To say that Connacht’s victory over Munster was a long time coming would be an understatement, but the manner of the victory has blown many commentators away. On a weekend when most teams were content to keep things tight Connacht illustrated the skills and invention that have characterized Lam’s time in charge. In truth this was also a victory for Lam’s coaching. Difficult games in the first season where we could not buy a point in the second half and frequently attempted to play out of our own half without knowing how to do that now feel like a long time ago. We now have a squad that are not only comfortable with ball in hand but are capable of assessing their options quickly and consistently put their opposition on the back foot, with threats from anywhere on the field and in any jersey number.
Before the game I feared the ability of the Munster backrow and in particular Stander who has been the stand out player for Munster for the last season or more. However, Connacht dominated virtually every element of the game to the extent that Stander and Copeland were barely relevant, and apart from perhaps one scrum and lineout Connacht were the equal or better of the Munster set piece. Although a lot of attention has been given to the penalty try, I think the try off the maul was equally suspicious, and looked like a truck and trailer incident to me, but these are rarely penalized. Apart from this incident Munster rarely if ever appeared capable of creating anything for themselves, and they never led the game at any point which is a huge credit to both Connacht’s defence and the pressure they put on Munster throughout the game.
One of the things that pleased me most, perhaps even more than the wonderful skills on display, was the way Connacht dealt with the classic Munster niggle. In the past Connacht have often been the better team but has fallen to pieces in the face of a ‘streetwise’ Munster performance (see Cronin’s pat on the head of White for example, or the entirety of Donnacha O’Callaghan’s career). Not only did Connacht not let themselves become frustrated by obvious attempts at holding players on the ground at rucks, slowing ball down, etcetera, but they also managed to provide some of their own niggle.
When the ref went to the TMO to check blocking for O’Halloran’s try, he wasn’t entirely wrong to do so – a group of three Connacht players did block a Munster player, but thankfully Scannell was in a position to tackle and chose not to, so the try was awarded. At other points in the game Buckley can be seen running blocking lines prior to a pass to Dillane, players were held into rucks after the ball was gone to stretch the Munster defence, Bundee interfered with Munster ball on the wrong side to slow things down (but importantly didn’t pick it up), players regularly drove over and beyond the maul to take opposition out and gain yards, Marmion regularly called in pillars before box kicks or passes. It was an intrinsic feature of the performance that put Munster on the defensive and ensured that their own niggles would not get the better of Connacht. In that regard it was perhaps Muldoon who came closest to losing the rag after Saili slapped the ball out of Marmion’s hands at a ruck, and one wonders if this was a factor in Muldoon soon afterwards mistiming his tackle and hitting Conway early, resulting in the penalty try – certainly if he was thinking clearly he would have realized he was close enough to allow the pass to be caught before nailing the full back. In these instances Muldowney’s role as a leader and support to the Connacht captain was clear to see – he turned Muldoon away from the ref and calmed him down as much as possible before the ref gave the card, possibly preventing any further outbursts. He then ably filled in as captain for the ten minutes without Muldoon, focusing the player’s minds at a time when they would have crumbled in the past, a feature which for me capped off a hugely impressive performance from the lock.
James Connolly also had an excellent performance although Connacht fans will not be surprised by this after his game against Gloucester last season. Another feature of Lam’s time at Connacht has been the integration of the academy with the senior team at training, which has allowed the younger players to focus on their skills and provided Lam with more time to see the players in action. He doesn’t pick players because of injury in the hope that they can perform as is clearly the case elsewhere – he is monitoring their progress and you can be assured that when he picks a player it is because they have consistently shown up in training.
A further feature of this integration is that players are happy (as much as they can be) to bide their time after big performances for the senior team, and ready to go when they are called up again – Masterson is a big example of this. Although we don’t necessarily see it while they’re on the field, it is fair to deduce that Lam has a gift when dealing with younger players that other coaches simply won’t have. His handling of the development and reintegration of Buckley and O’Halloran, who I thought could easily end up leaving the province, is evidence of this. What this means is that even though as fans we are apprehensive seeing a first year academy tighthead on the teamsheet, there’s no need to worry, certainly not as much as in past seasons.
Lam has played a blinder in terms of squad management this season, with some players getting restricted game time in the early weeks to prepare them for this massive block of games. While Bundee has played in every game so far this season it’s not unreasonable to expect Parata to feature in one or both games against Newcastle, while Blade and Porter will probably feature at scrum half.
After the game Muldoon sought to focus expectations by noting that many of this seasons wins had come during the World Cup, but I think it is fair to say that Munster and Ospreys would have picked much the same teams regardless. However, last seasons early success was based on an unsustainable rate of chances converted and an unprecedented lack of injuries in a sport with a high attrition rate. This season we are still seeing quality performances despite a full team sheet of injuries, and can currently boast the best line out (and possibly scrum), penalty kicker and points total in the league. While those things might vary somewhat in the coming months it’s a huge boost to what can reasonably be expected from the players.
At the same time Mul does have a valid point, and outside of IRFU player welfare protocols and the six nations, coaches will likely seek to put out their best team possible against Connacht. Thing may stiffen up from now on, so its up to Lam and his squad to find ways to keep the opposition guessing.
It has been repeatedly noted in the last few days that Lam is now the longest serving coach in Ireland, and thus of course Connacht would be more capable of playing this game plan than teams with coaches who are still trying to settle into their positions. I hope I’m not being too sensitive when I say that this seems to damn Connacht with faint praise, as the inherent assumption is that the other provinces will soon reach this level of skilful play and ambition, and things will level out again.
There is not an awful lot of evidence to back this up.
Lam made a conscious decision from the very start to build Connacht’s skills across the squad, just as St. Joe set out to make Leinster the best passing team in Europe. There were clear decisions made from the start by both coaches that were borne out throughout their time with the provinces, no matter the result. We have heard no such assertions from Foley, Cullen or Doak/Kiss. To an extent Kiss can be excused, although given that he knew he would be taking over this season he had the time and ability to seek out and appoint the right forwards/skills/back coaches required to play the game he wants to play.
Munster’s attempt to play out of their own 22 at the weekend smacked of Connacht’s first season, but Foley has not given any major indications as to how he sees Munster’s game progressing, other than seemingly having as many backrow options as possible. Last season they reached the Pro12 final but were well beaten by a team they dominated in the scrum, and I for one do not see any indications that they have improved on that performance.
Cullen looks hopelessly lost at Leinster, having failed to impress as a forwards coach last season, he doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to improve things for Leinster, and seems to be depending on the Schmidt genetics of the team to coax them along.
In the wake of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup at the customary quarter final stage, there has been a lot of discussion about how Ireland need to progress in terms of a ‘southern hemisphere’ game plan. Given that Ireland have played in the same way for two years now under Schmidt, I do believe that there needs to be some sort of evolution, if only because other teams will start to figure us out (as Wales already did to an extent last six nations). The model for this change was in evidence in Thomond Park at the weekend, and it wasn’t the guys in red. Connacht dominated virtually every facet of the game from start to finish and illustrated once again the value of a high paced passing game over a lesser version of the Ireland game plan. Schmidt claims (or at least, the media claims on his behalf) that a more conservative game plan is required as he does not have the necessary time to upskill his players. With Munster, Ulster and Leinster’s provincial coaches either previously involved in the Irish coaching set up or players under Schmidt, there should be no issue asking them to coach certain elements, and the IRFU should be more than capable of bringing in a dedicated skills coach for each province. Whether those three provincial coaches will be receptive to this or capable of implementing a new coach into their panel is another question, and it should not be seen as a panacea for the problems they face, but Connacht have certainly shown that there is nothing preventing Irish players playing an expansive and exciting brand of rugby with positive results.