A daunting task, but Toulouse have shown Connacht where Saracens can be exposed
It’ll take field position, a high tempo at rucks and perfect accuracy from the kicking tee for the province to get ahead
Saracens player Billy Vunipola (left) races past Gloucester player Ben Morgan during the Premiership match between Gloucester and Saracens at Kingsholm Stadium on January 4th. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Connacht beat Toulouse in France and Toulouse beat Saracens, so Connacht should beat Saracens? The bookies have a 23-point spread in Saracens’ favour and all my instincts tell me they will get the job done in London’s Allianz Park tomorrow. But Toulouse did beat Saracens last week. Connacht are no Toulouse but Toulouse showed us much of what Connacht need to do.
Add to that, English opposition, a possible last Heineken Cup fixture for many of these old Connacht warriors; bottom of the Rabo and hence a spike in passion and pride for a one off match.
A parting shot if you will that’ll do untold damage around Europe. This is neither sentiment nor patronisation but a real look at what can be achieved tomorrow; how good can Connacht become?
Saracens are riding high in the Aviva Premiership with a very impressive scoring differential, miles ahead of the rest. They score tries and they do so with their very impressive wingers Chris Ashton and David Strettle (who is top try scorer in the Premiership). To these add a player I’ve never overly admired, livewire hooker Schalk Brits.
They are dangerous throughout but in particular as trail runners from deep and blind. However, when they do break, the Saracens front five struggle to keep up; so if Connacht limit the break they can hunt for a breakdown turnover.
Team selection is a huge indicator of style, especially at 10, so who Mark McCall opts for will have a massive sway on Connacht, especially off ruck ball, be it Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell.
Their patterns of play are far less predictable than several seasons ago where kicking the ball was the only option and watching them was painful.
They do generally go the same way off first phase, especially midfield lineouts, where they will utilise their big men pods until they get to the far touchline. Only then, and with no choice, they will come back, again getting their big men on the ball. It is here Ashton, Strettle and Brits will pounce, especially as calm may be oozing from the Connacht’s defence having marshalled Saracens across the field with no line break.
Defensively, they will shorten their lineout and fire over the back to a loose forward as their exit strategy. In midfield they will go to the tail to Steve Borthwick and close in will maul. Borthwick is a very shrewd lineout operator, bringing much variety. He is also very sound under kick-offs, so avoid him.
The scrum is where Connacht can lay down their marker. All season Connacht’s loosehead Brett Wilkinson has been technically outwitting his opposite man and monster Saracens tighthead James Johnston needs the same treatment.
In fact the Saracens front five are all monsters, which has an unusual affect on their scrum. Loosehead and Lion Mako Vunipola packs down very high and keeps his shoulders much higher than his hips. This leaves him open to Connacht’s tighthead depowering him.
Borthwick packs behind Vunipola, with Alistair Hargreaves behind Johnston. Again, both are very high, to Connacht’s gain; a crucial mental advantage.
Their backrow is an interesting unit. Openside Kelly Brown, an international captain with 60 caps, gets around the park but doesn’t contribute like many of the opensides Connacht traditionally face; Seán O’Brien, Thierry Dusautoir or Chris Henry.
All of these are brilliant in many facets but especially at the breakdown. Brown tends to arrive but is often two feet above where he should be. This potential light is enhanced by the usual positioning of his behemoth number eight Billy Vunipola.
Vunipola is a Louis Picamoles lookalike but nowhere near as active or effective. However, he is a major handful when carrying. This can be turned into a Connacht advantage! His team-mates are accustomed to his ability to break tackles on his terms and they line up in support accordingly, hunting for an offload. A major key for Connacht is to chop him down (and his brother) but better still to turn him in the tackle.
This can be done through a judo roll utilising his momentum ,with him facing the Connacht try line and ripe for a Connacht bridge, steal or turnover scrum! Again, another mental boost.
Conscious of the threat of Toulouse, Saracens opted to fan out rather than contest the breakdown. They may approach Connacht differently and the potential breakdown opportunity may not exist; but body position and technique must improve dramatically to dominate Connacht; advantage Connacht.
In summary, Brits, Strettle and Ashton are livewires and liable to pounce when least expected. Although an extremely difficult challenge for Connacht, there is room to gain advantages; scrum and breakdown in particular.
But as Saracens’ defence is teak tough it’ll take field position, with a high tempo around the ruck (and especially through it) and 100 per cent accuracy from the kicking tee to get ahead, where 23 points looks very generous.
PS. As Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St Barleigh MC noted famously when the first World War guns finally stopped firing ‘Well, hurrah! The big knobs have gone round the table and yanked the iron out of the fire!’ It’s great to have Seán O’Brien on board once more; well done to all concerned.