Gordon D’Arcy: Connacht’s good habits are exactly what Ireland need
Aly Muldowney’s development in Galway suggests Lam’s philosophy is sustainable
There was a subtle change to Connacht’s method of attack on Saturday which exposed the Leinster defence. More often than not Aly Muldowney carried or distributed from first receiver. But the tweak was a double pass in the forward pod so Muldowney didn’t carry or pass but tipped the ball onto Finlay Bealham who distributed out the back to Bundee Aki.
This made the Leinster line stall for a split second, nothing more, yet it was enough to create space on the outside for Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran to race into.
If you don’t come up in defence you will eventually be exposed by pace (add in far too many missed tackles for Leinster to expect to win any game, never mind the Pro12 final).
By the time defence coach Kurt McQuilkin got to fixing the problem at half-time Connacht had built a 15-point lead.
It was also apparent Robbie Henshaw and Aki were in-sync, whereas Garry Ringrose and Be Te’o were not. The Connacht centres had their spacing spot on in another seemingly small yet crucial difference between the winners and losers.
But this defeat should not be used as a stick to beat Leinster. They clawed their way back into the game and but for a dubious forward-pass call by the touch judge on Johnny Sexton, to deny Zane Kirchner a try, the result could have gone the other way. The momentum would have swung dramatically in Leinster’s favour, with Connacht not looking like scoring again.
The main point is Connacht, unquestionably, deserved to be crowned champions. They found a way in those last 15 minutes at Murrayfield much like Leinster did at the same stadium in 2009. The ability to do the right things under intense strain stood to us in the enormously tough battles that followed in 2011 and 2012.
Beating Clermont in Bordeaux always springs to mind. Now, in future times of trouble, Connacht can revert back to a similar collective muscle memory.
Of course, it can go the other way. Like last year’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. After losing all those leaders and then put under pressure by the Pumas, the Irish players went back to what they knew best rather than sticking to the gameplan.
The difference is the Connacht players don’t seem have any bad habits to fall back to. And now they will believe in their style of playing forever. Connacht stayed the course because they had no other way to play. Same goes for Leinster, who played the same way they played against Ulster.
Connacht knew this and were ready for them. They stopped their attack at source for as long as their bodies held up.
Had Connacht not won this match they could have become like so many teams that get to a final and lose; drifting away disillusioned and never able to recreate the essential binding spirit. But after Saturday they have created belief in their system which can be built on. Because they know it works no matter what comes at them.
Still, this isn’t the end of the Leinster story as we know it. Merely a chapter in the middle.
No need for drama when reflecting on this season. Leo Cullen will guarantee that. They have the correct structures in place to take lessons from this defeat to ensure they start winning trophies again.
This campaign was an absolute slog with Leo forced to use 56 players (Pat Lam had to combat a huge injury list yet only used 46 bodies).
Considering what happened last year and at the start of this season in Europe, finishing top of the Pro12 and losing the final should not be viewed as a disastrous campaign.
Back in December, after losing away and home to Toulon, I think the coaches and players would have taken a 15-point deficit at half-time in a Pro12 final against Connacht. They would have believed they could turn it around because the bones of a squad who grew up on a winning culture are driving the group now.
Robbie Henshaw is coming to Dublin to more than fill the hole left by the departure of Te’o. It will become very interesting to see where Leinster play Robbie. Connacht started him as a fullback before turning him into an outside centre but Ireland will continue to use him as a blunt object at number 12.
Henshaw will be sorely missed in Galway but this can still be the beginning of a great era for Connacht. Now they must, literally, build upon the Sportsground or somewhere in the province. Ideally a 10,000-seater stadium in Galway.
Making a profit
For a road map to sustained success they need only look across the water at the Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter. They play a similar brand of rugby, have a healthy support base and are one of the only teams making a profit in the Premiership without a wealthy benefactor.
Connacht did to Leinster what Leinster they did to Leicester in the 2009; they held their nerve to win a major final at the first time of asking. That’s their core strength now; their belief in themselves when it really matters can be mined come the battles on two fronts next season.
They will need to believe in their squad as the loss of Muldowney and Henshaw will increase the importance of the collective. I’m not yet sure how effectively these two can be replaced. Especially Muldowney. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Lam philosophy is sustainable.
Just look at what the 33-year-old lock was moulded into this season. I don’t remember Muldowney ever being a first receiver and distributor until now. He obviously possesses the skill-set for the coaches to trust him with fulfilling a key role but it was more about his ability to make the correct decisions on the gainline time and again. Much like Nick Easter extending his career by about five seasons at Harlequins, by becoming a decent ball player, I know all about losing a yard of pace and having to find a way to survive amongst the elite.
It shows what can be done with practice at any stage in a career. Muldowney was incredibly important to Connacht’s success, but Ultan Dillane could fill that roll. Injury-permitting, Dillane will be a sledgehammer in the Connacht and Ireland packs for years to come.
Amazing to think he was playing AIL Division 2A for Corinthians as recently as November.
Now can he become the brains of the operation? I see no reason why not. All the Muldowney actions are coachable and Dillane is still only 22.
Connacht’s achievement is an uplifting story at the end of bad season for Irish rugby. The World Cup fell well short of expectations and then Ireland under-performed in the Six Nations. The other three provinces struggled in the Champions Cup and none of them deserved to escape the pool stages – nor were they able to find redemption in the domestic league.
And here comes a three-Test series in South Africa to cap it all off. Lovely.
What Ireland need is what Connacht possess in abundance – good habits under pressure. That’s very hard to rediscover in a fortnight before facing a new-look Springboks at Newlands. Because when the pressure comes, and there is no more brutal or intense rugby environment, will the players revert back to what they know or stick to the gameplan?
Joe Schmidt’s coaching is all about repetition of good habits, so I expect the latter.