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Analysis: Connacht's attack suggests 2020/21 could be a very exciting season

The western province delivered an impressive performance as Irish rugby restarted.

IT’S SMART COACHING from Connacht boss Andy Friend and his staff to completely change their starting XV this week for the clash with Munster on Sunday.

Another set of 15 players who have trained hard throughout pre-season will get rewarded and it will undoubtedly be excellent for squad morale ahead of the westerners’ five-week break before the start of the new 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 season.

But in another way, it’s almost a pity. It would have been fascinating to see the bulk of Connacht team that beat Ulster 26-20 last weekend attempting to back up their impressive performance versus a Munster team looking to secure their Pro14 semi-final.

john-porch-celebrates-scoring-the-opening-try-with-jack-carty Connacht had some excellent attacking passages against Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Friend will, of course, have confidence in his new starting XV causing Johann van Graan’s side real problems and the fresh faces will surely carry some of last weekend’s momentum into Sunday’s contest at the Aviva Stadium.

There was much to like about Connacht’s display on the return of Irish rugby, with their lineout operating smoothly, their fitness seemingly in a good place, and their defence punchy and energetic throughout.

But it’s difficult to overlook their first-half attack as the highlight. While Friend’s men scored two tries of the more direct variety in the second half through Bundee Aki and sub tighthead Jack Aungier, the scores from John Porch and Kieran Marmion that put them 14-3 up inside the opening 24 minutes were gems.

Connacht will hope to back up their showing on Sunday and then must negotiate another break from games, but the earliest signs suggest 2020/21 could be a very exciting campaign indeed.

Attack coach Nigel Carolan will certainly have been happy with his charges’ first-half scores last weekend.

The first try features an overhead Jack Carty assist but it stems from an excellent lineout play from what is Connacht’s very first attacking platform of the game.

Around 30 metres from the Ulster tryline, they use a five-man lineout as we can see below.

LO

The other two forwards, Jarrad Butler [white below] and Paul Boyle [red], set up beyond the 15-metre line for the first phase of the attack.

LO1

Connacht use Butler as the ball-carrier on the direct first phase of this attack, which begins with Dave Heffernan finding Eoghan Masterson at the tail of what proved to be a 100% lineout on Sunday.

The ball comes off the top and Marmion finds Butler for a solid carry.

P1

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Boyle arrives swiftly to the breakdown to ensure Marcell Coetzee can’t get a sighting of the ball, while Finlay Bealham also arrives over after lifting at the tail of the lineout.

As the ball is being recycled, we can see below that hooker Heffernan [yellow] and loosehead prop Denis Buckley [pink] are working around the corner for the second phase…

Set up

Meanwhile, Aki [red above] is moving up ahead of Carty to offer himself for a potential carry on the next phase. Tom Farrell [blue] is holding his depth, also ready to offer a hard line as soon as Carty receives the ball.

Simultaneously, blindside wing Alex Wootton [white] is making his move to get across to the right-hand side of the ruck. 

Connacht are in position for the decisive second phase that we see below.

P2

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Aki’s hard line obviously worries the Ulster defenders on the fringe of the ruck, as they have to respect his power. 

The ball goes behind Aki to Heffernan instead and we see that second fixing line from Farrell, who is the next big threat for a hard carry. 

Farrell’s line sees Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey briefly sit down on his heels [blue below] incase he has to make a tackle on Farrell.

Blocker

Instead, Heffernan’s pass goes behind Farrell to Carty [green above], and now Ulster outside centre James Hume is concerned.

With McCloskey having briefly sat down on Farrell’s running line, Hume is worried his centre partner won’t recover to get to Carty, so Hume has his head turned in focusing on Carty [as indicated in green below] in case he has to tackle the Connacht out-half.

Centre

The issue for Ulster is that Wootton [white above[ has worked hard across to show on Carty's outside shoulder at such a late stage and, as we saw in the clip above, he's the one to make the linebreak.

McCloskey does actually recover to jockey out onto Carty in this instance but Hume has backed downfield trying to buy time and can't recover as Wootton accelerates on that arcing line.

All the while, Ulster left wing Louis Ludik is worried about Connacht fullback John Porch [yellow below] and Ulster fullback Jacob Stockdale is closing up from the backfield to cover wing Peter Sullivan [blue] wide on the right for Connacht.

3

Hume does his best to recover but Wootton shows pace and power to break the tackle, transferring the ball to his right hand before contact and allowing himself to throw up a fend with his left.

Working hard from the inside, McCloskey makes the tackle on Wootton coming back downfield, but the Connacht wing is able to offload inside to Marmion, who has cleverly worked ahead of the ball on the inside after his own pass [red below].

KM

With the offload understandably up high from an off-balance Wootton, Marmion has to check and is tackled but Connacht’s breach of the Ulster defence leaves them in an excellent position against a defence scrambling to recover its shape.

Connacht actually used this same lineout play later in the game but from their right, producing a linebreak for right wing Sullivan on that occasion.

Following Wootton’s break, Connacht go into their one-out phase play and make further dents in the Ulster defence with well-organised and dynamic carrying to leave themselves just five metres out. They finish superbly.

Again, there’s some sharp handling from a front row forward – Buckley this time.

Finish

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Buckley’s skills are excellent here as he briefly eyes the Ulster defenders in front of him before swivelling to play the link pass out the back to Carty and behind Farrell, who starts a little flat but still offers a possible short pass option to Buckley.

Meanwhile, there’s more good movement off the ball to create the try.

Carty [green below] and Porch [white] have swung from the left-hand side of the previous ruck over to the right, with Carty directing the play as he moves.

1

As we can see above, Porch is initially trailing inside Carty but the impressive Australian fullback reads the unfolding situation intelligently.

Ulster wing Ludik [pink below] makes a very aggressive read to shoot up out of the line and all the way in on Carty here, even though Hume has worked out to cover the Connacht out-half.

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That leaves Porch to identify the space, as Stockdale [blue above] worries about Connacht right wing Sullivan, who is out of shot.

It still takes a bit of class from Carty to seal the deal, as he steps inside and then back out to get behind Ludik before lofting the basketball-style offload overhead to Porch.

Try

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From start to finish, it’s superb attack from Connacht as they get a seven-point reward to move into a 7-3 lead.

Ulster soon draw themselves back to within a point at 7-6 but Connacht strike instantly in response in the next passage of play with a stunning try on kick return.

The northern province exit through John Cooney’s box kick, which Porch fields before being tackled.

Cooney

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Connacht’s early work-rate is important here and Ultan Dillane provides an example by first accelerating in a bid to impede Ulster flanker Nick Timoney’s progress on kick chase [red below]…

UD

And then works back to set up for carry to the right [red below] after Porch is tackled…

D

We can see above that the Ulster defence hasn’t worked into an ideal set-up on their left-hand side and Connacht don’t hesitate in taking advantage as Farrell picks and carries before releasing a trademark one-handed offload to Dillane thundering into the space.

Split

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This carry is important because it further unsettles the Ulster defence but also because it splits the pitch, meaning Ulster have to worry about defending on both sides of the ruck.

Even before Dillane has actually carried, Connacht have been working off the ball to get into their 1-3-3-1 attacking shape. 

Below, we can see Heffernan [white] and Masterson [red] working out to the edges of the field to be the ’1′ players on either side, helping to provide Connacht with instant width.

Shape

Bealham and Boyle have worked back downfield to resource the breakdown as Porch is tackled and they will be part of one of the important ’3′ pods after Dillane’s carry.

With Butler and Buckley having committed into the breakdown over Dillane’s carry – they’re the other ’3′ – we can see the pod to the left taking shape.

Bealham [white] is in the centre of it with Gavin Thornbury [red] inside and Boyle [blue] on his outside, while Carty has moved in behind the trio to offer himself for the link pass out the back door.

1

This shot also shows us Billy Burns [pink below] and Stuart McCloskey [green] recognising that Ulster are numbers-down over on their right side as they communicate for team-mates to shift across from the left.

111

As we can see above, Ulster are bunched and disorganised around the left side of the defensive ruck and they’re slow to fold around to the right.

Burns ends up sprinting across in the next moment but Ulster have left themselves in trouble as Connacht bounce back to their left with devastating effect.

1

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

The first part of the play involves Marmion hitting Bealham in the middle of the three-man pod and then the tighthead prop accurately linking out the back to Carty.

Again, this highlights the skill level of the Connacht forwards, which was a theme in this game as they regularly used tip-on passes and link plays like the one above. Connacht’s forwards passed 22 times in this game, which was behind only Munster’s 25 over the weekend of Irish rugby.

After Bealham has found Carty, the timing and running line from Wootton are excellent as he charges onto the short pass from Carty to burst into the space on Cooney’s outside shoulder at pace.

444

Cooney does well to tackle Wootton low but the Connacht wing has the ball free for an offload, which he throws in the same split second that Ulster wing Craig Gilroy – initially drawn in towards Wootton – turns his back in order to swing out and deal with Porch.

Porch subtly and intelligently changes his line back inside Gilroy as Wootton throws the offload and Gilroy can’t recover as he’s caught by surprise. 

Again, Porch [white below] has timed his run sharply, accelerating onto the ball and making it impossible for Gilroy to recover with an arm tackle.

Porch

We can see above that Burns [pink] has run all the way out to the edge of the Ulster defence, where the early work from Heffernan to position himself on the touchline proves crucial in drawing a possible tackler away from Porch.

The fullback breaks through and swerves back to the touchline. Ulster lock Kieran Treadwell [red below], who is very quick, is tracking back on Porch and closing off the passing lane inside to Marmion [yellow], who has again worked up inside the ball.

22

With Stockdale [blue above] closing up on Porch, it appears as if he may have to accept the tackle but he produces a sublime bit of rugby league-style skill by grubber kicking the ball delicately back infield even while moving at such speed.

Porch

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It’s worth underling just how skillful this is from former Australia 7s international Porch. Kicking of any kind is very hard while this running fast and the Connacht man is also predominantly right-footed.

But he drops the ball onto his left foot here, angling the nose of the ball infield so it evades Stockdale’s left foot and then bounces further infield for Marmion to collect and dot down.

“I’d probably put that back to the 7s, a lot of work goes into those little 1% plays that you might need in a one-off situation and that was something I worked on,” said Porch post-match when asked about the kick.

His hard work ensures he has to tools to help Connacht finish after a sweeping attack in which the entire team played a part, whether they featured on the ball or not.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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