Back on the roller-coaster
WE are five games into the Magners League season, and if you took a quick glance at Connacht’s results so far, you may end up questioning the accuracy of the reported scorelines. How can a team who shipped 45 points away to the Llanelli Scarlets and 58 points away to the Cardiff Blues – defeats that sandwiched a 15-8 home win over Glasgow – conjure up a winning performance to overcome reigning league champions, Leinster? All I can say is that when we have been good, we’ve been very good, but when we’ve been bad, well, we’ve been shocking.
Perhaps our pre-season results and performances would indicate towards an inconsistent start to the new season as good victories against my old club Harlequins and the touring Queensland Reds from Australia were coupled with fractured displays against London Welsh and Leeds. Nonetheless, after a very tough pre-season, we felt we were ready for the start of the competitive season and the Ospreys, who were the first visitors to the Sportsground on September 5. The Welsh side led 13-0 at the interval, having played with the elements on a wet night, and then used their very physical forward pack to retain possession for long periods of the second half. A late James Hook penalty secured a 16-3 victory for the away side, and we were disappointed to have failed to obtain even a losing bonus point.
We were up against Welsh opposition again the following weekend when we travelled to Llanelli. Unfortunately the Scarlets were in the mood for capitalising on every turnover and mistake we made, and ran out 45-3 winners. I was taken off midway through the second half and was very disappointed with my own performance.
It’s never a nice feeling being substituted, so I felt fortunate and determined to make amends when selected to face Glasgow in Galway six days later. An improved and gutsy defensive performance by the whole team ensured we registered our first win of the season, but only a week later we hit rock bottom, when the Cardiff Blues thumped us 58-0. Being unavailable for selection due to injury meant I had to watch the game on TV, but there wasn’t much comfort to be had on my living room couch either that evening. Most of the damage was done in the second quarter as the home side racked up 36 points to establish a 46-0 lead. It was a new low. Connacht’s heaviest defeat in the Magners League. We were disgraced and embarrassed. We all felt the blow. Not just the lads on the field but the whole squad and management vowed it would never happen again. Supporters and believers of Connacht rugby deserve better. Not every day will be a good day but none will ever be as bad as that again.
To say we were determined to get a positive reaction and restore some pride and confidence in the next game would be understating our desire. The fact that it was a derby against another provincial side added to the occasion and sure, we needed a good performance but we desperately needed to get a result. Leinster were smarting from their defeat to Munster at the RDS the previous weekend, so both teams were in need of a positive outcome. Having survived a couple of shaky moments in defence during the early moments of the game, we grew with confidence as the half developed, and at 9-9 the scoreboard accurately resembled the tight nature of the contest. We had been there before though, sitting in the dressing room at half time saying the game was there to be won, only to be left at the final whistle with nothing to show for our efforts. We needed something on this occasion!
The Sportsground erupted four minutes into the second half when Mike McCarthy crashed over for a try under the posts. Mike was subsequently sent off due to a second yellow he received for fighting with new Leinster recruit Rocky Elsom after Ian Keatley ran into a Leinster elbow which sparked an unsightly incident in the aftermath of the try. Leinster’s Contepomi and Ian exchanged further penalties, and the growing Sportsground support roared us on to secure a memorable and important victory in our quest to secure European Cup rugby next year. Edinburgh are up next in the league on Friday week at the Sportsground.
This Friday night sees the return of European rugby to the Sportsground as we take on London Irish. Having beaten French side Dax last Friday night, a win against the English Premiership side would be a big step towards qualifying out of a group that also includes Italian side Rovigo.
Getting a victory in the south of France is never easy, but a strong second half performance enabled us to over turn a five-point deficit at half time to win 30-12. Winning always seems to make the bumps and bruises disappear quicker, but nonetheless, our fitness staff were as determined as ever to ensure that we’d be as fit and as fresh as possible for training on Monday morning. Unfortunately it wasn’t the hotel’s heated indoor spa facilities they had in mind for recovery, as we soon discovered the ‘Ferme’ sign hung on the gate of the small outdoor pool at the front of the hotel meant nothing to Kevin Cradock and Tony O’Brien.
We tried to reason with them, saying that the pool wasn’t just closed for the night but for the winter – and with good reason too. But they weren’t having any of it! I’m not too sure what the locals who were enjoying a few drinks in the cafés and bars across the square made of the roaring and shouting coming from behind the bushes of the hotel opposite them, or of the dark, half-naked silhouettes running back and forth across the entrance of the hotel. I’m sure the few passers-by couldn’t believe their eyes as we repeated the recovery process early the following morning.
It also turned out to be a great weekend for Kev’s and Tony’s fines collection, as many of the team struggled with the timing of the 7.15am session. Those of us present in the pool when the clock ticked past quarter-past took some comfort and pleasure from the fact that at least we didn’t have to pay for the 10 minutes of shivering we had to endure. Nor were we slow in telling the other lads about their costly mistiming as they came to the pool with their bag full of excuses in tow!!
A VERY HECTIC SUMMER AND MARRYING A SAINT
THE summer passed proved to be a hectic one both on and off the pitch. Although I only finished last season when the senior tour to New Zealand and Australia finished on June 15, the rest of the Connacht squad were back training on the 17th after five weeks off. I had four weeks off, so between the weddings of two former team-mates at Harlequins, I finally got to sort out a groin injury I had been carrying on and off for over a season and a half. Connacht hooker Adrian Flavin, who had only been back training a week before he injured his groin, also needed the same procedure done, and it was good to be able to compare notes along our road to recovery. All in all, it was very straightforward. We were in and out of a Leicester hospital in under 24 hours, back running inside a week, and back in full training within three weeks, delighted with the results of the operation. Touch wood!
June is always a popular time for rugby players getting married. It is the only month of the year you are guaranteed to get a few weeks honeymoon, so when my girlfriend Sara and I had our big day out on Friday, August 1, we thought it would be back to normality the following Monday. So it was a bonus to be told to I could return on the Thursday instead! The honeymoon will have to wait till next June. Yip. I married a saint!