The weekend’s result has left a sour taste for most Connacht fans and of course I’m no different. A draw was not the result we wanted or seemingly deserved after a rampaging start to the second half. Much of the post-mortem focus has been on the decision to go down the line for a penalty instead of kicking the points. This was not Heffernan’s best performance from the sideline, no one can deny that, but it seems revisionist to me to suggest that the lineout was the wrong move.
There’s always a risk involved in a lineout with so many moving parts, but there are risks to every attack. In hindsight the kick was the right option, but at the time Connacht had just score two tries off lineouts. Furthermore Connacht did secure possession before having to take it again because of a second ball on the field. While not inevitable a try was quite likely to come from sustained pressure from the lineout and the multiple plays that Connacht have shown they are capable of from the lineout.
Connacht were so far ahead for much of the second half that we seem to have collectively forgotten just how close the first half was (and the game as a whole). We were obviously drawn ten all after forty minutes and neither team showed any real dominance in possession, open play or set piece, although Patchell did seem the more capable playmaker. While the Connacht scrum was on top, we weren’t seeing a return in terms of points or cards. In the second half despite poor throws, the lineout and the two tries in the second half was the first indication of Connacht superiority. With a weekend to digest the issue I feel that the lineout was the right option but the wrong outcome.
A crumbling defence?
A bigger issue than the lineout decision, especially after the first weeks solidity, will be the first soft try scored by Cardiff, and related to this was the poor tackling from a number of players, most prominently Willie Faloon, who was otherwise very good at linking play around the field. The try was a combined failure between Faloon and Henshaw in front of the posts in what was otherwise a fairly simple and basic defensive situation. Henshaw’s try was really well taken and showed strength and an eye for the smallest gap. But we know that Joe values low error rugby above all else and I think his inability to prevent Cardiff scoring could damage his Ireland chances. Faloon’s poor success rate in the tackle allowed Cardiff to gain territory and put Connacht under unncessary pressure. I fear that he may be carrying some sort of shoulder or arm injury given the way he seemed unable to hold onto his target and bring them to ground.
at approx 0.16 Faloon and Henshaw appear to almost run into each other while simultaneously missing the tackle on Cardiff’s fullback. Rather than properly tackling him, Faloon gets one hand to the players jersey but hasn’t the speed/energy/power to wrap.
[Since I began this post Connacht have given a squad update which doesn’t list Faloon as injured. This may be true, but if so it reflects even more badly on his performance against Cardiff and places a question mark over his selection for Treviso. However we know that Connacht’s updates are not faultless and I would not be surprised to find that Faloon had been playing with an injury of some sort because we didn’t have another proper openside available.]
Whether Faloon is injured or not, we can still anticipate McKeon will have to fill in at seven against Treviso. Given Treviso’s poor form this season this is probably a change we can afford to make. Even if Faloon were available I’d prefer to see George retain his starting position as he was great at the weekend and could cause some havoc against the Italians. The other option at seven could be Connolly or Masterson, who both played in the win against the Ulster Ravens. Connolly as the more ‘out and out’ seven may get the nod although I hope to see Masteron in the senior squad again soon. This is a game where Connacht can afford to give Qualter at least 20 minutes off the bench, possibly more if the bonus point has been secured early.
Ronaldson’s first start of the season was a mini-revelation and will have piled pressure on Carty to start performing to the level we saw against Leinster (defensively at least). Offensively he has been playing deep, I assume for the sake of protecting the ball and possession. Against Cardiff at one point – I think it was in the build up to Henshaw’s try, although I may be mistaken – he looked as if he could attack a gap that had opened in the Blues defensive line, then visibly hesitated before almost being caught out by Cardiff’s defense as he turned back towards his teammates. As I’ve said before, if this is the gameplan that is one thing but its hard to figure out what is being achieved beyond maintaining possession and slowing Connacht’s ability to create an overlap out wide.
With three wins and a draw an argument could perhaps be made that it is working but I personally feel that it is handing the initiative back to the opposition. If Carty had attempted a break in the first half when presented with that space then with or without a try it could have put Cardiff on the back foot for much of the game. If he avoided the break to hold possession then he needs to start to trust his teammate’s rucking and ability protect the ball. If Carty simply doubted his own ability to make the step needed to score a try then we have a bigger problem, with no simple fix in sight.
The Italian game could provide Carty a chance to try out some things that weren’t allowed against tougher opposition and could help build his confidence a tad, but its hard to say how much will be learned from a win against Treviso. I don’t want to be completely dismissive but there’s no doubt this is one of the two away games that can reasonably be targetted for the maximum return. Having just edged ahead of Zebre to take the Italian spot in the Heineken-lite cup, Treviso will doubtless have half a mind on their upcoming European clash with Ospreys. Moreover, Treviso don’t have the quality to compete in either competition but will want to avoid a heavy defeat (please disregard this statement if Treviso decide to throw their European campaign for the sake of staying relatively fit for the league). Similarly Layden could be given a start, with Leader taking the bench spot without damaging out chances of a bonus point win. Beyond the aforementioned changes, McSharry should hopefully return to add some grunt and solidity in defense while the props could be reasonably rotated without difficulty. I would like to see Leader given a proper go in the centre but there is a danger of over-experimentation, especially with Mils, Bundee Shane O’Leary and Tiernan still to feature this season, and Henshaw likely to be away with the Ireland camp, there will be plenty of rotation and combinations to try out in the next couple of months.