THERE’S NO HESITATION from Pat Lam when we broach the subject of where Connacht need to improve if they are to reach their stated aim of Champions Cup qualification this season.
“Defence,” says the head coach before the question has even been formulated properly.
Connacht have been working hard to improve their defence. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Connacht scored more tries than the Scarlets – who beat them to sixth place in the Guinness Pro12 in 2014/15 – last time around, but they were nine tries worse off than the Welsh region in the ‘conceded’ table.
Lam does feel that some progress was made when Connacht didn’t have the ball last season, though he also points to statistical evidence that his side conceded far too many tries early on in games before shoring up after half time.
“We talked about the issues around our starts and the mental shift we need to make,” says Lam, whose side host the Dragons in round one of the Pro12 tonight at the Sportsground (KO 7.30pm).
“At the end of the day, these guys can tackle. But rugby is a team game, so everything is about having a shape and everyone being on the same page. All our big wins have been when guys have stayed in the system and worked together.
“We are a team that’s not filled with a whole lot of experience or rockstars, so to speak. Everything we do is about teamwork and to do that we’ve got to be singing off the same page.”
To aid the process of defensive progress, Lam has installed a points scoring system that marks players’ efforts without the ball.
Lam leads his players through a session in Galway. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
This goes beyond plain ‘tackles made’ and accounts for the quality and type of contribution as well as how the player functions within Connacht’s defensive system. Good defence wins the player points, while bad defence results in a points deduction.
“It’s partly about the type of tackles you make,” says Lam. “There’s win tackles, there’s turnover tackles, there’s a tackle which leads to a pilfer, for example. We’re quite harsh on our guys, so if you make a tackle but the guy gets rid of the ball, it’s ineffective.
“We don’t go off the stats provider, we grade all of our own tackles. Then basically you can lose a lot of points if you give away a penalty on defence. You lose a lot of points if you make a system error too.
Connacht allow their players to challenge penalties against them if they feel a referee has been in the wrong, and the whole process involves a painstaking amount of work from the province’s analysis team headed up by Conor McPhillips.
The former wing has just recently taken on extra responsibility as assistant attack coach, underlining his importance to Lam’s backroom staff.
Lam, McPhillips and assistant analyst Sean Mannion gather the relevant defensive data after every game and send it to the Connacht players via email. A ranking for all to see and a genuine motivation.
“It’s harsh, it’s pretty harsh!” says Connacht captain John Muldoon of the scoring system “A lot of reds were showing up during the pre-season, rather than greens. Any minor little mistake you’re punished very hard for it.
Muldoon makes a hit on Munster’s Francis Saili during Connacht’s win at Thomond Park in pre-season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“It motivates people and it brings a reward, it keeps people on their toes. When you see the emails coming through with who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, it puts a bit of focus on for people.”
Lam’s belief is that Connacht’s defensive scoring system fuels competition between his players as the province looks for improvements, and also drives individuals’ hunger to continue to work on their own defensive skills.
Not getting enough ‘win’ tackles? Then get yourself down to skills coach Dave Ellis and keep working on your footwork leading into the hit, your head positioning, or whatever it is that’s preventing those big impacts.
Lam is confident that Connacht’s attack will continue to grow this season, but he underlines that his players must put the same effort into the defensive side of the game too.
The players will keep checking their emails on Monday mornings, hoping to see their name in the green and top of the points list.
“One of the first things I ever heard Eric Elwood say on the pitch, when I was still a kid, was that defence is very hard work. It hasn’t got any easier since.”
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