CONNACHT WERE NEVER going to do it any other way.
In ideal conditions at Murrayfield, the western province’s attack once again proved far too hot to handle and brought them a first-ever trophy at the expense of Leinster in the Guinness Pro12 final.
Leinster couldn’t live with the Connacht attack. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Connacht’s back three stole the headlines by finishing the tries but once again it was a collective effort that brought about the attacking reward.
All three of the Connacht tries came after Leinster turned the ball over to them cheaply and Lam’s men showed an utterly ruthless edge to punish their highly-decorated inter-provincial rivals.
Rather than inhibiting them, the pressure that comes with any final liberated and inspired Connacht even further. They ended an unforgettable season with one of their most memorable attacking displays.
With Matt Healy having served Leinster a reminder of his threat with a breakout down the left only minutes previously, Connacht struck for their first try with a stunning kick return.
Source: Sky Sports
The possession comes from a poor Leinster kick. While Leo Cullen’s men continually pressured Ulster in the semi-finals with good box kicking from Reddan, yesterday they invited Connacht to attack back at them with efforts like the one above.
It’s long from Reddan, which is not automatically a bad thing, but the kick comes before chasers can get set in strong positions to follow up. Healy receives the ball deep in his own half but, as we know, that’s of no great concern to Connacht.
Running the ball back is the only thing in Healy’s mind.
The 27-year-old’s burst up the middle is impressive but he benefits from the excellent work of others in front of him to make the break.
The three players we will focus on in particular are highlighted above; John Muldoon [red], Bundee Aki [yellow] and Robbie Henshaw [blue].
Henshaw immediately heads for the left touchline, keen to provide the width to Connacht’s counter-attack that is going to prove so crucial in finishing the chance.
Muldoon and Aki, meanwhile, are focused on creating traffic for Leinster’s defence as they look to close up the middle of the pitch.
As we can see above, Aki slides in from the left-hand side to subtly get in front of Garry Ringrose. He doesn’t run into the Leinster midfielder to nudge him, but he’s just looking to close Ringrose’s line of vision on Healy.
Similarly, Muldoon is in the middle of the pitch shepherding Ben Te’o and it’s probably the most crucial intervention of all here.
Again, it’s extremely subtle but – as with Ringrose on Aki – Te’o has to push out at Muldoon as his line of vision on Healy gets closed off.
When we watch Healy’s bust again from behind the Leinster posts, we get a better illustration of exactly how much he benefits from the work of Aki and Muldoon.
Source: Sky Sports
Te’o steps outside Muldoon, back inside and then back outside again as the Connacht captain obscures the run of Healy, while Ringrose is also initially distracted by Aki in front of him.
Te’o and Ringrose do both get hands on Healy but with his footwork and power those arm tackles are always going to be broken and he bursts through, almost beats Richardt Strauss [who was ever so slightly impeded by Aly Muldowney initially] and gets grounded by Dave Kearney.
Having provided the tracking work to aid Healy’s progress, Muldoon swiftly produces a vital second action for Connacht.
Source: Sky Sports
Kearney has thoughts of jackaling over Healy and getting his hands on the ball, but Muldoon hammers into him with an aggressive and highly-accurate clearout.
The speed at which Muldoon moves Kearney away is vital to the try being scored.
As Muldoon engages Kearney, we can see below that Jamie Heaslip is in the right-hand pillar position for Leinster.
However, Reddan is folding around from Leinster’s left and we can see that he is communicating with Heaslip to slide out the line and allow the scrum-half to fill the pillar role.
Ideally, Heaslip would like three or four seconds to slide out, get his head up and re-assess how wide from the ruck he needs to be. Instead, it’s a two-second ruck for Connacht as Muldoon blasts Kearney away and they’re instantly playing again.
As is so often the case with Connacht, a forward acts as scrum-half to ensure quick service.
We can see above that it’s tighthead prop Finlay Bealham in this case. Kieran Marmion is actually directly behind him but the front row doesn’t want to add that extra split-second it will take to step over the ball and allow Marmion to pass it.
Bealham, like all Connacht’s forwards, is confident he can make a basic short pass here and does so without fuss.
Leinster simply aren’t set for the pace of the second phase of the kick return.
With Healy, Muldoon and Bealham combining to provide the quick service, we can see above that Heaslip is very tight to Reddan. The number eight hasn’t even had a chance to glance up at the Connacht attackers to his right yet and all he sees is Aki getting on the ball.
Fully aware of how powerful Aki is as a carrier, Heaslip briefly sits down on the Connacht inside centre, worried about that carrying threat against Reddan.
Aki appreciates the situation too and eyeballs Heaslip even as he transfers the ball across his body to pass to O’Halloran on his left.
That slight delay for Heaslip means that when he does turn his body and head back out towards the touchline, he’s realistically already lost the race to get to O’Halloran, who obviously has more pace than the number eight.
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That means that Rob Kearney, pushing up from the backfield as the threat becomes deeply apparent is left with a two-on-one to defend.
The importance of Henshaw’s initial work to get width even before Healy had caught Reddan’s box kick is obvious now as he provides the option for O’Halloran to hit on the touchline.
Heaslip does his best to get to O’Halloran and there is some communication with Kearney, as we can see below.
Source: Sky Sports
Heaslip could be telling Kearney that he has O’Halloran covered or he could be screaming for his fullback to hit the ball carrier. It’s not clear, but what is obvious is that the damage is already done.
Kearney is essentially in no man’s land against two defenders and O’Halloran cleverly brings the ball back into two hands to briefly shape the pass to Henshaw. Kearney buys it and slides out towards the touchline, only for O’Halloran to burst inside him.
It’s utterly clinical attack from Connacht down that left-hand channel and, impressively, there were even options for them to go right from the ruck after Healy’s break, as we see below.
Muldowney and Tom McCartney are in position to accept a pass, while AJ MacGinty is scanning wide right to assess his options in that area.
These Connacht players are always looking for solutions and they invariably find the right one.
Niyi nails it
Remarkably, Connacht’s second try originated from the same source – a poor Leinster box kick that invited Lam’s men to counter.
Source: Sky Sports
The kick is slightly too long, doesn’t have enough hang time and is poorly chased again, with Healy the man on the receiving end.
As for the first try, the off-the-ball work is crucial in helping Connacht to strike straight back at Leinster.
As Healy lines up the ball in the shot above, we can see that O’Halloran [yellow] and Niyi Adeolokun [blue] are already in the backfield, having been deep to cover the Leinster exit attempt.
Henshaw [purple] and Aki [green] are retreating from their midfield position in what was the frontline defence and they are both going to be essential.
Again, Aki is looking to be a nuisance off the ball in order to give the kick return time to spark.
He runs a slightly unnatural line to ensure he gets to the left of Te’o here, subtly nudging into the Leinster centre as he tracks O’Halloran.
In the clip below, we can see that the little nudge from Aki ever so slightly knocks Te’o off balance and out of stride at exactly the moment O’Halloran turns on his dart of acceleration.
It’s a very small detail from Aki but it does make a difference, the difference between Te’o getting a firm shot on O’Halloran and the Leinster centre having to stretch a little more for a tackle the Connacht fullback can offload out of.
Henshaw provides the target for O’Halloran’s offload here.
The Ireland midfielder again shows his work rate and enthusiasm to get on the ball in this instance, tracking back from the frontline to provide O’Halloran with an outlet, at the same time as allowing Adeolokun to hold the width.
We then see the creative side of Henshaw as he uses his footwork to step back inside Ringrose and Heaslip, going through the number eight’s tackle, before powering past Jordi Murphy too.
Source: Sky Sports
Henshaw had perhaps his finest game for Connacht yesterday and it was encouraging to see him using his footwork and offloading skills.
The 22-year-old has been almost exclusively limited to playing a battering ram role for Ireland, but he demonstrated yesterday that he can do more than that.
Henshaw returns the offload favour to O’Halloran – who has worked hard to get back to his feet in support – before the fullback cleverly feints a chip over the top to make Reddan sit off him, in turn attracting Ringrose inwards enough to be able to loft a basketball-style pass over Ringrose’s head to Aki.
Aki keeps the ball alive, flinging it behind to Marmion, who gathers on the bounce and feeds Adeolokun.
Given that Adeolokun proceeds to chip into clear space in behind Leinster, it’s worth taking a look at Rob Kearney’s involvement in this passage.
As we see above, he is in the backfield to the left as Henshaw makes his break in the middle of the pitch.
But as O’Halloran lifts the ball overhead to Aki, it suddenly looks like Connacht are going to break again in that area.