Gatland's impressive Connacht roll on


Words can't do it justice really. This Connacht team, the Cinderella province's first team of princes, have something that's indescribable, intangible. To witness their rendition of Red Is The Rose in the dressing-room immediately after they stormed the Franklin's Gardens citadel was to be privileged indeed.

It was hairs-on-the-neck stuff. But perhaps it was the singing of it in the team meeting at the squad's hotel an hour or so beforehand which was the kernel to the latest, greatest hour in Connacht's history.

With the tactics discussed (after a good luck call from Jim Glennon on behalf of Leinster), and with the players fidgeting nervously, Warren Gatland turned compere and commanded the sing-along. By all accounts it was very emotional. Fifteen men against the world, but in a positive sense. Gatland, ever the master of the mind games, had them primed and ready after a gradual build-up of intensity all week long.

This was Club Connacht. They went to the game, and were told to strut their stuff, to be cocky, to believe. They entered Franklin's Gardens - a lovely, half-full, picturesque all-seater 9,500 capacity, with their chins up. It may explain why 15 men, 18 including the substitutes, were clearly prepared to die rather than let Northampton through, especially during the six minutes of extraordinary injury time in which the Saints ran everything but never made it outside their 10-metre line.

To see the Connacht bench almost encroach the pitch in those moments while Northampton's sat stoney-faced told you something about Connacht's superior togetherness. One Northampton blazer, having been informed that this Connacht team costs the IRFU about £300,000 (no pool bonus was even discussed), responded: "Heck, we could shoot our lot, hire you guys, and save £2 million."

There was a neat historical symmetry to it. Eric Elwood's opening penalty almost landed on the Connacht banner, being held by the players' wives and girlfriends, bearing the team's T-shirt slogan: "To Hell or To Connacht." Given it was a Northampton man, Oliver Cromwell, who first said those words, it seemed fitting that Connacht condemned them to elimination while the westerners move on to the quarter-finals and so extended their season by a month.

It's just possible, you know, that this is the best achievement by an Irish province. Given it's Connacht, and no disrespect intended, it's both all the more remarkable and the sweeter. After all, the likes of Leicester and Bath went down here last year. Harlequins were hard-pressed and lucky to win eight weeks ago by 26-23. Northampton, with their quartet of Lions and host of internationals, are a serious force at home.

But, as Gatland said when reiterating the sentiments he expressed after their week-long, twogame odyssey in France: "To beat us you'll have to earn it."

Much of it has to be down to Gatland. He has instilled an astonishing work-rate and spirit amongst a team of largely unheralded players, Elwood apart, although that might change now.

Connacht adhere to the Kiwi doctrine of Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS): nothing too flashy, a wellorganised drift defence tailored on this occasion to the erratic, unpredictable genius of Gregor Townsend; a well-drilled rucking game tailored to their own strengths and a multi-varied, intelligent line-out strategy founded on the pin-point throwing of Billy Mulcahy and the options of Graham Heaslip and Mark McDonnell.

Yet, when it comes to the heel of the hunt, it's still down to 15 men collectively putting their necks on the line and, probably for the sixth game running, not one of them let the side down. This was another consummate team effort. The tackle count was enormous.

Conor McGuinness perhaps shaded it for man-of-the-match. His unerringly astute kicking (not once conceding the throw-in) augmented some big tackles around the fringes. But, quite genuinely, he really did have 14 rivals for the award.

It almost goes without saying that the Elwood-Mervyn Murphy Pat Duignan defence was magnificent. So much so that it took the brilliance of Townsend to slice through after sustained pressure for the one and only time.

He nearly repeated the feat at a crucial moment in the final quarter as Northampton pressed at 1020. But cometh the hour, literally, Nicky Barry shepherded him inside when Townsend had a five-to-one overlap, and then tapped the ball out of the Lions' out-half's hands as Graham Heaslip and Barry Gavin made the double hit from inside under the Connacht crossbar.

For all of Gatland's Kiwi KISS, he's also an innovator, and Connacht had taken the lead through John Maher with one of their trademark moves off a 13-man line-out.

Connacht, far more familiar with the pouring rain, won the match in the third quarter with a perceptible shift in tactics. McGuinness kicked unerringly for position and popped the ball to the close-in runners.

But Elwood gave them another dimension when that strategy had laid the platform. Playing the game near the gain line and so giving himself options, the Connacht out-half made the sweetest of breaks and Junior Charlie was on his shoulder to score under the posts.

Townsend kept moving the sodden ball expansively and so played into the hands of the Connacht tacklers; the ponderous Nick Beal knocked-on to keep the initiative with Connacht. The ubiquitous Maher and Mick Finlay had huge games, too, and it was from the latter's good break that Murphy worked a dummy pass with Duignan for Ruane to make ground and put Nigel Carolan over for his third try of the Conference campaign.

That gave Connacht a 20-10 buffer for the final, expanded quarter, and they needed it after Jonathan Bell (making his first appearance since August 16th) made Townsend's mind up for him with a well-timed late run and decisive call to score in the corner.

Connacht deserved to win a game which was compelling from first minute to last and brilliantly controlled by Derek Bevan. Irish rugby days don't come much better than this.

Their pool record probably means Connacht will be drawn away from home against Newcastle or French opposition. So what. This win extends their season by a month, during which they'll have to locate a friendly match or two (the touring New South Wales are too pricey).

"I'd give them a chance against anybody in the quarter-finals," admitted McGeechan. And you would.