Key to Connacht success smells like team spirit
News came through of Nice's failure to beat Northampton at about 9.00 in Galwegians Rugby Club on Saturday night. Now Connacht will have to go to Franklin Gardens next Saturday and at least draw to gain the sole European Conference quarter-final spot which goes to the pool winners. Big deal. The players just carried on singing anyway.
As they gave their own, er, uniquely up-tempo rendition of The Fields of Athenry, the thought occurred that Connacht currently have something that you just can't bottle. And it was that, as much as the improved line-out control, quick-paced rucking game and in-your-face midfield defence which earned another famous victory.
Make no mistake, this was another famous Connacht victory, but they just keep coming one after the other so repeatedly this season that there's a danger of taking them for granted.
Not for the players, mind, nor the coaches. At the end, a typically-impassive Warren Gatland and his assistant Michael Cosgrave remained by the touchline, often silently, sometimes smiling, sometimes shaking their heads. Connacht keep on rolling. Pinch us we must be dreaming.
"I'm just delighted that we can not play that well in the first-half and still get away with a win," said Gatland. "The further the game went on, the better we got. We've a few things to work on, but it's been a dream for us really."
Connacht have far and away exceeded their own expectations, almost scarily so, and are about a year ahead of schedule. "It would be nice if we could actually make the quarter-finals now, but if we don't, we've already achieved more than we set out to achieve."
The Connacht edge this day? "I just think playing for 80 minutes and not throwing the towel in. We were strong defensively and our halves kicked well, and when we got the opportunity to score, we pulled something out of the bag. Our discipline was pretty good also, but we can play a lot better than that too."
A little classical element of French self-destruction helped too.
Frankly, brilliant though they can be, some of the French antics this season at European club level are becoming tedious and juvenile. Babies take defeat better.
About a stone per man heavier, Begles looked to have the winning of the game when two tries turned around a couple of early Eric Elwood penalties. But they lost their way, lacked control at halfback, squandered try-scoring chances and but for a rash of late penalties, lost the penalty count 21-16; support runners going to ground brazenly at the breakdown and fringe defenders living offside.
However, all of that also served to highlight Connacht's vastly superior discipline and collective mental strength. Somehow, you sensed they'd get there - and when have we ever sensed that about Connacht teams before?
In a team without stars, Elwood excepted, this was the old cliche of a true team effort. Furthermore, the rain descended on the Sportsground for the first time this season and a dry ball would definitely have suited Connacht better - and when have we said that about Connacht before?
Indeed, the conditions seemed to induce a degree of self-doubt. Though the Connacht halves kicked well into the deceptivelystrong wind, enabling Billy Mulcahy to enjoy the vast majority of the put-ins in locating Mark McConnell, their handling out wide was unsure and up front they tried to outrumble the heavier Begles pack.
To compound all of this, a collective lapse in concentration resulted in a 10-point turnover. Nigel Carolan having followed up a missed Elwood penalty on the half-hour, no one was covering for the left-winger when the French typically and quick-wittedly dropped out to the open side for the unmarked Alexandre Bouyssie to make ground and kick ahead. Elwood's fumble of the attempted pick-up enabled Thomas Ossard to plunder a soft try.
"I was a bit disappointed in the first-half that we actually tried to maul them a bit too much," admitted Gatland. "I said at halftime than they were doing to us what we actually wanted to be doing to them; hitting rucks in numbers and speeding the game up. And that's why I think the second-half was a lot better."
The pace of the second-half was palpably quicker. Still, Connacht had some defending to do, Mulcahy, Barry Gavin, Shane Leahy and Shane McEntee putting in some good hits around the fringes, while the Elwood-Mervyn Murphy-Pat Duignan axis, as usual, pushed up and made tackles or forced errors.
Credit to the Connacht pack too, for sticking with Begles up front, though in truth this was another consummate team effort.
Still, they lived on a knife-edge in the third quarter. Willie Ruane turned well to win a marginal race for the touchdown when chipped by Bouyssie. Pascal Fauthoux squandered a try in the corner for Rob McDonald with a forward pass, all after Julien Berthe sliced a 15-metre drop goal wide with Connacht stretched to breaking point and when it seemed harder to miss.
Therein lay a huge difference, for in Elwood, Connacht had a match-winning number 10. Aside from six kicks out of eight, to bring his Conference haul to 79, it was Elwood's sleight of hand, literally one hand, which teed up Carolan for the decisive try.
Plan A having failed when the drive off McConnell's take was held up (as it usually was), Plan B saw the stretching Elwood deliver his Sportsground party piece with a one-handed reverse pass behind his back. Carolan, coming in off his wing at full tilt, carved through diagonally under the posts.
By rights, they should be in the quarter-finals already, and would be but for John Pearson's controversial late penalty try to Nice in injury time three weeks ago. At the very least, after hammering Northampton, the latter should have to win by a demanding target, but Nice's collapse in Franklin Gardens when travelling over on the morning of the game gives Ian McGeechan a superior points difference. So it's winner takes all, the draw favouring Connacht.
That's as maybe now anyway. The Connacht men looked none too bothered on Saturday night. The case of champagne travels to Northampton and the comforting thing is that regardless of the outcome, they can uncork it anyway. Besides, they've got something that can't be bottled.