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Analysis: Aki and Copeland shine as gritty Connacht dig in for crucial turnovers

Andy Friend’s side made some vital breakdown steals in their victory over Montpellier.

FITTINGLY, IT WAS a breakdown turnover by Connacht that lifted the siege on Montpellier’s final visit into the Irish province’s 22. 

Robin Copeland pounced to relieve the pressure and turn the visiting French side away one last time deep in Connacht’s territory.

Copeland’s steal was one of eight defensive turnovers by Andy Friend’s side in a gritty, dogged performance, with six of them coming at the breakdown as Connacht competed intelligently and accurately on the ground.

bundee-aki-celebrates-a-turnover Bundee Aki celebrates a Connacht turnover penalty. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While Connacht’s defensive performance was certainly not perfect – Montpellier’s two tries were scored far too easily – this stirring victory on their return to the Heineken Champions Cup was founded on the fight they showed to overcome the adversity of an injury crisis that now includes 16 players.

It’s worth noting that Montpellier had much success at the defensive breakdown too and the attacking ruck is one of Connacht’s most obvious areas for improvement before this weekend’s visit to Toulouse.

There is little doubt, however, that Connacht’s repeated breakdown steals were crucial in their impressive success at the Sportsground, delivering crucial injections of momentum and belief as they stymied the Montpellier attack.

Despite the two frustrating try concessions, this was a good day for defence coach Peter Wilkins and his players.

Boyle threatens

Connacht’s first penalty at the defensive breakdown came as early as the sixth minute after wing Gabriel N’Gandebe carried close to the right touchline, where impressive flanker Paul Boyle threatened over the ball.

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The penalty is for a side entry by Montpellier centre Arthur Vincent.

Ultan Dillane tackles N’Gandebe here and aids Connacht’s cause by ending up on the far side of the tackle [circled in white below], blocking the pathway for the arriving Kélian Galletier into the breakdown.

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Dillane does roll away to the side, but only after Galletier has tripped over him – ensuring he can’t get at Boyle.

Meanwhile, Boyle has shown a brief detachment from N’Gandebe after helping him down to ground and is getting ready to pounce for the ball, only for Vincent to recognise the threat and clear him out from the side [highlighted in red above].

Vincent appears to have expected a pass from N’Gandebe and finds himself nearly ahead of him as the wing is tackled, resulting in his side entry as Connacht signal their intent to compete from early on. 

Three-point kick chase

Connacht’s first turnover proper comes on the back of some excellent kick chase effort, just after Montpellier have accidentally kicked the ball out of their own attacking ruck down in the home side’s 22.

Boyle gathers the bouncing ball and shifts it to scrum-half Caolin Blade, who hammers a clearing kick downfield [white below].

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Connacht wing John Porch is the primary chaser here, starting alongside Blade, but we’ve also highlighted stand-in captain Tom McCartney [red] and centre Bundee Aki [yellow] in the shot above, as they will be the two players to force the turnover.

Porch’s work-rate is important first, however, as he hares upfield and applies pressure to the retreating Anthony Bouthier. While Porch slips off his tackle attempt, he buys times for Aki to arrive onto the scene and bring Bouthier to ground.

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As we can see above, Blade works hard on Porch’s right to follow up the kick and prevent a Montpellier counter-attack down that channel, forcing Bouthier infield.

He beats Porch’s tackle attempt but Aki makes an impact with his follow-up and manages to stay up on his feet after tackling the Montpellier fullback.

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With McCartney – who also made 16 tackles in this game – arriving in the instant above, it means two Connacht players are targeting the exposed ball, as we see below.

McCartney and Aki both get into strong jackal positions and the arriving Vincent obviously can’t target both of them, opting to drive into Aki but making little impact as Connacht earn the penalty.

Aki

Aki’s punch of the air in celebration underlines what the moment means to Connacht, with Jack Carty kicking their opening points off the tee from this penalty.

In a game that was decided on a three-point margin, the importance of this turnover is clear.

Copeland pounces

Connacht’s breakdown work was crucial in the closing 30 minutes of the game as they defended a 20-13 lead and then a 23-20 advantage against this powerful Montpellier team.

Part of Copeland’s superb showing at number eight was his prominence in this area of the game, with his first breakdown turnover arriving in the 55th minute as Montpellier returned a Connacht kick.

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Again, the momentum delivered by a moment like this cannot be underestimated, particularly with Copeland surging away from this turnover for a strong carry.

Australian number eight Caleb Timu is the man called on to carry at Connacht in this instance and he is felled by an accurate low chop tackle by Jack Carty, who wraps around his ankles and brings him swiftly to ground [yellow below].

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Copeland is hovering over the tackle [white above], recognising the opportunity opening up in front of him.

The closest Montpellier player is lock Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg [in the blue scrum cap] but he’s actually ahead of the ball, still retreating downfield as Connacht’s good work-rate ensures they make the tackle inside Montpellier’s half.

That means Copland can latch onto the ball in the moment before van Rensburg gets back to hit the breakdown, while loosehead prop Denis Buckley – who made a team-leading 18 tackles in this game as he completed the full 80 minutes – swings in alongside Copeland on his left.

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As van Rensburg begins his effort to drive Copeland off the ball, we can see the value of Buckley’s assisting effort. 

Not only does he give Copeland extra stability, but he also absorbs some of the force of Montpellier’s Jacques du Plessis arriving in from their left [red below] in a bid to blast the Connacht pair away from the ball.

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So while van Rensburg does shift Copeland slightly backwards and out of his ideal jackaling position, the Connacht number eight manages to just keep his left hand on the ball, maintaining his initial poaching effort.

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As we can see above, van Rensburg releases Copeland as he slips up beyond him and Copeland keeps his balance before bringing his right hand back onto the ball.

Referee Matthew Carley is content that Copeland has never lost connection with the ball and shouts, “First, on his feet” as the Connacht back row bursts away, makes a good carry and presents clean ball before Carty fires a clever banana kick in behind the Montpellier defence to pin them into their own 22.

Bundee’s big steal

However, Connacht are back in their own 22 within minutes, where their defence has to show grit again over the course of 10 phases until Aki delivers an important turnover to lift the pressure.

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Aki combines with centre partner Tom Daly, who was excellent after coming into the team at late notice, for the initial hit as they hammer Vincent into the ground on his direct carry.

Again, Aki stays on his feet following his tackle and rapidly reloads to jackal over the ball.

He knows he’s not perfectly in control of his bodyweight, leaning forward over the ball, but the arriving Jan Serfontein – desperate to clear him away – actually helps to drive him into a perfect position.

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Aki still has to show real strength and balance to cling onto the ball, with Vincent failing to release it, resulting in penalty advantage for Connacht even as Aki eventually rips it clear. 

Buckley pilfers

Frustratingly for Connacht, Montpellier equalise within three minutes as they score through Bouthier too easily with two phases off a scrum attack.

But Conor Fitzgerald’s impact off the bench – first with a brave pass wide to the left and then his composed penalty strike – leaves Connacht 23-20 to the good with 13 minutes left to defend.

They need another pair of breakdown turnovers to help them home, with Buckley producing the goods on Montpellier’s next visit into the 22.

The penalty comes on a simple one-out carry by van Rensburg.

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Fainga’a is the primary tackler here and he completes an effective low tackle on van Rensburg similar to Carty’s tackle earlier, bringing the ball-carrier swiftly to ground.

Dillane is alongside Fainga’a in the defensive line and he makes a nuisance of himself again here, stepping in behind the tackle and impeding Grégory Fichten [17 below], then Yacouba Camara [as highlighted in yellow].

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It might not seem like a whole lot from Dillane but his movement buys Buckley a crucial extra split second to get over the ball before Camara and Fichten arrive in their bid to clearout.

It should be noted that Buckley’s first action here is to put his hands onto the ground in front of the ball, which is illegal play, as we can see below.

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But Buckley bounces up to grip onto the ball within a split second as referee Carley moves into a better position and the referee is content that the Connacht loosehead has earned a shot at the turnover.

Camara and Fichten pull Buckley over off his feet but as the Connacht prop clings onto the ball, Carley awards him to penalty and says, “Same as 16 in the middle of the field [referring to Bismarck du Plessis' turnover penalty for Montpellier just before] – clearly on the ball, pulled off his feet.”

Connacht clear to touch on the halfway line.

Copeland’s steal

However, Friend’s men botch the lineout and are forced to defend again as Montpellier surge all the way into their 22, bringing hearts back into Connacht supporters’ mouths.

Once again, the Connacht players find a solution to get themselves out of trouble as Copeland pounces.

Final

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Van Rensburg is turned over on a one-out carry again here, as replacement Eoghan Masterson drops in low to tackle him swiftly to ground, allowing Copeland to steal the ball.

It’s an odd-looking turnover with Camara having been in such close support of van Rensburg, but the reverse angle paints a clearer picture.

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As we can see above, Camara flops straight to ground on top of van Rensburg, rather than staying on his feet and ensuring Copeland – who also completed 16 tackles – has no right to attack the ball.

With Camara off his feet, Copeland jackals and referee Carley shouts, “He’s the only player on his feet, seven [Camara] went off his feet!”

Copeland comes up with the ball, wrestling free of the despairing grip of Jannie du Plessis and presenting it back cleanly on Connacht’s side, with Carley indicating, “Good turnover.”

Montpellier shoot offside in their frustration on the next phase and Connacht are able to clear again before seeing out the closing minutes of the game with another strong defensive passage upfield, sealing a superb European win.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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