Liam Toland: Munster will lay traps for their flamboyant brothers
Connacht have yet to be exposed to the onslaught that will greet them
Connacht’s Bundee Aki tackled by Grenoble’s Nigel Hunt in the Challenge Cup quarter-final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
While strolling out of the Clarion Hotel car park on Wednesday a ‘mature’ and stocky gentleman standing in front of the ticket machine, somewhat confused, looked at me for inspiration.
“Where do you put the ticket?” he asked. My stride slowed and with it I spotted the big writing in red: “place ticket here”.
Without stopping, I smiled gently and pointed out the sign. He laughed and carried on. Then he shouted after me in his wonderfully lyrical Limerick accent “I’m a forward”. I turned and we both smiled; his playing position his excuse-smile, mine a recognition of Munster’s challenge.
Connacht have the edge right now. Although having similar players, they play a better game and crucially are full of confidence. That said, the fixture’s history will tell a lot more than usual.
But before we get to that, what of two separate occasions a Munster forward tapped a quick penalty when the scoreboard required but three points?
The first time was when Billy Holland did so in the far corner of Thomond Park when behind against Leinster. The second time was when David Kilcoyne repeated against Leinster in the Aviva. On both occasions three points would have given Munster an extra point in the table; that’s two points lost and 53 should be 55 – and level with Ulster.
The irony is the focus on Munster’s Ian Keatley or Connacht’s young outhalf Shane O’Leary. Points are won and lost all over the place. O’Leary’s error, if it was one, was obvious. But that is far easier fixed than the underlying issues in Munster’s inability to firstly spot an overlap and then execute it. I’ve noted buckets of them all season where hard-won turnovers are wasted moments later. Connacht errors are far more fun to fix.
So to build on last week’s article where I hinted at the quality of Ulster’s read on Connacht’s style. Munster will attack the pivot forward, sometimes triple-teaming him in the knowledge that as he was hungry to offload he was vulnerable to heavy contact. They will bite on the deck, conscious that Connacht may be vulnerable to a steal.
Grenoble are no way as talented as either Connacht or Ulster but managed to gain traction from a game they never should have. Regardless of a partisan local crowd, Munster will gain traction.
Bundee Aki has been a revelation and I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play. It was the Saturday before Connacht announced his signing. I wondered how could a Waikato Chiefs centre end up in Connacht?
He did and he’s superb. That said, there’s a weakness running deep in Aki that could hurt Connacht in the money end of the season. Much has been spoken of O’Leary’s crossfield kick but Aki has a tendency to become distracted.
He was extremely fortunate to get away with his slap down on Grenoble scrumhalf Charl McLeod in the 58th minute.
Moments earlier McLeod attacked right from the base of a defensive scrum. The blindside defence allowed him to slip on by, bringing him into Aki’s channel. Aki traded space for time and conceded without committing to a hit. Finally McLeod was brought down and Aki’s over-exuberance or ill-discipline propelled him off his feet through the ruck to slap the ball from the scrumhalf. A flurry of excitement occurred and in the pulling and dragging the referee, distracted, awarded a penalty, and should have followed it up with a yellow card.
Exactly 30 seconds later loosehead Denis Buckley was forced to come in, side entry, to save a certain try off the Grenoble lineout penalty drive. Aki, for all his brilliance, was far more costly to Connacht than their exit strategy. Buckley was sin-binned and Grenoble, making a really smart call, elected for the scrum over a lineout penalty. A point to note for all you bashers out there.
Grenoble scored a try by engaging the Connacht scrum first, before exposing space out wide. Sin-bin and seven-point concession.
So here’s what’s going to happen. Even without the team announcements, Connacht will be facing a far greater challenge tomorrow. Munster don’t lose to their western kin but they did in Thomond Park. Now cornered, they will come out fighting.
For all Connacht have achieved, they have not been exposed to the onslaught that will greet them, making this their fiercest battle of the season. Munster, who should have beaten Leinster but for an inability to convert and control at crucial times, can play many varieties of rugby. That they are struggling will be of less importance in the red-hot heat.
Ultimately, I expect Munster to put Connacht into situations where all appears well for Connacht. But Munster are laying a trap for their flamboyant brothers; if I know how Connacht react under certain circumstances then I will put them into those situations and exploit. Convert an apparent strength into a weakness. If I know that Connacht will run at all costs, I will make that very ambition cost them hugely. So Connacht, tread softly.
Finally: the Irish squad. No room for Denis Buckley; pity.