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Analysis: Connacht not pushing panic buttons after poor Pro12 start

Pat Lam’s men need to fix their breakdown, stop slipping tackles and take confidence in attack.

THE FIRST TWO weekends of the Guinness Pro12 have brought Connacht crashing back back to earth after their lofty achievements last season.

For many of Pat Lam’s squad, giving up bonus points in defeat on consecutive weekends is a strange feeling.

“It is different,” says fullback Tiernan O’Halloran. “A lot of the lads in the changing room are used to winning all the time. The likes of myself, Mul [John Muldoon] and Loughs [Ronan Loughney] have been there a good while and we have tasted these big defeats before in the past.

Tiernan O'Halloran dejected after the game O'Halloran after last weekend's defeat. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You just have to bounce back, you can’t get down on yourself. The guys who have been winning all the time, for them it’s a bit of a shock to the system but we just have to back ourselves and stick together as a team.

“We are two games into the season and we are not going to start panicking yet or changing things too drastically.”

Win, lose or draw, Connacht under Lam go back to their famous ‘processes’ and identify aspects of their performances that can be worked on to bring about improvement. Right now, the work-on areas are clear.

Defensive consistency

Glasgow and the Ospreys were both excellent in Galway over the last fortnight, but giving up 10 tries in two games is totally unacceptable for Connacht.

“We really need to step up in defence, because we’re maybe where we were this time last year,” says O’Halloran.

“Our defence got better as last season went on, so we need to get back to the way we finished the season with our defence and get more linespeed to put pressure on teams.”

Gainline

Indeed, we have seen Connacht soaking up lots of pressure in the opening two games by losing the race for the gainline in defence.

The example above is a straightforward one, but even inside the Connacht 22 – where they can rush up harder than anywhere else – Lam’s men lose the gainline to Josh Matavesi.

Of course, there are many examples of Connacht getting off the line aggressively in the last fortnight, but their consistency must grow in this area.

Having been relatively weak in defence for the first half of last season, the westerners built that aspect of their game into a stifling strength. The mentality was all about winning the ball back to allow them to attack, rather than simply preventing tries.

Too often in the opening rounds, Connacht have been reactive to the attacking team, rather than proactively bringing a dominant tackle to the ball carrier.

Tackle tech

Coupled with the inconsistent linespeed is a concerning short-term trend of poor tackle technique.

Webb

We get an example above as Rhys Webb powers through the tackle attempts of Jack Carty and Eoin Griffin all too easily for an Ospreys try.

Again, the issue is around consistency. Both Griffin and Carty made several excellent tackles in this same game, but with the pressure on close to their line, the Connacht backs went high and soft on Webb to allow him to muscle over.

I think our tackle quality let us down a few times,” says O’Halloran, “just letting them through soft shoulders and giving them some easy linebreaks. They are momentum killers.”

Skills coach Dave Ellis will have been drilling the basic details of Connacht’s tackle technique this week in training even more than usual, and it would be a surprise if their tackling didn’t show improvement over the coming weeks.

Breakdown battle

Connacht’s attack last season won them major plaudits, but it also drew much attention from opposition analysts.

Aware of what Lam’s men can do when they have a fine platform to play off, Glasgow and the Ospreys have both attacked Connacht’s possession post-tackle.

“We are not getting the quick ball that we were used to last year and that’s something that we need to work on going forward,” says O’Halloran.

Ospreys TO

“Teams have obviously done a lot of analysis on the way we played last year and I think you saw the Ospreys targeting the breakdown because they know when we have quick ball we’re very dangerous.

“They did a very good job of slowing the breakdown, as Glasgow did last week, and it’s very hard to get go-forward ball when you’re working off static breakdowns.”

It’s not just the post-tackle area where Connacht’s possession has been slowed, with the Ospreys also looking to bring the choke tackle into play in Galway last weekend.

Choke

The breakdown follows on from the ball carry, where Connacht’s aim for improvement will start.

A strong carry, with footwork, pace and an ideal tilt into contact so often results in a cleaner breakdown, which will provide Connacht with the quick ball they crave.

Along with the focus on the technical details of the carry, Connacht will look to arrive a the breakdown with what O’Halloran terms greater “accuracy” – body height, control of power, timing and number of rucking players.

Glasgow and Ospreys have laid down a clear test to Connacht at the breakdown, and the western province’s mindset must be one of anger in response. Intelligently-applied aggression is an important element at any breakdown.

Confidence in attack

Again, the point is not that Connacht’s breakdown work is a shambles. They are doing some fine work here too, and some of those positive ruck contributions came in the build-up to Eoin McKeon’s excellent try last weekend.

“You saw at the start of the second half what we can do when we did get quick ball off the breakdown,” says O’Halloran.

Connacht have only scored two tries so far this season, but the second of them was a timely reminder of what this side is capable of.

It started with a superb set-piece play. McKeon popped to Bundee Aki in midfield from a left-hand side lineout, before the westerners cleverly bounced back against the grain.

SP

Danny Qualter and Muldoon handle comfortably, with James Connolly’s excellent decoy line sitting Rory Thornton down in the Ospreys’ defensive line.

That means Webb is left with a three-on-one on the right edge of the defence, and he opts to shoot up hard in an attempt to stop the ball on Matt Healy. Instead, the Connacht wing gets away an excellent pass to Ultan Dillane, who draws and passes for Tom McCartney to run into space.

Intelligent set-piece attack was a feature of Connacht’s success last season, and this pre-planned strike allows them onto the front foot immediately.

OT

Next comes Kieran Marmion’s sniping game, as Muldoon and Qualter open up a hole for the scrum-half to dart right over the breakdown, getting his hands free and offloading to Muldoon for more metres gained.

Heads-up decision-making and breakdown subtlety also featured last season.

Decision

Next, a simple decision to make more progress. Too often in the opening games of the season, Connacht’s midfield grouping of four forwards has been happy to play predictable passes across the pitch or out the back door to a back.

Sometimes, retaining the ball and carrying with good footwork and power is the best option. After receiving the pass from Loughney here, McKeon recognises that much and makes more yardage.

The backs get involved and O’Halloran makes a solid carry wide on the right on the next phase, pirouetting well and surviving one of those Ospreys choke tackle attempts, before Loughney carries off Marmion.

As that happens, we note the organisational skills Connacht show.

Org

Aki and Dillane are the two key men in this regard, with the centre calmly directing his forwards and then Dillane communication with Connolly on his left.

Having organised themselves ideally, Connacht are not ready to strike for the score. It’s been patient, calm, confident build-up play, which Lam’s men must look to as their template with every attack.

EM

Dillane and Connolly handle expertly, with McCartney running the crucial straightening decoy line to lure Webb into biting in.

That means Aki is in space when he receives Connolly’s pass and can lure Jeff Hassler onto him. All that’s left is a simple pass to McKeon for the try.

“You see with some of the phases of play at the start of the second half – it was just very like the way we played last year, putting teams under pressure like that,” says O’Halloran.

When we scored that try, there was a lot of confidence around and everything was going well.

“We have lots of confidence from last season. There are a few changes in personnel and things like that, but the core group of guys are still there and the way we train is still there.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t start the way we wanted to, but we’ll keep on going through the phases and we need to be confident and back each other, push each other in training, and hopefully we’ll see a few better results on the pitch.”

Moving on

It has been a hugely disappointing start to Connacht’s Pro12 title defence, underlining just how difficult it is going to be for them to retain the trophy.

Their pre-season is almost certainly a factor in the collapses late on in both the Glasgow and Ospreys games, with Connacht having had only one official friendly fixture before the Pro12 season began.

Matt Healy and Jeff Hassier Matt Healy was sharp against the Ospreys. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A training match against Clontarf – as good as the Ulster Bank League side is – isn’t ideal preparation for a title defence. Cancellations were out of Connacht’s hands, but the organisation is likely to have learned a lesson in this regard.

“It’s never ideal not having pre-season games,” says O’Halloran. “We had one game against Montpellier, we had some good prep.

“We had some training games as well, which we thought went well. It is what it is. It has happened and it is up to us to get up to pace as quick as we can.

We had two big games against two top sides here. We had a very proud record at home here last year and unfortunately we have let that slip at the start of the season.”

Connacht have refused to use their pre-season as an excuse, which is definitely a laudable approach – even if there is frustration behind closed doors.

Instead, Lam and his players are focusing on fixing the details that made them history makers last season. Bottom of the table after two rounds, the only way is up.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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