Sunday 4 December 2016

Neil Francis: Connacht's skills under pressure are better than their provincial rivals

Published 31/03/2016 | 02:30

Isa Nacewa acknowledges the Leinster supporters after their defeat to Connacht at the Sportsground. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa acknowledges the Leinster supporters after their defeat to Connacht at the Sportsground. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ian Madigan of Leinster. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Hands up if you know who the star performer was in last Saturday's gritty contest in Galway! Got it in one - Nigel was stand-out. Refereeing can be a chore and on a dirty day in the Sportsground it can be just as unappealing to the man in the middle as the players.

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It is - is it not? - a performance of real skill that Owens managed to award only nine penalties in the match - five against Connacht and four against Leinster. An inferior referee could have awarded 30. It is the respect that he is shown by teams that no side will try and take advantage.

The match was refereed fairly and the better side won out. It could have gotten ugly on every front yet it never lost the aesthetic of being a close competitive contest as opposed to a stop-start whistle-fest.

Nine penalties? He made it look easy. The contest at the tackle was ferocious yet given the conditions there was barely an infringement.

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What makes it easy is that Owens has a strong appreciation of the game. He knows what Connacht were trying to achieve and what Leinster were up to as well. I'm glad he could figure Leinster out because I couldn't.

He did something in the last five minutes which I thought was absolutely brilliant. I am open to correction here but I think he played his own rules when Leinster were camped on Connacht's line in the last few minutes.

When an attacking team is chasing points to win the match in the last few minutes and their opponents have a defensive scrum - well what are you going to do? You bind up as slowly as you can and pack down as slowly as you can and most assuredly you will drop/collapse the scrum several times, get up and point at the attacking side, take the sod out of your studs, slowly bind up again and then do exactly the same thing all over again.

If I was in the Connacht pack that is exactly what I would be doing. It is not cricket to run the clock down by collapsing the scrum - every collapse takes a minute off the clock. Owens stopped the clock and called time off every time the scrum went down. Not sure if that is in the IRB rule book. He patently does not think that wasting time is a proper way to end a game.

Either way, it didn't help Leinster whose stunning lack of ambition and inability to play intelligently in the second half is a damning indictment of their Lilliputian aspirations.

Scrummaging is a unit skill but above all else it is a mental discipline. Leinster got pushed off three put-ins earlier in the game, signalling to everyone at the ground that they hadn't turned up mentally. Yes, there was a change of personnel but how do you reconcile the fact that Leinster suddenly up the ante in that sector five minutes from time when they were shoddy in this sphere when the game was being determined in the cut and thrust in the first half.

In a game that ended 7-6 what made the match compelling, watchable even, was the collisions. Both sets of players put in some ferocious hits - but the ones that mattered came from Connacht and they merely re-doubled their determination when the heat came on. This type of resolve stood to them. Connacht made a lot of mistakes but their trust in their handling skills won them the game. They sometimes lost 30/40 metres when in possession but they retained the ball really well and Leinster just couldn't get it back.

When teams play 'keep ball' playing into the wind, the solution is simple: you pick and choose your moment and rather than try and go for the ball with your hands over the tackled player, you get numbers into the breakdown and drive over and past the grounded player. I believe it is called rucking. There were not too many players in blue (white) with the brain engaged.

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Leinster's halves were awful. Kieran Marmion and AJ MacGinty took the simple choices and executed more intelligently. If you are ever confused enough to think that Ian Madigan can replace Jonny Sexton at national or provincial level - Saturday's performance serves as a reminder that that should never happen.

On the face of it Madigan did not do much wrong - but this was one of those games where he needed to think and lead. A game where he should have imposed himself, put his imprint on proceedings. He did no such thing and he drifted and when your player in the key position drifts, the team suffers.

Luke McGrath, I presume, was playing to instruction in the first half. As Connacht showed in the second half, box-kicking out of your own territory into the teeth of a strong breeze might not be the way to do it. After the first few kicks merely gave the ball back to Connacht a few metres further up the hill - somebody might have called for a change of tactics. Such is the dramatic fall in Leinster's skill set that they couldn't trust themselves to play ball in hand. Connacht's skills under pressure are now better than Leinster's.

McGrath has been on the scene for three seasons now and should have nailed down his position as a starting scrum-half. He was poor against Connacht and was also uncertain against the Ospreys on March 5 at the RDS. Conor Murray goes to South Africa as our number 1, Marmion will go as back-up - the third slot?

Somebody please put their hand up. When you get opportunities in some of the bigger games you just have to perform. Maybe his form could be reflection on who he is playing for at the moment but if Leinster want to contend, they need halves playing at the top of their game consistently.

That is also the situation with Leinster's academy. Soon the next young bright hope will be breathing down the neck of the previous incumbent of that title. Time for McGrath to step up and confirm his pedigree.

For once the league run in has got the juices flowing. Maybe the Heineken Hijackers had a point. If Connacht win all their remaining matches - it is hard to see someone challenging them at this moment in time. The final, however, is Murrayfield on May 28 and that is a long way off. We might even have a government by then.

The pick of the challengers are Glasgow. The champions have Benetton and Zebre (their game in hand) in the next 10 days. They will garner a guaranteed 10 points from their fixtures which will put them on 61 points.

You figure they will bonus-point Zebre again and beat Scarlets which will leave them with everything to play for on the final day in the Sportsground. The two best teams in the competition - I might turn up in person for that one!

Meanwhile, Munster must fancy their chances this Saturday. I hope Leinster have given up "watching the videos and learning from their mistakes" - it doesn't seem to work.

Irish Independent

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