Are they ready to literally change the face of the Irish XV meeting South Africa at Newlands tomorrow. Not yet, even if the composition of Joe Schmidt’s back three is interesting in itself.
However, in one important way, the manner of their ascension to the podium position in the Pro12 has changed rugby forever in Ireland. It has changed coaching, changed the perception of how we should do things. How detailed coaching, unbelievable hunger levels, and attitude can override strict templates and blueprints. Connacht, under Pat Lam, is a team with a serious game plan and they practise it.
The concrete evidence is there to show that if you have a philosophy and adhere rigidly to principles, practising every day, you improve. There is no greater proof of that than the stories of Leicester City and Connacht Rugby.
Lam believes in how he wants to play, he coaches those players in those systems every day, and Connacht players get better every day. The greatest mystery in the recent final at Murrayfield was how there was only a 10-point difference between the teams at the end, Connacht were that much over Leinster. They throttled them.
You watch Ireland under Joe Schmidt, they are so well coached. Then consider Connacht under Lam, who are equally well coached. The game is the same, but the two approaches are very different. From a young coach’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch and study such direction and belief from the top down.
If Lam and Connacht are a benchmark to strive for, they are not in the realm of test rugby. Let’s keep realism in the conversation. They’ve won a Pro12, they haven’t won a Champions Cup. Five or 10 years ago, that was the benchmark for Irish provinces. Remember, there are no English or French clubs in the Pro12.
Test rugby is on another plain. When you get to the test arena, the quality is so much stronger, defences are better, time on the ball is less. Schmidt changes things on the basis of who he is playing, and he has smart players at his disposal. The trick is for the Connacht lads to bring that belief and confidence with them to the Irish set-up and see how they stir the sauce a little bit.
Schmidt isn’t going changing anything, because of the fairytale of the west. If you needed evidence of that, look at the starters and replacements for tomorrow’s opening test in South Africa.
However, Dillane, Healy, and O’Halloran will bring confidence and vitality and there’s no set-up has too much of that. Watching how well Ultan Dillane carried in that Pro12 final, bullocking over Leinster players, was very interesting.
The Healy-O’Halloran ticket is likely to see action at some stage against the Boks over the next few weeks. The irony is that, in terms of being a pure finisher, the one who didn’t travel, Niyi Adeolokun, looks as exciting as any of the new breed in Connacht.
Connacht’s meteoric rise has many in Munster doing ‘I told you so’ with regard to Rob Penney’s systems with the province. That’s a mistake and an erroneous comparison. Without getting overly technical, Connacht play a 2-4-2 pod system, much as Munster played under Penney. That game wasn’t thrown out the window by the players, as some reported. The big difference is Connacht play numbers one, three, four and five in the middle (pod) of the pitch, and keep six and seven and two and eight out wide in two distinct pods.
Munster played with the two second rows in the wide channels, which didn’t suit. That, in itself was a massive difference. The strength of a coach is selecting a way of playing on the basis of the players he has.
What Ireland and Schmidt face tomorrow in Capetown, no-one knows. Certainly, the South African lads at Racing don’t. There is a changing of the guard there too — no Smit, Matfield, Burger, or Botha to lead the group, now. The Springboks of 2016 will be nothing as formidable in the noughties, and tomorrow is the best day to expose that.
Here’s the weird thing. The show goes on in your own little world. Within three years of retiring from test rugby, an Irish test match in Capetown just might pass me by. Why? Racing 92’s season is down to tomorrow evening, at home to Toulouse in the quarter-finals of the Top 14.
Cup rugby now.
Beating Montpellier last Sunday night gave us a shot at third, and a home tie with sixth-placed Castres. We stood on the pitch at the end of our game, wishing Toulon would be denied the bonus point that gave them second place and a straight route to the semi-finals.
It’s been an enlightening few weeks since the Champions Cup final loss to Saracens. The hangover lasted a week, probably 10 days. We beat two teams with nothing to play for, Pau and La Rochelle, and have Dan Carter back training this week, but if we come up short in Colombes tomorrow evening, holidays start Sunday... and I don’t want holidays. I’m driving to the ground as Ireland kick off against the Boks and I don’t need the season to end.
We’ve had legal issues with a player that you’ve probably heard about. I am learning things like subjudice, and the legal rights of players in disciplinary procedures. You never address this sort of thing as a player, but as a coach or manager, you get all sorts of curveballs. It’s all new and interesting.
The Top 14 is some championship to be involved in when you look at who play who this weekend. Clermont and Toulon go straight to semis, Racing host Toulouse, Montpellier entertain Castres. If you fly too close to the sun, the fall can be sudden.
Biarritz have slipped below the D2 this season, essentially into the third tier of French rugby. Bayonne are back in the Top 14. It wasn’t long ago a merger between the clubs was on the cards. Biarritz would be a Leeds Utd were it not for the generosity of Serge Kampf, their past president who passed away recently. That famous outfit, beaten by Munster a decade ago in a Heineken Cup final, is worried about much more than the end of this season.