Gordon D'Arcy: Connacht must strike while iron is hot
Pat Lam’s well-drilled side will never have a better opportunity to win a trophy
Bundee Aki is a good decision maker. If he keeps up this form he will enter the Isa Nacewa bracket of world-class foreign signings. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht have become the most unpredictable team in the Pro 12 but only because they are working off sturdy foundations. They play to a well-rehearsed script yet the overall philosophy encourages individuals like Matt Healy, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion to ad-lib whenever they see an opportunity.
But all of them, and this is a great credit to Pat Lam’s coaching along with the recruitment of skills expert Dave Ellis, know when to spread the ball wide, go up the middle or through the guts. It’s about decision making under pressure, about performing basic catching and passing, to ensure a 10 to 15 metre gain.
They also kick more for territory than to compete in the air. AJ MacGinty has been good at this and so was Shane O’Leary up in Ravenhill.
Taking these right options is how they beat Leinster in Galway two weeks ago. The wind that day meant whoever executed basic skills best would prevail. With 12 minutes on the clock Luke McGrath, operating within the Leinster system, box kicked from inside his own territory but the gale caught the ball and brought it down among the mass of players.
Connacht’s Kiwi hooker Tom McCartney gathered and flipped the ball to an aware Tiernan O’Halloran whose offload led to Isa Nacewa’s huge tackle on MacGinty.
What really impressed me was what happened immediately after: Aki’s one man clearout secured quick ball and allowed Marmion move play away from six Leinster players. Three phases later Connacht, via ten different pair of hands including a great pass by John Muldoon and another one man clearout by Aly Muldowney, had travelled an important 10 metres up the left touchline.
That small moment of inventiveness allowed Connacht revert to their structured approach as when they went back right, Marmion scored the game’s only try. This was down to Aki stalling his pass to O’Halloran, and by doing so he held three Leinster defenders in midfield, which created the two on two situation out wide. When Leinster’s defence came up they couldn’t stop O’Halloran getting the last pass away under immense pressure to Niki Adeolokun, who chipped Nacewa and while the bounce was kind for one scrumhalf (Marmion) over the other (McGrath) it was all in the plan.
We know this because time and again this season Connacht have created scores just like this. They almost repeated the trick ten minutes later but Luke Fitzgerald just about saw Aki’s disguised offload to Healy, who knocked on.
Aki is a good decision maker. If he keeps up this form he will enter the Isa Nacewa bracket of world-class foreign signings. If he sticks around long enough he can become as important as Jared Payne (see his brilliant offload for Craig Gilroy’s try on Friday night) is for Ireland. There is no question that Aki would be capped next year and probably at 12 but I really like the way he mixes the attributes of inside and outside centre. He is a brilliant foil for Robbie Henshaw – really, they create space for each other – but his sledgehammer approach allied by an innate sense to take the right option is all an inside centre needs.
Connacht give him freedom to trust his rugby brain despite operating within a heavily structured game plan. That’s so important.
Looking at their run-in and mounting injury list, Connacht’s strength in depth is going to be stretched now. So will the culture Lam has instilled and developed. But there is something special at work in Galway which is in stark contrast to Munster’s plight at the moment.
All this could be flipped on its head in the next fortnight and I fully expect Munster to qualify for the Champions Cup next season by winning two of their last three matches at home to Edinburgh and Scarlets. But if they do miss out I don’t see it as being a catastrophe.
There is a lot of work to be done in Munster and being fourth seeds in a very tough Pool could result in a similar way to this season. However, a largely stress-free run in the Challenge Cup would allow their younger players to develop the foundations that Lam has built in Galway.
What Lam brought from Auckland is clarity of thought but it is also clear from their execution that Ellis has been at The Sportsground for a year. The overall approach is actually very similar to what Rob Penney tried to implement at Munster over the same three-year period – except it’s working in Connacht.
The attacking philosophy is to line up with width. That means four even five attackers on the short side. This gives them three options – attack the short side, go the open side or up the guts until the defence tells you what to do. All this makes it easier to create one on ones where they possess the pace to punish opponents. When people are spread out across the pitch the first and crucially the second receivers must be good at passing the ball. It demands more than one or even two primary distributors.
There is no great secret here. As with every aspect of attacking rugby, this can only be done with quick ball.
Healy is another really important cog in the Connacht machine as he’s a scrumhalf, and an incredibly good passer from what I’ve seen of him playing for Lansdowne, masquerading as a winger. And a winger in a similar vein to the way Denis Hickie and Shane Horgan used to be.
Both of them, in their prime, would pop up at first receiver so they could increase the tempo when sensing a score a few phases down the line or just the need for us to play with more urgency. It meant Brian O’Driscoll and I would have to react and cover the wing.
That’s not about a coach giving players licence to go off script; it’s just a player taking ownership for how a game will play out. Healy, as a scrumhalf, would be used to 60, 70 possessions a game so instinct brings him into a similar role to Alex Goode at Saracens.
Connacht have multiple first receivers which is in stark contrast to Leinster. Johnny Sexton is the first receiver every time he is in a position to be.
Marmion is also crucial to Connacht’s attack. The relative lack of crispness in his passing – when compared to Eoin Reddan – has kept him off the Ireland squad but his all round ability and pace makes him a constant threat.
But it is the number of passers in the Connacht team that has them on top of the Pro 12. Forwards like Aly Muldowney, Andrew Browne and Ultan Dillane are also comfortable with ball in hand so the option is constantly there to go wide and attack space.
Take their shape during the second half up in Belfast last Friday. Ulster had gone 18-3 ahead and still Connacht went about playing their way, to their philosophy. Every player in possession had ball in two hands and loads of options. Then it just becomes about making the correct decision.
Much of what Connacht do well is down to timing. Some players have it, some don’t. George Smith will have it forever. The 35-year-old Wallaby flanker, who doubles up as coaching England how to pilfer ball and playing for Wasps, created two tries for Rob Miller during last weekend’s victory over Northampton. Both times Smith carved Northampton open when attacking from first receiver but it was the timing of Miller’s run for the second try that was sensational (It was similar to Rocky Elsom’s line break off a Felipe Contepomi pass back inside in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final).
It’s the timing of the Smith pass and the Miller run but also it’s their knowledge of the game. Smith knows when to run and when to let the ball go. That’s fundamental stuff that every rugby player should have. Of course many don’t.
This has been a momentous season for Connacht. They have a tough run-in – Munster, Treviso, Glasgow – and mounting injuries, particularly at outhalf, but they will never have a better opportunity to win a trophy, be it in the Challenge Cup or Pro 12 title, because next season opponents will have a library of film to study them.
Every Pro 12 defence coach will be spend the summer planning on ways to stop Connacht. Some will be successful. But nothing can stop them, or any team for that matter, when they generate quick ball and Aki takes it over the gainline.
Every game from now on is a fight for some form of survival. The trip to Grenoble on Saturday is a fight for a home Challenge Cup semi-final against London Irish or Harlequins (both with all Irish connotations with Bob Casey and Conor O’Shea). Munster will be fighting for their lives in Galway the week after before a trip to Treviso which is a must win for the Italians to qualify for the Champions Cup. Then Glasgow at home could decide who gets a home semi-final in the Pro 12.
It’s never ending. Until you start losing. Then it can stop all too abruptly.