BUNDEE AKI’S HUGE hit on Johnny Sexton will go down as one of the most memorable moments of Connacht’s win over Leinster in the final of the Guinness Pro12.
On first glance the rib-tickling tackle was simply another example of the phenomenal impact Aki brings for Connacht.
[image alt=”Hit” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/hit-10-630×308.gif” width=”630″ height=”308″ /end]
That was certainly the case to a large extent but the hit also came on account of a clever tweak Connacht have been making to their scrum defence, allowing Aki to get into the situation where he could get a truly dominant shot in on Sexton.
The intelligence behind Connacht’s attacking play is something we’ve studied several times already but Pat Lam and his squad put an equal amount of thinking and pride into their defence.
The points-scoring system they operate under is a fine example of their desire to be accountable and self-aware about their defence.
While Connacht’s defensive record was poor for large parts of this season, they have shored it up notably in recent times as they marched towards their first trophy.
Connacht made 95% of their tackle attempts against Leinster in Murrayfield, getting through 185 completed tackles compared to Leinster’s 132.
There were some big individual tackle counts across the team but it was the quality of the hits and the aggression involved that truly impressed. With their squad unity at an all-time high, Connacht have been excited about defending for each other.
Aki’s hit was the highlight of a superb defensive performance against an uninspired and inaccurate Leinster attack, giving us a fine example of how a Connacht ‘structure’ can allow an individual to shine.
As we can see in the clip above, Connacht are defending a Leinster scrum just outside their 22 and around 17 metres in from the right-hand touchline.
It’s an opportunity to spring a form of scrum defence they have been working hard on in training under Lam, who oversees their defence.
Leinster are looking to milk a scrum penalty in this instance, with Eoin Reddan at the back of the scrum shouting, “great scrum, great scrum, keep it on!” as his forward pack advances.
Many sides look to use the scrum as a means to launch their attack but Leinster can veer towards viewing it as a penalty-producing set-piece. That is particularly the case here as they find themselves 15-0 down after 30 minutes of a final.
They simply want points, any points.
Unfortunately for Leinster, Jamie Heaslip loses control of the ball at the base of the scrum just as Reddan is encouraging them to “keep it on.”
[image alt=”Keep It On” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/keep-it-on-630×397.png” width=”630″ height=”397″ /end]
The ball bobbles out and Leinster are forced to play, with Reddan somewhat taken by surprise and therefore providing Connacht with an extra split-second to advance with aggressive linespeed.
Moving back to the initial defensive set-up from Connacht, we can see below that it appears to be very standard.
[image alt=”Set” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/set-8-630×346.png” width=”630″ height=”346″ /end]
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Connacht are set up in the traditional ‘four up’ manner that would be expected in this area of the pitch, with AJ MacGinty, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw joined in the frontline by right wing Niyi Adeolokun.
Fullback Tiernan O’Halloran is filling the space deeper on the right in the backfield, while left wing Matt Healy is out of shot covering that side of the pitch and can also move infield as part of the Connacht ‘pendulum’ if Leinster pass the ball wide to the left and manage to drag O’Halloran up.
It appears that Connacht’s midfield will operate in the usual manner here, with MacGinty coming up as part of the defensive line with relatively good linespeed and hoping to be able to drift onto that Leinster attacking player outside Sexton.
[image alt=”One Out” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/one-out-630×340.png” width=”630″ height=”340″ /end]
Breaking from his position close the scrum in that instance, Kieran Marmion could get to Sexton, MacGinty could slip out one player, and so on out the Connacht defensive line as they come forward at pace.
Instead of that more traditional way of defending the situation, we see Connacht slip MacGinty in behind an aggressive blitz that is led by Aki.
[image alt=”D” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/d-27-630×350.png” width=”630″ height=”350″ /end]
Instead of advancing with the defence, MacGinty [blue line above] drops in behind Aki, Henshaw and Adeolokun as that trio hammers forward on an out-to-in blitz.
Marmion is also part of the frontline but his role is not to get to Sexton as the first defender. Instead, he is the man plugging the inside in case of a missed tackle.
Connacht are looking to utterly shut down the Leinster backline attack before it can even begin.
Linespeed and aggression in defence are nothing new, of course, but Connacht look to bring those elements to another level here. Aki, Henshaw and Adeolokun are all explosive athletes and offer an extra dimension of linespeed here.
The risk is that they get outflanked by rapid Leinster passing but, with their acceleration, it’s not a hugely viable concern.
[image alt=”Linespeed” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/linespeed-6-630×308.gif” width=”630″ height=”308″ credit-source=”Sky%20Sports” /end]
We can see Aki, Henshaw and Adeolokun bursting out of the blocks to bring that linespeed above, although the pocket of space to Adeolokun’s right is clear too. MacGinty sweeps in behind the blitzing trio to cover the possibility of a chip or short grubber from Leinster.
The hit itself from Aki is wonderful, as he plants his left shoulder into Sexton at around chest height to level him immediately.
Connacht might wonder if they could have followed it up a little more aggressively following the hit, perhaps with Marmion immediately barging over the point of contact, allowing Aki to spring back to his feet and counter-ruck with him.
[image alt=”Barge?” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/barge-2-630×399.png” width=”630″ height=”399″ /end]
If Marmion can win that space over Sexton before Dave Kearney arrives in, there is some possibility of himself and Aki driving forward and opening up the back of the ruck for their team-mates to swarm to.
As it is, Marmion opts to stand off and Sexton does well to place the ball rapidly for Leinster and they retain possession.
The hit, however, is a statement from Connacht. They go on to defend ferociously in the six phases that follow, making a further gain of metres as this latest Leinster attack fizzles out and ends with a penalty against Mike Ross for what Nigel Owens perceives to be a dangerous clearout.
As is so often the case, the initial hit from Aki lifts his team-mates and we see the likes of Eoin McKeon and Ultan Dillane, below, follow his example with big moments of contact.
[image alt=”Dillane Hit” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/dillane-hit-630×308.gif” width=”630″ height=”308″ credit-source=”Sky%20Sports” /end]
It’s worth pointing out that Connacht do not use this style of defence from every scrum.
Obviously, midfield scrums will mean different numbering on either side of the set-piece, while there have been instances in similar situations to this one when Connacht have stuck with more traditional methods.
Having Aki, Henshaw and Adeolokun as the blitzing trio is also important in this instance.
As with any other aspect of rugby, this particular approach hasn’t worked for Connacht every single time they’ve used it.
Below, we see an example in the clash with Glasgow on the final day of the Pro12 regular season.
[image alt=”Glasgow EG” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/glasgow-eg-630×316.gif” width=”630″ height=”316″ credit-source=”Sky%20Sports” /end]
The platform is a little more stable for Glasgow as the scrum remains steady and the ball doesn’t bobble out in the manner it did for Leinster.
Out-half Finn Russell has more time on the ball too, while the positioning of the scrum further upfield means that Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran starts just slightly deeper for Connacht than he does in the Leinster example.
With Connacht’s blitzing trio advancing fast, the area of space for Glasgow to attack is clear and Russell finds it with a pinpoint kick. The kick beats the sweeping MacGinty and lands in front of the arriving O’Halloran, leaving Lee Jones free to gather and threaten Connacht.
Not every side has an attacking kicking game as well-developed as Glasgow’s but this incident does point to one of the drawbacks of Connacht’s defensive tactic.
Against Leinster on Saturday, we saw the most positive outcome of the clever tweak Lam and Connacht have made as Aki slammed into Sexton.
[image alt=”Exchange” src=”http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/05/exchange-5-630×313.gif” width=”630″ height=”313″ /end]
On the very next Connacht attack in Leinster’s half Aki produced a knock-on, after which Sexton muscled in to let the dynamic centre know about it.
A brief exchange between the pair followed, with referee Owens telling them to “hang on boys, hang on, hang on.”
The prospect of the fiery Sexton and Aki combining for Ireland from late 2017 onwards is certainly an intriguing one.
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