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How Will Connors' remarkable tackling helped Leinster to shut down Ulster

The 24-year-old openside flanker was dogged and destructive in defence.

IT’S NO OVERSTATMENT to declare that Will Connors is one of the most effective defenders in Irish rugby.

There is more to the 24-year-old Leinster openside flanker’s game but he truly excels in the domain of tackling. 

Connors’ chop tackling is consistently important when he plays for Leinster, which so far has been only in the Guinness Pro14. He still awaits his European debut for the province but he was part of the Ireland squad earlier this year and looks to have plenty of new milestones ahead of him in the coming seasons.

ian-madigan-is-tackled-by-will-connors Will Connors lands a big tackle on Ian Madigan on Saturday night. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

During this 2019/20 campaign, Connors has been the busiest tackler in the entire Pro14, completing a tackle every four minutes on average. With 177 tackle completions and just 10 misses, his success rate stands at just under 95%.

Connors was the top tackler in Leinster’s win against Ulster on Saturday with 19 tackles – many of them seriously impactful – and an in-depth look at his defensive efforts underlines the technical quality, work-rate, belligerence, athleticism, and bravery that make him such an effective defender.

The openside also made three carries and passed twice against Ulster but his biggest influence was without the ball as he did a remarkable job in helping to limit the impact of Stuart McCloskey and Marcell Coetzee – the northern province’s two key ball-carriers.

Connors’ first direct defensive involvement came in the sixth minute, when he was the ‘tailgunner’ in behind the Leinster lineout [red below].

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Connors’ job is to be the first defender off the lineout for Leinster and we can see below that he is already breaking out over the 15-metre line as Ulster transfer the ball to John Cooney from the front of the line, that delivery signalling that the lineout is over.

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Connors accelerates to his left as Cooney finds McCloskey and then chops in low around the Ulster centre’s legs, wrapping on the left as Ross Byrne arrives in as the second tackler high on McCloskey.

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Having helped to deny McCloskey a carry over the gainline, Connors is straight back on his feet, ensuring that Leinster have 14 defenders on their feet ready for the next phase.

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Ulster play several more phases but fail to make any headway and box-kick the ball away. Connors’ role in denying McCloskey momentum on the first phase is essential and marks a fine start to his defensive performance.

Ulster have a left-hand-side scrum soon after but Connors helps to put pressure on their first-phase attack again.

Pressure

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This is obviously as much about Ulster’s sloppiness, as Coetzee is indecisive on the ball, but Leinster’s defence is solid.

The presence of scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park is important just outside Connors, as he is covering the pass from Coetzee to Cooney [yellow below] as they arc off the scrum.

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That allows Connors to focus his full attention on rapidly closing down Coetzee, whose hesitation leads to a poor pass just as Connors tackles him. 

Ulster swiftly find themselves scrambling back into their 22 to clear their lines.

Just over three minutes later, Connors is integrally involved as Leinster force another turnover. The flanker [red below] starts as the tailgunner at a lineout again.

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We can see above that McCloskey [white] is Ulster’s ‘receiver’ behind their lineout, while scrum-half Cooney [yellow] is at the front of the lineout.

As the ball is thrown in, Cooney breaks out to accept the transfer as McCloskey heads over the 15-metre line to accept a pass from his scrum-half.

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Again, Ulster are doing their best to get McCloskey over the gainline on first phase and he steps to the inside of Connors on this occasion.

However, Sean Cronin [white below] and Devin Toner [yellow], working from the back of the Leinster lineout, make a good tackle on McCloskey to stop him short.

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Connors is, therefore, on his feet for the second phase as Ulster get a quick recycle.

Connors’ impact this time is destructive.

Turnover Hit

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Connors drops in low around Jordi Murphy’s knees as the Ulster openside comes thundering around the corner, with Leinster captain Ed Byrne tackling up high.

But it’s the sheer sudden impact of Connors’ chop that plays the greatest role in Murphy spilling the ball and another Ulster attacking effort is stopped in its tracks.

Connors has his only missed tackle of the game in the 16th minute as Jacob Stockdale evades him on kick return.

Miss

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Connors will, of course, have been disappointed with the miss but Stockdale is aided by some work ahead of the ball by his team-mates here.

Sam Carter [red below] cleverly tracks across in front of Connors as Stockdale runs the ball back, while Rob Herring [yellow] does something very similar in front of Leinster lock Ross Molony.

Miss

This subtle work helps to provide a sliver of space for Stockdale to surge through and Ulster are into a promising position until Max Deegan wins a turnover penalty.

Connors’ next tackle comes from another lineout but this time, he’s set up as part of the backline defence [red below] as Ulster opt for a six-man lineout.

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Again, Connors is first into the tackle on McCloskey and although Leinster give up the gainline on the first two phases here, we get an example of Connors’ work-rate as he is involved in two tackles on two consecutive phases and then jackals too.

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Watch above how Connors uses momentum to slingshot himself back up onto his feet after tackling McCloskey.

Having won the gainline, Ulster shift into their phase play more fluidly this time and Connors is required to jockey wide to the left as the northern province shift the ball wide, aided by some blocking ahead of the ball…

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Having worked hard to cover across, Connors commits into a tackle on Kieran Treadwell just before the Ulster lock gets the ball away…

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With Stockdale nudging a grubber ahead after receiving the pass from Treadwell, Leinster are able to recover possession and clear to touch, but that simply means more attacking pressure from Ulster.

McCloskey gets well over the gainline on first phase but, again, Connors produces a fine tackle on second phase as he works around the corner…

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… and then gets off the line aggressively to chop in low around Coetzee’s knees and deny him the gainline.

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Ulster do still manage to get a quick recycle and they make further headway out towards the touchline before Connors makes his presence felt just over 10 seconds after his previous tackle on Coetzee.

This time, Connors makes a punchy chop tackle on Treadwell as Ulster play away from the touchline.

Chop

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At first glance, some chop tackles can look like no-arms tackles, and indeed some of them are.

But Connors’ low tackle technique is consistently legal and this is a good example as gets off the defensive line, getting his lead right foot closer to Treadwell, then drops and drives his right shoulder into the Ulster lock’s right leg, wrapping with his arms in the process.

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It takes bravery to tackle in this manner and clearly there is some willingness on Connors’ part to risk his own physical wellbeing in order to make effective tackles.

He has suffered injuries in the past when making low tackles but has worked hard on his technique, particularly with getting his head on the ‘right’ side of the tackle.

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Above, we can see that this tackle on Treadwell leaves Connors in pain but he is quickly back onto his feet and into the defensive line again. 

His next tackle comes two-and-a-half minutes later and once again sees him come from the tailgunner slot…

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… to tackle McCloskey low and deny him the gainline on first phase…

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… which, in turn, leaves Leinster’s midfield of Rory O’Loughlin and Ciarán Frawley in a strong defensive position which they convert into a turnover penalty through Frawley [yellow below].

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Connors has to wait over six minutes for his next tackle but he more than makes up for lost time with a big hit on Ulster out-half Ian Madigan.

It’s another dominant defensive moment from the Leinster openside.

Smash

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Connors is helped here by the defensive organisation around him, as Cronin [yellow below] is one of those working hard on the inside, marking up on Tom O’Toole before he passes and giving Connors confidence to shift off the tighthead prop.

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Meanwhile, Rory O’Loughlin [white] is alert on Connors’ outside, keeping an eye on the possible tip-on pass to Coetzee but also leaving himself available to shift out beyond the Ulster number eight.

That’s exactly what Connors and O’Loughlin do as Coetzee’s line fails to sit the Leinster defenders down and Connors [red below] turns back up the linespeed to close the space to Madigan.

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Connors bounces straight back to his feet again and is available to defend on the next phase, jackaling to ensure Coetzee has to race in to clear him away.

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With their attack again going nowhere, Ulster opt to box-kick a phase later and Cooney’s poor strike flies into touch on the full to hand Leinster a lineout.

Connors has another battling jackal effort three minutes later as Leinster defence just inside the Ulster half.

Connors gets into a good position over the ball and it takes a questionable entry angle from O’Toole [yellow below] to break his grip.

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Fittingly, Connors’ first-half defensive efforts end with another tackle low around Coetzee’s legs.

He brings the Ulster number eight to ground swiftly once again…

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… but Josh Murphy is then penalised for failing to roll away after assisting in the tackle and Ulster get one more attacking chance down in the Leinster half, only for Murphy’s maul turnover to ensure Cullen’s side lead 13-0 at the break.

With Leinster enjoying plenty of possession just after half-time, it’s the 48th minute before Connors’ next defensive intervention.

It’s another impactful hit on second phase from an Ulster lineout attack, as Connors works around the corner with Cronin to drive Matty Rea backwards in dominant fashion.

Double Hit

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This time, Cronin provides the leg-tackle focus while Connors drives in high in a double hit that gives Leinster instant momentum and saps Ulster’s attack of impetus and energy.

Just 10 seconds later, Connors is involved in another dominant tackle on Rea, combining with Michael Bent to send the Ulster blindside backwards behind the gainline.

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Ulster continue their efforts to make headway with direct carries from lineouts.

But Connors continues to work from tailgunner…

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… to make low tackles in midfield…

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… and bounce straight back into his feet for the next phase.

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Ulster finally do get a foothold in Leinster territory, however, and eventually work their way back into the contest with a powerful maul try.

Connors can do very little to prevent hooker Herring from dotting down after Leinster decide to compete in the air at the five-metre lineout and provide poor maul resistance as a result.

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Connors aims to get under the ball but Herring is low to ground as he drives over from the back of the maul.

Eager to make himself a nuisance, Connors counter-rucks after Leinster’s restart and Coetzee has to commit in to clear him away…

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Connors and Coetzee both work back to their feet, with the pair meeting on the very next phase as Connors combines with Toner to tackle the Ulster back row.

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Ulster continue their efforts to reel Leinster and some slick passing soon sees Connors’ linespeed beaten.

The flanker rushes out of the defensive line [red below] to pressure second row Carter but he gets a short pass away to Eric O’Sullivan [yellow] before Connors gets to him.

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With O’Sullivan then delivering a lovely catch-and-pass on to Madigan, Ulster are in space down the left and Leinster have to scramble back towards their 22 and regain defensive organisation.

When they do so, Connors gets off the line aggressively to better effect, combining with Rhys Ruddock in the double tackle on Jordi Murphy.

Double

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Leinster concede another linebreak to Ulster on the next phase as Coetzee – free of Connors’ attention – pirouettes through a weak tackle attempt. 

Unfortunately for Ulster, they waste a promising position as Murphy knocks on running a hard line close to the ruck.

They compound that error with a very sloppy lineout after Leinster clear the ball, with Connors showing alertness to race forward and kick the ball ahead after McCloskey drops it…

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.. and then chase to put pressure on the retreating Matt Faddes…

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… who slices his clearing kick into touch inside the Ulster 22.

Leinster knock the ball on in the attack that follows and Connors is required to assist Gibson-Park in a tackle on McCloskey as Ulster set up their exit.

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And Connors is soon tackling the Ulster centre down in Leinster’s 22 as poor discipline from Cullen’s side gives the northern province access.

Connors makes three tackles in 30 seconds to help ensure Leinster don’t concede a try in this barrage.

First, he tackles McCloskey after the Ulsterman batters past Harry Byrne…

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Three phases later, Connors has to stretch to make a low tackle on James Hume as the Ulster midfielders turns on some footwork…

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And then another two phases later, we see one of Connors’ trademark chop tackles low on Coetzee.

Chop

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Connors’ chop tackle stops Coetzee dead once again, cutting him straight to ground in a situation where the Ulster number eight would often smash over the gainline.

Connors shows scant regard for himself again but, importantly, he gets a wrap of the arms, as we can see below.

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Connors is so low to the ground that he actually wraps his right arm around Coetzee’s left boot, while his left arm is around Coetzee’s right knee.

Connors’ head is in between Coetzee’s legs so he has clearly taken some risk in this instance but he comes away unscathed and instantly gets his torso out of the way of the ball to ensure he’s not penalised.

Unfortunately, after Connors’ hard work, Leinster are caught offside on the very next phase and Ulster kick three points.

This chop on Coetzee is a fitting end to Connors’ defensive work in this game as he makes one more carry and is then replaced by Scott Penny, who provides more energy and a show of real pace to score a try during his nine-minute cameo off the bench.

Connors’ 71-minute shift at the coalface was crucial for Leinster as their completely-changed starting XV extended the province’s winning streak to 23 games in all competitions. 

He rarely grabs the headlines but Connors is a player whose value is always appreciated by team-mates. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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