“Be careful what you wish for: you just might get it.”
What a terrible, hack-ish way to start off. Don’t worry, it’s all straight downhill from here.
Connacht went into the game against Harlequins, the last game of their inaugural Heineken Cup campaign, with nothing to play for but pride. That seemed to do it for them, however, as they put in a monumental effort to deny the high-flying leaders of the Aviva Premiership both the win and the chance to go to the quarter-finals.
For many diehard Connacht fans – and Connacht have some very, very loyal fans who haven’t had much in the way of success to sustain them over the years – participation in the Heineken Cup was seen as the Holy Grail. Leinster and Munster may look to win the trophy on an annual basis, but for Connacht getting the chance just to compete in the tournament was a very big deal in itself.
Going To The Well For The Holy Grail [and other clichés]
The lure of the Heineken Cup, outside of the financial benefits which are largely accrued by the IRFU, is undeniable … but it can be difficult to quantify. There’s the chance to test yourself against some of the biggest clubs and the best players in Europe, and Connacht were guaranteed this particular challenge – facing the best – as fourth seeds in their group. Tied to this is the opportunity for their players to show what they can do at a level directly below test rugby, and push forward their claims to international caps.
Amongst Irish rugby supporters, there’s a huge commitment and trust placed in Heineken Cup performances – witness all the talk pre-RWC11 quarterfinal about how the Irish players would be better prepared than their Welsh counterparts because of their successes in the HEC – and a very sizeable portion of rugby followers still treat the Pro12 as second-class rugby. There’s a self-confirming opinion that you can be playing lights-out rugby in the league, but if you can’t bring it to the HEC, you won’t make the step up to test rugby.
Away from the playing side, there’s the glamour of being involved from the supporters’ viewpoint: the excellent technical coverage afforded by the first-rate Sky Sports broadcasting team; the esteem of being one of the twenty-four most important rugby clubs in Europe – moreso than traditional heavyweights like London Wasps or Perpignan or Sale Sharks or Stade Francais, all of them competing a rung below in the Amlin Challenge Trophy – and being a fixture of the HEC weekends, with all the hype and spending that ensues; the structure of the competition itself, with every home game being a ‘must-win’ and demanding a cup-match attitude from players and fans alike; the scarcity of tickets, and the excitement that surrounds getting your hands on them … again, a range of phenomena that are more or less intangible.
Cup Runneth Over … With Losses
However, the most pertinent, tangible fact is that Connacht went into their final pool match having lost every game they had played in the competition.
They by no means disgraced themselves – they can take a look at their recent Pro12 conquerors Aironi, who shipped a whopping eighty-two [82!] points at home to Clermont, while the Westies fell to Toulouse in the Stade Ernest Wallon by the respectable enough score of 3-24 – but have instead come out on the wrong side of three tight games:
- Round 1 11/11/11 Harlequins 25 – 17 Connacht
- Round 3 10/12/11 Connacht 10 – 14 Gloucester
- Round 4 17/12/11 Gloucester 23 – 19 Connacht
The opening match of the competition, when they outscored a then-unbeaten Harlequins two tries to one, both had and was a bright start: unfortunately they couldn’t play out a convincing end-game. 19-17 down away from home with six minutes to play, they allowed Nick Evans to stretch the lead to 5 points with five minutes to play, and then – agonisingly – 8 points with just two minutes left. No bonus point? For all the good it does you on the table, you may as well not have shown up at all.
A home win against Toulouse was always going to be too big an ask, especially as Guy Noves neither underestimated the western province nor spared the horses when it came to selecting an extremely strong team.
The loss against Gloucester at home, while narrow, was by some way the poorest of the lot. Connacht fans who might look to console themselves with the fact that the Cherry & Whites turned over Toulouse in Kingsholm with a sparkling display last Friday night would do well to acknowledge publicly what they already probably know privately: Gloucester are as schizophrenic a team as you will find in English rugby, and were a team crying out to be beaten in the Sportsground.
Unfortunately, Connacht couldn’t make it happen. That they went so close the following weekend serves to ram home the fact that the home game was a massive opportunity lost.
The next game out was the fixture at Stade Ernest Wallon, and while Toulouse have looked more vulnerable there this season than at any time over the last three or four years [witness the loss to Harlequins and Gloucester’s losing bonus point], Connacht’s inability to score points or put significant tempo on the game throughout the season was always going to make this an unwinnable one.
Victory – Johnny Drama At The Sportsground
Quins are an extremely well-drilled bunch who, while not stacked with talent in the same manner as Toulouse, have some good players in important positions: Karsey Easter at No8, the odious Danny Care at scrum-half, Nick Evans at outhalf and Mike Brown [AKA Mr Angry] at fullback.
They came to the Sportsground desperately needing a win to see them into the quarter-finals of the HEC for the first time since the ‘Bloodgate’ incident, and while qualification would doubtless have brought up media coverage of that seedy affair, Quins could [rightly, in fairness] have been expecting to be lauded for how they’ve turned the club around from one of the most disreputable days in its history.
They had a lot to play for: the chance to go on and win the whole thing, given that they already showed they could beat even the biggest beasts of Europe on their home patch; the financial rewards of qualifying for the quarters; and the kudos from the domestic press that would have come with being one of only two English teams to qualify. In contrast, Connacht had nothing tangible to play for at all. They had no chance of qualifying and no home record to defend, having lost both of their preceding home pool home games. Having already started 2012 with three losses in a row, they hadn’t even broken the losing streak that stretched back to 23rd September, when they beat the Newport Gwent Dragons at home.
However, on a fairly rough night weather-wise in Galway in the middle of January [who knew?], Connacht put in a smashing defensive shift to close out a callow Quins team whose leaders were Absent Without Leave when the going got tough. That might seem like a rather harsh judgment on the likes of Easter and Evans – neither of them were short on huff and puff – but you need your big-time players to make tough calls in a close match like that and actually win the thing. In comparison to these two highly experienced internationals, the scarily over-rated Chris Robshaw is a babe-in-arms, even with all his Premiership experience, and needed better advice than he was getting. Take the points when they’re on offer. Keep the ball in the scrum on your ball and force penalties.
Maybe even if they’d made no mistakes on these counts, they would have lost. The Connacht defense on the night was ferocious, with every single member of the pack going into double figures on the tackle count, the back five of the pack getting up towards the 15-20 area of the scale.
Where To Now?
The Mole finds himself sympathizing with Elwood’s situation, because the latter is clearly a good guy and a great rugby man [I’d originally written ‘because he’s a good guy and a great rugby man’, which syntactically could lead to some confusion over whether the aforementioned ‘good guy and a great rugby man’ comment referred to either The Mole or Elwood. For the record, The Mole can be a bit flakey, but is otherwise a not-too-bad type of chap].
There’s no doubt that the lack of numbers in his squad is hurting him. Players are beginning to look pretty tired out there, and he’s had injuries that he just can’t afford. Sometimes it’s simply a numbers issue.
Cleary Elwood is no sort of ingenue in the coaching sense, but to the outside observer there’s a lack of ruthlessness and innovation in his selection and tactics. Firstly, it seems to The Mole that he has spread his first team too thinly over both campaigns. There’s no doubt his selection choices have been affected by the run of losses, but instead of sitting back, taking stock and targeting specific, winnable games, he has instead put out his first-string team every single game in order to try and break the streak. Now, he has been unfortunate in some matches when they have barely failed to get over the line, but the end result was that the streak continued for almost four months [23rd September 2011 – 20 January 2012]. He overplayed his front-liners and, day zero or not in terms of the losing streak having finally been ended, will suffer from the law of diminished returns from jaded players for the remainder of the season.
Elwood would do well to treat his season in the same manner as French coaches: defend the Sportsground like madmen, and target three or four away games against teams you think you have a reasonable chance of turning over: teams like Aironi, Edinburgh and the Newport Gwent Dragons.
A factor that works in Elwood’s favour – if not necessarily the province’s, certainly in the long term – is that Connacht are the team least affected by international call-ups in the entire Pro12.
Even with the absence of Aled Brew and Luke Charteris, the Newport Gwent Dragons contribute first-choice backrowers Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau to the Welsh squad, with the Ospreys, the Scarlets and the Cardiff Blues contributing 9 each of Gatland’s 35-strong training squad.
While there is a four-strong Connacht contingent in the Irish Wolfhounds team to play the Saxons this evening and tyro winger Tiernan O’Halloran has been included in Declan Kidney’s extended training squad, it’s unlikely that the Westies will lose players during the Six Nations – Mike McCarthy might get a look in, but the chances of Brett Wilkinson, John Muldoon or Gavin Duffy featuring are very slim. Elwood should use this to his advantage on an annual basis by targeting the games played over this period with a full-strength team.
Connacht have four matches over the Six Nations, which runs 4th Feb-17th Mar.
- Fri 10 Feb @ Cardiff Blues
- Sat 18 Feb vs Glasgow
- Fri 24 Feb vs Edinburgh
- Fri 02 Mar @ Scarlets
Target the two home wins. With just three wins in the league campaign so far from thirteen fixtures, taking out two weakened Scottish regions in the Sportsground mid-February would almost double Connacht’s win tally in four matches. Put out teams of youngsters and second-stringers – even third-stringers – against the Welsh regions in the away games, and tell individual players what you want to see from them. Players will surprise him: some in a good way, and some in a bad way. Glasgow’s tighthead Ed Kalman was supposed to be a bit of a turkey and had only started four of their Pro12 fixtures, but he was given a shot against Leinster in the HEC due to an injury to Moray Low [who has the biggest noggin in NH rugby, incidentally], and has since been called up to Andy Robinson’s Scottish squad for the Six Nations.
While The Mole appreciates that Elwood sees the entirety of his squad in training on a near-daily basis, and thus probably has the edge over some online guff-spouter in Dublin, when 11 players from your Pro12 registered squad of 42 haven’t started a single game in the league, of course you’re going to find yourself having some difficulties with squad depth.
- Denis Buckley [21, prop] – 0+2
- Stuart Maguire [22, prop] – 0+3
- Eoghan Grace [24, backrow] – 0+2
- Shane Conneelly [21, backrow] – 0+0
- James Loxton [21, threequarter] – 0+1
- Eoin McKeon [20, backrow] – 0+2
- Davey Moore [23, scrum-half] – 0+0
- Dermot Murphy [22, hooker] – 0+0
- Dave Nolan [23, second-row] – 0+0
- Jamie Stevens [30, prop] – 0+0
- Andrew Browne [25, second-row] – 0+0
Add in underused players like Miah Nikora [25, outhalf] and former Ulster back row T.J. Anderson [24, backrow] who have started just three games each, and you’re looking at essentially a third of the squad who have gone practically unused. In contrast, the Leinster squad of 41 players has just five players who haven’t started a match: Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan, two senior players and long-term absentees due to surgery, third-choice hooker Aaron Dundon, fourth-choice hooker Tom Sexton, and last year’s emergency tighthead cover Simon Shawe [who’s still listed on the website as part of the 2011-12 squad, oddly].
The Mole recognizes that some of these 11 unused Connacht players have been unavailable due to injury – Andrew Browne, for example, has missed the entire season with a serious leg injury – and that others are considered stop-gaps, or development players. While all reasonably valid arguments when put forward in abstract, against the backdrop of so many losses the argument for giving them a chance, and more importantly, giving the first-stringers a break, overrides them.
The Mole fondly recalls reading a typically Telegraphian dismissal of A-level English papers about a decade ago, which reprinted a number of admittedly funny remarks that examiners had submitted. The best of these was the phrase “twenny-twenny heinzight” which was a pre-txtspk bastardisation of an already bastard phrase, 20/20 hindsight.
Applying the old twenny-twenny heinzight to Connacht’s run of losses this year, you’d have to believe that, sufficiently rested and primed, their first team could have got wins against both the Cardiff Blues and Treviso in the Sportsground – after all, they managed an opening day win against the latter in the Stadio di Monigo, a feat that other Pro 12 teams haven’t found too easy since. On the other hand, away-day trips to Thomond Park, the RDS and Liberty Stadium [the uber-bland name of the Ospreys’ pile in Swansea] are always going to be a big ask, no matter what team you send out there.
If There’s One Thing Life Has Taught Me, It’s That Everybody Loves Unsolicited Advice. Everybody.
So, The Mole’s unrequested advice for EE would be to mix it up. Don’t be too scared of the away losses, they’re happening anyway. Target teams at the Sportsground with that big, hard-hitting pack of forwards. Work on bringing a big, strong hooker like Munster’s Denis Fogarty to Connacht … when I say ‘like’ Denis Fogarty, I mean Denis Fogarty. He’d be a great addition to the squad. At 28 years old, with eight seasons for Munster behind him – seasons where they’ve been a significant European force – he’s got surprisingly few miles on the clock but a lot of medals. With the return of Mike Sherry and the continuing selection of Damien Varley, he’ll soon fall to third choice at Munster and find himself out of matchday squads … in Connacht, he’d have a great opportunity to compete for first-choice.
Look at bringing in former Irish U20s like Dave Millard of Esher or Doncaster’s Royce Burke-Flynn, props who are still relatively young for the position but have built up a good degree of experience and gametime over in England [and further afield, in Burke-Flynn’s case]. With no fewer than five quarter-finalists in the HEC this season, the Pro12 is more visible – and viable – than it has ever been, and Connacht a more attractive landing-spot than it has been in previous seasons. Players like the two above – Irish-qualified, with good underage pedigree, decent experience and coming from the RFU Championship – would neither be hugely expensive on the wage front nor a total sink-or-swim gamble. Moreover, going to Connacht would be a step up for them in terms of standards, and one they would likely be eager to take.
At full fitness, Connacht are well stocked in the second row with McCarthy, Swift, Gannon, Browne, Nolan and former Ireland U20 Mick Kearney, and have similar depth in the backrow in Muldoon, O’Connor, Nauopu, Ofisa, Eoghan Grace, T.J. Anderson, the Conneelys and Eoin McKeon.
In Frank Murphy, Paul O’Donohoe and Davey Moore they’ve already got three decent scrum-halves on the books, and in Duffy, McSharry, Tonetti, O’Halloran and Griffin, they’ve five threequarters of a good standard. The last two are particularly talented, if still somewhat raw … that’s par for the course as 20/21 year olds. Getting called into Irish squads is considerably better than par, however, and there’s real international potential within this Connacht back line. The provinces have a talented U20s group [they won the interprovincial championship this season] and academy players like Shane Layden and Tadgh Leader can look forward to seeing gametime next season; threequarters are able to acclimate to the professional game earlier than their counterparts in the forwards, and earlier to fade away, for the most part.
It has been a tough season to date for the Westies: life without the Connacht Four, the four month run of losses, some heartbreakingingly close defeats. However, The Mole is genuinely of the opinion that these are growing pains, not death throes. There’s more to come from the boys from the County Hell.