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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 19 September, 2019
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Tennis balls to pitbulls: How Lam and Ellis made Connacht skills the envy of everyone

“We have a saying in Connacht that we share the workload. It’s not about getting forwards and wrecking them so they can’t run with 20 minutes to go.”

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO
YOU GET TO a point where your tighthead stands in as scrum-half three times in a final.

That might go unnoticed by a lot of people, but when your tighthead can fling a pass, left-to-right, 10-12 metres and you’re not relying on your number nine to get there it makes a huge difference.” – John Muldoon.

There’s no point in speaking about Connacht as an underdog any more.

No matter what their accounts might say, they’ve got the Pro12 trophy and Champions Cup berth to prove they’re one of the big boys. And going into a new season, captain John Muldoon isn’t taking the easy road by talking down his team. No, there has been far too much hard work put in from all sides of the Sportsground not to be fiercely proud of what has been built.

John Muldoon Muldoon looks proudly at his gold Pro12 badge. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Muldoon himself is the perfect emblem for his native province. Once considered by many to be a noble workhorse of a blindside, just not destructive enough to win more than three international caps. He is now enjoying an Indian summer as a fast-moving, ball-playing flanker who passes as much as he tackles and ought to be the envy of every team in the league.

“John’s a great example that if an old dog’s willing to learn new tricks then he can keep going. It’s a principle in life as well,” says Lam who, with a mischievous grin, adds that he is constantly praising the Portumna man’s speed in open play “just to give him a boost.”

But the Samoan isn’t joking when he talks about the shock Muldoon gave everyone during last weekend’s training fixture against Clontarf.

“He’s done a couple of things in training this week which surprised – a few sidesteps, some big breaks — he’s a perfect example. People would never have described John Muldoon as doing those things in the early part of his career.”

We asked the man himself to take up the tale:

“I managed to find a little hole and beat the fullback. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to live that down – a big, fat forward beating a fullback doesn’t happen too often… pity it wasn’t against a professional side.

“I got a bit of abuse from the lads and got a pair of white boots sent to me by my agent.”

When he was allowed to stop describing his wonder-try, the 33-year-old spoke effusively about how skills in general have improved since Lam’s arrival in Galway. And that pride comes to the fore again when he points out that his own transition is not necessarily as stark as the gameplan can make make it look.

“People ask me: ‘where have all these new skills come from?’

“When you’re going round the corner, you don’t need great skills to throw a pass a yard to the lad beside you or vice-versa. I always felt I have pretty good skills for a back row.”

Pat Lam celebrates with skills coach Dave Ellis Lam gives Dave Ellis a pat on the back after the April win over Munster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Perhaps the difference now is that Muldoon, and many more Connacht forwards, are skilled. Full stop. Not just ‘for a back row’ or a lock like Ultan Dillane or for a prop like Denis Buckley.

“In training there’s a massive emphasis on catch-pass,” says Buckley.

“And doing it correctly. It’s all well and good getting the ball from A to B, but if you want to go to the next level and do it in pressurised environments then your technique has to be good.”

The loosehead admits that the technical changes forced many players something resembling a slump in form when they were first taken on. But that was a mere backward step before giant leaps forward.

“There’s a massive emphasis on taking ownership of it yourself. If you’re going to play for Pat and play the game we’re trying to play you need to be good at it.

“We do a lot of work with (skills coach) Dave Ellis outside the pitch sessions to isolate some individual skills and get really good practice at it.”

Denis Buckley Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The secret of their fluid handling then is simple then: work at it, work at it, do all your regular training and then work on it some more.

“The fact that we train every day with the ball in hand,” adds Muldoon, “we got back six or seven weeks ago and the very first day we had skill sessions built in after weights. The first time Pat arrived we spent 40 minutes doing skills.

Last season he pulled some videos out of the archives and showed some of the skills… undoubtedly we’ve improved an awful lot.

“Ultimately the layers were there. It was just about getting the gameplan and changing it up. I said a couple of times last season that it took a lot of balls for the lads to buy into it and go with the gameplan knowing the conditions we play in, knowing where we’re from and what we experience all the time.

“When Pat came in and said: ‘this is Galway, we don’t care what the weather’s like, this is the way we’re going to play’ it certainly got a few raised eyebrows, but it’s done well for us.”

Muldoon speaks with an energetic delight about his province, and happily veers off a point in order to illustrate it with a specific case. He highlights the March Pro12 win over Leinster as the perfect example of when Connacht, as a unit, stick to their belief system when under the cosh “with 7,000 people shouting at you to kick the ball.”

It shows in individuals too, and his provincial pride comes flowing out at the memory of seeing Dillane settle into a natural rhythm just minutes into his international debut against England.

“Ultan comes on and slings a pass left to right 15 metres, and someone takes it up the touchline another 20 metres. You’re thinking: ‘with any other province, would a second row be able to throw that 15 metre pass?’ And you’re probably thinking no. But that’s ultimately down to what we’ve been coached and what we’ve been taught.

“A lot of what we do is under pressure and under fatigue. To be able to back yourself to throw those passes. Yo could see that in the final. It was probably one of the quickest games I’ve been involved in, but there were very, very few handling errors.

“A lot of that has to come down to Pat and the coaching team, but a lot comes down to the work the lads do off the pitch as well.”

Denis Buckley, Kieran Marmion and John Muldoon Muldoon, Buckley and Kieran Marmion speaking as Mazda launched the latest Connacht Rugby Clinic. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Every week, Connacht players send an email to their coaches outlining what they’re going to work on after that week’s training sessions. This will include non-contact set-piece simulation, practicing binds and ruck entry points, but also – always – handling skills. The coaches are informed from an organisational point of view, but also so they can crack the whip if needed.

“It’s all good if you don’t get an email back,” laughs Muldoon, “but once you get an email back off Pat, you’ve to start worrying because they’re pushing you in a direction – ‘right, you’ve got to get better at these.’”

For Buckley, his added extra skills training includes sessions juggling tennis balls. Three on his own, four when he’s paired up to throw and catch with a team-mate. ”Off the back of that then,” says the smooth-passing prop, “maybe do 10-20 passes off either hand at different lengths.”

Connacht’s John Muldoon Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It’s that pride in the work that flows from Muldoon to the rest of the squad that makes the work ethic so solid and relentless in pursuit of a matchday performance that makes it look like everything comes easy to Connacht. Muldoon lays the credit firmly with the coaches who are refusing to accept sub-standard handling.

“Ultimately, Pat and the management have brought that in, Dave (Ellis) has been good for us in that regard. He’s like a little pitbull on the side of the pitch when we’re doing skills — roaring at lads.”

Dave Ellis and Pat Lam Ellis and Lam run a pre-match drill in early 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ahead of their season as defending champions Connacht have had much more of that pitbull-driven training time than they wished for with an absence of fully-fledged fixtures.

Starting next Saturday against the Glasgow Warriors (17.15) side they felled twice in quick succession late last season on the way to taking their title, the fear is that all those moving parts will have a touch of rust on them. Yet, even if it doesn’t all come together neatly first time out, there can be little doubt that the methodology is sound. Lam’s Connacht refuse to bow to tradition or perceptions of how they ought to play in a drenched and windswept north-east corner of the Atlantic.

That’s how, despite all the injuries suffered, they were able to make new key men in the second half of last season. And why, even with a raft of departures, Muldoon will be upsetting the odds by vying for places in the top tier again this season.

“We have a saying in Connacht that we share the workload. It’s not about getting forwards and wrecking them so they can’t run with 20 minutes to go.

The saying is about getting backs and forwards involved in the game. Yes we play a high-tempo game, but we also conserve our energy.”

Mazda and brand ambassadors Denis Buckley, John Muldoon and Kieran Marmion will again lead the Connacht Rugby Clinic in Carton House on Sunday 9 October. Go to mazda.ie/rugbyclinic or the Mazda Facebook page for more details.

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Sean Farrell

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