I’m not sure I’ve ever been as nervous about a game as I was last week. I was on tenterhooks every day waiting for a morsel of news, but it was pointless because no matter the news it was impossible to decipher what effect it might have on the game. Connacht had beaten Townsend’s Glasgow once in 10 attempts, and were setting out to do it again, to go one better than they’d ever done before and achieve a final. Glasgow were out to retain their title and be the first team to win an away semi. Given their depth, their internationals, their experience, their historic comfort playing Connacht, it seemed more than reasonable that they should win, hence why I didn’t offer a prediction last week.
It’s not that I thought Connacht would definitely lose, it was more paralysis by analysis as I dithered in trying to make sense of it all. Glasgow played within themselves in the final regular season game – Connacht appeared to give as much as they could. History told us that teams normally need several bites at the cherry before success in beating the knock out stages. I believed Connacht could play ‘cup rugby’ I just wasn’t sure if Glasgow had more in the tank. Imagine if I had known that all last week Bundee was actually injured! I would have been even more of a mess. You’ll forgive me please if my poor analysis is even more questionable than usual as I can’t say I was emotionless throughout the game.
Within 60 seconds of kick off all sorts of permutations went out the window as Glasgow’s tighthead and fly half collided with horrendous consequences for the latter in particular. It’s impossible to dismiss this event and say that it had no effect on the game, but we must recall in the previous fixture Connacht dealt with the loss of their tighthead at a similarly early juncture, and Glasgow were able to call on another international to take Russell’s place. The loss of Favaro on 28 minutes compounded their woes and suddenly whatever game plan they had set out with was no more. Despite this, I feel a team that is as well coached as Glasgow should have been capable of more.
Nakawara seemed to singlehandedly (often quite literally) keep Glasgow in the game for large portions, carrying and offloading as only he can. But rugby is not a sport where the best individual can drag his team across the line, except perhaps in exceptional circumstances. Against a team as well drilled as Connacht it was never going to be enough. Even so, you have to single him out for massive credit, to be such a strong element of the scrum and lineout and to also perform so well in loose play is ridiculous, and puts him in the conversation with Etzebeth and Retallick as one of the best locks in world rugby at the minute (though perhaps without their freakish strength).
Throughout most of the game I was puzzled by Glasgow’s decision making, which was perhaps a consequence of the disruption. Glasgow kicked fairly often in the first half but always keeping it infield, as if trying to tire our forwards a lá Toulouse v Connacht. If this was the thinking then it backfired spectacularly as our incisive back three lapped it up, and by 50 minutes it was Glasgow’s players that were dropping from cramp at an alarming rate.
More than one kickable penalty was turned down in place of a tap and go or a kick to touch, which proved entirely the wrong call. A combination of a poor lineout unit and good disruption and defence by Connacht saw Glasgow squander possession and drain themselves in search of a killer blow that never came.
Squad depth v skill depth
By 50 minutes Glasgow were more or less a spent force. Taking off Horne to put Lamont in the centre just to get the giant Naiyaravoro on the field was the final capitulation. For me this decision highlighted the difference between the teams. Glasgow have one of the largest squads in the pro12 and can call on numerous players in each position. Connacht can call on far fewer players, but within reason, every player is comfortable filling almost every position required. When injuries occurred during the game, Glasgow were not able to adapt well enough to fill the skill gap left behind – if injuries had effected Connacht as they did in the previous game, the players on the bench, while they bring their own strengths are also capable of filling the skills gap.
I was so worried throughout the game that it took a while to realize that we had never actually been behind at any stage – we dominated the incumbents so thoroughly that they were never less than two points behind and never scored again, or even looked like doing so, from the 56th minute. Conventional wisdom would say that from that moment and the emptying of the respective benches, we should fade and they should strengthen, but the opposite was the case. Of course we again have to acknowledge that three subs had been used in the first thirty minutes, but regardless a number of the players on Connacht’s bench are not considered second choice right now – a certain weakening of the team could be expected, in the past at least, but no longer.
Some teams would panic when the first twenty minutes have been scoreless, but for Connacht this can often be the most fruitful period, as they start to figure out the opposition and prepare to blitz them. If it were not for the correct but infuriating refereeing decisions for two disallowed tries, we may have put up a score line that humiliated Glasgow.
Continuing to grow
One of the things that excited me so much about Connacht this season, which I mentioned previously, has been the incremental progress of the entire squad throughout. Previous issues have gradually been erased while techniques, skills or tactics have improved. The restart has been the bane of many a Connacht fan, probably for years, but a simple yet elegant solution has been discovered. O’Halloran soared and successfully won the restart a number of times, including one particularly exciting take when he caught the ball above the onrushing Nakawara. This simple decision ensured that Connacht relieved pressure quickly, played the ball where they wanted it (ie, not in their own 22) and removed or reduced the opportunity for Glasgow to pressurise Connacht for an extended period. None of this would be especially surprising for a lot of teams but I feel it had a big impact on Connacht’s confidence and ability to play in the right parts of the field, and importantly removed what has long been a weakness of the team. It said to me that although we’re unlikely to see a completely new tactical gameplan this weekend (nor should we even want that) but it means that there may still be one or two surprises in the Lam playbook for Leinster this weekend.
Learning to win
The reason I was so nervous throughout of course was that we have all experienced so many harrowing defeats, so many games, even as recent as this season, when the lead slipped away through some cruel twist of fate or a foolish decision. Rodney’s high tackle seemed to be that moment, but by then Glasgow were shell-shocked that it barely registered.
[On this, a special mention for BBC Scotland’s wonderfully biased commentary. I don’t expect neutrality, but some of the nonsense spouted throughout the last two games was eye opening. One individual claimed Rodney’s tackle – which for me was an ill-advised but ultimately mistimed high tackle – as worse than Puafisa’s deliberate headbutt on Marmion which occurred after the whistle was blown. Not even on a par, but actually worse! It beggars belief.]
This is the first season where Connacht have achieved a greater than 50% win ratio, a significant milestone that I would personally have seen as a successful season on its own last year. But now we know that that’s not enough. There’s no reason why Connacht should not be capable of a great leap forward having put all the groundwork in place over several years. Rather than being burdened by history and the underdog status that the media and even the fans (myself included) continue to harbour, Connacht have quietly ripped up the conventional wisdom surrounding Irish and northern hemisphere rugby and burnt it to a crisp.