Its a top of the table clash as Connacht face Glasgow at the weekend, and one team’s unbeaten record has to end. Its super Friday!
If this game was on Sky then we probably could have enjoyed a build up of that type this week. But despite the pro12 having more broadcasters than ever this game is not on TV, and there won’t be a TMO. Its a poor state of affairs for a league that struggles to be taken seriously by our richer Anglo-Gallic neighbours.
Leinster was a massively physical test that Connacht were able to withstand, which bodes well for the western province as Glasgow were unable to deal with that physicality a few months ago in the final. In particular their front row was taken apart by Healy and company in May, and Connacht have so far been extremely strong in the scrum.
Given Buckley’s fantastic start to the season I expect him to start this game – his confidence will be sky high right now and he’s a worker. Buckley is exactly the type of prop who was supposed to benefit from the rule changes, and while he was already effective he has become doubly so since last season. On the other side, White might need some downtime but Rodney was an able apprentice last season and should be trustworthy. A solid scrum is obviously the foundation of any winning team but its also one of the few areas I believe Connacht can dominate Glasgow if given a ref who pays attention.
In addition, Glasgow are missing some important players – Al Kellock played for the A team on the 23rd after a long break due to injury and I assume is therefore unlikely to feature against Connacht. Openside Tyrone Holmes is suspended for a week for a stamp against the Dragons (which is frankly ridiculous). My guess is the somewhat more manageable Chris Fusaro is likely to feature instead, assuming he’s not injured. Its worth noting that despite playing a half with 14 men Glasgow still stormed past Dragons to a bonus point win, in Wales.
Away from home, Connacht’s time with the ball will be minimal, and it is important that they can make the most of it. Against Leinster we saw some really aggressive rucking to maintain possession which I was delighted to see, and we also saw the team avoid offloading in the tackle to prevent losing possession and giving Leinster a breakout try. Instead the players were calm enough to maintain control and present the ball well on the ground, knowing that their teammates would protect them. If that is replicated in the next three games then it will show a definite improvement on last season, and I believe it is the foundation of any winning strategy for Connacht this season.
Kicking for territory by Connacht was haphazard against Leinster and must be addressed quickly. If necessary a single player could be nominated as the tactical kicker, and any kicks down the line will only occur when that player is ready and in position. But whatever happens we can’t continue to miss out on territory. With Kellock out Connacht won’t lose out on height, but with Harley, Strauss and Nakarawa likely to feature in the backrow, Glasgow will not be short of jumping options. Heffernan continues to grow into the role of hooker and importantly doesn’t seem to allow misplaced throws to bother him. Connacht should be able to put more pressure on the Glasgow throw than they did against Leinster, where they made one steal.
As already mentioned Leinster were extremely physical – Glasgow’s centres will be even more so. James Downey, last of Munster parish, Alex Dunbar and Richie Vernon are all enormous men, and Dunbar in particular has serious pace and skills to go with it. Sean Lamont has primarily been a winger for a while now but brings that hybridized centre-backrow physicality to the position. Lamont will be a handful for Healy or Poolman, and Niyi’s most difficult test yet if they come up against each other.
Meanwhile Peter Horne provides some playmaking flair. Even the diminutive Duncan Weir is a tackling machine and should he start at 10 or come off the bench he will be a difficult obstacle to push pass. As a result Connacht will need to be wary of the blend of strength and creative options that Glasgow’s 10/12/13 set up can provide their potentially lethal back three, where the pro12 finalists are stacked with international talent.
If Connacht are to win then we will need to see a repeat of all the positives from last week and a significant improvement on the negatives. In the last two games Connacht have been pinged for coming in from the side at our own rucks. I must admit I hadn’t even realized this was an issue that referee’s monitored but I also noticed it in a highlights video from one of the other pro12 games of the past two weeks. Perhaps it is something they’ve been directed to keep an eye on. Apart from this Connacht have been much more disciplined so far this season and if these silly penalties (which are mainly the result of learning our new rucking practice) can also be removed then we should be capable of staying under single digits in this department.
There also has to be some progression or changes from the 9-10 axis. We can’t depend on another Marmion super try for a start. Carty has so far appeared to play deep behind the ruck and against Leinster was mainly used as either a decoy or a pendulum to change the direction of attack. We saw against Edinburgh that around the 60 minute mark he started to bring the ball up to the gain line, and it’ll be interesting to see whether that happens again and if there will be another progression in tactics.
I have a foreboding feeling that because this game won’t have a TMO its basically already lost. That’s quite defeatist I know, but its hard to remember the last time a game didn’t require at least one TMO decision, and those usually have a strong bearing on the final score. Last week against Leinster we wouldn’t have won without an alert referee and TMO rechecking the final pass for Madigan (and we might not have gotten the decision if the ball didn’t clearly travel forward from behind to in front of the white line).
A losing bonus point should be the minimum target, but because of the combination of Glasgow’s form, home advantage and the lack of TMO, I would be happy enough to see Connacht concentrate on putting in another 80 minute performance, focusing on keeping the error and penalty count low, and continuing to develop as outlined above. The most important thing about this Glasgow game, if Connacht are to lose, (which appears to be the consensus) is how they bounce back the following week.
While Cardiff at home is a much more winnable prospect, they present a number of challenges and mirror some of Glasgow’s characteristics. Their scrum is likely to be stronger than Glasgow’s, and Connacht will probably face the all international front row of Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Matthew Rees. Filo Paulo is a big lump of a second row, and Warburton is supposed to play against Leinster this weekend and could feature against next week if all goes well for him.
In the backs, they have similarly large (but less scary) centres, and Patchell has been kicking penalties from his own half for fun. That means our discipline must be rock solid anywhere close to half way, especially if we’re still not kicking at the required standard and are thus not in a position to respond.
Similar to Lamont, they also have Cuthbert on the wing, who last year pummelled Connacht repeatedly in the centre, sucking in defenders before the ball was swung out wide after 4, 5 or 6 phases. It was extremely basic, but it won them a game in the Sportsground that they didn’t really deserve and that Connacht should have killed off. Cardiff don’t have the same quality across the board as Glasgow but they do have many of the same attributes, and whatever the outcome the Glasgow game should be treated as both an important game in its own right but also a chance to prepare for Cardiff. By no means am I suggesting we can take our eye off this weekend, but failure to anticipate the following weekend would be just as damaging.