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Analysis: Connacht's clever bounce-back attack cuts Bordeaux apart

Attack coach Nigel Carolan has his charges striking superbly from lineout platforms.
Jan 22nd 2019, 1:00 PM 33,448 16

ONE ASPECT OF Connacht’s revival this season that has been particularly pleasing to watch has been their attack from lineouts.

New head coach Andy Friend has given attack coach Nigel Carolan a greater degree of responsibility and ownership over what Connacht do with their possession than was the case under previous boss Kieran Keane.

Tiernan O'Halloran celebrates his try Tiernan O'Halloran got on the end of a beautiful Connacht score against Bordeaux. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Carolan, who led the Ireland U20s to a World Championship final in 2016, has a history as being innovative with his teams’ set-piece attack and Connacht are now benefitting from his sharp ideas.

Of course, ideas are nothing without execution and the confidence flooding through Connacht’s players once again is helping them to strike effectively. Clearly, hard work on the training pitch is also a key factor in their quality in this area.

The lineout is a superb platform for Connacht because their forward pack delivers consistent possession, with a 93% success rate on their own throw making them statistically the most reliable lineout in the Pro14 – forwards coach Jimmy Duffy driving that area of the game.

51% of Connacht’s 56 tries this season have come from lineout platforms and the latest examples came in last weekend’s 33-27 win away to Bordeaux to secure a Challenge Cup quarter-final.

Three of Connacht’s five tries in this game originated with their own throw out of touch.

The first, finished by Matt Healy, was an intricate and intelligent play that dragged Bordeaux in tight, but we want to examine the third Connacht try from a lineout, finished by Tiernan O’Halloran.

Connacht, like every team, have many different set-ups on their attacking lineouts but one they consistently go back to is a six-man lineout with the spare forward positioned outside their 12 in midfield.

We get an example below against Leinster in the Guinness Pro14.

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Tom McCartney throws and Gavin Thornbury releases the ball off the top for Caolin Blade to pass the ball directly to inside centre Bundee Aki.

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As we can see above, Aki [12] has openside flanker Colby Fainga’a [7] outside him offering support.

On this occasion, Aki uses his own ball-carrying power to provide Connacht with gainline progress and tee them up to score on second phase.

Connacht’s running lines here are very clever. McCartney is working around the corner to offer a carrying threat short off Blade [white below].

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Meanwhile, Tom Farrell [yellow] is coming on a hard line to arrive just outside McCartney, while fullback Darragh Leader [blue] is mimicking that line.

The ingenuity of Farrell’s running line here is that he initially comes back against the grain of Blade’s pass, taking him to the inside shoulder of Leinster centre Conor O’Brien.

With Ross Byrne attracted by McCartney’s running line, as we can see below, it leaves Farrell running into space.

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Although O’Brien adjusts in for Leinster, Farrell’s hands are free to offload to Leader, who finishes superbly by beating Adam Byrne in the backfield.

Just minutes later, we see Connacht run a variation on the same initial set-up from a right-hand-side lineout.

Again, it’s a six-man lineout with Thornbury claiming under pressure from Scott Fardy and feeding the ball off the top.

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Aki [12 below] is the receiver from Blade again, with Fainga’a offering support on the centre’s outside shoulder.

It’s worth noting that out-half Jack Carty [10] is again bouncing out behind Fainga’a, as he did in the first example.

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Instead of carrying himself this time, Aki tips on a pass for Fainga’a to make a strong carry into the tackle of Ross Byrne and over the gainline again.

Because Aki is such a threat, Leinster are concerned about his possible carry, allowing Fainga’a to go one-on-one with Byrne.

It’s a simple variation but already we’re beginning to see how Connacht can use this basic set-up in different ways.

The second phase of this particular attack is once again clever from Connacht, although it doesn’t yield a try this time.

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Hooker McCartney has again worked around the corner and this time, he gets the ball from Blade but almost immediately drops the ball back off to the scrum-half looping around him.

Farrell then runs a decoy line and Blade goes out the back door to Carty, who fires the ball wide left to wing Kyle Godwin.

We can see how Connacht have created space on the edge and although Godwin will have been disappointed to get tackled into touch, this example underlines how Carolan’s charges throw different pictures at the defence even off the same initial set-up.

We see as much again below, versus Ulster in the Guinness Pro14.

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We now get a third variation on the initial 12-7 set-up from Connacht, with Jarrad Butler at openside flanker this time.

Aki receives the ball from Blade before popping to Butler [white below].

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But with Ulster’s defence biting down on Butler, he drops the ball out the back to Carty [yellow above].

Carty then screens Farrell running the front-door option to blindside wing Healy working across from the left.

There is some blocking up ahead of the ball by Farrell on Stuart McCloskey to impede his access across to Healy [blue below].

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But Healy does well in behind the line to get the ball back into two hands, drawing and passing for O’Halloran to score.

Even after a review, the match officials surprisingly allow the score to stand and Connacht’s lineout strike pays off.

In all of the examples above, Connacht have played directly to the openside, whether on first or second phase. 

However, one of the themes in their attack this season has been bouncing back against the grain with reverse plays. 

We get an example later in this same game against Ulster.

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Quinn Roux impressively wins the ball one-handed to provide more clean possession and Aki tips the pass onto Butler for a powerful carry through the tackle of Ulster out-half Billy Burns – another one-on-one situation as Ulster worry about Aki, as well as Carty out the back.

This time, we see one of Connacht’s bounce-back attacks as Carty and fullback Cian Kelleher come back underneath the ruck.

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There is lots of movement off the ball from Connacht here.

McCartney and Denis Buckley [white below] have worked around the corner to the left in a bid to attract Ulster defenders into thinking there will be a close-in carry on that side.

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But Carty [yellow above] is bouncing back underneath Blade to accept the pass, while Kelleher [red] is also working across to offer the back-door option in behind Ultan Dillane and Roux [blue], who run hard lines off Carty.

Niyi Adeolokun [green] is on a similar line to Kelleher and offers the possibility of another screen pass, but Kelleher opts to carry the ball.

He beats one tackle before being grounded and although Ulster manage this attack well, it shows another element of variety from Connacht.

It’s vital to point out again that Connacht have used this kind of bounce-back, reverse play often this season, even off different set-ups from the initial lineout.

Any team that has done their analysis on Connacht will have been aware of the threat, but the westerners intelligently added yet another tweak to cut Bordeaux apart for a seven-point reward.

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By now, the set-up is very familiar to us, as hooker Shane Delahunt throws into the six-man lineout, with Eoin McKeon delivering clean possession off the top.

Scrum-half Stephen Kerins, making his debut, delivers the ball to Aki and the inside centre passes to openside flanker James Connolly to carry.

Impressively, Connacht have been able to mix their team up at times this season and still be effective in these set-piece attacks as players fit into their roles comfortably.

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As we can see above, Kerins is indicating to his right as he arrives into the ruck, attempting to ‘sell’ another phase in that direction to Bordeaux.

As with the reverse attack against Ulster, there is work around the corner from hooker Delahunt and loosehead prop Peter McCabe [white below].

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At the same time, outside centre Farrell is running the same hard line [blue above] he did against Leinster in our very first example, offering Kerins another option.

But the intent is to reverse here and Kerins delivers the ball to out-half David Horwitz coming back underneath the ruck [yellow below].

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Horwitz has second rows Thornbury and Roux running those direct lines on his outside, similar to the ones we saw from Dillane and Roux against Ulster.

The Connacht shape means Horwitz can screen his two locks out the back, but now we see the fresh tweak.

Healy is in behind the Connacht locks, seemingly ready to accept a screen pass and attack out to his left. Instead, he reverses back underneath Horwitz [red below].

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As we can see above, Bordeaux’s defence is bunched up in front of Connacht after the French side have worked across from the ruck, reading what they thought was a play that they had seen in their analysis.

Bordeaux’s work-rate off the fringes of the ruck goes against them in this case as Healy slaloms back into that area on the left-hand side of the ruck, taking advantage of Bordeaux over-chasing the ball.

As Healy does so, fullback O’Halloran [green below] is bursting into the same space after coming from the right-hand side of the ruck.

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Adding to the detail here is the fact that Aki, having cleared out at the ruck, looks to subtly pin the Bordeaux defenders involved onto the ground, knowing his team-mates are coming back into the space on the edge of the ruck.

Connacht nail their detail to break through the Bordeaux frontline and Healy again gets the ball back into two hands to draw-and-pass for O’Halloran to seal the score.

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It’s deeply satisfying for any team to pull off a score like the one above, built on the training ground and in analysis sessions, practiced repeatedly, and then executed with precision.

For the players, these scores also bring even greater belief in what their coaches are guiding them to do.

There is much, much more to Connacht’s encouraging season, of course, but their intelligent and accurate work from lineout platforms is among the reasons they find themselves in a Challenge Cup quarter-final and firmly in contention for the Pro14 play-0ffs.

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Murray Kinsella

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