It’s often said that error-strewn games are one’s for the purists, but even the purists would have struggled with this Connacht-Munster match. A final score of 10-8, 31 penalties between the sides, 4 yellow cards. You get the picture; it was a tough watch and probably even tougher to play in.

However, if there is a joy to be found in these tight games; it’s in navigating a way through the maze of mistakes and the release of finding a way to come out the other end. In this article, we’ll take a look at 3 ways Connacht overcame the challenge posed by Munster and found a way to win.

Early Attacking Ambition

Right from the off in this game, it was clear that Connacht were going to meet the challenge of facing a kick-pressure team like Munster head-on; or headlong in Bundee Aki’s case.

At this first Connacht lineout, coming from an early Munster penalty for obstructing a kick-chase, we can see obvious signs of running intent. Multi-layered passing options off Jack Carty, a commitment to keeping the ball in hand beyond 1st phase and a ’21’ pattern of play are all apparent in the clip below.

Some readers may be asking at this stage, what are the main benefits of this particular attacking approach? In this game they were:

  1. Making Munster’s sliding line of outside-in defence move constantly, while testing for holes or poor numbering up either side of the rucks
  2. Against a team like Munster who want to play territory, keeping them inside their own half to deny them opportunities to run the ball themselves.

In previous seasons with much success, Connacht would have used a more rigid 1-3-3-1 attacking shape to organise the forwards across the pitch in multi-phase attack like this.

However, Pete Wilkins and Mossy Lawler taking the attack coaching reins this season has seen Connacht switch to a more flexible 3-2 shape – as shown in the video above – while marginally improving the amount of points they’re scoring (24.75 in 2020/21 Pro16 v 25.75 points per game in 2021/22 URC) with this less predictable system.

Although Carty ends up kicking to end this run of play, it’s good game management from Carty that ties into Connacht’s ambitions of testing Munster’s defence, while pinning them in their own half and preserving energy Connacht would need for later in the game.

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11 minutes later, after an extended period of Connacht pressure and some missed opportunities in the opposition 22, the western province look to test Munster’s defence again.

While we can see some of the mistakes starting to creep into the clip above, the same shape is there from the previous 5-man lineout – along with signs of Connacht players living up to the ‘fast, relentless, adaptable’ mantra that Andy Friend has often talked about in the media.

After selling him as a crash option at the last lineout, Aki and Sammy Arnold roll the ball out to Conor Oliver this time to keep Munster guessing and generate a line break.

Connacht are perhaps a little fortunate to keep possession thereafter and get a penalty, considering all the mistakes, but ultimately their running ambition pays off with Carty kicking for the posts and Connacht taking a 3-0 lead.

Although Connacht never directly scored a try as a result of their running game on Saturday, 13 of Munster’s 18 penalties being conceded while defending Connacht’s running game suggests that Connacht’s possession-dominant style (63% to Munster’s 37%) just made sense. Speaking of penalties…

Making the most of yellow card periods

As is always the case after a tight Irish Interpro, there’s been lots of talk about the referee in the aftermath of the game. To be clear, this article will maintain that while the referee didn’t have their best game, they didn’t decide the winning or losing of this game.

However, as the graphic above shows, there was undeniably an unusually high amount of penalties (31) and yellow cards (4) given out.

As Chris Busby tried to wrestle control of the player’s discipline, adapting and making the best of the yellow card periods would be key to either team winning.

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The first yellow card of the game came for Connacht’s Oisin Dowling in the 38th minute of the game after Munster’s first meaningful period of possession in the opposition half, a yellow car warning and Dowling’s 2nd offside offence for hands over the line inside two minutes.

Hard to argue with this one

Hard to argue with this one.

With Munster already up 5 points and generally defending well, holding out here felt vital for Connacht – even at this early stage of the game.

In tight games like these, you often need to play well to win but also get a bit of luck too. Connacht certainly got that luck in the next minute – with two more offside penalties conceded and another yellow card warning.

However, there was good defence too like this double effort from Mack Hansen and Carty to stop Munster scoring.

And, after 31 previous tackles on their own 5m line in 5 minutes, this effort from Ultan Dillane that forced a sealing- off penalty and finally got Connacht away from their own tryline.

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Two more yellows would come at the start of the 2nd half, with both teams shoving each other on the way into the dressing rooms at half-time. We won’t review this incident in the article, but it’s fair to say that it was a very poor reflection on the players and again the yellows were merited.

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Focusing instead on what happened on the pitch; Connacht crucially didn’t concede any points to Munster with two players in the bin over 13 minutes.

This was achieved by using their zigzagging running game mentioned earlier to hold the ball for extended periods, by cutting down their penalties (10 1st half – 3 2nd half). Moreover, there were Munster maul drives to hold out too, which they achieved with their new and improved maul defence strategy – discussed more in the Twitter link below.

So, when Munster were the ones who were eventually down a man after a Chris Farrell yellow – thoughts on that decision here – Connacht being able to capitalise immediately was huge.

The video above breaks down the detail behind Connacht’s first maul try of the season – followed by this excellent touchline kick from Conor Fitzgerald that proved the winner.

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Winning ugly

Speaking after Connacht’s win, Head Coach Andy Friend said the following:

“For me that (result) could be season-defining for us to etch out a win playing ‘ugly football'”

Anyone who watched the game would certainly agree that this was an ‘ugly’ game for many of the reasons we’ve already discussed in the introduction. Mistakes aside however, what did winning playing ‘ugly football’ look like for Connacht?

At the start of the second half when down to 13 men, playing zigzag patterns in Munster’s half made sense as it minimised how much Connacht’s players had to run while keeping the ball away from Munster.

However, another positive by-product of this approach became apparent to Connacht as the game wore on – that the referee was rewarding the team with the ball and Munster were starting to lose their defensive discipline.

While it wasn’t the prettiest rugby, Connacht increasingly generating penalties from Munster – 10 in the 2nd half – with this formula of:

  • keeping the ball for long periods
  • keeping Munster out of the Connacht half
  • forcing penalties and then
  • setting up lineout platforms

Particularly after Bundee Aki’s maul try, crucially it looked like one that could see Connacht win too.

Connacht using another ’21’ pattern to generate a penalty for hands in the ruck

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If we look at another version the penalty map below, we can see that Munster conceded 9 of their 10 second half penalties in their own 50.

Furthermore, we can see what Connacht did with those penalties to augment their winning formula.

At face value, Connacht choosing to kick only once for the posts (when down to 13 men) from arguably 8 kickable positions in the second half has the look of a team backing themselves to score tries. Indeed, their maul try would come from their 11th penalty in the 57th minute.

Stats from URC website

However, against a Munster team who were reluctant to run anything from their own side of the pitch, the decision not to ‘take the 3’ also served to help Connacht control territory and possession, while keeping the pressure on Munster in their own half.

Probably a more pragmatic than idyllic approach for sure, but one that certainly contributed to Connacht’s win.

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There’s no two ways about it, this game won’t show up on any highlight reels at the end of the season.

However, by starting with the best intentions with the ball, riding out the storm of the yellow card periods and largely just controlling possession and territory; Connacht found a way.

Andy Friend’s side have lost enough tight games already this season, so to quote him again “to win ugly, I’ll use that phrase, is a great sign. We’ve proved to ourselves that we can win in a couple of ways.”

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Thanks for reading,

Evan

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