Connacht win ‘arm wrestle’ as drift continues for Reds

Mitigation was the word whispered on the stiffening breeze being sucked in by the Bay long after the participants had scurried from the fray.

o merciful did it seem to be actually present at a sporting event, it perhaps seemed overly uncharitable to whinge at two sides who produced a dry turkey when a greedy public desired all the trimmings.

“We’ve had a helter-skelter period for the last three months,” said Munster coach Johann van Graan.

“It’s the same for all the Irish teams. It’s nothing new that we’ve suddenly become used to. We just have to get guys on the pitch and do our best to get playing.”

Those of us who relish these sorts of contests are amongst a minority; one probably needed to be a diehard supporter or else one of those
pointy-headed pedants who seem to derive more fascination from facts and figures than live pictures.

The history of this day, however cursory, was scripted by the winners but the losers also demanded a voice.

Munster’s mitigation was obvious, given that half their side hadn’t started a game in nine weeks for a club who had seen a hefty cohort stranded in another hemisphere for weeks on end.

All of which had made their extraordinary Wasps coup – despite Stephen Larkham’s attempts to downplay it last week – so spectacular in its collective intention and individual expression.

Since then, the decision of a second successive coach to perform a U-turn on his commitment to the province’s future – not forgetting the province’s own planning illustrated by their own contract offers – has plunged the place into uncertainty at a time when doubts literally plague everyone’s existence already.

Since Van Graan announced he was taking an early Bath, his side have produced a pair of wretched performances far below the presumed standards demanded by those in red, never mind expected from them.

And so it would have been remiss not to discuss with the head coach, as we had done of his assistant, whether a long goodbye might enervate a side who had seemed so brisk and vivid on English soil in the days before the announced split.

A perfunctory response may not satisfy all who claim to still support him in his role.

“It was pretty clear out there that our hearts and souls were in there as coaching staff and players,” said Van Graan when asked about the danger of a drift. “We lost the game by one score.”

That they did to Connacht (10-8) and, with a less capricious wind, perhaps they could even have snatched victory that not only would have confounded the metrics but also would have betrayed the often despondent body language of the visitors.

A defining sight to us came late in the piece from Ben Healy, a young man who should be cresting the waves of insightful inhibition instead of being drowned by them.

All alone in the centre of a field, with the ball in his hand and a myriad of wondrous opportunities at his disposal, he instead dithered for an age before despatching a desultory dropped goal attempt.

It seemed to sum up the paucity of a collective performance, subjugated by the occasion rather than seeking to subdue it.

For some Munster watchers, this confirmed a long-term trend, not a response to a typically riotous Galwegian tussle.

Larkham had eagerly revealed his side had developed a number of plays during the week; perhaps the limited time ultimately inhibited invention.

“Yep, that’s true,” conceded Van Graan.

“Both sides didn’t have a lot of opportunities. The difference was that they got a lot of penalties that they went to maul from the ’22 and I thought we defended them pretty well.

“It’s safe to say that the conditions and type of game were the same for both sides.

“It’s something we are striving to achieve. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights, it was an arm wrestle between two sides who just wanted to win,” said Van Graan after Saturday’s duel.

“The score wasn’t 32-30, it was 10-8 which shows it was a big battle, a typical tight Irish derby and unfortunately we came out on the wrong end of it,” he added.

And yet it seemed to us that Connacht at least served some intention.

So much so that they gifted Munster’s first-half try with some slapdash elaboration close to their line from the enigmatic Mack Hansen, who would respond later with a tackle to deny Munster’s solitary line-break.

Arguably, they played much better when adapting to the conditions and playing more directly, as many of their pretty patterns disintegrated.

“Ugly footie,” as Andy Friend termed it, was required and they showed they could play ugly footie better than opponents who normally revel in such a style.

To score their first maul try of the year against the Munster pack, ultimately deciding the game, was as heart-warming as ensuring that their own often crumbling defensive maul kept their own line intact.

However, unlike Munster, for whom a World Cup winning centre would kick away the ball when a counter-attack was surely primed for a late steal, Connacht were not imprisoned by their restricted approach.

“We had more of the ball because we want to hold on to the thing and play with it,” argued Friend.

“You earn the right because you’re playing with that attitude, looking after it when you’ve got it. Trying to run through people instead of kicking through people. That intent is there and will remain there.”

In contrast, Munster’s intentions remain mystifyingly elusive. 

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