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Analysis: Connacht's 2-4-2 a symbol of their collective drive under Lam

We take a look at the unity behind the western province’s continuing rise.

THE SPORTSGROUND IS a special place to be these days.

Connacht have been building slowly but surely under Pat Lam since 2013 and the result has been their best-ever season and automatic qualification into the Champions Cup.

Saturday’s bonus-point win over Munster was merely another step along their journey and the calm manner in which the western province’s players reacted to the victory demonstrated how they have developed mentally.

Robbie Henshaw, Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki celebrate at the end of the game Connacht's brilliant season continued on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While Lam had a difficult time in charge of the Blues in New Zealand from 2009 to 2012, he has shown major growth as a head coach since arriving in Ireland. His vision and thirst for progress has matched perfectly with the mindsets of the likes of Willie Ruane, Eric Elwood and a young, hungry group of players.

Lam and Connacht truly started from the ground up in their quest for improvement. Their journey began by generating an understanding of what they were playing for and who they represented.

Listening to Lam in press conferences, it’s very easy to dismiss much of what he says as plain old bullshit. While there is certainly waffle among the sentiment [as with any sports coach] we do get strong glimpses of the purpose Lam has helped build in Connacht.

In James Kerr’s Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach us About the Business of Life, the author delves into how New Zealand and other teams, both inside and outside the sporting sphere, have created a sense of unity and togetherness.

“It begins by asking ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’” writes Kerr, “‘Why am I sacrificing myself for this project? What is the higher purpose?’”

Lam and his players have answered those questions by firmly attaching themselves to the idea that they represent all five counties of Connacht and that their mission is to help this area of Ireland to grow and prosper. Even when Lam speaks hopefully of a new stadium for the organisation, he speaks of it in the light of the entire province.

“It’s not a stadium for Connacht Rugby, it’s a stadium for Connacht people,” was how Lam put it after his side beat Munster on Saturday evening.

Additions to the Connacht culture like the use of Gaeilge and special handshake routines may seem utterly contrived, perhaps even to players at first, but this squad has managed to build a genuine connectedness that is reflected in their work ethic, both in preparing and on match day.

CgU8p5nWEAExT01 Pat Lam watches the closing minutes at the Sportsground on Saturday.

When you’ve built that foundation, everything else that comes on top of it will be more stable, as we’re seeing on the pitch this season.

The best spirit and culture off the pitch is, of course, meaningless if the team cannot be effective in what they produce when they step over the whitewash.

Shape

The best tactics in rugby are designed to allow the players to utilise their skill sets and make good decisions. That thinking can result in many different plans for how a team should set up, but simplicity and understanding are important.

Every team that faces Connacht knows exactly the shape that they will come up against in phase play, the 2-4-2 system that many other sides use, but stopping it has proven to be a different matter.

Essentially, that is because Connacht’s players are increasingly skillful and comfortable at making decisions.

One of the reasons the All Blacks are the best team in the world is that they play with simple, well-rehearsed shapes in which everyone knows exactly what their role is and where they need to be.

As we know from watching the All Blacks, that shape is not restrictive. Instead, it actually allows Steve Hansen’s men to look more fluid and free-flowing than any other team in the world.

While we are several levels removed from the Kiwis’s world-beating best here, the idea behind Connacht’s approach is very similar and they even operate with the same 2-4-2 shape that the All Blacks often use.

2-4-2

Above, we get an idea of what we’re talking about when referring to 2-4-2. We’ve stripped away all players apart from Connacht’s forward pack.

There is a pod of two players holding width on the left-hand side of the pitch, a pod of four players in the middle and another pod of two holding width on the right-hand side of the pitch.

This is the basic premise of Connacht’s shape in phase play, with the backs added around and behind the forwards. When we watch Eoin McKeon [7] and Ultan Dillane [4] consistently hugging the touchlines for Connacht, it is not by accident but rather a sign that those players are fulfilling their roles.

The ever-shifting nature of rugby games means Connacht’s forwards cannot always be in these positions exactly, but the above provides us with a general rule of thumb for their phase play.

Let’s have a look at the shape in action, as Connacht nearly produce a try against Munster last weekend.

As the ball is box-kicked by Conor Murray, we can pick out Connacht back row pair Sean O’Brien and Eoin McKeon on the left-hand side of the defensive ruck [circle below].

Immediately upon seeing the kick, their mindset switches into attack mode and reverts into Connacht’s shape.

BR

Where do I need to go? What’s my role here?

O’Brien and McKeon work back to the left-hand touchline, ensuring that Connacht are going to have a passing option on that side after Robbie Henshaw runs the ball back at Munster.

Scrum-half Kieran Marmion is aware he’s going to have two players in that 15-metre channel and moves the ball there swiftly.

Left

As mentioned before, Connacht’s shape is in place to allow their players to make decisions and use their skills. That’s what happens in this instance as O’Brien recognises that Munster are suddenly drifting hard after starting narrow to the ruck.

He sells the dummy out to McKeon, tucks the ball into his left arm and fires out a strong right-handed fend on James Cronin to make good metres. McKeon is in position to hit the ruck, with wing Matt Healy lending support too.

Back infield, Connacht’s midfield pod of four forwards has found its shape rapidly after helping to clear out the ruck that followed Henshaw’s carry.

Going back to that ruck, we can see Aly Muldowney [5], Tom McCartney [2], Denis Buckley [1] and Finlay Bealham [3] in the vicinity.

4

Bealham is actually running back up the pitch away from the contact area, already thinking about his role a phase after this. Buckley is similarly attempting to work back into position, while Muldowney and McCartney instantly switch focus as soon Marmion moves the ball left.

It means that when Marmion finds out-half Shane O’Leary following O’Brien’s carry, we get a lovely example of that midfield ’4′ set-up for Connacht.

Shape

Connacht’s backs have set up ideally around the pod of four forwards, with O’Leary providing the link to the ruck and Bundee Aki stepping in behind Muldowney to provide a back-door option.

Decision

Again, this shape is about giving Connacht’s players the chance to make a decision.

Muldowney can carry himself here.

Carry

He can tip on a pass to Bealham on his right shoulder.

Tip On

He can, perhaps most demandingly of all the options, slip a pass inside to Buckley.

Buck

Or as proves to be the case, Muldowney can also pass out the back of Bealham to the lurking Aki.

Aki

It’s also important to note hooker McCartney’s positioning, to the right of Bealham. McCartney is not part of the ‘passing pod’ around Muldowney, but he is running a distracting line ahead of Aki, drawing defenders’ attention.

He is also an option for Muldowney or Bealham to pass to in this instance, though not a very realistic one.

Muldowney is in the decision-making role here, and he decides that with Mike Sherry committing to tackle him and Tommy O’Donnell appearing to have Bealham well covered, the back-door option is best.

The ball arrives into Aki’s hands, and now the decision-making process lies with the outside centre.

Closed

Outside Aki are Henshaw, Niyi Adeolokun and Peter Robb [whose shadow we can just about make out at the bottom of the shot above.]

Francis Saili and Keith Earls are rushing up hard for Munster, essentially attempting to shut off Aki’s passing option. Connacht are numbers up, but the aggressive linespeed on the edge makes the long pass risky for Aki.

It’s worth going back to Connacht’s defeat in Grenoble to see Aki actually throw the pass in a similar instance.

Shape

Above we see Aki in an almost identical situation, but this time he does not pass.

The shape from Connacht is exactly the same, with Andrew Browne playing the link passing role in Muldowney’s absence. Once the ball gets into Aki’s hands, however, there is a slight difference.

Earls

Unlike in the Munster example, where Keith Earls has shot up a little earlier, Grenoble’s Tino Nemani has hesitated ever so slightly.

The defence gives Aki his option and he decides he’s going to throw that long – still risky – pass to width. It takes an extraordinary, unorthodox moment of skill from Aki to put the right amount of power and float on the ball to clear Nemani but, as Connacht have done so often this season, Lam’s player finds the touch.

Returning to the Munster example, Aki doesn’t believe he can make the long pass or pass short to Henshaw, who is under pressure from Francis Saili, so he ducks back inside.

While the linebreak that ensues is about Aki’s dynamism and a missed tackle by O’Donnell, the original Connacht shape also aids the bust.

TOD

As Munster come forward in defence with good speed, they present a unified line, with O’Donnell in a good position.

However, the presence of Bealham to the right of Muldowney means that as soon as the Connacht lock has passed to Aki, O’Donnell is left behind by the defender outside him.

The presence of Bealham and McCartney means O’Donnell cannot simply continue to advance forward.

T

For O’Donnell, it seems clear that Jack O’Donoghue outside him is now well positioned to tackle Aki if the Connacht centre opts to carry, but McCartney is subtly important for a second time.

Note below how O’Donoghue has to just slightly shove himself out beyond McCartney as he momentarily loses sight of Aki in behind the Connacht hooker.

JOD

It’s a tiny detail, but it’s enough for O’Donoghue to be beaten by Aki’s forceful step back inside off his right foot. Ducking low, Aki also beats O’Donnell’s delayed and surprised attempt to ground him, powering on past Donnacha Ryan for the break.

Some typically superb support play by Marmion creates the try-scoring opportunity for Connacht.

9

Marmion’s support play ahead of the ball, a skill that can be improved through diligent analysis and practice, is quite probably the best of any scrum-half in Ireland and continues to improve rapidly.

Above, as in many other instances this season, we see Marmion ahead of the ball, anticipating the break and positioning himself to be in the ideal place to support that break when it occurs.

The chance is created but Connacht uncharacteristically butcher it. Marmion appears to be expecting a softer pass and Aki opts to put a firm spin on it even at close range.

It’s a poor finish to a well-constructed opportunity, but this passage gives us a strong example of how Connacht use their shape to allow the players to make decisions and use the skills Lam and his coaches have been working so hard to grow.

It is worth noting that there is not a pod of two forwards on Connacht’s right-hand touchline in this instance but, as we previously mentioned, the shape is a guideline rather than a strict rule.

In this kick return scenario, it would not have made sense or been practicable for Dillane [4] and John Muldoon [8] to work across to that area of the pitch.

Fluid

Indeed, the very utilisation of the 2-4-2 shape and where each individual contributes is a decision-making process for the players on the pitch.

Shapes

Take the above, the second phase off an initial lineout platform on the left, as an example.

We can see that O’Brien and Dillane [circled in purple] make up the two-man pod out near the left touchline, having retreated to that position after the lineout.

Roles

Meanwhile, McKeon [blue arrow] is heading for the right touchline to ensure Connacht can maintain their width on that side and keep Munster as stretched as possible.

Muldoon just inside him initially moves towards the ball, but identifies that it is safe and joins McKeon in providing width.

Even in the four-man midfield pod playing off O’Leary above there is a slight change. Buckley lines up outside Muldowney on this occasion, with Bealham inside. That is merely down to how the game unfolds and who is best positioned to carry out the role.

The passing lock and Connacht’s front row almost always make up their four-player forward pod in midfield, but they are not utterly slavish to their designated roles.

Set-piece strikes

Because Connacht’s phase play shape is so simple and well understood by Lam’s players, it means the head coach can invest more training-ground time on improving the skills of each individual and also on rehearsing set-piece strike moves.

Connacht’s ability to stretch the opposition off set-piece – in a sport where it appears to be increasingly difficult to do so – has marked them out as dangerous all season.

There have been plentiful examples of intelligent set-piece thinking from Lam and his coaches, both successful and unsuccessful, across their season. Even though set-piece plays require everyone to be exactly where they’re supposed to be, there is once again an important decision-making element involved.

Let’s use the Bundee Aki at number eight scrum play as a really basic example.

Aki at 8

The idea here is to get Aki powering off the base of the scrum as quickly as possible. Note how he’s now actually fully bound to the scrum as the clip above begins, instead already reaching his right hand into the scrum.

He’s positioned between the blindside flanker and the loosehead lock, allowing him to gather the ball as Connacht hook down ‘channel one.’

The first option for Aki here is to have a powerful carry himself, but O’Donnell gets off the scrum superbly to shut that door. Aki can pass out the back of the hard-running Muldoon to his out-half O’Leary, but instead opts to hit the number eight to carry.

In this case, it’s possibly not the ideal decision from Aki, with Rory Scannell having bitten down on Muldoon.

Bundee

We see Aki take the back-door option in the example above, which comes during Connacht’s 7-6 win against Leinster.

Aki fires a wobbly pass to Aj MacGinty, who then has space to run at the line. It’s worth pointing out Muldoon’s role in creating that space, as he twice bumps Ian Madigan ahead of the ball to take him out of the game.

Mul

Rather than actually commenting on the decision-making process, the intention here is to underline that Connacht’s set-piece plays are built to provide Lam’s players with multiple options, echoing their phase play.

They run far more complicated strikes than the one above – take for example the Marmion loop around midfield that has sparked Adeolokun tries in the Grenoble and Munster games most recently – but the idea is always to allow Connacht’s players to have a choice.

Leaders set the tone

While Lam can stress key messages all he likes during training and pre-match, his influence once Connacht take to the pitch is obviously somewhat muted.

The head coach can, of course, relay information to his players, but it’s the individuals on the field who make the important decisions and set the tone for others around them.

The likes of Muldoon, Aki and Muldowney have stepped up wonderfully in that regard, leading what is a young group of players by example and also in their actions off the pitch.

The big-money signing of Aki has proven one of the wisest investments Connacht have ever made, particularly given that the New Zealand native had such a strong existing understanding of the kind of culture Lam wanted to create.

Having worked under Wayne Smith and Dave Rennie at the Chiefs, Aki appreciates the importance of off-field togetherness and the various mantras that go with that, however glib they might seem on the outside.

Crucially, captain Muldoon has brought intimate homegrown knowledge of the province and an understanding of what Connacht has been through as an organisation.

Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan tackle John Muldoon Muldoon is having one of the best seasons of his career. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Muldowney, meanwhile, has been an important game plan leader with his ability to make decisions and pass the ball accurately. He will arguably be missed more than Robbie Henshaw next season, but the encouragement for Lam and Connacht is that others have shown they can step into both of those players’ shoes.

Having had such an outstanding season so far, the clear desire for Connacht and their supporters is to go on and win the Guinness Pro12 outright.

Even if that is not achieved, the season will be a success. Indeed, gradual improvement can often be more sustainable than a swifter rise that brings with it pressure to repeat trophy achievements.

Lam and Connacht believe they are building something far more sustainable out west and would argue that we have not seen the full extent of their ambition and potential yet.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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