Liam Toland: Irish rugby must drink from the stream of Connacht’s creativity
Pat Lam’s men took their chances but what really counted was how they made them
I heard it described that Connacht took their chances. Not so. Connacht created their chances, which is the fundamental difference between what they and other teams do.
On Friday I begged Joe Schmidt to give us a “state of the nation” address, telling us “Connacht’s way is now Ireland’s way”. Well, I’m begging once more; tell our thousands of kids and their coaches that what Connacht are doing is achievable, fun and is winning rugby matches.
How did Connacht create those chances? Much of rugby is based in the trenches; winning the corridor of power and dominating the breakdown, but an active back three is crucial to creation. To examine both aspects, we must do so in the context of Schmidt’s Irish squad selection and ask who made the significant contributions to the outcome of the match?
Leinster had a flying start. Their breakdown was ferocious with a recycle of under two seconds. Eoin Reddan fired some beautiful bombs into the air; four seconds hang time and the perfect distance for his outside backs to challenge.
Tiernan O’Halloran has always been perfect with his positional sense for Connacht but the Leinster kicking game meant man and ball were arriving down his throat. Those minutes were shaky for Connacht, which makes their reaction all the more important to Irish rugby.
So what about Connacht’s back three? Well, they ignited the final and did so playing a style that we, the rugby public from the ages of 8 to 80, want to play and watch. Take Matt Healy and his ambition to add value to the ball. He’s part Craig Gilroy as he spins out of contact, pumping his legs, and part Denis Hickie as he burns past flailing defenders. Crucially, he trusts his team-mates. Why? When a player of Healy’s calibre is on the ball deep in his own half I often ignore him to look at his team-mates.
Playing for any other team in the competition Healy would ultimately look foolish as his team-mates may watch and admire him but do little else. Connacht players, however, expect Healy to run and arrange themselves accordingly. The Pat Lam methodology is to fill the pitch in zones, as per preordained systems.
They’ll have clumps of players in their preordained areas, such as John Muldoon and Ultan Dillane out in the wide areas. This affords them a better chance to protect Healy et al. But Healy still had to trust himself and read the available space before attacking it. And this is the crucial fundamental. Healy didn’t take his chance, he created it.
When Reddan kicked on 12 minutes, it was long to Healy on his 22-metre line, six metres from his right touchline. The left winger had traded places with fullback O’Halloran. Nothing was on; I mean nothing; no chance. So as he carried, he noticed that Leinster’s defensive line was dogged and accelerated through Ben Te’o and Garry Ringrose. He was eventually hauled down by Dave Kearney and Richardt Strauss; on Leinster’s 10-metre line. That’s almost 50-metre diagonal run and four defenders sucked in.
Now, who cleared out that ruck? Number eight, John Muldoon. Now, who passed off the base? Tighthead prop Finlay Bealham. He hit Bundee Aki, who popped to O’Halloran; try.
Now ask yourself, which comes first? Healy’s run or Healy’s knowledge that a couple of fatties will be there where he needs them, when he is most vulnerable. That is the difference.
Players such as Tom McCartney have been phenomenal; I spoke of his lineout throwing on Friday but his take down of the powerful Te’o on his first run in anger killed him dead. But O’Halloran’s ability goes further than most. He glided in for his try like a Jeremy Guscott; carrying in both hands and powering through. But that juggle of the ball in heavy traffic leading to Niyi Adeolokun try tells me something else. Yes, Leinster tested him early but he commanded his brief brilliantly.
I’ve focused entirely on Connacht’s performance, given its importance to Irish and northern hemisphere rugby. But Leinster will be bitterly disappointed. The loss of Devon Toner and especially Isa Nacewa were very costly but with 55 per cent possession they must consider its use especially as they began to shuffle around where their accuracy and offloads were non-existent. Not long ago Leinster would rattle up tries off 30 per cent-plus possession.
The big players stood up; Bundee Aki has a beautiful instinct around those trying to defend him. Clearly conscious that Leinster were double-teaming him, right on the point of contact he judges a beautiful offload to a free-running inside man.
This takes vision, but huge bravery in the knowledge he’ll be smashed – and all for the betterment of his team. And for many of the Connacht team, an Irish cap will never come but what of their back three? State of the nation!
PS: My mother Monica, from Leenane, is wide awake.