Alan Quinlan: Connacht on path to Europe after derbies light up Christmas

Ulster and Munster now massive games for province after Six Nations

Connacht’s Mils Muliaina, Miah Nikora and Kieran Marmion enjoy victory over Munster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Mils Muliaina, Miah Nikora and Kieran Marmion enjoy victory over Munster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

There was no contest when it came to picking out the best thing about the rugby over Christmas. The derbies in the Pro12 – and not just in Ireland – gave the competition an injection of intensity just when it needed it. The Pro12 will always be behind Europe in terms of excitement and buzz but some of those games over Christmas would make you think twice about what you were watching. It was great entertainment.

You couldn’t take your eyes off the Scarlets v Ospreys game on Saturday. It was tetchy stuff and there was obvious niggle all the way through it. The game was stopped a few times and looked like it might spill over. Ospreys had won the previous Saturday so Scarlets were out for revenge and it didn’t matter that they were a full 16 points behind the league leaders at the start of play. They hammered into them and won 22-10 in the end.

Bite in the game

Edinburgh and Glasgow played out a couple of serious matches as well and came away with a win apiece. Treviso got the upper hand over Zebre in both matches but even at that, they only managed a 17-15 win at home. The Irish provinces had some ding-dong battles too.

Local derbies aren’t just about teams against teams or fanbases against fanbases. On a personal level, they’re one-on-one battles that have to be won. You’re coming up against players who you’re in direct competition with to get into the international squad or team. You’re going into these games knowing that every play is being watched and assessed and that comparisons are being made between you and someone else.

You are completely judged on those games. You know it, the other guy knows it and you both play accordingly. It isn’t just any other league game. It’s a deliberately pressurised environment and watching on are the national team coaches who want to see how you cope. They can really focus on you in a scenario that they can’t recreate in training. This is it, do it or forget about it.

Chances to impress

From an Irish point of view, Connacht’s win over Munster was the obvious stand-out result. Coming back from a 0-13 deficit in the Sportsground tells you a lot about the sort of team spirit Pat Lam has going on there. They’ve recruited very well obviously, although it has to be said that they’re helped by the fact that the IRFU’s overseas player rule doesn’t apply to them.

Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney – these are serious signings. Someone like Muliaina could have the same sort of effect on the younger players in Connacht that John Langford had on us in Munster away back at the end of the ’90s. Obviously young players now are more professional than we were then but that confidence and mental strength carried by someone with 100 caps for the All Blacks must be inspiring for those Connacht players to be around.

Lam has done a really good job. The key to it is the spirit he has created. It takes a lot to get players to Connacht in the first place and the challenge for him has been to convince the likes of Muliaina and Aki that they wouldn’t be better off somewhere else. You get drawn into that challenge because of a desire to prove yourself in a place where it looks unlikely.

He had a difficult experience with Auckland in Super Rugby and he obviously sees this as his chance to get going again. Connacht can be a springboard to better things for him. Or maybe he will change the perception of them altogether and make it so that they’re not seen as a place to go to get yourself back in the game. He obviously wants to change Connacht into a place where good players go, not at the end of their career but when it really counts.

On top of the team spirit, they’re playing good rugby. The time when their most effective tactic was to kick the ball up in the air and chase after it is gone. The weather was brutal in Galway but unlike in other years, that didn’t suit them. They can compete now, they can move the ball. They kick less than they did and look to use their pace.

They’ve brought a few quality young players through the academy. Robbie Henshaw is the obvious one, but you look at the likes of Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty and Eoin McKeon too. These are players that will be pushing to get into Irish squads over the next few years.

Marmion is a really big player for them. Ever since he came over from the Exiles, he has blossomed in the Connacht system. He hasn’t just hung around as a promising young player, he has kicked on and improved in a short space of time. He is the heartbeat of Connacht’s game, always sniping around the fringes and driving their play.

Extra dimension

Obviously, Henshaw is the one they have to hold onto. It’s crucial that he stays. Apart from the blow it would be to them on the pitch, it would be a huge symbolic thing if he left. It would be saying that this version of Connacht is more or less the same as the ones that went before.

He has been incredibly loyal so far but you can only push that loyalty to a certain limit. If Connacht don’t qualify for Europe, could anyone blame Henshaw for looking at offers from Munster or Leinster? They need to keep this good run going and be in the mix at the end of the season.

Their record this season is identical to Leinster’s and Ulster’s in terms of wins, draws and losses. The reason they are three points off Ulster and four off Leinster is that they’ve only managed a single try bonus point and a just one losing bonus. When the final analysis of the season is done, the derby results will be vital for them one way or another.

Zane Kirchner’s late try in the RDS the Friday before Christmas came from a mistake and robbed them of a bonus point. They had Ulster in their sights in Ravehill on St Stephen’s Day but despite getting within three points with 12 minutes to go, they couldn’t get over for a winner.

Tight margins

But qualification for Europe is a definite possibility for them now. One result that stood out for me was when they beat Zebre 43-3 back at the end of November. For the last two years, Connacht have only won that fixture by nine points and four points. The idea of them running up a 40-point win over anyone just never came about. But once they’re able to do that, they can really focus on competing in the games against the teams around them.

And that means the derbies. They don’t face an Irish team again until after the Six Nations but along with the game against Scarlets next month, those clashes are huge for Connacht now.

They play Munster in Thomond Park the weekend after the Six Nations finishes and then Ulster in the Sportsground a fortnight later.

Imagine the buzz there will be in Limerick and Galway for those games. Derby games with massive prizes at stake, local crowds full of excitement at the possibilities.

The Christmas games gave us a taste of what it might be like. No better situation for Connacht to continue the great journey of their season so far.

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