wonderfully barbaric stuff.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The Connacht story is like all those American underdog sport films rolled into one marvellous season. Moneyball. The Replacements. Even Rocky.
Just look at the list of characters from John Muldoon to Aly Muldowney to Bundee Aki. All have been rejected or underrated at some point in their careers. Now they are on the cusp of something that was unthinkable even six months ago.
Many of Pat Lam’s squad have been forced to travel west from Dublin having been passed over by Leinster.
Like Matt Healy. Healy’s biggest contribution against Glasgow last Saturday was in defence. His talent was evident playing for Lansdowne years ago. He just needed to take his second opportunity when it came along. Or first because he turned into a clever outside back after being the scrumhalf that kept Conor Murray off the Ireland under-20s. Leinster scrumhalf stocks were full back then.
I can see him being capped in South Africa next month.
Healy is one of many “rejects” identified by Connacht, through his All-Ireland League (AIL) form, and given the opportunity to perform. AJ MacGinty is another to make it as a professional via USA at the World Cup.
Then there are all those Kiwis. Jake Heenan and Tom McCartney were not deemed good enough or big enough for Super Rugby contracts but both should become Irish internationals over the coming seasons. Just like Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane – scandalously missed by Munster – did in 2016.
Even Aki was considered a one-season stopgap for the Chiefs, until Charlie Ngatai regained fitness, after Sonny Bill Williams returned to Rugby League.
Aki is hands down the best piece of business done by Connacht’s professional games board. It would be a genuine shame if something similar fails to be achieved in a national context because, a year out from his contract running out, the wealthiest French and English clubs are surely circling Galway like vultures.
Bidding warIrish rugby has one advantage in the bidding war that will inevitably follow. International rugby has to be the draw that keeps Aki in Ireland and especially in Galway. That means making him one of the highest paid players on a national contract as soon as possible, so Connacht can continue to build a team around their prized possession.
Aki came here because of money but any player of his ability and razor-sharp rugby intellect wants to play at the highest level. That still means the World Cup. He will be 27 when Ireland will be able pick him in November 2017.
The carrot, on top of becoming one of the highest paid players in the Irish system, is 50 caps spanning two World Cup cycles.
Immediate graduation to international rugby lured Ben Te’o away from Leinster. If he didn’t have that English passport, he would probably have ended up partnering Aki in a green jersey. Careers are short, Te’o took the increased wages but the opportunity to face the Wallabies next month was irresistible. Otherwise I imagine a greater effort would have been made to keep him.
Saturday won’t be the last time these two perform their stag-rutting contest.
An individual duel between Aki and Te’o shouldn’t in theory happen as inside centres, in defence, should always be drifting out, or holding for the inside runner, rather than marking their opposite number. But at the Sportsground in March they seemed to come to the ultimate hard man’s agreement. It was wonderfully barbaric stuff. Round two should be epic simply because neither man knows how to back down.
Stunning performanceAki has been incredible when we consider he has playing on one leg for the past few weeks. He has been the most influential player in the Pro12 this season. That was encapsulated in last weekend’s stunning performance against Glasgow. His low, prodding kick led to what became the winning try for Niyi Adeolokun but he also created both disallowed tries.
It was nearly two outhalves he saw stretchered off after his smash on Duncan Weir in Glasgow’s 22 before accidental offside ruled out a second Adeolokun try. What impressed me was Aki’s risky charge so far up the field. There was no margin for error in that play.
Te’o and Aki will renew acquaintances, but it’s crucial Johnny Sexton and Jordi Murphy do not allow a repeat of Aki’s first carry against Glasgow which led to the double concussion of Finn Russell and Zager Fagerson.
That little gap between the lineout and outhalf channel is a no man’s land no defender ever wants to fill. Neither defender knows who the tackler is but, knowing what’s coming, Sexton and Murphy will have discussed their roles when this happens.
But the Leinster defence, while impressive, can be outfoxed. Craig Gilroy’s try before half-time on Friday night got Ulster back into the game after they finally identified Leinster were struggling for numbers on the short side.
Connacht won’t be so slow if Leinster defenders fail to over-fold like this again. Gilroy finished a four-on-two because the numbers didn’t come around after Ruan Pienaar, two phases earlier, sneaked down the short side.
Also, no matter what our problems used to be, Leinster always had a backline that could do something special. That’s not the case at the moment.
Efficient rugbyMaybe they are still getting over the style Matt O’Connor entrenched into the collective psyche during his two seasons as coach.
Maybe Te’o and Garry Ringrose are still learning to play together or maybe Ringrose is, understandably, not demanding ball like his predecessor would have. He’s making sure he does his individual jobs correctly.
That’s the current way; Leinster are playing efficient, winning rugby in the mould of their coaches Leo Cullen and Girvan Dempsey. That is good enough for the moment. Foundations are clearly being laid.
Ulster came to the RDS with more invention as Paddy Jackson fired off several micro-moves but they had showed their hand two weeks ago in Ravenhill. Leinster did their homework defensively and knocked them backwards more often than not – Iain Henderson’s ball carrying aside – and in attack played percentage rugby at a high intensity. Sexton’s boot can win any game like that. Ulster couldn’t cope with Te’o leading the defensive line along with the abrasiveness of Murphy, Mick Kearney, Jack McGrath and Jamie Heaslip.
Heaslip’s try came from heads-up rugby by Ringrose and Sexton before Te’o’s power allowed him to offload after carrying through two tacklers.
Freeing his hands to pass backwards in contact is an incredibly difficult skill that only the best centres in the game can perform.
Te’o is well on his way to this status and will continue the process by wearing 12 for England against Australia next month now that Manu Tuilagi is injured again.
We are not seeing wonders from Te’o and Ringrose as both are finishing their education at the top end of professional rugby. It was still encouraging to see Ringrose looking up and instinctively understanding the risk of a turnover if he carried into heavy traffic. So he made something happen in much the same way that Brian O’Driscoll used to do.
I still don’t think Ringrose should be capped against the Springboks. Take him on tour and expose him in the event of injury, but November against Canada would be a better entry into international rugby. Josh van der Flier was deservedly moved through the ranks this season and needed an ankle operation before the season was over.
My feeling is to not rush them because Leinster and Ireland will need both men for years to come.
Aki, in contrast, is the finished article. The complete first five eighth, he knows when to pass, carry like a dump truck or roll a deft kick for his wingers to gather and sprint clear.
On Saturday Leinster should seek to surprise Connacht at the first opportunity. Dust off an old play used under Joe Schmidt or Mike Cheika. Remind everyone what they are about, and what they will always be about.
Score early and they can go back to draining the life out Connacht’s fairytale season. As they did to Ulster last Friday. It was clear which province had the superior tight five. I’m not so sure that Leinster can dominate Connacht’s pack in the same way. On paper they should but such logic has not applied to Connacht this season.
Mental durabilitySo it will come down to mental durability. We know Connacht have developed this under Pat Lam. Leinster, this Leinster, have plenty of individuals who have performed at the highest level but as a collective we will learn a lot about where they currently reside after one interrupted season under Leo and Girv.
Maybe, as it’s a final, Johnny will take over.
I hope Connacht’s rapid rise is sustainable but the chance of a trophy might not come around again for a while. Well, not until after the next World Cup.
This is their golden opportunity. Much like Leinster after 2009, victory at Murrayfield can cement their belief in a winning culture for years to come.
What we have learned this season, beyond all debate, is that the player who is overlooked by the Leinster Academy must not lose heart. MacGinty and Healy should be an inspiration for those rejected by the system at 19 or 20. Most professional rugby players don’t mature physically or mentally until they are 24 or 25.
Patience is a virtue. Connacht have proven that up to now.