Gerry Thornley: Daring Connacht picking up the points to match their ambition

Andy Friend’s side are continually on the upgrade as stodgy Munster fail to inspire

Connacht celebrate Bundee Aki’s match-winning score against Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Connacht celebrate Bundee Aki’s match-winning score against Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

After Connacht were controversially beaten 20-18 by Munster at Thomond Park in mid-October, they looked pretty much cut adrift in the Irish pool of the URC. Only four rounds had been completed but Connacht had accumulated just six points, already leaving them 13 points behind Leinster and Munster, with Ulster leading the way after four bonus point wins.

The pre-tournament fears that the remodelled competition seemed particularly loaded against Connacht were fast being realised. The ‘regionalised’ structure ensured Andy Friend’s team would play an additional round of derbies against their three heavyweight provincial rivals and just one game against the Italian duo, whereas Glasgow and Edinburgh would only face the Irish sides once but would each play the Italian duo home and away. Where is the meritocracy in that?

Furthermore, reducing the number of matches during the Test windows was also more likely to favour those with bigger budgets and hamper Connacht given they have fewer international call-ups. Back in their title-winning campaign of 2015-16, Connacht made hay during the World Cup and Six Nations windows.

However, roll on another four rounds and Connacht have pulled level with Munster on 20 points and are within five of Ulster after last Saturday’s sleeves-rolled-up 10-8 win over Johann van Graan’s side. Admittedly, Munster have two games in hand after their troubled trek to South Africa and Ulster have played a game less.

Jack Carty has been in fine form for Connacht this season. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jack Carty has been in fine form for Connacht this season. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Even so, with the table distorted by postponements and every likelihood of further disruptions to a cross-border competition held in six countries and two hemispheres, Connacht have salvaged some interest in the URC and in the Irish pool especially.

They deserve to be rubbing shoulders with their provincial rivals too. Connacht have been the most consistently enjoyable of the quartet to watch this season. Come rain, hail or shine, they have looked to put the ball through the hands and play with width. Peter Wilkins’ array of launch plays have been consistently inventive and Connacht have used offloads, tip-ons and sharp lines of running to keep defences (and viewers) guessing. There have been some superb tries, Mack Hansen leading the way with six. They have been anything but boring or predictable.

Ambition

Their kicking game, largely through the vision, feet and ability of Jack Carty to invariably find grass, has been inventive too. At times you wonder if they are too adventurous for their own good. But even when before eschewing all shots at goal at the RDS and capsizing a tad to a fired up Leinster, Connacht’s ambition never wavered, and had they executed any one of four attacking lineouts in the last 10 minutes that evening they would have come away with a bonus point.

It helps that Carty has revelled in his elevation to co-captaincy and is in the form of his career. If Andy Farrell doesn’t name him in Ireland’s Six Nations squad, Connacht should organise another march to the IRFU’s offices in Lansdowne Road.

It helps too that so many around Carty are playing so well too and that their set-pieces are much improved under Dewald Senekal. As evidence on three occasions inside their own 22 at the Sportsground last Saturday night, their lineout maul defence is no longer the Achilles heel of last season.

With Colm Tucker (defence) and Mossy Lawlor (assistant attack and skills coach) also contributing to a fairly seamless transition to a remodelled coaching ticket, it’s clear that Andy Friend is a clever, ego-free facilitator as well as having a shrewd rugby brain.

As Steve Borthwick said after Leicester’s win at Welford Road just over a fortnight ago, Connacht are simply a very well-coached side. But for the Tigers’ greater depth of scrum strength, Connacht would be the only team to have beaten Leicester this season.

Andy Friend’s Connacht are committed to an exciting brand of rugby. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Andy Friend’s Connacht are committed to an exciting brand of rugby. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Hence, their competitive standing in the URC table is no lie. Indeed, but for the erroneous decision by the match officials to award that crucial pre-interval try in Thomond Park last October by Chris Cloete when Tadhg Beirne had clearly been in front of Rory Scannell’s crosskick, Connacht might now be six points ahead of Munster.

In keeping with Friend’s pre-season mantra, Connacht had to be adaptable as much as fast and relentless in windy and wet conditions last Saturday. But Carty’s first-half penalty emanated from the sustained desire to keep playing off another launch play, and Bundee Aki’s match-winning try off a maul emanated in Oisin Dowling’s break from Shane Delehant’s tip-on.

Munster

Such passages of rugby were beyond Munster. Both their penalty and their chargedown try derived inadvertently from long punts downfield by Ben Healy. Munster created virtually nothing all night. Against both Castres and Connacht, good attacking lineout ball around half-way to launch a carrier over the middle merely led to box kicks and it didn’t matter whether it was Conor Murray or Craig Casey at scrumhalf.

The one time Munster went wide - the utterly under-utilised Damian de Allende hitting Andrew Conway with a skip pass - it led to them pounding the Connacht line for six minutes when a converted try would have earned them a 15-3 interval lead.

Munster had six tap penalties in that spell, three of them against 14 men. They must have had 20 pick-and-jams and then, for variety, went for a one-off runner six times in a row off the sixth penalty before a combination of Ultan Dillane, Aki and the brilliant Cian Prendergast earned the game’s defining penalty.

In that six minutes Casey moved the ball to Healy once, when his pass was cut off by Carty and the outhalf was enveloped by Sammy Arnold. On another occasion, with a penalty advantage, Casey passed long to Conway, who was denied for a second time by the recovering Hansen.

Not once in that six minutes did Munster put two passes together.

But this was not out of character. It follows the desultory defeat by the Ospreys which, admittedly, was their previous URC game all of 10 weeks previously. No squad has had a more disrupted season and, accordingly, van Graan has a less settled side than Friend, on top of which they’ve recently lost Joey Carbery again.

But even when totting up bonus point wins earlier this season, Munster often did so entirely through the medium of pack power, be it lineout catch-and-drives and/or pick-and-jams.

Munster’s two most inventive performances this season, by a considerable distance, were in the wins away to the Scarlets and Wasps, with two cobbled together sides for one-off games. Go figure.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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