If you take this game in complete isolation, ignoring the impact of the world cup, the league table, the selections, and just watched this game back again, I think you’d find that this was a really good game of rugby and had almost everything you could have wanted from it. Afterwards even though I was gutted for the loss I felt hopeful, and I felt ready to write a review. But as the days have gone on and I’ve read and listened to the reactions, I’ve felt less and less certain of what I saw or what to think of Connacht’s performance Friday night.
Hometown Ref and the Spirit of the Game
We might as well get this part out of the way, because we know that the ref had a big impact on the game. Initially I didn’t think that the ref had cost us the game, but there were definitely elements that contributed, some of which could have been avoided, some of which couldn’t.
First I think the ref was relatively even at the breakdown even though I didn’t like how he reffed it. 9 times out of 10 if your player wins the ball on the ground and is then tackled or rolled from the ruck with ball in hand they will win the penalty, but not in this case. It was frustrating but its not wrong, and he did apply this to both teams so we can’t complain too much. Instead, Connacht should have tried to adapt. At the same time I can imagine Connacht might easily have conceded even more points by releasing the ball at a ruck without sufficient support.
The spirit of the game decision was probably the right decision but definitely the wrong explanation. Law 19.2 (e) states:
An incorrect quick throw-in occurs when:
- The ball is thrown towards the opponents goal line, or
- The ball is thrown in ahead of the line of touch, or
- The ball is thrown in on or behind the goal line, or
- The ball touches the ground or a player before reaching the 5 metre line, or
- The thrower steps into the field-of-play when throwing the ball.
The opposing team’s choices are to elect to throw in at either:
- a lineout where the quick throw was attempted, or
- a scrum on the 15-metre line at that place.
There is nothing in there about the intent to throw the ball – if a wing is out of play and throws the ball to another back, that to me is a quick throw in. He obviously didn’t think that the fullback was the one who was going to throw into the lineout after all. Referee’s are allowed decide the intent of a player when they swing an arm or don’t wrap a tackle fully, but I don’t believe that this does or should extend to all facets of play. If it did then we certainly wouldn’t see any penalties for lineouts that aren’t thrown straight, as no hooker would intend to do that surely!
A Connacht lineout or scrum which would be the result of a failed quick throw in would have been the fairer decision in this instance and would have given us a deserved platform to mount an attack without having to award a soft try. Afterwards I felt this had a far greater impact on the game than I had initially realized. Firstly, Connacht had been dominant in the first 15 minutes, but because of the break to make this decision Glasgow got a breather. This allowed their leaders to rally the team and wake up any newbies, and after this they really attacked Connacht with a renewed vigour.
In contrast Muldoon and Connacht seemed to go into themselves because yet again another decision had gone against them. I thought that once again Muldoon’s leadership as a captain was lacking in this game – when referee decisions go against him he tends to have a sulk about it and that has a knock on effect on the team. What we needed was a captain to give a 30 second talk where he told the team that we have Glasgow on the rack and regardless of what the ref decides with the TMO we’re about to really pin them back for the next 15 to 20 minutes and build scores. This obviously wasn’t said, if there was anything said in this gap at all. So although the ref definitely didn’t cost us points directly, the way the two teams reacted to the referee had a big impact.
Apart from this, bringing the spirit of the game into the decision making process is a recipe for disaster and double standards. No one thinks that Cooney meant to gift Harley that try so in the spirit of the game should it have been awarded? The referee opened himself up to extra scrutiny through poor wording and a desire to not penalize Glasgow mistakes.
The second issue with the ref again related to their conversations or lack thereof with the TMO. Again this is not their fault but I felt at times the ref was too eager to move on after initially asking for information – the neck roll on Muldoon for instance was easily a yellow but the ref was relieved that they didn’t have to apply it. Based on the way Connacht played that second half I have very little doubt that they wouldn’t have found an extra few points if Glasgow had been down to 14 for 20 minutes. The refs attempt to find foul play by Connacht was also brushed aside once a decision was not made on the first viewing. While the game had been a bit stop start due to injury you need to stick with the TMO process once its brought into the equation.
Another example of his bias came at the scrum, when Connacht were dominating Glasgow but he gave a penalty against Rodney for the first collapse on that side. He also warned Glasgow multiple times including several ‘final warnings’ before eventually giving a yellow for poor scrummaging.
A Game of Three Scrumhalves
To simplify vastly, the winning and losing of this game was found in the nine position. Blair was probably the most experienced Scottish player on the field, took control of the game and the tempo and generally pushed and coaxed his team around the field, getting forwards to truck up and getting backs into position to run lines. Cooney for whatever reason wasn’t able to do this at all, although after about the fifteenth minute when Connacht lost all shape it would have been extremely difficult for him to change that on his own.
Cooney also missed a last ditch tackle for the first Glasgow try that Marmion has often made, because Marmion is a ferocious tackler for his size and more aware of his role as a sweeper, making him more likely to get to the right position in time. Its really harsh of me to blame Cooney like that but I’m sure any Connacht fan can think of more than a couple of instances where Marmion has saved a certain 7 points by recklessly putting his body on the line at the last moment. Cooney may develop that but he hasn’t got it yet.
When Marmion came on the pace and shape of Connacht’s attack changed immensely. He made 25 metres with ball in hand to Cooney’s 12, including a couple of short bursts through the ruck which really changed how Glasgow had to defend. We had been much too lateral prior to Marmion’s introduction and he immediately put it upon himself to change that.
Since Marmion first started for Connacht I’ve obviously been extremely excited by what he can do but he became the de facto senior scrumhalf within about 6 games – he’s never had someone to learn from. Now that he’s been in more and more Ireland camps I believe we will see a further evolution of his skills under Schmidt and in competition with Reddan and Murray which can only be good for Connacht.
I told a friend that I’d be happy with a losing bonus point before this game, so to come away with another point was even better. At the same time losing by a point always feels like a game that should have been won, much moreso than a loss by six or so. Even so there were some positives to take out of Friday night.
Firstly, Carty’s kicking from the tee was much improved on last year. I don’t know why we didn’t kick with the wind in the first half as the natural option for any other team would have been to pin that Glasgow side back as much as possible. Still, a game where I don’t moan about Carty’s mistakes is a good thing.
Fox had a massive 20/2 tackle count and on any other day would probably have been man of the match based on this and his turnovers which were disallowed. This may feed into the previous point, as Connacht may have expected to win penalties from turnovers that would have kicked for points or lineouts, but they failed to materialize. Honourable mention to McCartney’s 15 tackles as well, he’s a proper machine and gives us what we were missing at hooker for a long time. I hope his experience and work ethic is being slowly bled from him by Heffernan and the other young hookers.
Masterson continues to impress – I think this was my first time seeing him in his more natural position at eight, but he looks like a genuine option across the backrow. The scrum was excellent and brought us back into the game hugely, but I felt there was stand off approach to the lineout and to a lesser extent the scrum for a long portion of the game, as if the Connacht forwards were in awe of the aura of Dan that now surrounds Glasgow’s pack, and just assumed that he would already have made a massive difference to how their forwards play. Even allowing for the fact that there were a number of youngsters in that pack, it looks like Dan will have his work cut out for him this year, and even when the full team is back it won’t be a case of Glasgow dominating teams up front just yet.
All in all I remain disappointed about this loss, but there is obvious room for improvement. Even though we’ve been saying that for a while its still more comforting than believing that Connacht are playing at their limit! This game was not a must win, but the next one against Cardiff will be. If Connacht are to lay down a marker this season then they have to come good on games that slipped through their grasp last year and this was a prime example. There must be a viable kicking game this time around as we just don’t have the ability or stamina to beat teams with ball in hand for a full 80, and to be honest most teams don’t have that ability either. The difference is they don’t attempt something that foolhardy. I wrote last year that Connacht tend to get skittish when they face the unpredictable Blues, and I truly hope that lessons have been learned. We need our most senior team on the field in a fortnight’s time to ensure that leadership is strong throughout the squad, as despite the scoreline against Zebre, Cardiff are weakened and the team they put out won’t be an improvement on last year’s.