ZEBRE versus Connacht in round three of the PRO12 has never been the type of fixture to get the neutral excited.
Yet after two games and the concession of 73 points and 11 tries, no other game seemed as important as the coming together of the Italian whipping-boys and the league’s defending champions.
All week we were told things would come good, that the Cinderella Men of 2015/16 would rediscover their mojo, that losing wasn’t an option. Yet a losing position was precisely where Connacht were at half-time in Parma, having conceded another three tries and 22 points against a team they had defeated 12 times in their previous 12 meetings.
Searching for a miracle, they got one from the sky. A thunderstorm led to the game being postponed and all of a sudden Pat Lam has room to breathe. The problems are still there – a defence leaking tries, a pack desperately missing the presence of Aly Muldowney, who ran their line-out last season with such intelligence and authority – yet at least now Lam has time to find the answers.
“These are the moments I do really enjoy, I know it’s funny,” Lam said last week. “These are the moments where, as a leader, you need to lead well. I come in here and my reaction to performances, or losses, is really key. It starts with the management and works its way down to the players.
“The best head coaches are sports psychologists because we have so much influence on how everything is done. I can come in cursing or pointing the finger and blaming everyone. There is a lot of things that people talk about that actually don’t matter and won’t make a difference to us actually getting better. And that’s a key thing.”
So was pre-season. Or rather, Connacht’s unimpressive pre-season. Scheduled to play Bristol and Montpellier, those two games bit the dust. They did get a run-out against Sale and All-Ireland league side, Clontarf, but clearly those two games proved insufficient in terms of preparation. Arriving into this season short of match-sharpness, they were blown away by both Glasgow and Ospreys before a different kind of storm saved them from humiliation in Italy.
“It’s great that we’ve been able to do it when things are going really well, and now this is where it really counts,” Lam said. "This is why you build your culture, why you build your system and your structures. My whole philosophy is about ‘better people and better rugby people’, these are the times you get that.”
With 20 players on the injury list, you’d expect things to improve. Andrew Browne’s return is crucial in terms of leadership yet the feeling remains that the departure of AJ McGinty, Robbie Henshaw and Muldowney will hurt. After winning, Lam needed his squad strengthened. Instead it has been weakened.
As he faces the sporting equivalent of producing a difficult second album, watching how Connacht’s season unfolds will be fascinating. Yet it isn’t the only interesting script. Across the board, all four Irish provinces face intriguing campaigns.
ERASMUS PROGRAMME ALREADY WORKING FOR MUNSTER
Three games, two wins for Munster and already they’re looking more cohesive and resilient than they did last year, when Anthony Foley appeared to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Foley is still there and, according to sources close to him, is energised by the new additions. Yet it is Rassie Erasmus’ fingerprints who are all over this revival.
The South African arrived in Limerick with a big reputation – and could just as easily have been given the Springbok job rather than the Munster one had he wanted it. Instead, the task posed by reviving a fallen giant is one he is relishing. “I don’t want to sound bullish about it but if the previous coach just retired or the team had been doing well, it wouldn’t have been a challenge,” Erasmus says. “This is what I enjoy doing. If we can get that winning culture back, then it will be a great achievement.
“We had that at the Cheetahs. They hadn’t won the Currie Cup in 29 years and then we won it for three years in a row. The Stormers were 11th in the table when we got them, and we made the Super Rugby playoffs. When there’s expectation, you can expect criticism as you go around trying to fix things. Realistically, you need time but it’s only fair that supporters and sponsors will want you to win. If you can’t handle that, you shouldn’t be in coaching.”
Can he guide Munster to silverware? In the PRO12 the answer is potentially yes. Jean Kleyn, a hugely-built South African, is a massively important addition. Tyler Bleyendaal’s return is equally as crucial and should they be able to keep their big players ¬ Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray – fit, then a play-off place, or better, is something they are capable of.
KISS OF LIFE FOR ULSTER
Unbeaten in three games, Ulster’s surge to the top end of the table is unsurprising given how they shopped smarter in the close-season than their Irish rivals and given the depth and quality of their backline. That’s needed, too, though. Luke Marshall suffered yet another head injury on Friday – that was his sixth in the last four years – while we don’t know if Tommy Bowe will ever be the same player again.
Still, other leaders have emerged. Paddy Jackson, their out-half, is far and away their most important player right now and in Friday’s win over the Scarlets, he excelled. “He ran the game well,” Kiss said. “It was a pretty consummate performance from Paddy.”
But not from the team in general.
“We’re not quite on our game but we were really solid and strong. There was a good discipline in our game. Paddy pushed the corners really well. Hopefully it will give us some breathing room. We’re only three games in but it’s nice to have three for three. It’s a good place to be.”
Leinster too are in a reasonably good place. Their victory in Edinburgh made up for the previous week’s defeat to Glasgow. Seeing Jamison Gibson-Park, who has just arrived from New Zealand, control the game at scrum-half was a plus point, as was the continuing maturity of Joe Carbery, the 20-year-old from Athy, who is making a name for himself at out-half. Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose, too, are getting better by the game. Yet to play his full-strength side, Leo Cullen has quietly gone about building a squad that looks decent.
Although Europe, rather than the PRO12, will determine quite how decent it is.