This one will hurt.

After an expectedly bumpy ride earlier on in Round 1 that saw Connacht lose away to Cardiff, followed by the heady heights of Round 2’s 34-7 win over the Bulls, Connacht fans could have been forgiven for looking at Round 3’s home game against the Dragons and hoping for a smoother ride to follow.

Indeed, early on in last Saturday’s game it looked like as much.

This strong starter play was the type of set-piece attack we’d come to expect from a Connacht team who’d scored first phase tries against both Cardiff and the Bulls already this season – and forced a penalty in this instance to see the Province go 3-0 up after Rhodri Williams drifted offside.

Read our previous article on Connacht’s early-season attacking, kicking and maul defence strategies

Winning elements of Connacht’s performance against the Bulls – their ability to be continually generate points off set-piece attack, to string multiple phases together, to be resilient in defence, to win the territory battle – were all there in the opening 15 or so minutes.

Even an early tweak to the kicking strategy used in previous games; that saw Connacht focus on kicking towards the 5m channels for lineouts instead, was paying dividends early on.

With the Dragons lineout’s completion percentages averaging out at 78% over the first two rounds – and 77% for this game – this strategy made plenty of sense for a team like Connacht who attack well of lineouts and were facing a team who struggle with them.

As we can see in the clip above, the Dragons looked to counter this by avoiding lineouts in their own half whenever possible, resulting in them running the ball back from deep here and eventually conceding a penalty to make it 6-0 to Connacht.

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So where did it all go wrong?

Like in most games of rugby, Connacht’s change of fortunes didn’t happen suddenly and was preceded by a succession of lost moments in the game.

A stray high tackle penalty for the Dragons in the 17th minute to make it 6-3, two steals in as many minutes from player of the match Taine Basham around the 20 minute mark, a knock-on from a scuffed Connacht lineout transfer in the 23rd minute, a scrum penalty for the Dragons in the 24th. Compound errors.

It was somewhat ironic then that the Dragons’ first try was preceded an extremely positive 22 shut-out from Connacht that mirrored many of defensive principles shown in their win over the Bulls.

If we look at the GIF below, it’s a muscular piece of maul defence initially (two games without conceding a maul try now) with the likes of Fifita and Prendergast heavily involved in the first and second movements.

Tom Farrell also gets stuck into a couple of defensive rucks wider out in this set that disrupts the flow of a Dragons’ attack and finally, after one-and-a-half minutes of breathless defence, Connacht look to have been rewarded for their efforts with a penalty.

However, that reward is given up just as quickly as it was received and Connacht find themselves defending again.

Looking at how the Dragons’ first try transpires above, it’s hard to separate what preceded the penalty from what happens after it.

Although Connacht have certainly looked to keep the ball in play for long periods in previous games, it doesn’t make 2 minutes of defending any easier; particularly for the likes of Fifita, Prendergast, Farrell and Hansen who have already had high defensive involvements in this run of play.

From that perspective, the missed touch from the penalty and reinforced decision to keep the ball in play appeared fatal here, as only Carty shows the fitness to get close to the Dragons’ counter once Williams chips through.

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All that being said, Connacht still managed to nose back in front before half-time, in part thanks to a Will Rowlands yellow almost straight from the next kickoff, and in part due to the boot of Jack Carty.

There would have still been frustrations going in into the dressing room at a couple of lost opportunities in the 22, particularly this one for Caolan Blade who was only denied by a brilliant bit of last-ditch defending from try-scorer Jonah Holmes.

That being said, having lead the Bulls 10-7 at the break the previous week before scoring 24 unanswered points, Connacht should have been confident in their ability to kick on from 12 points to 8 up in the second half. Unfortunately for fans however, the Connacht coaster had other ideas.

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Speaking post-game about the second half, Head Coach Andy Friend said “Our body language didn’t exude energy and bounce. […] There were elements of the second half that were a little bit better but then we had our turnovers, handling errors were just too high and we are sitting here looking at a heavy defeat. “

Much like in the first half, these errors weren’t sporadic and instead came in 10-minute waves.

It started with Daly knocking-on after taking his eye of this routine pass in the 43rd minute…

And continued a minute later after with Dillane losing the ball again after winning the lineout comfortably.

These types of mistakes will be irritating ones for the Connacht coaches as, while there’s technical errors here, they’re errors that the players already know the solution to and are moreso down to a lack of concentration than technical ability.

What will be even more irritating is that the Dragons would get their second try from the ensuing scrum platform.

In truth, this is likely the try that Connacht’s coaches have least reason to be annoyed about. Although you can argue that Fifita (due to his injury) and Daly get a little narrow, and that O’Halloran is too slow to spot the danger, the speed of the switch and Jordan Williams electric acceleration are real difference makers that most centres would struggle to deal with.

In spite of this, Connacht didn’t help themselves in the following minutes with Blade conceding a penalty straight off the kickoff, and Farrell a turnover two minutes later due to this excellent tackle and jackal from Dragons 13 Jack Dixon.

It’s worth saying at this point, if it hasn’t already become apparent, that if the theme for Connacht in this game was compounding errors, for the Dragons it was their players playing some exceptional rugby to capitalise on the big moments in the game.

Sam Davies’ 50:22 kick at the end of the GIF above for example is inch-perfect to give his team another great attacking platform.

There was also a canny blink-and-you’ll miss it intervention from his fellow half-back Rhodri Williams to create the gap for the Dragons third try that occurred thereafter.

If we keep an eye on Williams as he approaches the final ruck here, he does what all 9s do and complain about Butler slowing the ruck ball. What we’re interested in though is the space between head-banded Paul Boyle’s left shoulder and the edge of the ruck.

Ideally, Boyle will be air-tight to the ruck here so that there’s no space for the Dragons’ Mesake Doge to drive into. However, by walking into the ruck and pushing it over, Williams opens up that space for Doge which the Fijian prop wriggles into over the line. A small, and maybe not strictly textbook detail, but one that makes a big difference nonetheless as it leads to the Dragons having scored 14 points in 10 minutes.

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Despite being down 12-22 at this stage with more mistakes and another Dragons try to come, this article is already getting long enough, so we’ll finish with some positives for Connacht.

For one, Connacht finally got the try from a lineout that they had planned for in the 58th minute, albeit after a number of phases.

Some of the highlights here were a powerful first carry from Sammy Arnold off the bench and a great ‘unders’ line from Conor Oliver to burst through the ruck.

Carty and O’Halloran standing in a stack formation to allow them attack either side of the defence also gives Connacht an encouraging bit of flexibility an area of the pitch that teams can often just resort to interminable one-out carries – and Carty’s final pass is a great one to Hansen for the try here.

The stack featured again for Connacht’s second try, with Arnold this time the one changing the attacking picture late before throwing a brilliant pass out the back of the hand to Conor Fitzgerald for the try.

It may seem to pale in significance to the result, but this type of creative alignment is at least something that Connacht can take from the game and use to good effect through to the end of the season.

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In the context of the season, as was noted at the start of the article, this one will hurt.

It will hurt for the players who made such uncharacteristic mistakes. It will hurt for the coaches who are left wondering what if. It will hurt the squad as a whole that when they did build momentum, they showed they could hurt the Dragons.

However, if there’s one thing that Connacht fans will have learned from past campaigns, it’s that hurt isn’t always a bad thing, especially before an Interpro. On rolls the Connacht coaster.

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If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to see some of my other posts on the website, you can click on the ‘Index’ icon at the top of the page to see a list of all my other analysis pieces.

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Thanks for reading,

Evan

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