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How Connacht are looking to save fuel by playing 'smart football'

Andy Friend’s men are aiming for a better balance in their attacking game.

Connacht hope to have more cause for celebration this evening.
Connacht hope to have more cause for celebration this evening.
Image: Dougie Allward/INPHO

IT’S STILL EARLY in the new season but so far, Connacht have been kicking in play more often in this 2020/21 campaign than in 2019/20.

Last season, Andy Friend’s men averaged 23.7 kicks in play – so not including penalty kicks or restarts – per game, but they are up to 26.8 per game so far in the current campaign.

The increase is reflective of the Guinness Pro14 as a whole, with the average kicks in play per game rising from 22.5 to 25.4. These aren’t gargantuan leaps but they certainly are reflective of how teams are looking to have smarter kicking games, Connacht included.

The western province have been known for an ambitious and daring style of ball-in-hand attacking rugby since the Pat Lam days. They certainly want to retain that identity but Friend and his coaches are also keen for their players to be mature in their decision-making.

Two weekends ago against Zebre we saw as much, with Connacht pinning the Italians into their own half with some smart kicking, and Friend will be hoping for something similar this evening against Benetton [KO 7.35pm, TG4].

“What was pleasing [against Zebre] was that we stuck religiously to the game plan that if there is nothing on inside our own half, then turn them and save your energy and fuel for when they’re trying to run the ball out, or they kick it out and you have a lineout to attack from using a play we think can break them,” said Friend.

“The awareness of us saving our own energy and playing smart football is not being lost on the players.

“Nigel Carolan [Connacht's attack coach] showed a really powerful review clip to the group that started with Alex Wootton’s mark in the 22.

Normally, we might try and run out of there, but we mark it, kick to touch, turn over Zebre’s ball, play a little bit but Jack Carty puts it into the right corner, Zebre’s lineout, we steal that, play off that and Tom Daly scores.

andy-friend Friend is keen for players to make thoughtful decisions. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“So we’ve come from 80 metres away, played smart, backed our lineout, turned ball over, then we score seven points. That reinforced the key message that smart rugby tends to be winning rugby. That’s really powerful for the players.”

Friend stresses that there is a fine balance between helping players to understand that kicking is important at times and not taking away their instincts to attack from deep. 

He doesn’t want his players resorting to what he calls ‘better kicks,’ as in ‘better kick, there’s nothing else on.’

The Australian head coach insists his players will always be backed as long as their decisions have clear thought behind them.

“The Connacht identity now is probably one to chance your arm a little bit,” said Friend. “It’s finding that balance of when we do chance our arm.

“It’s a feel out there on the field, the players will know that more on the field than we will up in the coaches’ box. Players know the time when they have dominance and can chance their arm.

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“If we can continue to play that smart football it will help us but at the same time we don’t want to lose that identity of being a team who back themselves at the right moment and play.” 

Connacht:

15. John Porch 
14. Peter Sullivan 
13. Sammy Arnold 
12. Tom Daly 
11. Alex Wootton
10. Conor Fitzgerald
9. Caolin Blade

1. Denis Buckley
2. Shane Delahunt
3. Jack Aungier 
4. Eoghan Masterson
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Sean O’Brien
7. Conor Oliver 
8. Paul Boyle (captain)

Replacements:

16. Jonny Murphy
17. Paddy McAllister
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
19. Ultan Dillane 
20. Jarrad Butler
21. Colm Reilly
22. Sean O’Brien
23. Matt Healy

Benetton:

15. Jayden Hayward
14. Ratuva Tavuyara
13. Tommaso Benvenuti
12. Ian Keatley
11. Tommaso Menoncello
10. Dewaldt Duvenage (captain)
9. Callum Braley

1. Nicola Quaglio
2. Tomas Baravalle
3. Filippo Alongi
4. Irné Herbst
5. Federico Ruzza
6. Giovanni Pettinelli
7. Marco Barbini
8. Toa Halafihi

Replacements:

16. Giacomo Nicotera
17. Ivan Nemer
18. Tiziano Pasquali
19. Riccardo Favretto
20. Alberto Sgarbi
21. Manuel Zuliani
22. Luca Petrozzi
23. Joaquin Riera

Referee: Adam Jones [WRU].

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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