New competition, new season, first game; you couldn’t blame Connacht fans for being hopeful coming into their match against Cardiff. In a province that has often been the poor relation of Irish rugby, hope has been the lifeblood that’s sustained the province.
Hope is what kept the province going in 2003 – as the IRFU threatened to pull the plug on financial support – and that hope was vindicated in the 2015-16 season as it drove a Connacht side that were expected to finish mid-table to an unprecedented Pro12 title. It may often lead to a rollercoaster ride of emotions for Connacht fans, but being hopeful; it’s vital to rugby out West.
Against the backdrop of last weekend’s loss against Cardiff then – where Connacht went behind, before going ahead and then behind again; it’s inevitable that some fans will feel burned by hope on this latest up and down ride which has seen Connacht win away only once now in their last 6 visits to the Welsh capital.
However, despite all that, there were promising signs of structure in Connacht’s play last weekend that bode for a smoother ride down the line.
With a major backroom reshuffle happening in the coaching team during the off-season – just another part of the Connacht coaster – there would have inevitably been a temptation from the new attack coaches to tear up the script and start anew. However, of all the areas in Connacht’s game, attack was surely the most successful for the province last season.
Connacht arguably punched above their weight by scoring the 4th highest amount of points in the 2020-21 Pro14 season with 396 in total – only 16 less than finalists Munster for example – while accruing 7 try bonus-points over 16 games.
Judging by the Cardiff game alone, the signs are that new attack coaches Peter Wilkins and Mossy Lawlor have recognised the strength of the existing structures and will look to continue using them as a foundation to build their own ideas upon this season.
For Connacht’s first try of the game, it was one of Connacht’s familiar 3-pods in midfield that lead to Kieran Marmion’s first of two tries.
It may seem simple, but the way Tom Daly takes this ball at pace and straight-on does a great job of fixing multiple defenders, while preserving that half-gap for Oliver to break through.
Marmion’s support line off the second ruck is an astute one too as he anticipates the line break before it happens, putting him a step ahead of Cardiff’s cover defence to score.
On those cleverly-crafted strike plays I mentioned earlier; Connacht’s second try was certainly one of those.
Originally setting quite narrow with Conor Fitzgerald as the apparent first receiver, Cardiff look to tighten their defensive line and mirror Connacht’s alignment.
Once the ball goes wider to Daly instead, Connacht now have the option of passing early to Tom Farrell, or late to Fitzgerald. Because Cardiff’s Max Llewellyn has his shoulders turned into tackle Farrell, this opens up the half-gap for Fitzgerald outside him.
Fitzgerald then sees Ray Lee-Lo’s shoulders turned out and takes the gap himself, before passing to Sammy Arnold who finds Marmion for his second try with a pop pass of the ground.
As I’ve already alluded to, there’s been plenty of fresh faces brought into Connacht’s backroom for this season; with Cullie Tucker also taking over from Wilkins as defence coach and Dewald Senekal tasked with marshalling the forwards after long-time coach Jimmy Duffy moved on following the end of the Rainbow Cup. In short, lots of new coaches with new perspectives.
Taking Connacht’s relationship with kicking from hand for example, it’s been a complex one in recent years. Under Pat Lam we saw very kicking little at all, since then we seen a good bit more with Carty and Fitzgerald kicking to the corners, and that kicking strategy looked to have been tweaked again against Cardiff, with Carty and co. often kicking long down the middle and intentionally looking to keep the ball in play.
This approach is one that Wales have adopted with great success for some time as a way to impose their defence and fitness on the opposition, but how does it benefit a team like Connacht? Probably the clearest indication was in the build-up to Connacht’s first try off turnover ball.
With the province seemingly going nowhere fast while attacking from inside their own half, Carty kicks long to allow the team to focus on reorganizing itself defensively.
Despite not chasing hard above, Connacht’s cohesive line can then divert Cardiff’s Jason Harries to a wide ruck, where Mack Hansen and Jared Butler are waiting to turnover possession. With Carty’s long kick having relieved pressure and allowed Connacht to reorganise, it basically then frees them up to do what they love most – counter against an unstructured defence and score.
Cardiff didn’t often kick back long themselves when returning the ball, but if they were to – and poorly – this strategy also opens up the opportunity for the 50:22.
If we take a look at the video below, these long kicks down the centre of the field have the potential to draw in the defence’s covering players away from the touchline – an area Connacht can then exploit off kick return for a big gain.
Anyone who watched even four of five of Connacht’s games last season will know that defending mauls was a major issue for the team. However, something fans may not have noticed is how Connacht have gone about trying to remedy this issue since towards the end of last season.
To do this, Connacht have looked to the Crusaders, who haven’t conceded a maul try in a competitive game since the 23rd of July 2016 (!), and have tried to apply the New Zealand side’s style of maul defence in their own defence.
The encouraging signs for Connacht in the Cardiff game were that, early on at least, the Crusaders approach was working.
If we look at the image above, something that’s crucial to the Crusaders – and now Connacht – style of maul defence is making contact early as it literally gives the forwards a feel of where the opposition is and allows them to get their heads down and drive quickly.
If we now look at the GIF above, this early touch enables Connacht to match – if not beat Cardiff by a split-second – to the set and counter the Cardiff maul immediately.
Once this is achieved, Connacht’s mauling forwards then look to form a chain like a front-row and compact the maul from either side to stop it moving.
When style of maul defence works as it does here, it allows Connacht to kill Cardiff’s 7-man maul with 5 defenders.
Just as problems defending mauls cause problems elsewhere, defending them well makes Connacht stronger elsewhere as they’ve extra defenders to take out threats when the ball goes wide and eventually pressure Cardiff into a turnover here.
Connacht did concede a maul try late in the game, but I’d argue that it was moreso down to players not backing the system, than a failing of the system itself. If we look at the clip below…
Cardiff call a 5-man lineout and, perhaps because he’s unsure of his role with Butler behind him, Robertson-McCoy doesn’t commit fully to binding with his teammates and creating a pincer to stop the Cardiff maul.
That second-late delay in getting his head down is huge in mauling terms and, as a result, Cardiff get forward momentum and then peel around Robertson-McCoy’s side to score.
As Connacht go on this season, this is just something to be mindful of as it’s a common failing of this no-jump, pincer style of maul defence. Robertson-McCoy eventually makes the right decision to get down and maul – he just needs to do it much quicker.
For all the talk about encouraging aspects of Connacht’s play in the Cardiff game, they’ll still be very frustrated to have not come away with at least a losing bonus-point from this game. Considering how rare away wins are between the two sides – only 1 each in the last 10 games – losing the opportunity of that bonus-point, or even taking the win and 4 points, will rankle.
The run of play above; where Connacht go from one player up 5 metres out from the try-line – 5 points behind with a losing bonus-point in hand – to getting a player binned themselves will particularly sting.
That split-second lack of concentration at the lineout and yellow for a clumsy clear-out may both seem like marginal errors, but were moments Connacht could have controlled better at a key point of the game.
As Connacht switch their focus from the Cardiff Blues to the Blue Bulls, the opportunity created, but not taken, against Cardiff will undoubtedly be a big motivation to improve for the team this Friday.
There’s plenty we haven’t covered from this game in the interest of brevity; the second yellow card, Connacht’s not so good scrum defence, their much improved phase-play defence in the first half and some subtle changes in intent from the province when running the ball.
However, Andy Friend and his new coaching setup will still see encouraging signs of success from their structures in the Cardiff game that bode well for the rest of the season.
Life as a rugby fan is never easy in the West of Ireland but, even in defeat, there’s always hope. Just another bump on the Connacht coaster.
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