While Rob Penney arrived at Munster last year to much fanfare, expectation and near-constant put downs, Pat Lam’s first year at Connacht has attracted much less attention. This is hardly surprising as only one of the two provinces was expected to challenge for silverware. I find this interesting because there are numerous similarities between the two antipodean coaches game plans. There were substantial column inches devoted to the ‘second rows hanging out on the wing’ element for much of Penney’s first season, a tactic that was again on display this weekend. We even saw the classic cross field kick to the waiting lock, although it came to nothing, as it normally does.
Similarly we’ve seen Connacht employ the likes of Harris-Wright, Muldoon, Heenan and McKeon in the wider channels, attempting to gain yards and stretch the opposition defense. The crossfield kick has also been frequently employed by Parks, although wisely this has been mainly used when Poolman has been available as a target which improves the possibility of scoring from this tactic.
Penney wins Munster’s annual ‘smile of the year’ competition for the second year running.
In both cases this wide-wide forward gameplan has been quite so-so, for varying reasons. Cross field kicks are a low percentage play at the best of times, and just because a lock is taller than the average winger doesn’t change this. Connacht’s quickest forwards are – perhaps unsurprisingly – also the lightest, which doesn’t lend itself to smashing through defenses. Having finally gotten his fitness and conditioning in order, Rodney Ah You has probably been Connacht’s most consistent carrier in the forwards this year, and has generally been a revelation if we’re being honest after some excruciating early seasons. My first blog post was devoted to our hookers open field deficiencies – no need to retread that ground. When Heenan gains another stone or two of muscle he will be our best forward but for now his lack of heft holds him back as a carrying option. Same goes for McKeon – he’s not the biggest eight, but he’s the same height as Faletau who is over 17 stone and there’s no reason McKeon can’t match Faletau or come close in the next year. Until this happens, or until we sign a bulky, fast six to go with the new hooker-prop, this tactic will continue to provide meagre gains from a disproportionate amount of work. Although many Connacht fans (including myself) have been calling for this back row signing I’m no longer sure it the best option. We have a wealth of experienced and less experienced back rowers right now; if we buy in a six, does Muldoon or Browne deserve to be dropped? Will another six not impede the progress of Masterson or Qualter? These risks need to be weighed against the value a new flanker can offer.
Eoin ‘gunshow’ McKeon
Munster’s reputation has long been based on the strength of their pack. While the discovery of James Cronin has been essential to Munster’s fortunes, it has been Connacht’s scrum, maul and both defensive and offensive lineout which have been most consistent and perhaps most impressive of the four provinces. Much of this was initially put down to the impact and influence of Clarke’s arrival (he had the most lineout takes of anyone in the Heineken cup group stages). However his absence for the past several weeks shows that there’s much more to this pack than the Super XV captain, and multiple Connacht jumpers caused serious problems on Munster’s throw in. In addition the ability to keep reinventing the lineout and maul options has kept this attacking threat fresh and left defenses guessing. Credit to both the coaches and players for managing to reinvent these twin threats almost weekly for the last two months now. Last night was possibly our weakest showing in the offensive lineout in over a month, but it was only a knock on or two away from causing Munster all sorts of problems.
This leads somewhat neatly to the main theme of the derby, which was Mistakes (upper case M definitely needed). Both provinces showed a repeated lack of thought at the restart as well as when defending the scrum. Connacht were guilty of forcing things far too much, resulting in tries from an intercept pass from Henshaw and a knocked on ball by McKeon in Munster’s own 22. The intercept was particularly poor in my opinion as Henshaw passed the ball directly into van den Heever’s hands having waited far too long to release. He’s still a young lad and he’s going to make mistakes, but I hope he keeps this one in the back of his mind and learns when to pass and when to hold on.
I like McKeon a lot and he was so good last season that we sometimes forget this is only his second full season, and a somewhat injury disrupted one at that. However its essential that our eight – well any eight really – is comfortable handling the ball. This goes double for a team that plays a consistently wide forward style. McKeon was particularly unlucky as in almost any other game a knock on in the opposition 22 would not have lead to a try, but this time it did.
[I could have put a picture of Andrew Conway here, but honestly that mohawk just makes him look like a mad max extra reject]
In both of these instances the biggest problem was that the entire Connacht team appeared to be in attack mode as sea_point noted on connachtclan. In attempting to overpower or confuse Munster through force of numbers, Connacht put all their eggs in one basket and when mistakes happened they were punished harshly. I feel that this was an active decision to employ a riskier strategy than we saw used against Dragons and Scarlets and it backfired. Players often seemed unwilling to recycle as to do so might cut an attacking move short. Later, as Munster grew into the game we seemed to play into their choke tackles more often making things even harder for ourselves. Was this again down to panicking, perhaps hoping to stay upright and make an offload? I’m not sure, but it seemed to make things quite simple for Munster.
Our defense has come in for a lot of criticism this season, not without merit. This was at least partly coloured by Lam’s experience with the Blues before he was fired. However if you take out the Heever and Hurley tries, which were the result of attacking mistakes versus defensive errors, there wasn’t a huge amount wrong with the defensive system last night. Yes the Conway try was poor, almost inexcusable really, but I feel if Faloon was not just back from injury that might not have happened. From what I remember he was the first substitution which speaks to his lack of game conditioning right now.
Defense off opposition scrums is certainly something that needs to be examined. Outside of this (quite important) blind spot the drift defense has worked fairly well this season, especially lately when there has been judicious use of cut out runners and one up tacklers. Last night those defensive shooters didn’t always hit their mark opening up far too much space for Munster to attack; this is a risk of the system, whether it is worthwhile or not depends on the outcome. Worst of all often would be tacklers did not even make their man, which is just unacceptable. Muldoon has over 200 caps for Connacht now, does he really need a defense coach to tell him to tackle the opponent before trying to slap the ball out of his hands? To me these were panicked errors rather than systematic failures.
Browne and Marmion gaze lovingly at Duncan Williams – it would have been impolite of Browne to disrupt such a lovely kick
To return to the original theme; when Penney first arrived at Munster he talked about finding yourself in a pit and having to dig your way out to begin seeing real improvements. It has definitely felt like Connacht found themselves in that same pit at times this season. Early on we saw near suicidal attempts to run the ball from our own 22, until a ‘reversion’ of sorts to ‘classic’ Connacht in the Saracens almost-ambush game. Since then its been up and down at times as the team vacillated between these two points, attempting to find the best middle road between the two. Last night was far closer to 2013 early season Connacht than the more mature 2014 Connacht we quickly came to love. For the most part the raw materials are there but Connacht have to learn to not revert to headless chicken plays if they are to make lasting progress in the league. Perhaps I’m in the minority but I don’t think a Defense coach would have made a difference last night, while a more street smart game plan and avoiding the panic button could have. Sometimes we’ve tried to buy these qualities (Parks, Clarke) and perhaps its notable that neither started last night, but this can’t be a long term excuse; Muldoon is now Connacht’s second most experienced player and has to be able to draw on that experience and monitor – and mentor – his troops on the fly. In time Marmion, Henshaw and Kearney will provide leadership but its too much to expect that of them this season.