brain over brawn

Analysis: Brains overcame brawn for Connacht in scrum battle with Leinster

Leinster were dominant at the scrum, but Connacht were smarter.

WITH THE BEAUTIFUL brand of rugby that Connacht play, I did feel like a bit of a killjoy breaking down the work of the Connacht scrum.

It’s like looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and then wondering how Michelangelo would have fared white-washing a wall.

While there are plenty of teams that can work magic with the ball in their hands, it often comes at the expense of a set-piece.

Even the All Blacks are open at the scrum. If they master that, it’s hard to fathom just how good they could be.

Connacht, however, are a good scrummaging side. Coming into the Guinness Pro12 final they had statistically the safest scrum in the league. A large part of that was down to Denis Buckley, who has been immense for the past couple of years at loosehead.

But with his power gone in the last few games of the season, they’ve had to box clever. Against Leinster, they did just that. On seven out of their nine put-ins, they had played the ball in and taken it out in three seconds or under.

Quick ball was badly needed, because early on it was clear that Leinster had the power to cause big problems if the length of the scrums dragged on.

On the opening one of the day, we could see Mike Ross was already proving a handful for Ronan Loughney, who was having problems with his bind.

In the still image below, we can see how Loughney is pushing downwards with his bind, trying to force Ross low. Loughney’s arm should be extending out above his shoulders, as if he’s reaching for Ross’ hips, but we can see he’s putting all of his pressure down towards the ground.

1 Loughney bind

The net result is that Ross drops to his knees. Had Nigel Owens been on this side of the scrum, it could have been an early Leinster penalty.

1 collapse

With Ross and co. looking strong early on, the next scrum of the day showed just how eager Connacht were to get the ball in and out, using the scrum as a means to start an attack, rather than making it a lottery.

Three seconds. In and out.

2 in and out

It looks easy, but it’s far from it.

Leinster are very good at timing their drives, using that split second when teams are navigating the ball to the back of the scrum to attack.

In the example below, you can see how effectively all eight Leinster players jolt forward, just as Marmion puts the ball in.

Unfortunately, we can’t hear it here but in the game footage you can hear the call of “Ready… Ready… NOW!” coming from the Leinster pack as they get ready to drive in unison.

On this occasion it disrupts Connacht excellently, causing the ball to become messy at the back, and allowing Eoin Reddan to fly-hack it clear.

Keep an eye on the legs towards the back of the Leinster scrum, and how they all lock out in unison.

4 ready and now...

Despite that blip, Connacht were excellent overall at retaining their own ball, and despite an even bigger Leinster push, it was business as usual on the next drive.

On this occasion though, we get a good insight into why the ball moves so fast from Marmion’s hands to Muldoon’s.

You can see below how Tom McCartney has lifted his leg up in anticipation of the ball being placed behind it, making it easier to hook back down the scrum.

Strictly speaking, it’s illegal but something referees have long since stopped caring about.

Also, note the red lines. The broken line on the left is the centre point of the scrum, with the continuous line on the right simply a reference point for where the scrum ends up.

5 foot up

Once Marmion feeds, again the Leinster pack are ready, and all push in unison.

However, as usual, the retention is lightning quick from Connacht. As you can see from the clock in the top corner of the screens, just two seconds have passed between Marmion getting ready to feed the scrum, and Muldoon being several yards away from it.

The ball wasn’t even in the scrum a full second, which is for the best, given how far they were driven back in that short space of time.

Again, those red lines are representing the centre point of the scrum, and the same reference point from above. In less than two seconds, they’ve been driven back that far.

5 shove back

While Connacht could ensure quick ball on their own scrum, they were vulnerable whenever Leinster had the put-in.

10 minutes before half time, a Leinster put-in saw the most dominant drive of the day. However, a bit of loose control at the back of the scrum ended things prematurely, before Owens could award them a penalty.

We’ll look at how they initially set up. Ross has a good high bind on Loughney, but we can see once again that Loughney’s own bind is struggling, he’s pushing it downwards towards the ground.

6 initial

It’s an excellent drive from Ross, and he splits Loughney from his hooker Tom McCartney, while Jack McGrath can be seen to gain ground on Finlay Bealham.

Rather than go backwards, Loughney gets turned in by Ross. You can see below how Loughney has pretty much jack-knifed with his second row Ultan Dillane.

6 loughney turn

Leinster can smell blood, and desperately in need of points, they understandably drive on, confident that a penalty is just a few seconds away.

However, on this occasion, their own power backfires on them. They’ve started moving so fast through Connacht that Jamie Heaslip – who’s normally an excellent footballer at the base of the scrum – walks over it, and at that point it’s ball out.

6 ball out

From there, Bundee Aki smashes Johnny Sexton in a tackle. It’s a momentum changer, as we explained before.

Leinster were becoming dominant at the set piece. Jack McGrath got a penalty out of Finlay Bealham just before half time, and early in the second half they got their first points on the board when another scrum resulted in a penalty.

This time, it was all down to Tadgh Furlong, his first action since coming on for Ross seconds earlier.

As we can see below, Loughney collapses under pressure.

10 loughney bind

And if we freeze it here, we can see how his bind has slipped, and he’s being forced to hold himself up with his hand, as Furlong powers through.

Sexton kicked the points, and Leinster were off the mark.

10 loughney bind

Owens got that right, but later in the half he got a couple of decisions badly wrong, which killed a lot of Leinster momentum.

First, he called back a potential Leinster try for a questionable forward pass from Johnny Sexton, and from the resulting scrum, he penalised Leinster, when it was clear it should have been the other way around.

As usual for perspective we’ll look at how they set up. Both McGrath and Bealham have good binds and body angles.

13 initial

However, as we saw earlier, Leinster time their drive well, and McGrath gets Bealham on the back foot.

The Connacht man falls to his knee, and his body points up. At this point, all of Leinster’s eight are pushing square and straight.

13 knee down

Because Bealham collapses, and Leinster are still pushing, their momentum means they all spill in over the top.

If we watch the scrum back in full, we can see how Bealham collapses, and the Leinster pack fall in.

13 full

However, despite this it’s Connacht who are given the penalty, and we can hear Owens say that they were “Running around” the scrum, trying to whip it.

It looks a terrible call. If we freeze it just as the Leinster players drive over Bealham we can see that every one of them are still driving straight, and towards the goal. If they were attempting to whip it, the second and back-row players would be driving diagonally across McGrath, attempting to generate an angle.

13 collapse

As a contrast, here’s an example of how the scrum looks when they are ‘running around.’ taken from Italy v France in this year’s Six Nations. Note the angle that the second row and back row are driving at in comparison to the front.

7 whip

They were two poor back-to-back decisions from Owens, although you could argue things evened out a few minutes later, when play wasn’t stopped for a Tiernan O’Halloran head injury, leading to a Sean Cronin try.

Connacht got lucky, but it was just a minor blip in an otherwise efficient scrum performance.

They were being destroyed by Leinster, but because of their ability to get the ball in and out so quickly, the impact was minimal.

Below we can see another lightning-quick retention, and despite Bealham appearing to collapse on the far side (he’d switched to loosehead by then), the ball was out fast enough for that to be irrelevant.

14 in and out

Ironically, on the one scrum of the day that Connacht could honestly say they dominated, the decision went against them. However, by this stage they were 10 points clear and the clock had finally ticked into red, so I doubt they care too much.

However, it was a mighty shove from Rodney Ah You, his final act in the green shirt of Connacht, so I think it’s worth a mention.

The adrenaline rush of knowing victory was secure probably lifted their spirits, and as we can see below, Ah You absolutely obliterates Peter Dooley.

However, it’s called back for an early shove, which looks a soft, soft call. Not that anybody cared too much at the time.

17 early shove

Had Nathan White and Denis Buckley been fit for the final few games of the season, it’s likely we’d have seen an even more impressive Connacht side winning the Pro12.

However, it seems indicative of Pat Lam’s side that they made the most out of what they had. Having had one of the most dominant scrums all season in the league, they played the semi-final and final much lower on power.

The scrum isn’t all about power though. It’s about how you use power. By focusing on ball retention, rather than milking penalties, they lost just one of their 18 put-ins in the playoffs.

Hard to beat that strike rate.

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