'We don't just see him as a chop tackler' - Ireland back Connors' attacking skills

Attack coach Mike Catt also believes newcomer Hugo Keenan has “a huge future.”

IRELAND ATTACK COACH Mike Catt has backed openside flanker Will Connors to show that he’s about more than just his superb tackling as the Leinster man gets set for his debut against Italy at the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations tomorrow [KO 3.30pm, Virgin Media 1].

24-year-old Connors has earned a start in the number seven shirt in Andy Farrell’s team on the back of outstanding performances for his province in which his defensive work has been a consistent highlight.

However, Catt believes chop-tackling Connors has plenty to offer Ireland when they’re in possession too.

will-connors Connors starts at openside for Ireland tomorrow. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I think Will’s very underrated in terms of his handling ability, it’s never really been used with the Leinster way,” said Catt today.

“He’s exceptionally quick into breakdowns, not just defensively, but attacking-wise too and he’s got a real understanding of the game.

“He’s a good ball-carrier who generates quick ball pretty much every time he carries, with his low steps and his drive through the tackle.

“So for us, we don’t just see him as a chop tackler – we see him as a player who fits into the way we want the game to be played. And he’s been exceptional for Leinster at that.”

Connors’ Leinster team-mate Hugo Keenan is the other player set for his debut in Ireland’s starting XV tomorrow, with his good form having seen him selected on the left wing as Jacob Stockdale moves to fullback.

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park and Ed Byrne, also both Leinster players, are in line to win their first Ireland caps off the bench.

“All of them have settled in very well, an environment where they can come in and be themselves,” said Catt. “Andy has very much created that and really drives that side of it. All the players are there on form.

“Hugo has this unselfish want to chase the ball, his kick-chase, he’s unbelievably quick, unbelievably fit, and he’s settled in very, very well. So I see huge things for him, he’s got a huge future.

“And we’re very excited about Jammer [Gibson-Park] as well, the way we want to play at nine, he’s exceptionally quick to every breakdown, and he gets the ball away and gets good width on the pass as well.

hugo-keenan Hugo Keenan starts on the left wing for Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Will and Ed have obviously played very well for Leinster. So for us these young guys coming in, these first cappers, these are the ones that are going to drive this team as well.”

Like head coach Farrell, Catt is looking forward to seeing how Stockdale performs as he starts at fullback for the first time for Ireland at senior level.

“Jacob’s played there for Ulster and he’s been very, very impressive. So it’s just another stepping stone in his development.

“He’s got a huge left boot which is crucial in international rugby too, but when he attacks the line he’s very much in the game as well from 15. So I don’t think it’s development at all, it’s about what fits best for the team and he’s been very impressive in training so far.”

As for Franco Smith’s Italy, Catt – who joined Ireland after three years as the Azzurri‘s attack coach – highlighted the qualities of 20-year-old Benetton out-half Paolo Garbisi, who is set for his Test debut at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow.

“He looked exceptionally impressive especially against Leinster a couple of weeks ago, he looks very composed in that environment,” said Catt. “I know we’ve spoken about him over the past couple of years, but I’d never really seen him perform.

“He’s another huge left-footer, so him having him at 10, [Carlo] Canna at 12 and [Jayden] Hayward as well, you’ve got your left and your right-footed kickers which helps their exit strategy so we’ve got to be aware of that.

“I’ve loved how he’s attacked the line, he’s aggressive when he attacks the line, he sees the space very quickly, so I think he’s going to be very good given time.

“Italy have picked a big pack, their back row is big, Jake Polledri has been playing exceptionally well for Gloucester. So generating quick ball, playing with the width they always have since Franco’s taken over, it’s very much a wide-wide game.

“It’s just about making sure we can shut it down.” 

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