Going into this game, I was not particularly confident. Having achieved our best ever finish, and qualified for the semis, but also lost to Treviso, I feared that there was a chance Connacht may be running on fumes, and Glasgow in comparison seemed to be on a mission, coming into form at the right time in the season.
After a few minutes and Finlay having to leave the field these fears worsened, as Rodney had not had a particularly memorable game against Treviso and has never been an 80 minute player. Glasgow were all over Connacht in the first 15 minutes, bursting out of the traps to put pressure on in our 22, forcing penalties and rucking frenetically. It looked bad.
But gradually, Connacht steadied the ship in a way we haven’t seen before this season. Glasgow’s offloading game has caused problems for every opponent for at least a few years now, but they were finally nullified by Connacht’s low, driving tackles, which took metres away from Glasgow with every hit. Unlike the typical man and ball tackles which hold up the carrier, ironically providing him the support to offload, Connacht destabilised the ball carrier, preventing an accurate offload. The rabid defensive line cut off options around them and the second tackler/jackal option won a number of turnovers. It had such an impact on Glasgow that after the half time break they abandoned the offload almost completely, resorting to pick and goes for the most part – a startling tactical surrender for a team and coach that pride themselves on keeping the ball moving. Though it might have provided more security in possession it also played into Connacht’s hands to an extent, as the excellent defence continued and Glasgow did not appear to be gaining an advantage, even with the wind behind them.
Despite signing Dan McFarland Glasgow’s scrum has not improved hugely this season, but down to our second/third choice props I thought we would have problems. Instead we largely dominated, to the point that Connacht was confident enough to play Marmion at 8 on one occasion. This should be particularly pleasing to the coaches as Glasgow picked their heaviest forward options possible, meaning any changes for next week could depower their scrum further.
On a better day weather wise, with a different ref, Glasgow would undoubtedly have scored more, but I think Connacht by the same token could easily have had 3 or 4 more tries given some of the moves that almost worked out, or balls that were held up but not checked by the TMO.
Undoubtedly the game hinged on the red card decision, which was 100% deserved in my opinion. Given the litany of injuries that we suffered before and during the game we needed some luck to go our way. However, even if a red was not given I’m confident there would have been at least two yellows against Glasgow in that game. The red occurred on 49 and our second try on 59, so its arguable that the scoreline may have been the same regardless.
The card did have the added effect of bringing Sean Lamont into the game, to act as auxiliary flanker in the scrum. Lamont is one of the least intelligent players in that team and a number of open play moves died with him which could have been much more dangerous in the hands of another winger.
Our props were dropping like flies, to the point where McCartney was moved to loosehead. Although we knew he had played there in the past I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him there at Connacht, and had begun to assume that it was no longer a real option. Playing with our fourth or fifth choice loosehead and tighthead props, surely Glasgow would gain the upper hand? But if anything our scrum improved. If it wasn’t for this trump card from McCartney we would have had to concede our dominance in the scrum – any other team would have, but not Connacht. It seems that almost every prop is now a viable option on either side, our hookers appear on the flanks, our centre and scrum halves can play eight – Connacht are approaching terminator-like levels of regeneration.
Despite setbacks throughout the game, the spirit of Krasnoyarsk took hold in the face of adversity. Questions about Connacht’s ability to play different styles, to defend, to play the weather, to manage injuries, to play championship rugby – one by one they have all been answered, and it came together in a magnificent squad performance last weekend.
[this image can never be shared enough]
This was not a one to twenty three, but a one to thirty three performance. Players who have been stars this season once against stepped up, and were excellent. But credit also to the Cooneys, to Rodney, to Niyi, to Heffernan, McGinty and O’Leary. Many of them may not have expected to appear in a game of this importance at all but each performed admirably. McGinty was excellent both in attack and defence, while O’Leary came on and pinned Glasgow back in the final thirty in a way that Russell was not able to do in the first half. He also delivered an excellent cross field kick to O’Halloran to secure the win. For a guy with less than 10 appearances this season to be pushed into the limelight of some of our most high profile games and perform as well as he has against Leinster, Ulster, Grenoble and Glasgow deserves special mention.
It reminds me again of Lam’s decision when he first moved to Connacht, to have the academy train with the senior squad. Who knew then that such a simple idea would have such massive benefits? But throughout the year academy players have stepped up whenever they have been asked. There is genuine competition for places in a squad where this was never the case before. And everyone knows their role and what they need to do when they step onto the field, in marked contrast to numerous other teams in the league where this is not the case. Given the injuries that occurred throughout the season, there is no way Connacht could have finished where they did if Lam had not implemented this simple policy.
The opportunity for revenge rarely comes around as quickly as this, but Glasgow have a chance to make amends for their loss next weekend. As if they needed extra motivation, they will feel aggrieved at the sending off of their prop, while the handbags near the end of the game will ensure that this has the potential to be an even feistier affair.
Townsend seemed quite upbeat in the post-match interviews, noting more than once that they had learned a lot about their opponents. Could it be that he thinks Connacht are now an open book? The Connacht defence definitely took him and his team by surprise, but with a fortnight to come up with an alternative approach he will be hoping that they can gain the upper hand.
Glasgow’s first choice 9 will probably be back and Russell is unlikely to kick as badly again. If Dunbar is fit he will provide defensive solidity that was perhaps lacking after he left the game early, while their giant winger Naiayravoro would offer a very different problem to Connacht than last weeks back three.
One thing in Townsend’s favour is options, of which there are many. He can bring in Pyrgos who is a much more experienced nine, and replace Russell with Weir, who probably offers a more effective kicking game and tackles for days, which could be crucial if the game becomes an arm wrestle rather than a free flowing passing contest.
He may rotate his props, replace Nakawara with Swinson to start, while bringing the former off the bench against tired bodies to increase the tempo. He could replace either or both flankers with Favaro and Fusaro and even bring in Ashe at eight, who is capable of playing at openside, in an effort to dominate Connacht at the breakdown. Favaro in particular was recently named as one of their players of the year, yet only appeared off the bench. These changes at flanker could potentially depower the scrum and lineout further but it may be a gamble worth taking, especially if Buckley is not fit, as Glasgow would definitely outnumber Connacht with jackalling specialists.
I’m not sure the referees have been announced yet but I’ve read suggestions that it might be Nigel Owens, which I don’t believe would be in Connacht’s favour. Owens is celebrated by rugby fans for allowing the game to keep moving, which is true, but he does this by highly favouring the attacking team and letting them away with blue murder at the breakdown. Any actions to slow the return of the ball to the scrum half, which Connacht did quite effectively a number of times last week, will result in penalties. Owens is also quite reticent to card players, which again could go against Connacht as I believe part of the Connacht gameplan is to stretch the opposition defence and force them into repeated infringements which can lead to cards.
Connacht’s scrum dominance could potentially be reduced this game, by a combination of any number of factors including weather, referee interpretation, Glasgow coaching and changes to the scrum, and Connacht injuries. On this latter point, although we all want to see Buckley play, I hope that it only happens if the medical staff believe he is genuinely fit enough. Rushing him back could have potentially disastrous consequences if he suffers a set back injury. With Cian Healy being stood down for the remainder of the season, and Corbisiero taking a break from rugby to recover from his injuries, it is vital that Connacht (and all teams really) learn from the examples around them and put player welfare first. The last thing we need is to potentially set up our first choice prop for a series of injuries that prevent him performing well in the Champions cup next season, and the seasons after that.
The same can be said for White, Bealham, Loughs and even Rodney, who all require varying degrees of health management, which does produce a potential selection headache.
Though I believe Connacht have demonstrated that they have the better scrum, McFarland will put all of his insider knowledge into helping his props dominate his former team. There were relatively few instances of driving at an angle, boring into the tighthead, etc, last week, but this time I expect every trick possible to be given an airing. They are unlikely to hook for their own ball and although McCartney is one of the best in the league at hooking they will have to try and time their drive when he lifts his foot, or have their hooker attempt to lift McCartney at that point with an upwards drive.
If Glasgow have options, Connacht have relatively few. One may try to make a case for bringing in McKeon or Roux in place of SOB or Dillane, but it seems unlikely. Barring injury the only changes to our pack will be at 1 and 3, as the rest are the best options in their position or in the case of Muldowney and Heenan play a vital role in the functioning of the game plan. Though not totally impossible, it seems unlikely that Pat starts Roux in the wide role and Dillane in the Muldowney first receiver role. Potentially this is a role that Dillane has to fill next season, and he may already have practiced for it, but it seems like a risk to implement now.
[Dillane’s primary influence on games]
In the backs the only possible question marks are at 10 and 14. McGinty has likely sewn up the starting jersey unless Pat feels he needs SOL’s greater kicking distance, and though Niyi was targeted as a weak defender by Glasgow he more than stood up to the pressure. If Glasgow are starting a bigger winger Poolman or perhaps TOH may be an option here, the latter of which would involve starting Robb and moving Henshaw to 15. It’s a move that a dwindling minority may believe puts Henshaw in his best position (I disagree) but outside of making changes for the sake of it the benefits are marginal. Shifting Bundee to 13 by either swapping with Henshaw or bringing in Robb may have some impact as he will undoubtedly be man marked to an even greater extent in this coming game.
Connacht had almost the perfect game plan for Glasgow last week. Do they therefore go out and implement it a second time? If Glasgow make some of the changes outlined above then there’s a good chance they nullify Connacht’s low tackling approach. In addition, although their offloading game was cancelled out there are a litany of options available to them including grubbers and kick chase, better use of dummy runners and simply passing before the gain line. Even the pick and go approach of last week can be improved with a fortnight’s preparation and a smarter scrum half. There is a danger that Connacht have already shown their hand. Changes like the return of the choke tackle could easily play into Glasgow’s plans, but sticking with the same game plan as last week is equally risky. Despite home advantage, this is a game that Pat will have to bring all of his tactical nous and innovations to bear, while also stopping himself from overthinking the situation, a difficult tightrope to walk.