10 December 2013

Connacht’s complete performance

It is without doubt the greatest performance by a Connacht team in the long history of the province. To travel to Stade Ernest-Wallon and beat the home team in the Heineken Cup is an extraordinary achievement.

Toulouse are not alone the aristocrats of French Rugby but also of European Rugby, having won the Heineken Cup on four occasions. But it wasn’t the fact that Connacht caused one of the greatest upsets in the history of the competition, but it was the manner of the victory.

Both teams played hard for eighty minutes and in the end the better team won. Even Toulouse have graciously accepted they were second best on the day.

The victory conditions were not complicated. But like any game plan they were executed with aggression and precision.

It started with defence and in the first ten minutes Connacht were under huge pressure when Toulouse tried to set out their stall with an early score. But Connacht’s defence was hugely aggressive and organised. That level of aggression and organisation continued up to the final play of the game. Line speed and work rate never dropped and whenever Toulouse created a line break the scramble defence was extraordinary.

It was the complete defensive performance. In rugby, special team performances are always underpinned with great defence, and Connacht’s performance is proof positive of that principle.

Connacht’s set-piece was also rock solid. The scrum was even stable enough to launch some back-row moves. When you consider the Connacht pack gave up five kilos a man to their opponents, that is no mean feat. The line-out also delivered quality ball throughout and that success at the set-piece ensured Connacht had a steady supply of possession throughout the game.

Probably the most impressive aspect of Connacht’s performance was how they used their possession. They attacked the wide channels against the Toulouse soft drift defence. That gave them excellent go-forward and quick ruck ball. Regardless of the opposition, good gain-lines and quick ruck ball will cause problems for even the best defences in the world.

Connacht also varied their attack very smartly. They attacked up the middle when the opportunity arose and Dan Parks brought all his kicking experience to keep Toulouse pinned back.

Connacht also retained the courage of their convictions when they won some turnovers. They even had a seventy-five meter counter attack try disallowed because of a hint of a knock-on. It could have been a contender for the try of the weekend had it been allowed to stand.

Most teams have a watershed moment in their development and hopefully this is it for Connacht. After this victory expectations around the team have rocketed. It is a rarity in most competitions and in most sports, but Connacht must face Toulouse again next weekend. But that in itself presents a fantastic opportunity to prove last Sunday’s performance was the real deal and not an aberration.

There is a school of thought that Connacht should be cautious after “poking the bear” and Toulouse will be upset with Connacht. My view is simple: Connacht may have poked the bear, but that’s the bear’s problem.

Toulouse will arrive in the Sportsground next Saturday and will expect more of the same. Connacht must not disappoint them. After all, next weekend is in Connacht’s back yard in front of the Connacht faithful. French teams, even Toulouse, are never comfortable playing away from home and that combined with last week’s victory gives Connacht an advantage.

But without doubt the challenge for Connacht is to replicate last Sunday’s performance. Based on last weekend it is eminently doable.

The Sportsground will be heaving come kick-off time next Saturday evening and Connacht will be on the cusp of doing an extraordinary Heineken double.