As 2016 grinds to a halt I'm full of the warmth of so many rugby experiences but that there is at last a unified 'ruthless pursuit of excellence' across all five professional teams is most significant. In essence, if you are a rugby player in 2017, work extremely hard and the system in place will help you be successful. Look at Connacht.
That Connacht defensive scrum at 71:50 against Wasps five out from home tells of the quality that lies therein. The turnovers were killing Connacht but they weren't playing badly. A very impressive aspect of their performance was how they changed tactics ever so slightly for the second half. As the forwards spread across the pitch, secondrow Quinn Roux was a crucial pivot when in possession. He looked like he was everywhere but was simply in his preordained slot as the ball flowed his way.
Getting the ball, he would pull it backwards to a floating back who would attempt to get it wide. Connacht have been doing this for some time to great effect. However, as predicted, the Wasps video nerd was prepared. It was clear that Wasps intended making all their hits from a rushing defensive line well behind the Connacht gainline – with the floating back the real target. In sharp contrast, Connacht did not make their tackles as far forward; so, less pressure on Wasps.
Connacht were slow to read Wasps' intentions; their floating player needed more depth to nullify the onrushing defenders. Throughout this process, Ultan Dillane remained in his traditional slot way out on the far wing, waiting for the ball to arrive.
So after that crucial Danie Poolman try on half-time, it was clear that a win was on the cards if Connacht learned from Wasps and made adjustments. This they did; Dillane came off his wing and went closer to the action and instead of a pullback he carried straight into the unsuspecting Wasp defence; or, instead of the pullback, he popped back inside.
These may seem like minor changes but the Connacht brains trust wanted to get the margins on their side. They also changed their exit strategy in the second half where instead of the patient over-and-back eking out green grass, Jack Carty elected to immediately chip over the onrushing Wasps defence; nice one.
Why make an issue of this? Well, I admired hugely their reading of Wasps and their ability to effect change; turn a Wasps strength into a weakness, if you will.
And Connacht’s lineout won them the game – six days after faltering so badly at the Ricoh Arena. It provided Connacht the platform for their two tries and when Wasps twice elected for lineout-mauls following penalties down the line, each time they were stymied by the home side.
So back to the scrum. In commentary, we noted how vulnerable Connacht were as they set for the put-in. I had been watching Marty Moore closely since his arrival and he looked angry. Angry? I assume for being dropped for the very precious match on Irish soil. Finlay Bealham was back on having been substituted, but miraculously Denis Buckley played the entire 80 minutes; with nine left they must have been exhausted.
Behind them, Lewis Stevenson was in and neither secondrow remained driving low; cocking their bottoms outwards leaving their frontrow with an impossible task. It was horrible; they turned over and conceded a try, which makes their comeback in the forward-led lineout-maul so wonderfully impressive.
In all this it's hard to single out specific players but Seán O'Brien's arrival added value; however, in numbers one (Buckley) and 15 Connacht have very special players. In Wasps, Tiernan O'Halloran provided 20 per cent of his side's metres and in the Sportsground he provided 29 per cent; extraordinary.
But it’s not the stats that catch me, it’s the reaction of his team-mates to him; total confidence in his counter-attack. He is fast becoming an Irish Isa Nacewa in his ability to enter traffic from deep and keep the ball moving by finding his support, who run the kind of ambitious lines players run when they expect their fullback to ride the tackle and offload at the exact time of most advantage.
But in Bundee Aki Ireland have a player of such unique quality that anything is possible. Unfortunately, he's injured till February. Yes, I spotted the amazing cut-down tackle on Alapati Leiua, before he got back up and smashed the 16.5 stone backrow sub Guy Thompson in a counter-ruck to win that famous scrum.
But that’s only part of the story. Twice Connacht broke from deep in the first half. The first was from a scrum free kick which John Muldoon tapped quickly and moved off. No sooner was the free kick awarded but Aki had started powering in from midfield to get on Muldoon’s shoulder. The secret in these free kicks is that that first player is not too quick off the mark as going slow is the secret. Had Muldoon exploded out of the blocks, Aki’s impact would have been reduced. So as Muldoon exited, Aki passed him at Mach-2.
He repeated this when the impressive Matt Healy exited from deep, in deep trouble. In both cases, he timed his arrival perfectly, completely flummoxing Wasps. The OODA Loop at its best. He’ll be missed tonight.