Rugby Statistics: European fare brings out the best in Connacht

Green shoots in the province’s development process evident in Challenge Cup games

Kieran Keane: will want   to see an incremental improvement in Connacht’s playing stats as their European adventure gathers momentum. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

Kieran Keane: will want to see an incremental improvement in Connacht’s playing stats as their European adventure gathers momentum. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

 

Connacht’s performances in the European Challenge Cup have offered a respite and refuge from a slew of disappointing displays in the Guinness Pro14. Three wins from 10 matches in the latter tournament sit about as comfortably as a hairshirt but it is the nature of some performances as much as the results that have infuriated coach Kieran Keane.

He hasn’t spared his players at times in post-match interviews, a stance that will polarise external opinion as to the effects of the criticism on morale within the squad and whether it’s conducive to eliciting the desired response from the players. ‘Tough love’ doesn’t have universal appeal in a disparate group of personalities either but in carefully prescribed doses it can have a broadly positive outcome.

Balance and consistency hold the key. The swingeing changes to the province’s coaching team since their brilliant Pro14 title-winning season were always going to take time to bed in.

Injuries were also a compounding factor in trying to find a playing rhythm – but in Europe in particular there are green shoots in the development process, specifically in terms of their attacking patterns.

Connacht have won away in France, twice, against Oyonnax and Brive, in their three games in the European Challenge Cup and those victories have been predicated on fast paced, expansive rugby, supplemented by offloading that prioritises a handling game.

In two of the three wins – the other was at home to the Worcester Warriors in round two – the Irish province made more metres in attack, more clean breaks, more offloads, more passes and beat more defenders than their opposition. Brive, who they meet again on Saturday afternoon in Galway, provided the aberration in those terms and that can be largely explained by a brittle defence of which more anon.

The graphic offers a random look at a number of categories on both sides of the ball and provides a window to view individuals who have excelled under five of the six headings. Keane hasn’t kept the same team for the three matches but the interchange of personnel hasn’t compromised Connacht’s winning run.

Irish internationals Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran, who have played in two of the three matches to date, continue to be lightning rods for the province’s attacking patterns, represented in a handful of the categories below, ably supported by Matt Healy (joint leading try scorer in the tournament with three), Kieran Marmion, Tadhg Leader and, upholding the honour of the forwards as joint leader in the ‘clean breaks’ and ‘defenders beaten’ listings, Eoin McKeon.

The 26-year-old Galway born flanker is one of nine players, five of them forwards, who can’t be separated at the summit of ‘offloads’. Eoghan Masterson, 24, from Portlaoise is another to excel, a player who came back from a very serious knee injury that threatened his career and on a lighter note, someone who could well end up as the answer to a quiz question. Who played for Ireland and Scotland at Under-20 international level?

There are others like secondrow James Cannon (joint leader in the number of lineout steals in the tournament with three), Ultan Dillane, hooker Dave Heffernan (three turnovers in the Brive match) and captain, John Muldoon, who have grafted diligently on behalf of the team.

The ‘works-on’ for Connacht from last weekend against Brive is their defence, and also something that has exercised Keane on a regular basis this season, the exit game from the Connacht 22. Last weekend Connacht missed a whopping 31 tackles, conceding five tries and yet finished on the right side of the 38-31 scoreline.

Considering that European kingpins Saracens missed 38 tackles in the 46-14 annihilation at home to Clermont Auvergene in the Champions Cup last weekend, it underlines how well Connacht did to win the match at the Stade Amedee Domenech.

Connacht made more (160) tackles and missed less (15) in the victory over the Worcester Warriors and the same was true of their win against Oyonnax (43-15) when they racked up figures of 141 and 12 respectively. Keane praised his players for their imperfect performance in Brive, something he’d doubtless like to be in a position to do again this Saturday, based on incremental improvements. 

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