Front Up Rise Up extract: Connacht on the brink of history
Pro12 final is four days away and Pat Lam and co are plotting Leinster’s downfall
John Muldoon celebrates with Eric Elwood after Connacht’s victory over Leinster in Edinburgh. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht players in a huddle during the captain’s run at Murrayfield. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
John Muldoon drove from his home to the Sportsground, arriving shortly after 8.45am, parked his car, walked back to the main entrance and into the Connacht changing-room.
Strapping was optional before morning weights, then forwards’ and backs’ unit meetings and, for Muldoon, the weekly media duties at 12.15.
He’d noticed that Monday training had been “a little bit nervier” than normal. Players had got things wrong. Some had had a go at each other. Still, he thought, they’d get it right by the end of the week.
“There were about 15 players in the dressing-room when I walked in. The lads were bouncing around the place, practising some Samoan song that Bundee has adapted for Connacht. I don’t know where it came from. It’s the song that has been put up on video. I thought to myself, ‘You wouldn’t think it’s the week of a big final.’ There was a real calm, and I thought, ‘Jaysus, we could be all right here.’”
“Tuesday is a massive day,” says Lam. The forwards and backs do weights at different times, interspersed with Jimmy Duffy’s meeting with the forwards and Andre Bell’s meeting with the backs. His own morning begins with a senior leadership meeting in the offices upstairs with Willie Ruane, Niamh Hoyne (head of finance), Karl Boyle (head of operations), Tim Allnutt, Nigel Carolan and Eric Elwood.
That meeting started at 9.15am and finished at 10.20am. In an initiative introduced by Ruane, the chairperson is rotated and everyone comes away with a clear understanding of what they are all doing each week.
The ticketing issue had dominated the previous week. This meeting centred on flights and hiring a charter plane for the return journey, organised by Boyle and Allnutt. Since the full-time whistle in the semi-final, they’d been working on the cost and size of the plane. They’d settled upon a 130-seater plane, of which 46 seats were being reserved for those who had played in the league that season, thus omitting four members of the academy who had not played.
“When the academy boys come in, it has to be earned,” says Lam. “They have to earn everything, a message I try to get out from day one: that it’s a privilege to be training with the senior team. They might not have the same gear or a suit. If a player is given everything without earning it, you’re sending out the wrong messages. So we decided that the full professional squad would travel along with the academy boys who had started training from day one. There were another four guys who had joined at different times during the season but hadn’t yet played.”
“Pat, we’ve had a discussion amongst the players, and we’d like those four lads to go, and the boys are going to chip in.”
“Sweet,” said Lam. “Well done. I like it. Good.”
In the meantime, Lam had observed Duffy train the forwards and Bell the backs. As the coaches need to know the replacements for the final, Lam then announced the make-up of the bench.
As with the starting team, the bench was unchanged, meaning no place for their naturalised South African lock Quinn Roux, even though he would go on to make his debut for Ireland against the Springboks the following month.
“You need to have another lineout caller on the bench, and Aly Muldowney and Andrew Browne call the lineouts,” explains Lam. “Quinn and Ultan don’t yet. Jimmy’s working on them, but effectively Ultan and Quinn are competing for their place.
“Jack Carty was a tough one [to leave out] too. Who would have thought, at the start of the season, that Shane O’Leary would be in our final match-day squad? But if you asked what our strongest team was at the start of the season, it was far from what we ended up with. But that’s what happens in rugby, and that’s why I always encourage players to keep working.”
Leaving out Craig Ronaldson was also tough, but, like Carty and others, he just ran out of time. In this decision-making process, Lam stresses to the players that he never mixes selections and relationships. It was partly with this in mind that he introduced the Connacht handshake every morning.
“It used to bug me as a player that the coach would be my best mate when he picked me, and then would blank me when he didn’t. That’s the beauty of having the handshakes every morning. I know players are disappointed, but my relationship is one thing and my selection is another, based on a thorough process. I don’t like to mix it. So I’ll still say ‘Good morning’ and treat all the players exactly the same. How they deal with it is their problem.”
Lam then joined Muldoon for their 12.30 media session, after which Allnutt thrust a sandwich into his hand. The players left for lunch before a 1.20pm team meeting in advance of the main training session on the main pitch at 2pm.
The meeting centred on their defensive review and the fundamentals about contact, during which Ellis, Duffy and McPhillips demonstrated their drills on the video screen. McPhillips had focused on Leinster’s attack, and the on-field session would highlight key things learned from the last time Connacht played Leinster.
It had been widely reported that Leinster’s performance against Ulster had been their best of the season, and publicly Lam was happy to go along with that. Privately, though, he placed an onus on his 10-12-13, MacGinty, Aki and Henshaw, to deny Leinster’s playmakers time and space, which in his view Ulster had also done.
“Everyone said how well they played, and they did, but as with Finn Russell and Glasgow, players always look good with time and space. When you take time and space away from them, you don’t just affect the ball carrier, you affect the timing and rhythm of the whole team.
“Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose had looked particularly good, but they’d had time. If you take away even one second, or a couple of metres, not only do you affect them but also those around them. So one key was to ensure AJ, Bundee and Robbie [Henshaw] pushed up hard. My system on defence is pretty organised and, similar to attack, makes the most of the talent we’ve got. An ‘in your face’ defence is what those boys have.”
On the main pitch at the Sportsground, a group of 15 went with McPhillips to mimic the Leinster attack, and the rest stayed with Lam for a defensive drill. They then moved on to Ellis and Duffy for footwork and clear-out drills, before Lam brought them all together to run a drill on their defensive shape, both to counter Leinster’s phase play and set plays.
Every session is videoed from high and close angles, mimicking a match, so they can move on quickly from one drill to the next. If there’s a mistake, rather than discuss it on the training ground, this way it can be reviewed more accurately later. A full-scale game follows, which is as much as anything a blow-out.
Akin to Joe Schmidt signing off an Irish session, Lam will use his whistle to transition from defence to attack and vice versa, in sets of two and three minutes, and with input from head of fitness Paul Bunce.
They then moved on to ‘fundamentals’ – specific drills with two-minute rotations that they’ve been doing all season. McPhillips worked on the first part of the contact and the clean out, Ellis on the tackles, and then Duffy and Bell work on the ‘plus-ones’, ie the support players.
“These drills,” says Lam, “are our bread and butter.”
They finished the session with exit drills, ie exits from their own territory, before a squad huddle and 10 minutes of individualised skills.
The session had lasted for about an hour. It was now 3pm. Some players lingered on the pitch, mostly the kickers and Aki, who never wants to go home. At about 3.15pm, the coaches assembled for a meeting along the corridor from the changing-room.
This began with an update from head physio Garrett Coughlan regarding any niggles or injuries. Bunce talked about the training load and provided feedback on how the weights session went and any red flags or warning signs concerning players, before the coaches reviewed the training session.
Lam asked for feedback.
“Andre, tell me, are the boys sharp?”
“Yeah, everyone is. There’s a really good feeling.”
Bell went through a couple of things he was happy with.
“Yeah, good. A couple of the guys were maybe a little bit grumpy, but generally, yeah, I’m really happy.”
That confirmed to Lam how well he felt the session had gone.
They talked about Thursday’s session and what needed to be done.
“Let’s just do what we normally do,” said Duffy, to uniform agreement.
“So,” says Lam, “everything was cool.”
That night, Eric Elwood had “a bit of news” for his wife Tara and their three children. For weeks, he had had a strong feeling Connacht were on to something and at the very least were going to reach the final, but he didn’t want to tempt fate.
“I’m not an arrogant guy in any way. There were so many times I wanted to press the button for the flights just in case, because I had a good feeling. I’ve watched a lot of rugby and I said, ‘I’m telling you, Tara’, but it’s not in me. I couldn’t do it.”
First thing at the Sportsground on Monday morning, Elwood booked the trip for himself and his family: a drive to Belfast on Thursday for the Friday-morning ferry to Scotland, a drive to Edinburgh, two nights in an Edinburgh hotel, the return ferry to Belfast and the drive back down to Galway on Sunday night.
He then had to spend the rest of that day and Tuesday in Dublin, during which Tara said to him over the phone, “You can’t go without Callum.”
“I had it booked, but I couldn’t tell her because I wanted to tell her face to face. I wanted that ‘we’re going to Disneyland’ family moment.”
He drove home from Dublin on the Tuesday night, sat his family down and said, “Bit of news. I want to tell you something . . . about this Pro12 final . . . we’re all going!”
Cue the screams. Not only Callum and the girls, but Tara went wild too.
“They were leaping around the kitchen. To see their faces was fantastic.”
Front Up, Rise Up: The official story of Connacht Rugby is published by Random House Penguin and will be in the shops on Thursday November 3rd. There will be signings with players at Eason, Galway on Saturday November 26th (11am); Athlone, Thursday December 1st (6pm); and Dubray, Galway, Sunday December 4th (2pm).