Front up Rise up – Book Review

 

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Gerry’s latest book in a Connacht Clan competition, so I thought I would do a review as a reward/punishment to you, the loyal reader/glutton for punishment (delete as appropriate). Obviously I timed it perfectly to coincide with the Christmas market for next year, when you can surprise your friends who are expecting a dvd of Connacht’s Champions Cup final victory with a book based about last year’s wonderful Pro12 season instead.

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Its very hard to write a book where the reader already knows the ending, so credit to Gerry for holding the readers attention throughout the 300 odd pages that detail Connacht’s slow journey to the summit of the Pro12 league. Given we know that this is the destination, there is more than a little foreshadowing in the authors descriptions of events from the start of professionalism onwards, an assumption that things were always building to success. At the same time much of the detail in the story show that this was far from the inevitable. When Warren Gatland took over as coach he had the branch buy as many balls as possible and set about drastically improving the teams skills – a heavy hint at the beginning of Lam’s reign when the latter made every player carry a ball at all times. Gatland’s emphasis on skills and preplanned moves had a huge impact on Connacht results, particularly in Europe, though they didn’t have the squad depth to compete on two fronts – plus ca change as Gerry would say. Despite, or more accurately, because of some excellent results Gatty was not long for Connacht, and we never found out what he could have done if he really got his feet under the table. Thornley touches on the time when Connacht battled with extinction, but ultimately makes the whole sorry situation appear to have had a positive effect on Connacht, which is backed up to an extent by statements from Elwood and others.

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The seven seasons under Bradley are likewise brushed over in a few pages, which is understandable as there was very little happening in this period worth dwelling on. Though Elwood and Mul speak highly of Bradley, his philosophy of targeting winnable games left a heavy mark on both the players and supporters. Rather than facing up to losses and learning from them, Bradley engrained failure within his system. While Mul accepts they hadn’t the squad to compete over a league season, its clear from interviews with him and Loughney that those years left a scar. During that time, despite some modest success in the Challenge Cup, there were very few signs to suggest that things could ever improve to the point that Connacht would ever compete for a top half position in the league, much less win it. Similarly, while Elwood’s time was generally more positive in attitude, there was very little change on the pitch. What really changed was his constant lobbying of the IRFU to give Connacht a better share of resources, something contributed to him feeling burnt out within three seasons, but which paved the way for Lam.

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In the modern GAA, the players are amateurs who train and operate like professionals. In contrast, until Lam’s arrival, Connacht were a professional team who apparently trained and operated like amateurs. All this changed under Lam, who in large part due to Elwood’s persistence, was given the budget to recruit some quality coaches, a strength and conditioning team, video analysis and more. For the first time Connacht had the full complement of backroom staff that every other team in the league has had for close to a decade now. While Lam always talks about the Connacht identity, its clear that in reality Connacht were a province without a strong personality, and so Lam found it relatively easy to transpose his rugby and familial experiences in Samoa and NZ onto the West of Ireland, which was quickly taken up by the majority of the squad, and gradually grew into a self-sustaining entity. The other thing Lam provided was a name that was strong enough in the Southern Hemisphere to bring in players who had never heard of the province. His recruitment – again with the support of the IRFU and team manager Tim Allnutt – was one of the cornerstones of his success. Whereas Bradley instilled a belief that the team would only ever be good enough for a once off performance, Lam brought not just signings, but an infectious optimism and a culture of self-improvement that anyone can learn from and apply in their own lives. The mantra ‘there are no mistakes, only learnings’ comes through loud and clear throughout this book.

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It has to be said that the writing is a little clunky at times, with the occasional incomprehensible change between tenses, but all your favourite Gerryisms are here – Leinster are ‘bulk suppliers to Schmidt’s Ireland’, the odd French phrase slips in, and Thomond is a fortress – but overall its well written and there are enough interesting interviews with players and staff to keep your interest even if you previously watched all the games described in the book. Those game reports are also complimented by some insights from Lam and Muldoon in particular, who add retrospective thoughts on the previous season. Although we’ve read most of the stories of Krasnoyarsk, I still lapped up all the information on this trip. Its bizarre to think that European rugby thought it was ok to play a game in a Siberian winter, and it’s a miracle that no one was injured during the game. Even a small injury could have escalated into a major issue trying to provide medical care. The difficult journey home almost served as a small reminder of how lucky the team really were that week. The chapters on the semi-final and final game me goosebumps reliving it, confirming that the slightly unreal memory of Murrayfield actually did happen, and I didn’t just imagine it all.

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I don’t read a lot of sports books, so I can’t really say how this compares, but I can say that I did learn a bit. I thought for instance that Lam’s decision to train the academy with the seniors was a masterstroke, and it did allow certain players like SOB, Connolly, and O’Donnell to slot into position when called upon remarkably well. But Lam says in the short term it was actually the wrong decision, as he was trying to train too many players at once. Things improved when Bell and Ellis arrived and were able to upskill the academy prospects at times, while those who were on the cusp of playing senior rugby were brought into the squad training sessions.

 

Also, the theme of the book, whether intended or not, is really the litany of luck and little quirks that can make a massive impact on a sports team. While we might like to believe that we have a plan, or that there is a path to success in place to follow, we find again and again that it was a lucky break, or someone else’s misstep, that allowed for things like the signing of Gatland, Lam, Heenan and Ellis, to name a few. That’s not even to list all the possibilities that never came to fruition. Anyone looking to learn the ins and outs of rugby team training and preparation, strength and conditioning, or in depth recruitment techniques, will be left disappointed. What you will find is some fairly honest interviews with players and coaches about their experiences at Connacht, and given how little attention the media has traditionally paid to the province, there is still plenty for us to learn.

 

I would have loved to read more about how Lam made his decision on what players to recruit and to cut, but the Gerry avoids anything close to muckraking in what is a very wholesome and positive minded book. The best sections are undoubtedly the interviews with Gatland, Elwood, Bradley, Lam, Mul, Niyi, and a number of others. Some of these were previously published with the Irish Times but have been expanded quite a bit.

Equally interesting perhaps is those that weren’t interviewed for whatever reason – it would have been great to hear from McCartney, Muldowney, Henshaw and McGinty for instance. Really though, the whole team could have been interviewed and it would have been worthwhile reading. The result is a first draft of history that inevitably gives preference to some peoples contributions over others.

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Front up, Rise up by Gerry Thornley is available from all good bookstores priced £20/€25

Mid season review

As I’m writing this, we are between the warm fuzzy afterglow of beating Wasps in the Sportsground, and the jarring prospect of facing the Formorians of Ulster with an extremely depleted squad. These conflicting sentiments, so close together, quite accurately represents how the season has gone so far. We were told that a title defence would not be easy. It was heavily intimated that a number of teams would want to put us ‘back in our box’ so to speak. However, if we can put aside heavy defeats to Glasgow and Ospreys at the start of the season which came about as a combination of injuries and a poor preseason, things on the pitch haven’t been that bad. Yes there have been ups and downs, there have been more poor performances than can be deemed acceptable, but there have also been wins against Ulster, Toulouse and Wasps. It has been a season of extremes, but most of the time this has been down to internal Connacht activities and goings ons, rather than outside factors. Things obviously started poorly with the loss of Andre Bell and a non-existent preseason, which was beyond anyone’s control due to injuries and scheduling. This has been covered many times before, but obviously left us chasing our tails from the start. When things settled down, much of the good from last season was still evident. However, no sooner had things stabilised than Dave Ellis announced he was leaving. This sent shockwaves through the supporters, even if it might not have been felt by the team, as he has not left yet. Finally the hammer blow came as it was announced that Bristol had offered Lam an exorbitant sum of money. Maybe I’m foolish but I genuinely believe he might have stayed if Bell and Ellis had been allowed commit to Connacht long term, but facing the prospect of creating a new coaching ticket regardless, it became relatively easier to take the Saxon shilling so to speak.

 

While no one saw Lam as a one club man, he had become part of Connacht so quickly, and become such an icon of the provinces success, that it was quite a shock to learn that he was leaving before his five year plan was completed. For me, what stung so much was not so much that he was leaving, but who he was joining. Even before the league title many spoke of him as the natural successor to Joe as Ireland coach when the later presumably moved back to NZ, which looked an inevitability at one point. Others recognised the likelihood that English and French clubs would come sniffing, but assumed a historical connection with Northampton would be the main or even only temptation. The fact that he is leaving Connacht for a team that will almost certainly be in the Championship when he takes over is particularly galling because it is yet another reminder of our relative place in the European game. People were willing to contemplate an upwards move as an inevitability, even a badge of honour of some kind, but a downwards move to a club that despite massive wealth has regularly failed to gain promotion, felt like something that Connacht should have surpassed by now. In truth this move is mainly about money, a fact that Lam has admitted himself while couching it in terms of a higher loyalty to family. It is a very worrying sign of things to come not just for Connacht but all the Irish provinces and even the IRFU, as it illustrates the challenges we now face in attracting players and coaches.

 

Meanwhile, the standard run of injuries has become something of a torrent in recent weeks, highlighted by the inability to pick a 5-3 bench split (6-2 is the preferred hipster’s choice anyways, so really we’re just on trend). The retirement of White and McSharry without clear replacements has further reduced the squad depth, and within a season tighthead has gone from a position of envious depth to emergency requirements. Carey was the latest diamond in the rough that Connacht had uncovered but with an unknown return date we’re left with only one bona fide tighthead. Similarly just a few months ago we had so many centres that it didn’t seem feasible that they could all be kept happy; now we’re playing musical chairs with players in a bid to field a fifteen. At the start of the season, the most pressing concern was filling Muldowney and Henshaw shaped holes in the first team; while those are still massive issues for Connacht that has to take a back seat to the issue of fielding 23 fit players. Unlike in past years where we experienced a somewhat bizarre injury record that only really affect one or two positions at a time, we’re now seeing injuries across the field, with only perhaps hooker and scrumhalf currently unaffected. I believe this is partly due to the Champions cup – whereas last year we could at least compete in the group stages with an Eagles type selection, now only every first choice option available will do, and the physicality of Toulouse and Wasps has been a level above anything the Pro12 can offer outside of the interpros, which leads to more injuries.

 

It would be tempting to start dismissing or excusing results for the next three or four weeks on the basis of injuries, but unfortunately these next few weeks have the potential to impact not only this season but next years. With injury to our new fly half any potential new game plan – or even just a bedding in period for Boshoff – has now gone out the window. The continual changes in the pack has meant that we have no idea who the successor to Muldowney will be, if any successor is possible in this current squad. Browne had his go for a few games, Roux might now, but the chances of any of these players being able to take on this role seem slim right now, and when the support players in the diamond are constantly rotating and also learning their own jobs the chances are even worse. There’s so many injuries that even trying to fit new or young players into the rotation is an issue. Last season we saw players such as Connolly or O’Leary brought into a well-functioning system with support around them. This weekend we’re looking at giving an academy prospect their debut alongside a new makeshift centre partnership, which must be at least the sixth or seventh iteration so far this season.

As I said, there have been big wins this season – Connacht are still capable of putting it up to anyone. But the consistency and general smarts of last season don’t seem to be evident. Last year Connacht were capable of figuring teams out as they played, often adjusting to the opposition gameplan or the ref at half time before shutting the other team out in the second half. There was an attention to detail to everything that Connacht did that just isn’t as apparent this year. Players are struggling to maintain the 2-4-2 system and there is yet to be a clear answer to the rush defense other teams have applied with success. While obviously still capable of winning games, its been games where Connacht start well and maintain a game plan, rather than learning their way to victory.

All of this in the context of Ellis’ imminent departure means that unlike last year the odds are stacked against finding a new consistency any time soon. While we should hope that any prospective coach will look past these recent problems, it could have an effect on recruitment, particularly if we’re struggling to qualify for the Champions Cup. The new challenge is unlike anything else Pat has faced at Connacht, certainly not since the first few months when he was bedding in and waiting on his coaching team to arrive. He now has to take personal responsibility for far more of the game plan than he has since that time. He also has to maintain his game style without that support. Lastly, he is responsible for maintaining Connacht as an attractive option for his as yet unknown successor. If he can’t, although Connacht will continue to win some games I expect things to swing through extremes more often, and it would unfortunately tarnish his legacy at Connacht if he leaves, not with a bang but with a whimper.