There’s some nervous energy developing around the province as a superb win at the weekend leaves Connacht in uncharted territory with three from three. Some might see the word ‘superb’ as hyperbolic, but considering Connacht just defeated the Six Nations champions (as Penney described them last year) I think its an apt description. At the very least, the visiting twenty three constituted the majority of the league winning team from last season who ripped Glasgow apart in the final, and when Faloon went off early in a repeat of that game I feared the worst. Instead George came on and added some serious go forward momentum when he got on the ball, just as fans have been demanding for some time. While the scrum was initially under pressure it seems clear to me that this was only the case when the Leinster flankers were allowed drill into our front row. In the second half Connacht consistently looked the better pack, winning all their own feeds and one of Leinster’s.
While Connacht are often seen as Leinster’s bogey team, one win every four to six games does not constitute a bogey – this was an upset, and the Leinster fans are suitably disgruntled. There’s already been a lot of criticism of Connacht and rationalizing the result as Leinster underperforming, with an added dash of poor coaching. Its probably true that some of their players were not at their best but it should be pretty clear to any fair minded commentator that both teams were playing to the best of their ability on that day. The stats bear this out and show that Leinster dominated in most facets of the game, making more offloads, more passes, slightly more metres, far more runs, winning more lineout ball, and conceding less turnovers. Meanwhile Connacht had a man in the bin for ten minutes and Leinster still couldn’t cross the line without illegal plays. When was the last time they were held scoreless for 65 minutes I wonder? That didn’t happen just because they were bad, but also because Connacht were actually quite good.
But if Leinster were not at their best, its also fair to say that Connacht have still room to improve. Tactical kicking was poor on the night and added pressure to a defense already under siege. Kickable penalties continue to be a mixed blessing. Muldoon’s yellow came at a terrible time (not that there’s a good time to go down to 14 men) and nearly cost Connacht dearly.
When you face a team who is by any sensible measure better than you there is always a chance that the game will run away from you. As a result Connacht set out from the beginning to retain possession when possible and play conservatively. I feel like this is probably why Carty consistently stayed away from the gain line, instead passing quickly to change the direction of attack. I don’t think he had a great game but I will withhold too much criticism as I feel he was following the gameplan. However its important that this does not remain the gameplan for the rest of the year, as it will be figured out fairly soon.
The second part of the gameplan involved defending like absolute maniacs for the full 80 minutes. While that sounds obvious, Connacht have long had problems staying switched on for the full game, especially in the final minutes of the first half or early minutes of the second, and it was far from a foregone conclusion that Connacht would be capable of out-tackling Leinster from start to finish. It was especially satisfying that there were no obvious moments when Connacht switched off or made it easy for their opponents.
A lot of players on Connacht’s side really stepped up and made a statement of intent on their personal level and where they see the team going. The respective tackle counts of McSharry, Carty, Buckley, Heffernan in particular, White, Muldoon, McKeon, Kearney and Naoupu are all fantastic individual efforts, and while we hope that every game will not require the same numbers, it augurs well for difficult upcoming games like Glasgow and Ospreys.
Special mention for Marmion who once again proved himself both Connacht’s most important player and the most committed player on the pitch. My man crush for the Irish international is well documented at this stage, and now the wider Irish rugby community is starting to come around. This is the third time in a row that he’s made an absolute mockery of Reddan and he must surely start against Georgia this November. Murray is still firmly number one of course but Marmion’s try showed he offers something very different to the Munster man. The danger now is that knowing how important he is, teams will start to target Marmion for some rough treatment.
I’m not yet convinced by Porter but he did his job when he came on and hopefully will be trusted to start a game soon, so we can start to develop options for when Marmion is away with Ireland.
In contrast Luke McGrath coming on for Leinster seemed to kill any chance of a comeback in the final minutes. His passing was consistently poor and a couple of ill judged box kicks kept the pressure on Leinster rather than winning territory. As I mentioned in a summer post, Leinster are facing a very real crisis situation at scrum half sooner rather than later. Neither McGrath nor Cooney are seen as challenging the aging duo of Boss and Reddan, and it doesn’t say much of Cooney that he is the one on loan considering just how poor McGrath’s basic scrum half skills are. While the world cup might complicate matters I expect at least one NIQ signing here next season.
I already mentioned the Leinster fans grievances, and they are many. Personally I find it quite annoying to see so many sore losers, especially considering how hard they worked to steal the win from Connacht. Many (including Matt O’Connor) have tried to make it sound like Leinster had the better of Connacht in try scoring opportunities, stopping just short of blaming the TMO for doing their job! Listen lads, that ball was a good foot forward, and if you’re basing the strength of your performance on invalid plays you have problems. Likewise Leinster could only achieve parity in the scrum when Ruddock burrowed in on our props. Loughney, Rodney and an 80 minute performing Heffernan driving through a bunch of Irish internationals must now become the standard for our pack for the rest of the season.
[seen here – illegal scrummaging]
But by far the most annoying thing for me was the numerous acts of obstruction by Leinster which are so ingrained by now as to be one of their most important tactics. One that stuck out for me was McFadden checking Henshaw as the latter tried to rush back to defend a line break. Thankfully it came to nothing for Leinster, but I would have been absolutely sickened if the blues had stolen the game through these tactics. Perhaps I am entirely too naïve but I hate to see a team win through cheating. I’m not silly enough to suggest Connacht never cheat but at the very least it seems like we have a lot of trouble adjusting to such tactics, and really don’t know how to do the sneaky off the ball, lower level moves well, so we rarely benefit from cheating.
Of course the counter-argument is that you play to the limits of the referee, but with so much going on at any one time you’re always going to see foul play go unpunished. For me it was that bit more satisfying knowing that just about every dirty trick had been thrown at Connacht and they still came out on top.
Later this week (hopefully) a preview for the Glasgae game!