New Year’s Day, 2015
The phone rings. I have just stopped off for a coffee in a deserted Ennis town centre. Who else would venture out on a day like this? Please God the game is off.
No such luck.
“Your accreditation is available for pick up”.
The Sportsground in Galway is just about the last place you want to be when the gales are howling in from the Atlantic and the rain is cascading down. Despite all that, we were treated to a captivating match with Connacht starting the year on a very positive note, an impressive 24-16 win over Munster.
I make a mental note of their new signing from the Waikato Chiefs, Bundee Aki. He looks impressive. Connacht will enjoy that one. Victories over Munster are rare and therefore savoured.
Three months later Connacht rock up at Thomond Park with a swagger in their step. Munster win 42-20. Normal service resumed...
April 16, 2016
The sun is splitting the stones. Despite an imaginary rebuke from Roy Keane, I call into Moran’s on the Weir and order a prawn sandwich. Connacht have already beaten Munster this season, 18-12 in Thomond Park, their first win in Limerick since 1986. When I arrive at the Sportsground, I receive the customary warm welcome.
“How will it go today?” Without wishing to sound patronising, I respond that I fancy Connacht.
“Na, Munster’s need is greater,” is the retort. “Why do you think Connacht will win?”
Because I believe that, right now, they are the better team.
And so it proved. So, what did I learn from my latest sojourn to Galway?
Given the way Connacht are playing at present, it isn’t difficult to understand the hype surrounding some of their stand out backs, in particular Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun, Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw. They are a joy to watch.
The back row also attracts its share of admirers, but having seen them up close Saturday night, it’s the work rate and graft of the Connacht front five that impressed me most. The front row offers the perfect mix of power and athleticism especially from their two props, Denis Buckley and Finley Bealham, whose handling is immaculate.
Bealham was very fortunate not to have received the yellow card that was harshly shown to James Cronin. If one went then, at the very least, both should have gone. Connacht hooker Tom McCartney is also a canny operator. Excellent at the key fundamentals of his game — his striking and line out deliveries — he also knows his limitations and operates more as a link man in broken play as he doesn’t carry the bulk necessary to operate as a punishing ball carrier.
But it’s the workrate and skill level with ball in hand of the two second rows that really caught my eye. Ultan Dillane exploded onto the international stage in Twickenham but looks an even more impressive operator in the tight confines of the Sportsground. He carries well, using his feet to step and evade people rather than bulk to plough through opposition tacklers.
Likewise Aly Muldowney, who was terrific for Connacht last season, and has continued in that vein this year. Along with Dillane, he is more than assured on his own lineout and is a constant thorn on the opposition throw as he looks to put the pressure on in the air at every opportunity. With a functioning front five, Pat Lam is offered a decent platform to build his expansive game.
It has already been remarked upon that Connacht’s game-plan under Pat Lam is very similar in structure to that introduced to Munster under Rob Penney. The difference is that Lam was offered the time to perfect it and it is only now, in his third year in charge, that his players fully understand it and, of even more importance, have built up the necessary skillset to implement his plan.
Lam started at the basics and recognised that Connacht needed to improve their handling and evasion skills. The key in implementing that was the appointment of a specialist skills coach in New Zealander, Dave Ellis.
When Penney tried to go down that road he faced scepticism from within the camp and from vast swathes of the province’s support.
Munster’s traditional foundations were based on a ravenous forward pack and dominant half backs. It had worked for years so why change?
Penney recognised immediately that, even with Paul O’Connell on board, Munster didn’t have the resources up front to bully any of the emerging French and English powerhouses. He had to find another way. Even through that transitional process Munster reached successive Heineken Cup semi- finals and remained competitive in those outings against top of the range sides in Clermont-Auvergne and Toulon.
Unlike Munster, Connacht stuck with the long-term plan and are now reaping the benefits. Having already qualified for Champions Cup rugby for the first time under their own steam, the focus now switches to securing a home semi-final in the PRO12. On the evidence of Saturday’s outing, they have reached the point where they fear nobody, especially on home turf.
I am not in favour of the three-year residency rule — at a minimum it should be five — that enables uncapped overseas players play for the country of their employers but it is a fact and all countries, including Ireland, are availing of the facility.
If CJ Stander has bought into the Irish culture and won the hearts of Irish rugby supporters everywhere with his wholehearted performances in green then Bundee Aki has the capacity to do likewise. Every time he dons that Connacht jersey, he puts his heart and soul into his performance.
Of even more importance, he offers skill and pace in attack along with massive physicality in defence.
The only question now is — does he want to play international rugby for Ireland? Is he here to enjoy new life experiences and should he be offered a lucrative new contract from French or English suitors, which must be on the cards, would he opt instead for greater financial security.
What is clear is that Aki would add greatly to the growing stock of centres pushing their claim for a place in midfield for Ireland.
After all, Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw were parachuted into the position having played the vast majority of their rugby at full-back before Joe Schmidt paired them together.
After his latest sterling performance against Munster, I would suggest the IRFU’s director of rugby, David Nucifora, spends a night in Galway and invite Aki out to dinner. If the New Zealander makes it absolutely clear that he has a genuine desire to play at international level for Ireland, then Nucifora should offer him an improved package that incentivises him to complete his three-year residency and see him become Irish qualified before the end of 2017.
He is worth the investment. Despite suggestions to the contrary, 13 of Connacht’s starting team along with the entire bench last Saturday are Irish qualified, the exceptions being Aki and McCartney. Time to reduce that even further.
If the fallout from the meek surrender to Stade Francais in Paris was pretty explosive at the time, the Munster coaching ticket is experiencing a full frontal assault after what transpired in Galway.
The problem is the issues that were there at the outset of the season are still there seven months down the line. It is a function of coaching to rectify those. Right now everything has to be geared towards the immediate goal of finding a way to beat Edinburgh in Cork on Friday week.
By then the new director of rugby could even be appointed and the restructuring that is so badly needed can start. It would be a help if Champions Cup rugby was part of the package to enable the new man attract some marquee signings. At least that remains firmly in Munster hands and can be secured in 10 days’ time.
The remaining issues will take a lot longer to resolve.