Liam Toland: Connacht could be on brink of doing Irish rugby a huge favour

Leinster’s big strength going into Pro12 showpiece is that they know how to win

Connacht Tom McCartney and Bundee Aki at squad training. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht Tom McCartney and Bundee Aki at squad training. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Lest we forget Leinster’s perennial challenge was how to win. At times this season, they have forgotten those ways, but not so in the RDS last Saturday. In the opening 18 minutes they had 87 per cent possession and made only four tackles. Eoin Reddan, who played a blinder, had wonderful front-foot ball to hit Johnny Sexton on the gainline. Sexton pulled the strings. As those minutes unfolded it was a battle of wingers, and in that battle Luke Fitzgerald was simply stunning.

Leinster have many tools in their armoury, but key amongst them is they know how to win; ideally while looking pretty. But when Jamie Heaslip stole the Ulster breakdown and scored a try moments later, Leinster backed it up by squeezing the life out of their opponents at scrum time. Heaslip held the ball at his feet, French-style, trusting his front five, and Sexton to convert the penalty; Ulster were dead.

Connacht, however, have proven time and again that they too can win, and at times they’ve done so mixing the beauty with the beast.

Take their lineout. Tom McCartney is a wonderful hooker from touch, hail, rain or snow. He has huge variety and an old-fashioned arch. Their lineout is the starting tool to get Bundee Aki into a violent gainline play; ask Glasgow’s Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson.

But then Connacht, on three separate occasions, threw to the front, forcing Kieran Marmion to hit his outhalf 20 metres away. Should this continue, Leinster’s tail gunner will have a full four seconds of air time to smash A J MacGinty; Glasgow’s openside Simone Favaro came close.

Connacht’s scrum has variety in abundance; Aki sporadically at number eight will focus the Leinster backrow defence. But Aki’s ability to carry off the base is a nod to Finlay Bealham at tighthead and loosehead Ronan Loughney, who certainly performed around the park. Speaking of scrums, the first real scrum in anger in the RDS was a Leinster put-in, with Ulster’s Callum Black asking Mike Ross questions.

Elsewhere for Connacht, Tiernan O’Halloran at fullback has been a pleasure to watch; admirable in his positional sense, counter-attacking and offloading. The big decision last weekend was on the coin toss: who would play with the wind? Connacht played into it first and Marmion must now be the best scrumhalf into the wind in the competition as his control of the ball, his fatties, his outhalf and his own line breaks were phenomenal. The evidence is simple: Glasgow piled up the penalties as Marmion pulled the strings.

Second Captains

With one eye on the Ireland squad selection this week, I wonder about Matt Healy. With only 14 backs going to South Africa, who can be left out to include the winger?

Outside of stiff competition, I don’t know why Healy missed out; especially having watched his electric runs making a mockery of allcomers this season; bumping and skinning defenders.

But there was a moment against Glasgow, leading to Aki’s disallowed try, when Healy made a brilliant run from deep, turning defenders inside out. But with Connacht support available, he died with the ball. Could this one play have scuppered Healy’s chance? Or is it defensive question marks? Very harsh if so. Conversely for Connacht’s try, Aki picked up a loose ball before sprinting off, and with Glasgow converging the Kiwi bounced off his right foot and found support on his left, with the ball staying alive, leading to the try.

Where Quinn Roux fits into the Irish scheme is another puzzle as he’s not in Connacht’s top two secondrows; keep an eye on Leinster’s Ross Molony.

My sense tells me that Leinster can play many ways; when Rob Kearney was sin-binned in Ravenhill, they switched to a narrow game, lineout mauls becoming their natural reaction.

They lost that game but used the same tactics at crucial times in the RDS and won. So what was the difference? Their breakdown was preceded by a much more aggressive gainline runner. The clear-out was accurate and at times violent with Ulster, one of best defensive teams, left looking all at sea.

How Connacht manage this will be fascinating. But Ulster got great reward by targeting the gainline down Leinster’s 10 channel, especially when Iain Henderson followed up off the next ruck.

Aki mimics this and Connacht can follow up with several carries, which could put Leinster’s defence under pressure. But I fancy that Leinster will ultimately trust their defence.

Who do I want to see win? Well, my head is still in Leinster but my mother’s from Leenane so Irish rugby might be done a huge favour should the outrageous journey from the west continue.

I’d dearly love Joe Schmidt to give us a ‘state of the nation’ address, telling us ‘Connacht’s way is now Ireland’s way’ – no doubt we would follow!

PS: As the cream of Irish rugby togs out in magnificent Murrayfield, spare a thought for rugby legend Tom Magee and Liberty Saints Rugby Club. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bbh_gmtvbno

liamtoland@yahoo.com

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