Friday 22 September 2017

Neil Francis: Carpe diem attitude translates to a truly dominant Connacht display

Robbie Henshaw celebrates a superb performance. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw celebrates a superb performance. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This final was to be a daring adventure or nothing at all. Connacht have displayed all season an incorruptible honesty that just couldn't be denied. The worry was the occasion might overcome them or Leinster might rediscover themselves from distant memory. At all stages in the pre-match and during the absorbing 80 minutes we witnessed, Connacht played with the thoughts menacing their character that you can't recover yesterday, nor would tomorrow be in their grasp either. Now was their time.

Ireland's Grand Slams come after long periods of barren endeavour. Yesterday might be Connacht's only chance in a long time. They would have to take it. They would have to recognise this opportunity and seize the day.

Throughout the season they have played with such competitive enthusiasm and such a certainty in their core skills - things that have only been introduced to most of them in the last couple of seasons. But yesterday was more about will, not skill. Yes, they did make a number of forced and unforced errors but none more than their usual quotient since they began this adventure and a long way short of the amount of mistakes that Leinster made.

Their opponents put in a performance of such inhibited ineptitude that they are barely recognisable from the side that once swept all before them.

The conventional view was that Leinster would win this game in the second half, close down Connacht's possession game and eventually let their scrum and their bench eke out a probable victory.

The sight of Leinster being reduced to trying to manufacture a scrum penalty in the 34th minute showed the poverty of thought and lack of imagination in their ranks. Connacht, if they had been a little bit luckier, could have turned this game into a turkey shoot.

Defensively Connacht got this game absolutely right. I spoke mid-week about Leinster playing drift and doing so in a passive manner. If you allow a team like Connacht a weak shoulder on the outside and allow them to get to the wide outside, still keeping the ball, they will punish you. As Leinster found out yesterday Connacht have plenty of pace and invention in their wider channels and when they get the ball to these people in the tramlines they don't necessarily have to hold on to it.

Connacht completely out-thought their 'smarter and more cynical opponents', as demonstrated by Niyi Adeolokun as he chipped brilliantly over Luke Fitzgerald and took the ball on the volley to out-muscle Eoin Reddan, who was caught square in the back field.

What did Connacht do to win this match? They smashed Leinster on the gain-line. The term 'line-speed' is one of these smart-speak terms that have appeared in the professional game. In essence, it means the whole line coming up together as quickly as they can. It's as simple as that. Connacht came up in a line far quicker than Leinster could deal with and their passing ability under pressure was not good enough to get it further wide.

Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw put their opponents to ground behind the gain-line and Leinster's ball-carrying forwards had nothing to run on to. In this regard Ben Te'o had a shocking afternoon. His mind looked on a trip back to Sydney with England and he didn't show up, or maybe he was so psychologically frozen out of the contest by Aki that he was unable to perform.

It was comforting from the team perspective that Connacht's forwards were doing their defensive chores on the gain-line. It meant that Connacht could stuff the back-field, and this limited Leinster's kicking game. Jonathan Sexton had a mixed game yesterday and his loose kicking in the first half gave Connacht a lot of opportunity. Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran had far too much time with some of Sexton's aimless downtown kicking. Surely Leinster would know that if you kicked loosely to the men in green they would find it very difficult to get it back.

One of the prime objectives if you do kick long down the field is that you make your tackles. Leinster missed most of their first-up tackles and crucially, if they are reviewing the season, they would look at how Healy managed to get out of three or four tackles on the way to Connacht scoring their first try. Leinster missed nearly 30 tackles on the day, which is a disgraceful reflection on their mental state. Tackling is purely a state of mind.

If Leinster were looking for their forwards to provide time in possession, they would have been disappointed. Richardt Strauss over-threw three lineouts deep in Connacht's territory and the quality of ball that Leinster did win was only worth kicking. In truth, I don't think Leinster ever really thought that they could win this match, and Connacht's momentum and positivity was something that they would not overcome - no matter what they did.

The Connacht back row put in an intelligent shift all afternoon and their halves seemed to be far more composed. AJ MacGinty had a big say in how the game went with a solid and flexible performance. John Muldoon picked up three or four turnovers and after nearly 15 years in the trenches fully deserved to lead his team to this unexpected victory. There can be no complaints from Leinster and they can only sit back and admire the change in philosophy, skills and mind-set that Connacht have adopted which brought them such success.

Congratulations to Connacht. Is this just the start?

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