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Connors takes his chance in Rome to push for Ireland start against Scotland

The 24-year-old openside was among the best performers in a six-try win for Andy Farrell’s side.

Connors crosses for a first-half Ireland try.
Connors crosses for a first-half Ireland try.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

HAPPILY, ANDY FARRELL now has a few juicy selection calls to make ahead of the Six Nations meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield in two weekends’ time.

Farrell’s decision in the number seven shirt will be intriguing after Will Connors came into the starting team for yesterday’s 48-10 win over Italy in Rome and seized his opportunity on the occasion of his eighth cap.

Josh van der Flier started Ireland’s two opening Six Nations games against Wales and France but was released back to Leinster this weekend and starts against Glasgow this evening.

Farrell will be watching closely, of course, but he will have been pleased with Connors’ performance at Stadio Olimpico, which backed up the Kildare man’s positive impression off the bench in the France game.

Connors is renowned as a superb tackler and he made 16 in this game, second only to James Ryan’s 17 in what was a strong Irish defensive performance. 

This instance in the 19th minute exemplifies Connors’ qualities in defence.

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Recognising that Italy number eight Michele Lamaro is running hard at his inside shoulder, Connors swiftly decides to use his characteristic chop-tackling technique – rather than looking to land a big tackle on his upper body – dropping in low around Lamaro’s legs and using the Italian’s momentum to get him to ground in the blink of an eye.

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As we can see above, Connors gets a firm wrap of his arms around Lamaro’s left leg to complete the tackle, which suddenly leaves the Italian back row isolated and allows Robbie Henshaw, just inside Connors in the defensive line, to jackal over the ball looking for a turnover.

Connors’ speed back onto his feet is typical, as he uses the momentum from the tackle to slingshot himself back up and instantly looks to latch onto Henshaw, aiming to anchor him into position to complete the turnover.

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Henshaw’s attempt to get his hand onto the ball as Lamaro looks to place it results in the ball squirting backwards out of the ruck and Connors shows great alertness to instantly change tack and swoop onto it, popping the ball up to Tadhg Beirne.

Connors was involved in another Irish turnover in the 30th minute as he put Italy scrum-half Callum Braley on the ground in swift fashion.

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Connors’ firm tackle around Braley’s legs again leaves the Italian isolated and allows Iain Henderson to target the ball.

Henderson gets a grip on the ball before Luca Bigi arrives with the clearout to take him off his feet, but we can see that Connors has once again bounced straight back up off the ground to be part of the contest.

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Connors initially looks to support Henderson but then gets his own hands onto the ball when the lock is taken off his feet.

There is obviously a risk of being penalised here, given that Connors is ‘second man in,’ but we can see that Connors is looking directly at referee Mathieu Raynal, asking for approval that his actions are legal. Raynal duly awards the penalty to Ireland as he says, “First by the four [Henderson], second by the seven [Connors], support is late.”

Henderson has probably done enough to earn the penalty here on the back of Connors’ tackle, but the openside’s thirst to complete the turnover is typical. It results in Ireland scoring their best try of the day through Hugo Keenan after they kick down the right touchline. 

Of course, Connors was among the tries in Rome, his first coming on the end of a sweeping passage of Ireland attack – the openside being rewarded for fulfilling his phase-play role of maintaining width out on the left.

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Slick handling from Ronan Kelleher links the ball to Johnny Sexton, who challenges the Italian defence before shifting it to Jordan Larmour, whose dart between the last two defenders allows him to offload to Connors running a support line on his left.

Connors also dotted down in the second half, making a good decision to break off a strong Irish maul to score.

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We can see above that Connors is on the verge of releasing the ball back to scrum-half Craig Casey just before he identifies the space Rob Herring has helped to open in front of him, with only Italy centre Carlo Canna in any position to slow him down.

Connors decides to dart forward before Herring turns and latches onto him for the finish. This score aside, it wasn’t a great day for the Irish maul.

At lineout time, Connors’ role is often as the ‘receiver’ just behind the lineout, arriving in to take the ball from the lineout jumper as Ireland maul, although he did make four accurate lifts at the tail of the lineout in this game.

24-year-old Connors isn’t renowned as a particularly explosive ball-carrier but he had seven in total in this game and showed his doggedness with close-quarters efforts like the one below that very nearly gave him an earlier try.

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Connors isn’t the biggest back row player but we can see he uses low body height to his advantage in this instance as he edges Ireland closer to the score that eventually comes through Garry Ringrose.

One aspect of Connors’ play that Ireland have been looking to encourage more is his handling skill.

He had four passes in this game, with the effort below demonstrating comfort on the ball.

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In the middle of a three-man pod, Connors keeps his body pointing upfield when he gets on the ball, ensuring he is a carrying threat himself.

He’s also shaping for a possible tip-on pass to Jack Conan short off his left shoulder, with the slight delay forcing Italy back row Sebastien Negri to turn in on Conan, just before Connors releases his pass out the back to Sexton.

Canna does a good job to shoot up and pressure Sexton but Ireland will likely be frustrated that they couldn’t get the ball wide to the left here against what was a 13-man Italy team. Perhaps Connors could have released the ball slightly earlier to Sexton or the out-half might feel it was worth taking the risk and pushing another pass onto Keenan.

Connors also passed from the base of rucks on two occasions in this game, demonstrating alertness to the possibilities after a turnover.

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Ireland’s turnover attack remains a clear work in progress but one issue they have encountered recently is an over-reliance on their scrum-half to be the person to shift the ball from the ruck directly after the turnover, with instances in both the Wales and France games where there was a long delay as they failed to react well.

Here, Connors swiftly steps in to move the ball, although his pass to Ringrose on the right is weak and is partly responsible for the centre ducking back to his left when opportunity seemed to beckon on the right as Keenan raced up from the backfield.

At the next ruck, Connors again acts as the scrum-half to keep the ball moving as Ireland probe for an opening in the reorganising Italian defence.

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This is obviously very simple stuff but it’s likely that Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt will have been encouraged to see Connors reacting to the situation well.

Of course, Connors had contributions to make at the attacking breakdown and delivered accuracy in that area too.

While Farrell and his coaches won’t be instantly dismissing what van der Flier has done in his two outings for Ireland in this championship, Connors has put his hand up for a start in Murrayfield.

If Connors does get his chance, he will be well aware that playing against Scotland will be a notable step up from yesterday in Rome.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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