Kick Kick Kick….
One of the first things that became immediately apparent even in Lam’s preseason training and games was a new emphasis on ball handling skills and running rugby. While this was working in the warm up games it was pretty exciting, but there was a tendency to force passes even within our own 22 which didn’t seem all that smart. Even now its hard to justify the situation per se, but I believe that it was a conscious decision by Lam to shock the players into moving away from a style where kicks were used for relief.
Against Saracens this previous gameplan seemed to be reversed as Parks booted the ball behind each winger. Ashton stated that this caught Saracens off guard and it was thought that the previous several games had basically been sacrificed to surprise Saracens. Again I don’t believe this was the case – it was poor preparation on Saracens part that allowed them to get caught out. Any team facing an opposition with Parks at 10 should expect a strong kicking game, six weeks of running rugby doesn’t negate 15 years prior.
What we really saw in the Saracens game was the blueprint for the rest of the season, a mix of judicious use of the boot with passing rugby. This was also on display against Toulouse but was also attempted with varying degrees of success throughout the year. As a previous Heineken cup winner Lam understands the importance of that competition especially in Ireland. I don’t think the early league games were sacrificed exactly, I think it was a process of hothousing players to accept a new gameplan quickly.
Part of this game plan involved a vigorous kick-chase where previously only the kick had been apparent. Poolman was obviously essential to this, and I feel Healy held his own in this regard. To my eyes at least it generally seemed less successful when Henshaw or Leader chased up the middle but I feel looking back that this was because of a lack of space compared to compete. The kick chase was generally most effective used as a cross field kick to change the direction of attack, in my opinion at least (This is obviously not something I measured in immense detail).
In the past Connacht had used kicks to relieve pressure in their own half with no intention of chasing the ball. Even worse there wasn’t much emphasis put on making sure the ball didn’t go out on the full. What was supposed to give Connacht a breather often ended up piling on the pressure.
As stated above an immediate emphasis was put on ball handling. Duffy stated in one interview that Pat had given all the lads balls to bring home (or forced them to buy themselves I forget) and name(!) the balls that they were supposed to play with each day. Lam said this was to remind players of their love of the game as a child and get them comfortable on the ball again. That this was even necessary is somewhat shocking in itself but again I believe it was. I arrived at the last game of last season quite early and got to see the two teams warming up, and the emphasis on ball control could not have been more different. Connacht players were seemingly left to their own devices and took it on themselves to run with one another and pass a bit. Many players seemingly barely touched the ball before the game, or certainly in totally unpressurised situations.
Meanwhile Glasgow went through a series of rigorous warm up drills where every player handled the ball at speed in a number of different positions. While the Glasgow fans near me that evening felt their team forced things too much in the horrendous weather there can be no doubt who had the better game that night.
I know that when New Zealand warm up they go through a process which involves what might seem like the sloppiest passes to ever (dis)grace a pitch. But what that does is prepare the players for the worst possibilities. Against Ireland in that horrible last few minutes someone threw a disgusting pass at Nonu. An Irish player would likely have panicked and attempted to leap on it, possibly knocking on and ending their chance to win. Nonu was calm and prepared enough to allow the ball bounce and approach the ball in the correct manner (I think he let it bounce, and/or tapped it with his boot). Now it helped that Ireland’s defensive line didn’t put much pressure on him but the point stands.
Sometimes its simply facile to make a comparison with New Zealand but I think in this case its valid. In the northern hemisphere rugby world we often hold the southerners and NZ’ers in particular in too high regard, believing them to have near unbelievable skills. Watch a couple of Super Rugby games though and the truth becomes more apparent. Its not that they are inherently better at passing the ball, its just that they are better prepared to take a poor pass without having a freak attack.
[not a nz player but … dat ball control! lolz]
Often when an Irish player (or any six nations player, possibly excepting the French) are faced with a pass that isn’t straight to the bread basket, they are so clearly put off that they knock on out of sheer surprise. When Joe Schmidt joined Leinster he famously said he would make them the best passing team in Europe, which he did. I have no doubt that part of that was preparing them for the inevitable poor passes, in addition to a huge emphasis on mindfulness and skills in general.
All of which is to say that ball handling skills are super important dudes. Connacht’s skills coach Dave Ellis was late to the party which was really frustrating for me (and I’m sure others) but after he arrived it was clear that the process that Lam had started was stepped up a considerable amount. This was most obvious in the late winning streak and in some phenomenal play against Scarlets. Connacht aren’t the finished article in this regard yet but they are much closer to Glasgow than they were this time last year. The arrival of the new backs and kicking coach next season along with continued help from Ellis should hopefully pay even greater dividends. Pat isn’t about to claim he will make Connacht the best skilled team in Ireland or Europe but its clear that he wants to lift these young players as far as possible in this regard.
And finally …
Ball presentation at ruck time was hugely emphasised by Connacht this season. At times this came at the expense of eking out some extra metres and it can be argued whether it was worth it or not, but presentation had to improve. Again its no surprise that Heenan was probably the best in this regard as a new zealander who was somewhat familiar with Lam, but its clear even in the clip above from the Scarlets game that all players worked on this over the course of the season. Like the kick chase and improved passing the emphasis was at all times on improving ball retention and preventing turnovers. Its a smaller element of a wider game plan but good ball presentation has a huge knock on effect especially with a good scrum half, maintaining or speeding up the attack and putting the opposition under increased pressure, sometimes drawing offside penalties and asking questions of the opposing defense. Its not something that by itself is worth a direct 5-10 points a game but it certainly helps.
At the same time I would say that counter rucking and ruck defense has to improve next season. At times Connacht’s ruck defense and protection was lackadaisical, with forwards often positioning themselves as pillars in theory only.
In this clip you see at the very start that Ospreys make a good steal at a ruck which immediately costs Connacht. Now you can make all the end of season excuses you want but there’s two forwards in that pile and a big winger/centre on the ground, but who’s attempting to protect the ball? More importantly why is the Ospreys seven even allowed remain in position to contest for the ball? He should have been blown out of the ruck by Muldoon who was attempting to get the ball himself. That’s fine but preventing the opposition winning a turnover is the best means of retaining possession. At the same time McKeon goes too low and is swallowed up by the Ospreys second row (Nick evans?). I’m not saying it was an easy situation but at worst its three on two, with Kearney not far away to potentially gather the ball from the back of the ruck if Connacht secure possession.
Like presentation, counter rucking has become a huge part of ball retention and even if it only provides the opportunity for a box kick, a guaranteed clearance coupled with a strong chase should not be sniffed at. Likewise ball presentation can only be useful if it is accompanied by strong bordering on feral counter rucking. This is one of the less mentioned elements of Joe Schmidt’s successful gameplan with Leinster and Ireland but a feature I’ve always admired.
Look at Sexton in the second ruck/clip in this highlights section, about 30 seconds in. Does he attempt to pick up the ball for himself? Does he flip, he throws himself at the French scrum half, who is in this case the only player contesting the ball, securing possession for his team who immediately score after that phase. Again I’m not saying its easy, and Bastareud probably should have looking to get over BOD and win the turnover, but in order to capitalize from opposition mistakes you have to force those mistakes in the first place.
There is a clear template there from Leinster and Ireland and Schmidt is at least in theory available to help the Irish provinces improve. Matt O’Connor has joined Leinster, changed an already winning defensive and rucking system and in fact improved on it, so there’s more than one way to go about this. But to me it seems clear that next year Connacht have to develop a smart, well thought out rucking and counter rucking strategy where everyone is aware of what’s expected of them, what positions they should take up and how to approach a ruck whether it be individually, as a pair, three, etc. Without that sort of attention to detail and clarity of purpose Connacht will continue to come up second best