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Analysis: Connacht continue to be the brightest light in Irish rugby

Last weekend’s win over Leinster was the latest demonstration of the quality of Pat Lam’s men.

CONNACHT’S WILLINGNESS TO retain possession under pressure has been hogging the limelight after last weekend’s 7-6 Guinness Pro12 win over Leinster, but their performance was very much a tale of two halves.

Not in the sense that Leinster were brilliant in opening 40 minutes before Connacht took over; rather that Pat Lam’s men defended superbly with a minority share of the ball before the break, then kept control of the game by dominating possession in the second half.

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki pray after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Among the relatively few issues for Lam’s side this season has been a leaky defence. Connacht are confident they can outscore anyone, but the defensive display against Leinster was encouraging as the play-offs of both the Pro12 and the Challenge Cup loom.

The westerners have conceded 38 tries in the league so far this season and a total of 345 points; a defensive record more in line with the bottom half of the division than a table topper.

Against Leinster, however, Connacht’s defence looked like that of a champion side.

Leo Cullen’s men enjoyed over 60% of the possession and territory in the opening half, but produced zero points. That represents a crucial win for the Connacht defence.

Aggressors

Below, we get an example of the abrasive nature of Connacht’s defence against Leinster as they brought a huge amount of fight into the contest.

There was a notable niggle in the home side’s aggressive start to the game, with Bundee Aki smashing Luke McGrath at an early ruck to spark a bout of handbags.

Linespeed

Connacht’s linespeed in the first half was particularly excellent, as they attacked Leinster without the ball. That thirst to hammer up hard off the line brought about a number of errors from the visitors, as in the case above.

We see Aly Muldowney lead the line up in this instance, blitzing out of the line and leaving a shoulder in on out-half Ian Madigan to lay down another marker.

Outside Muldowney, Denis Buckley and Quinn Roux follow suit, pressuring Ireland international Josh van der Flier into a knock-on that creates the kind of turnover situation that Connacht are always searching for.

SOB Fight

21-year-old Sean O’Brien is the aggressor in the instance above, wrestling with Dominic Ryan as the Leinster flanker carries and ensuring that the visitors are not going to be playing off quick ball.

That in turn allows Connacht to organise their defensive line, and it was notable all evening on Saturday how well Lam’s side set up defensively. Occasions where they were genuinely stretched or fractured were few and far between, with actions like O’Brien’s adding a few seconds to the ball being crucial.

The blindside flanker delivered what was perhaps his finest performance for Connacht last weekend, underlining the extent of the young talent coming through in the province.

The performances of former Ireland U20 captain O’Brien and a host of other academy products continues to offer evidence that Connacht will be contenders for years to come.

Picking moments

As well as the fight in contact, intelligent breakdown awareness was a large part of Connacht having defenders on their feet and set in the defensive line, showing Leinster little opportunity.

Connacht were smart in identifying when to stand off the breakdown contest and stay on their feet. When they did pounce, they were clinical.

Buckley

The limpet-like Buckley, a veritable turnover machine, is the man to win the penalty for Connacht in the case above, allowing Aj MacGinty to take an unsuccessful long-range shot at goal.

Buckley, whose initial hand on the ground does admittedly help him into a good position over the ball here, is lightning quick at clamping down over the tackled player and is often nigh-on impossible to shift from the jackal position.

Buckley recognises that O’Brien is tackling Cian Healy low around the ankles and sniffs the opportunity.

It’s worth highlighting the excellent work of John Muldoon here too, as the Connacht captain anchors Buckley into place, providing support to help the prop resist Leinster’s clearout attempt.

Mul

Lam and his coaches have been working hard in recent seasons to ensure their players are more clinical in identifying turnover opportunities, rather than chasing ‘dead’ rucks and, in turn, leaving the defensive system shorn of a body or two.

Connacht have also been working extremely diligently on the skills involved in turning the ball over, both in terms of the ‘axe and jackal’ and the supporting actions like Muldoon’s in the example above.

Dave Ellis, the skills specialist, has driven that growth alongside Lam and the rest of the coaching staff, allowing Connacht to match their longstanding determination with increased skill efficiency and the aforementioned decision-making around the breakdown.

The win over Leinster ended with a thrilling defensive grandstand as Connacht held the visitors at bay, showing their fitness, until Aki brilliantly identified the opening to pilfer the ball on the ground.

Set-piece cohesion

Connacht were not faultless at the scrum last weekend, losing the ball on their own put-in early in the game, but Jimmy Duffy’s pack demonstrated their cohesive power after Finlay Bealham was introduced at tighthead for the injured Nathan White.

The scrum was not quite the decisive factor that it has proved to be in other games, but Connacht did strike at least two big psychological blows in this department against Leinster, most notably in the first-half incident below.

Scrum TO

10 metres inside the Connacht half, Leinster would have been planning to strike well off this scrum and build pressure that led either to a try or at least to a chance to kick three points.

Duffy’s pack have other ideas, however, timing their eight-man drive to perfection to blast Leinster right off the ball. Note the effort of every player in the pack to combine their power at exactly the moment Leinster feed the ball.

Again, this is the product of regular hard work on the training ground, where the understanding is built among the forwards. Tadhg Furlong might have complained about Buckley’s angle over on the loosehead side, but it’s utter domination for Connacht.

This type of eight-man effort is something Connacht have used to great effect regularly this season, initiating their drive from a low position and working up through the opposition front row.

Hard-scrummaging locks like Muldowney and Quinn Roux are massively important in these scrums, which Lam will be asking for more of in the coming weeks as Connacht look to deny their opposition a platform to strike from.

Clinical support

With just over 35% of the possession in the first half, Connacht had to be clinical with their use of the ball last weekend.

There were many instances of loose ball security that will have frustrated both players and coaching staff – in the second half too – but the try Lam’s men scored showed their clinical edge and underlined some of the traits of this team.

We see the entire attacking passage in the clip above, stemming from a poor box kick into the strong wind from McGrath.

Leinster continually heaped pressure on themselves in this game by attempting to kick high into the Galway gale, inviting Connacht to counter back at them on kick return. Tiernan O’Halloran gleefully does so in this instance after Tom McCartney snaffles the bouncing ball.

TOL Offload

We can see already that Niyi Adeolokun is signalling the space wide on the right and O’Halloran is evidently eager to release the ball in that direction.

Rather than fling a long left-handed pass that might drift in the wind, the fullback makes a good decision to step back inside Garry Ringrose and McGrath, bring the ball back into two hands and make a high-percentage offload to MacGinty on his shoulder.

Connacht offloaded the ball nine times to Leinster’s 11 last weekend, but almost all of those offloads came when the home team’s ball carrier had got through the contact and could free the ball with a degree of security.

A superb read and smashing hit by Isa Nacewa, who darts up into the line intelligently from a deep position halts MacGinty’s momentum, but Connacht continue to press Leinster, hitting the ball up to the left through Buckley.

Hands Touchline

Next comes the latest demonstration of Connacht’s superb draw-and-pass skills as Peter Robb and Matt Healy feed the western province’s back row trio on the outside left edge.

It’s a basic three-on-two on that edge, but we so often see these mini-opportunities go wasted.

Hands

Not with Connacht, however, who have worked diligently to ensure all of their players, regardless of position, are comfortable at converting the space into further gains.

Muldoon delays his pass expertly to draw in Ben Te’o, then O’Brien cleanly transfers the ball straight across his body to allow the superb Eoin McKeon to hammer into the tackle of the covering Ryan and Ian Madigan.

More quick ball and Connacht come back to the right, meeting the inevitable linespeed of Leinster as they play off the touchline.

Tip On

There’s a trademark tip-on pass from Muldowney, and Bealham thunders back at the Leinster defensive line to drag van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock into the contact.

With Adeolokun having held his width out on the right, Connacht are now ready to shift to that area. MacGinty makes a smart call on the move, demanding a straightening run from Robb that gives Aki time to fade out the back.

Hands Wide Right

Leinster take the bait and bite down on Aki through both Te’o and hooker Richardt Strauss.

2 on 1

Aki is Te’o's man in basic terms here, and it’s obviously unclear whether or not the Worcester-bound centre communicates that to Strauss. The Leinster hooker completely bites down on Aki, rather than drifting onto O’Halloran, providing Connacht with their opening.

Left wing Luke Fitzgerald reads what’s happening inside him and reacts by biting in on O’Halloran, as the system demands he does.

The transfer of the ball by O’Halloran moving at such speed is absolutely sublime, freeing Adeolokun into space as Leinster sweeper McGrath and fullback Nacewa are slow to close on the outside.

Both are in place, however, to make the tackle on Adeolokun, fulfilling the defensive system. That structure doesn’t account for Adeolokun’s kick ahead taking a rather fortunate bounce off a churned up patch of the in-goal area, but it’s Kieran Marmion’s support line that ensures Connacht deserve their score.

Marmion

The Ireland-capped scrum-half initially tracks straight across the pitch following his pass from the base of the ruck after Bealham’s carry, but reacts well when he sees that Connacht have found space on the edge.

Marmion immediately turns upfield, glances forward and then signals to Adeolokun that there is space in front of him.

The right wing can’t quite see Marmion, but dinks ahead and when the ball bounces fortuitously, his scrum-half shows a good final burst of pace to finish. Few would have noticed had Marmion not been in position to benefit, but Marmion and Connacht place these demands on themselves.

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Comfort on the ball

We’ve already taken an in-depth look at the quality of Connacht’s handling and passing skills across their entire squad this season, but it was once again among the most dominant features of their performance last weekend.

Roles

Above, we get a glimpse of Buckley stepping in as first receiver after MacGinty makes a dart. The loosehead prop is entirely comfortable in a position he has been in so often before, both in training and matches, and throws an accurate pass off his left hand.

Buckley’s ability to do so – there are many professional props who would tuck and carry the ball in this instance – allows Connacht to find the space on the outside again and draw a high tackle from the scrambling Nacewa.

Connacht’s comfort in possession was most apparent in the manner they played out from deep in their half in the second 40 minutes, even in the very closing stages of the game with Leinster needing only a penalty to win the contest.

Play Out

Aki sparks the Connacht breakout from deep in the instance above, with scrum-half Caolin Blade by now acting as the primary first receiver for a Connacht team that refused to panic even with a number of positional changes forced by injury.

Aki again shows Connacht’s habit of offloading when they’ve won the contact, bursting through Madigan and Ryan to deliver the ball to James Connolly, who makes a cheeky carry to the 10-metre line.

Of course there were several passages where Connacht’s willingness to retain the possession inside their own half was less threatening to Leinster’s defence, and certainly raised the heart-rate of their supporters.

It’s something we’ve seen Connacht do repeatedly this season against the wind at the Sportsground, as they refuse to kick poorly against the conditions and force themselves to defend.

Instead, Connacht back their handling, rucking and carrying skills to force the opposition to make tackle after tackle.

Slim kickings

Connacht only kicked the ball from hand nine times against Leinster, again underlining their desire to retain possession, but the rare instances of putting boot to ball saw Lam’s men deliver.

Kick When On - 9 times

MacGinty and O’Halloran launched two superb territorial kicks in the first half, while replacement Shane O’Leary hammered a relieving ball into touch in the second 40 minutes.

Above, we see Marmion making an excellent box immediately after Connolly has powered into the carry we saw above. As with several other of Connacht’s relatively few kicks, Marmion is targeting clear space in Leinster’s backfield and finds it with a clever low trajectory.

An excellent chase from Adeolokun, followed up by McKeon and O’Leary, brings about the latest handling error from Leinster and Connacht can launch another attack.

Footwork

The quality of Connacht’s passing has understandably been the focus of much of the analysis of last weekend’s win over Leinster, but another skill has been very much to the forefront of their success so far this season.

Lam, Ellis and Andre Bell have been pushing each of the Connacht players, again regardless of their position, to improve their footwork skills.

Henshaw Attack

Robbie Henshaw has had strong footwork for the majority of his playing days and sparks a sequence of good carries with the contribution above, stepping inside Te’o with a powerful fend and then pirouetting past Madigan to thunder into Ruddock.

Connacht did use simple one-out play off Marmion against Leinster, with their excellent footwork helping them to make good gains in congested areas too.

Muldoon Feet

Muldoon follows directly after Henshaw’s carry to show that the Connacht forwards are adept in the footwork department too, beating Te’o's tackle attempt by stepping inside the former Samoa rugby league international.

Next up is blindside flanker O’Brien, who hammers back to the inside of Jack McGrath with a strong left-footed step and then shows impressive power to immediately burst forward through the tackle of Ross Molony.

Again, it’s simple stuff from Muldoon and O’Brien, but in both examples their footwork ensures Connacht continue to progress upfield, rather than simply running into a brick wall.

Encouraging signs

Connacht continue to be the brightest light in Irish rugby with their skillful brand of attacking rugby and willingness to take calculated risks.

The performance against Leinster was far from perfect, but it did underline once again that Lam’s men have a genuine chance of trophy success in the Pro12.

The key work-on ahead of this weekend’s visit to Ulster will be restoring a more clinical edge in the opposition 22. Connacht have performed well in this regard throughout the season, but let their standards slip against Leinster.

Too often the ball went to ground in that key attacking territory, while two lineout failures in the Leinster 22 were costly.

Even taking into account those errors, last weekend offered Connacht supporters the latest encouragement as the Pro12 run-in grows more exciting by the week.

Could this really happen? The evidence suggests so.

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Murray Kinsella

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