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Dublin: 11 °C Wednesday 19 June, 2019
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Analysis: Conan continues to press Ireland claims with sensational showing

The Leinster number eight was man of the match against Ulster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

HIS LOW-RIDING shorts gave everyone a laugh, but Jack Conan’s performance for Leinster in their Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster was no joke.

The number eight was named man of the match for a complete display that saw him further press his claims for a place in Ireland’s team at the World Cup. 

Luke McGrath and Jack Conan celebrate after the game Conan was man of the match against Ulster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

26-year-old Conan was handed a start in Ireland’s victory over Scotland in the recent Six Nations and did a fine job, while he also made replacement appearances off the bench against France and Wales, scoring a powerful try against les Bleus.

CJ Stander is the incumbent at number eight and a vital player for Ireland, part of the leadership group and a consistently strong performer. It would be a major surprise if he did not continue as Ireland’s first-choice number eight at the World Cup.

Joe Schmidt has major faith in Stander’s ability to deliver for Ireland and his form for Munster and in green has been strong too, but Conan will seek to continue to ask questions with his form for Leinster.

It’s worth noting that Stander and Conan played in the same back row against France and Wales after the Leinster man had come off the bench. 

In both instances, Stander moved to openside flanker as Conan slotted in at number eight and Peter O’Mahony remained on the blindside.

It would seem like an unorthodox back row combination to start a game with, but Schmidt may ponder something similar in the future.

Whatever way the Ireland head coach does go with his back row selection for the World Cup, it looks like 14-times capped Conan will have to be part of the squad that travels to Japan as he continues to impress.

Jack Conan Conan played three times in the Six Nations. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As Conan showed with his offload for a brilliant Adam Byrne try against Ulster, he offers something a little special to go along with the physicality and work-rate he generally brings. 

Schmidt has pushed Conan to work hard on his concentration and defensive decision-making, with both aspects showing clear improvement in recent times.

With a Champions Cup semi-final and the Pro14 run-in to look forward to, Conan will strive to continue his form until the end of the season.

Byrne’s try against Ulster was some time in the making, as Leinster adapted to the width and linespeed of Ulster’s defence in this quarter-final.

As we discussed yesterday, Ulster did a superb job of shutting down Leinster’s attempts to play into wide channels, with Garry Ringrose often feeling the brunt of that focus.

Realising that they would have to find another way, Leinster adapted.

Just before half-time, with the clock in the red, Conan makes a similar dart to the one that will set up Byrne’s second-half try.

Pick 1

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Scrum-half Luke McGrath has to clear out the jackal threat of Jordi Murphy and, as Iain Henderson folds to the left side of the Leinster ruck, Conan spots his opportunity.

As we can see below, Henderson [white] has folded around the corner. 

Pick1.1

Marcell Coetzee [red] is slightly slow to close into the space Henderson has vacated and Conan simply picks and carries into the gap.

Henderson and Coetzee both react to tackle Conan but it’s a sign of things to come.

Let’s fast forward into the 53rd minute, seven phases before Conan makes his linebreak to set up Byrne’s try.

We see something similar from scrum-half McGrath, who darts over the top of the breakdown for another half-break.

LM Pick

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Again, this gives us a hint as to the refocusing from Leinster in their bid to negate and exploit the linespeed Ulster are bringing further out.

Tadhg Furlong makes a dynamic ‘croc roll’ clearout on Sean Reidy to open up McGrath’s access to the ball and McGrath identifies the chance to snipe directly over the top of ball carrier James Ryan, who has fought strongly on the ground after being tackled.

As we can see below, Ulster tighthead prop Marty Moore [yellow] has folded around the corner this time.

LM Pick.1

Loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan [white] is closing to be the pillar defender on the other side of the tackle.

Two props in movement – this is exactly what Leinster would have been hoping for with the snipes around the breakdown. McGrath takes his cue and picks to carry.

While Moore and O’Sullivan adjust to tackle him, McGrath makes it beyond the gainline and provides another clue as to what is to come seven phases later in this Leinster attack.

After Leinster play off a ruck in the right-hand 15-metre channel, Conan pounces.

7 phases later

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Scott Fardy makes the carry into a tackle from Ulster’s Murphy and Nick Timoney.

As we can see below, O’Sullivan [white] folds around the corner onto the fringe of the ruck.

7.1

Ulster scrum-half John Cooney [yellow] sweeps up from behind the ruck into the defensive line too, having made a tackle on the previous phase.

Although McGrath is arriving to play the ball away from this ruck, Conan opts to pick and carry himself.

His cause is aided by the ruck work of Leinster captain Rhys Ruddock, as we can see below.

Ruddock

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Ruddock hits the breakdown in order to clear Timoney away from the ball, as indicated in red below.

11

Dissuaded, Timoney attempts to step away from the breakdown and be part of the defensive line.

O’Sullivan appears to expect Timoney to join the line just on his inside, covering the ‘pillar’ area on the very fringe of the ruck.

But, as we can see below, Ruddock stays bound to Timoney’s leg, pinning him into the ruck.

Ruddock.1

There is only a sliver of space for Conan to exploit but he does so powerfully. Timoney attempts to grab out at Conan but he can’t connect.

Conan’s pick and carry from a brief standing start is explosive and O’Sullivan can’t adjust in to tackle him.

Conan’s leg drive and dynamism are obviously vital here, but there is intelligence in the initial carry too.

Fend

Immediately upon scooping the ball off the ground, Conan gets it into his right hand [yellow above], therefore freeing his left to fend O’Sullivan [white].

Conan’s fend is onto O’Sullivan’s tackling arm, reducing the Ulster prop’s ability to get a strong wrap in the tackle and he falls off as Conan accelerates away. 

From there, Conan’s work is superb.

Finish

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Rob Herring is coming from the far side of the ruck, the ‘negative pillar’ slot, and is late in reacting to cover into the space Conan bursts into.

Conan’s pace takes him clear, with his shorts riding low as he evades the diving Herring. 

Shorts

Conan reaches his left hand behind him as he goes, seemingly trying to pull up his shorts.

“Thank God I didn’t drop that ball,” said the Leinster number eight afterwards. “Could you imagine I dropped it because I was trying to pull up my shorts? It would have been the end of me.”

Swiveling his head to see if he has team-mates in support, Conan realises that his next task is to beat the advancing Ulster fullback Michael Lowry.

Conan swerves to his right, stretching out his left arm to fend again.

Lowry

Lowry looks to tackle low and he gets a very brief wrap onto Conan’s left leg, but the Leinster man shows great strength and balance to get through the tackle attempt on his feet. Lowry will likely have been disappointed not to cling on in the tackle here.

The retreating Jacob Stockdale almost instantly engages with Conan around his upper body, keen to block the ball.

Byrne

As we can see above, Conan is scanning to his right [indicated in white] and now picks up Byrne working hard to get in support on his right.

Conan does superbly to get the ball back into two hands [white below] in preparation for the offload.

Two Hands

While Stockdale is firmly in scramble mode here as he looks to rescue a dire situation for Ulster, he may have been slightly disappointed not to stop the ball before Conan gets it into an offloading position.

Stockdale attempts to wrap his right arm up over the ball as he makes contact with Conan.

Stock

But the Leinster back row has the composure, balance and skill to evade that attempt, get the ball back into two hands and – with his legs still pumping forward all the time – offload accurately to Byrne.

Leinster’s right wing has worked smartly to be in position to accept the offload.

As we can see below, Byrne shows work-rate off the ball to support Conan.

Byrne Work

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The Leinster wing reacts sharply as Conan breaks at the fringe of the ruck, accelerating along the right-hand touchline [blue below].

Byrne Work

Over on that same side of the ruck, Ulster out-half Billy Burns might wonder whether he could have worked a little harder a little earlier too.

Burns [white below] doesn’t accelerate up towards top speed until Byrne has actually received the ball from Conan.

Burns

With Stockdale having committed in on Conan, Burns does then accelerate and dive at Byrne looking for a tap tackle but his reaction is just too late.

Cooney has worked back from the other side of the ruck but he can’t stop Byrne either, the powerful Leinster wing easily evading the last-ditch tackle attempt.

DotDown

Byrne seals a superb Leinster score by sliding down onto his left leg and placing the ball firmly onto the ground. Ross Byrne converts and Leinster lead 18-13.

This try assist was the major highlight of Conan’s performance against Ulster but it was far from being his only important contribution.

As usual, Conan’s ball-carrying was excellent.

In total, he made 67 metres across 16 carries. That total was obviously accentuated by a pair of linebreaks, but Conan was excellent when carrying into traffic too.

He made the gainline on all but one of his carries and fought for inches virtually every time.

Carry

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While some referees might have penalised Conan in the instance above for not releasing, as Darren Cave tackles him and briefly hold him on the ground, it typifies the fight that Conan brought in the carry for Leinster.

Conan beat six defenders in total and had two offloads – the one we’ve already seen and another eye-catching effort in the 51st minute.

OL

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The handling from Leinster’s forwards is excellent here, with Sean O’Brien drawing in Murphy before passing to Fardy, whose catch-pass under pressure from Stuart McCloskey is superb.

Conan gets on the ball as Stockdale shoots up from his wing, looking for an intercept of a pass from the Leinster number eight.

But Conan is calm in throwing a dummy, accelerating upfield, dropping the ball into his right hand and raising his left arm to fend Stuart McCloskey on his inside.

5

Conan releases a delightful offload to hooker Sean Cronin, who bursts upfield.

Leinster might reflect that this should have resulted in a try.

With Cronin’s pace taking him clear of the retreating Murphy, Ulster fullback Lowry has to commit onto the Leinster hooker.

Try

If Cronin can fully draw Lowry and pass to Byrne on his right here, the Leinster wing will have a good chance to score again.

Nonetheless, Conan’s offload is a beautiful piece of decision-making and skill in the 15-metre channel, showing that the Leinster man can excel in the wide areas as well as with his more direct ball-carrying.

Conan only had one carry off the base of a scrum in this game, as Leinster won a 33rd-minute penalty, but he controlled the ball well as the pack in front of him drove through Ulster. Generally, carrying off the base is another major strength in his game.

Aside from his two offloads, Conan had two passes against Ulster, one a short pop as Leinster played turnover possession.

The other was the attempted tip-on pass we see below.

Tip

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Conan stays nice and straight running at the defence here, ensuring he’s a ball-carrying threat himself. 

That threat draws Coetzee up on him as Conan transfers the ball across his body and looks to slip Tadhg Furlong into the space on Coetzee’s left side.

The Ulster number eight knocks the ball forward in the process of engaging into tackling Conan, however, and the opportunity for a good gainline is gone. 

Conan is very comfortable in passing and did so six times across his appearances for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations. 

Defensively, Conan was excellent in the quarter-final against Ulster.

He completed 16 tackles with no misses and brought impact into most of them, including his very first tackle of the game.

Hit

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Coetzee thunders at the Leinster defence here – after his team have made big physical statements early in the game – but Conan lands a strong right shoulder into his chest area, as James Ryan hammers in with his left shoulder.

The Leinster pair combine to drive Coetzee backwards for a big win of metres for the defence.

While Conan didn’t catch any Leinster lineouts in this game, he also played a role in their match-winning penalty, which came from a superb maul by Leo Cullen’s side.

Conan starts as a possible rear lifter on Mick Kearney in the lineout before a dummy movement to the front [yellow below].

1

Kearney shifts backwards into the space Conan has vacated and jumps, lifted by Ed Byrne and James Ryan, to win James Tracy’s throw.

As the maul forms around Kearney, Conan’s job is to join over on the right-hand edge [yellow below].

2

As with most elements of this fixture, an intense battle ensues, with Conan fighting hard to stay low and apply power through the maul.

Leinster get a nudge on and shear up to the right, where Conan leads them in surging forward [yellow below].

3

The maul begins to whip all the way around to the left as Ulster do their best to counter, and Conan ends up being spit out the tail of it as Leinster approach the Ulster 22.

He almost instantly looks to re-engage, however [yellow below]…

4

… latching onto ball carrier Tracy as Ulster hooker Herring enters from the side.

5

Referee Romain Poite signals an advantage for Leinster and after they briefly play away to the left, returns for the penalty that Ross Byrne kicks to win the game.

Clearly, Conan is only one part of an excellent Leinster maul in this instance, but he carries out his role with accuracy and doggedness to help his team win the game-deciding penalty.

It’s not as glamorous as his offloads and linebreaks, but this gritty work is as important to his team and as respected by his team-mates and coaches.

Contributing to this maul was another element in what was a sensational performance from Conan.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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