Connacht 7 – Leinster 6
Rarely have we seen a game of finer margins. Against Edinburgh I never really felt we were in danger, but against Leinster tonight I’m not sure I ever really believed we were winning.
I know that Nigel Owens gets a lot of praise for allowing games to flow, but I’ve long felt that what that really means is he has a dislike for the tmo, a willingness to let things slide to avoid carding players, and, perhaps most importantly, allowing all sorts of things to happen at the ruck as long as it results in quicker recycling. As a result, second, third or fourth arrivals were allowed to flop onto rucks as protection to prevent any possibility of turnovers.
At times during the game I felt myself wishing for Pen Tryhouse on the field instead, who would almost definitely have given a card for at least one of Nacewa’s many high tackles, blocks or deliberate knock ons during the game. One of the benefits of Connacht’s skills based games is that it draws opponents into making mistakes which Connacht can then capitalise on as penalties or a man advantage. It was clear from early on that we would get nothing with Nige in the middle. Straight away a potential advantage was turned into a negative.
It is a massive credit to Connacht that they identified these habits in Owens’ game and adjusted in the second half to a large degree, driving ahead of the ruck more often and generally protecting the ball better. It was sometimes infuriating – or just fear inducing – to see players jogging towards a tackle before either taking contact or releasing the ball to a support player for a net gain of 30cm or less, but it served a purpose in terms of retaining possession and preventing Leinster attacking, although they never seemed particularly interested in taking the initiative anyways.
Throughout the game Frankie Sheehan, somewhat justifiably, told us how impressive the Leinster bench was and how many points they were worth. On paper it was a valid point, but after the first 10 minutes Connacht were already dominating an international front row and holding their own in both the lineout and in the loose, Ruddock’s carrying aside perhaps.
But while many believed the Leinster bench would have a decisive effect it was the Connacht subs that provided renewed impetus, while if anything the Leinster bench with a few exceptions sucked energy out of the game. McKeon, who was not even meant to start, put in an enormous performance at 7, making up for his lack of out and out openside skills by making enough tackles for three men. Bealham came on early and easily manhandled Cian Healy and removed any threat from Jack McGrath for 70 plus minutes. Loughney and Heffernan maintained the high standards of our front row, while Browne and Connolly provided carrying impact when the rest of the pack were flagging. Henshaw was at every ruck and added urgency with his carries. Blade filled in briefly at 10 which almost seemed to improve our game as he found himself in space and his distribution skills brought others into the game more, while Shane O’Leary steadied the ship at a crucial moment and effectively steered the team home as much as a fly half can without contributing points.
Not for a second do I want to take away from the quality performance of the starting 15 who played so well and so passionately, but we all know that in past seasons a game like this would have been lost in the final 10 to 15 minutes. Instead our bench was the reason we managed to hold on to that win. That’s a huge, huge change in fortunes that provides genuine belief that we can start looking forward to the last games of the season with hope and even expectation. The final minutes were gut wrenching, but the last scrums and the turnover from nowhere to win the game, as well as successfully running down the clock, were all things that we saw go pearshaped last season and even just a few months ago this season. It was as complete and 80 minute performance as you’re likely to see this season.
In the first half Leinster could be forgiven for not showing many attempts to go in search of points as the wind was obviously a key factor, but in the second half they couldn’t capitalise on the weather at all. With the exception of Heaslip and Reddan none of the Leinster subs seemed to have actually been observing the game and a poor kick from Kirchner in particular will have the knives out amongst the blues fans yet again. Madigan was once again poor, and his failure to capitalise on the wind shows why he is leaving for France next season.
I haven’t seen much of Leinster this season but I believe it is telling that their defense, which is their best feature, is also coached by the only one of the coaching staff with proper experience.
Handling errors – the cost of doing business
One notable stat thrown out throughout the game was the number of handling errors Connacht made, which often cost momentum. However, many of these were knock ons in contact as a result of savage hits, and I think knock ons in lineouts also count, so these padded the stats out to an extent. Personally I felt that there was a certain perverse vindication in the handling errors, because although not welcome it showed that Connacht were approaching the game with a positive mindset and weren’t willing to allow the weather be an excuse. Even with the high number of knock ons Connacht still managed to beat 26 defenders which is huge.
Prep for ulster
I caught the second half of the Glasgow – Ulster game, in which the latter seemed to visibly wilt after the first ten minutes. Whether this should be seen as a positive for us is uncertain. With the six day turnaround I would settle for a losing bonus point at this stage, as Connacht definitely played the more physical game and will need to rest much more than Ulster will. Its disappointing that after playing the most physical team in the league we have to go away to possibly the second most physical and do it all again, in a place that we haven’t had a win for who knows how long. Sometimes you need a bit of extra luck to go your way if you’re going to win a fixture like that, and having less rest than the opponent could hardly be seen as an advantage.
At the same time, regardless of what next week might bring, I feel that somehow there is still more to come from this team – we got a small taster of this with the attempts to set up mauls in open play by our forwards. It didn’t work but it showed that there are constant attempts to improve and fine tune the gameplan which will keep opponents guessing. In the first half with the wind we didn’t kick much from hand at all, and I wonder if we will see a change of pace here next week. At one point Bundee was deployed at 8 in the scrum. I still have no idea why that happened but we now know that (a) the scrum wasn’t weakened because of this move and (b) Connacht are willing to do things that will catch the opposition out and put them on the back foot mentally.