Connacht's mission impossible

 

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, it was dubbed. Appropriately therefore, it seemed as if Connacht's challenge had self-destructed within 40 seconds in Galway on Saturday when a costly turnover resulted in the prolific Harvey Thorneycroft almost arrogantly scoring untouched from inside halfway. Connacht men bowed their heads and, waited for the mother of all hidings.

"This will be 70," opined one of their pessimistic followers. Actually it seemed no more than realistic at the time. On-site bookies would have been offering a points spread of about 60 at that juncture.

It didn't get any better in the short-term. Northampton added three more tries in the first 24 minutes. But then a couple of things happened, one rather more predictable than the other and, both, to an extent interlinked.

Connacht kept making their tackles in the face of an almost remorseless running onslaught, and they were assisted, it has to be said, by what the locals might call a drop of rain. It was bucketing down by the second half, and the shame was it didn't come sooner. This one might have been very interesting.

Connacht actually outscored Ian McGeechan's saints thereafter with the help of an Eric Elwood inspired injury-time try (the third time the former Irish out-half has done it this season) for the deserving Brian Carey, who matched his promise with bravery.

Others, too, deserve admiration: Barry Browne, for his throwing and tackling, the locks for their line-out and all-round play, the back-row for a tackle count above and beyond the call of duty, Conor MeGuinness for a fine game, and even the wingers ran back nothing balls with elusiveness. Number eight Barry Gavin made a couple of good hits on that mean machine himself Tim Rodber and regularly took the ball with gusto. At the risk of appearing patronising, Connacht played with gusto all the way when they could easily have rolled over in what was, literally, a no-win match.

Indeed it was a curious old match, in some senses a complete miss-match. When the Connacht spirit was particularly willing in the first half, they put together some of Warren Gatland's trademark spells of rucking and continuity, even forfeiting a couple of try-scoring opportunities.

Yet Connacht looked almost boney by comparison to their muscular visitors, and Northampton's policy of running all bar two of their penalties (the count was 20-14) including everything within kicking range, made some of the home team's orthodoxy appear almost outdated. (Which. in the modern try-feast, running era, it is.)

Granted kicking for touch both from hard-earned set-piece ball and penalties was justified. as much for their not unexpected line-out gains (where one of their season's finds, Shane Leahy, and Graham Heaslip, were again outstanding) as the need for a breather.

For the most part. Connacht were on the back foot. Nonhampton's cohesive running game has evolved to a point simply beyond Connacht's compass. and here we come to the part where it was a miss-match.

McQeechan makes the point that only three of his players are, ostensibly, full-time (namely Shem Tatupu, John Hearne and Martin Bayfield). "You can only do so much fitness work. It's keeping the balance between rugby and work, and keeping the players mentally fresh. The big priority is their rugby, but they've still got jobs." Indeed, his philosophy may well run slightly counter to the prevailing, fully professional outlook in the Courage League.

But there is still a world of difference between part-timers in one set-up compared with another, in this fledgling professional game, and the watching Irish coach Murray Kidd wasn't buying that one. "The difference being that they're still training twice a day individually and a lot of the jobs they've got, in fairness, are not full-time jobs."

Put simply, Northampton's semi-pros, as MeGeechan conceded, take their rugby first and their jobs, such as they are, second. With the Connacht players, it's the other way round.

Whereas the newly promoted Northamptonare challenging hard in fourth place of the English League, and lead both their Anglo-Welsh group and this European Conference group, Connacht had only a mini-tour of Sweden and the interpros to prepare them for this.

Whereas Northampton train three times a week, every week, collectively, and came here without interruption from Wednesday's home win over Orrell, Connacht regrouped in Dunvant on Thursday at 7 a.m. for a training session, returned to Ireland and their jobs later that morning, before returning to Galway for a team meeting on Friday night at 9.30.

Northampton and Connacht are not competing on a level playing field. For example, whereas the Northampton players enjoyed a day of rest yesterday, Connacht's hooker, Dr Barry Browne, was on duty again on Saturday night through until today.

Yet Browne wasn't that perturbed by the apparent gulf. Northampton weren't noticeably stronger in contact. "Fitness and organisation," he cited as the difference.

"Your only chance of a turnover was with the first hit. If you didn't make that count, then you might as well stand off and wait for the next tackles. They didn't lose it after that."