Playing Them Into Form

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh! *stretches arms* well, that was a fun summer vacation wasn’t it? The World Cup is very nearly upon us, and we’re beginning to get pretty excited about it all. There are only four warm-up games to go before it all starts, and what could possibly go wrong in those, eh? Eh, Geordie? Wally?? Whatever about the wisdom of playing three tough warm-ups and Scotland, surely surely they can’t go as badly as in years past? We have to negotiate:

  • Wales (away)
  • Scotland (home)
  • Wales (home), followed by squad selection announcement
  • England (away)

and two of those fixtures are the ones Joe Schmidt has lost in the Six Nations. While we look a cut below the Southern Hemisphere giants, we’ve been lucky enough to land in a Northern Hemisphere-heavy half of the draw – if we beat France, it’s Argentina (no gimme, but surely beatable) and then potentially England or Wales to get to a final. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Ireland have a pretty settled squad and the vast chunk of the Test 23 are assured of their places. There will be some jockeying over tackle bag-holding slots (with one major positional exception – see below) but we are finding it tough to drum up OUTRAGE over the identity of the 31st guy to go. We’re going to think about how Ireland will get on in terms of a series of questions around the first choice 23 and preview accordingly:

  • Front Row: in the first RWC of the eight-man bench era, an extra slot has been added. We’ll look at this one first
  • New Willie John: Iain Henderson was the outstanding Irish player in the Pro12 post-last years 6N and his cameos in that tournament were of a high quality. We think it’s getting to the point where you simply have to pick him. Where though? Big Dev has quietly been one of Ireland’s most consistent players of the Schmidt era, and POM has been a critical component of the backrow. We’ll think about how we might use Henderson best
  • Backrow: four years ago, we had to pick three from Wally, Fez, SOB and Heaslip .. until Wally crocked himself in the warm-ups. Now we have to pick three from O’Mahony, Henry, O’Brien and Heaslip, all of whom have been selected when fit by Schmidt. Oh yeah, and there is Henderson as well.
  • Sexton and ….?: Jonny Sexton is far and away the best outhalf in Ireland, but the identity of his backup is still murky. Unlike in 2007, when Paddy Wallace and Geordan Murphy (!) would be assured of zero minutes when it mattered, Sexton’s increasing injury-proneness and Schmidt’s pro-active use of the bench means Wee Jacko, Mad-dog or even Ian Keatley might have a key role to play in this tournament
  • Wing competition: for the likes of Luke Roysh, Andy Trimble, Zeebs, Little Bob and Craig Gilroy, the possibilities for the tournament range from left at home kicking heels to Test starter. This position is where Schmidt has the most options, and it would seem only Tommy Bowe is guaranteed squad selection. Who should go?

We’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the props – feel welcome to give us your thoughts below, and preview the best OUTRAGE moment from the Indo’s Twitter.

The Milky Bars Are On Him

We’re breaking from our customary summer sabbatical because an important bit of news broke yesterday. Joe Schmidt signed a contract extension to stay on as head coach until 2017. Hip hip! There were a couple of amusing red herrings in the announcement lead-up. Fangio reported that Schmidt’s extension was for eight years (eight!), and the presence of the Lions rugby handle on a Peter O’Reilly tweet had people speculating that Schmidt was being given the Lions gig a full two years in advance.

It seems to be now customary for the good people at the IRFU to extend the coaching ticket’s contract before – and not after – the world cup. It’s a double edged sword, and hasn’t necessarily worked out in the past, but also a tricky balancing act we can have some sympathy with. Renew the coach’s contract and it bears the hallmark of a reward before he’s even passed his exams; leave him hanging and the coach spends half the press conferences fielding questions about his future, and if things go well (heaven forbid!) he’s open to being whisked away by another paymaster.

The IRFU gave Eddie a whopping four-year contract before the 2007 World Cup, when his stock was at an all-time high following a stupendous autumn and a Six Nations lost only on points difference, only to see the bottom fall out of his team in the tournament itself. They appeared to learn by degrees and heading into 2011’s Grand Shindig they gave Kidney and his coaching team, which was held in high esteem to be fair, a mere two year extension. It looked a slightly dubious move, as Kidney’s coaching style and conservative selection was already looking its age, and his team were capable of mixing the good with the truly awful. The performance in the World Cup was a rollercoaster affair, starting and ending abysmally but with spectacular highs in the middle but after that the only way was down, and although Kidney hung on to see out his two year extension, his tenure fairly petered out.

On the face of it, the IRFU’s obvious concern in this case would appear to be Joe Schmidt leaving for his homeland nation, New Zealand. The Kiwi coach is universally admired and regarded as one of the best coaches in world rugby, and might be on the all-consuming rugby nation’s radar as a potential replacement should Steve Hansen decide to rest on his laurels after winning the World Cup later this year.  Schmidt was contracted until the end of the 2016 Six Nations, rather than the end of the World Cup, but that would be no huge barrier to him switching to New Zealand, where the Rugby Championship only kicks off in July.

In Ruchie’s (excellent) book, he talked at length about the huge premium BNZ put on players and coaches being at home, within the system – there is huge emphasis put on building structures, from school to club to Air BNZ Cup to Super Rugby to the <insert hackneyed colour-driven marketing tool team name here>. If you leave BNZ, you are out of the game. Deeeen Caddah got very special dispensation to spend six months on the medical couch in Perpignan, but Dingo Deans, who took the Wobbly job after being passed over for Graham Henry after RWC07, was told he could forget about the BNZ job forever if he left.

We’re not sure if BNZ would appoint a new coach direct from Northern Hemisphere rugby without a few years penance in Super Rugby – sure, Schmidt was assistant at the Blues ten years ago, but we suspect some lip service would need to be shown. Still, the IRFU would be foolish to bank on that, and the point stands – BNZ would look to bring him home at some point.

The new contract leaves Schmidt with the option to be brought home by the NZRU for the 2018 and 2019 SR seasons and take over BNZ after RWC19 – it’s called “succession planning” and will probably never work – but the Union are right to hedge against the less likely possibility of him being sniped right away.

So, for Ireland, three times a charm, then? Hopefully, and with back to back Six Nations under his belt and having appeared to solve the two most demanding riddles associated with this, and any, Ireland team: how to get them to perform to a consistent base level, and how to overcome their innate inability to beat France, Schmidt is surely set to oversee Ireland’s first properly decent World Cup attempt, and there appears no earthy reason why he can’t continue to excel beyond that.

It also leaves him free to take on the Lions Tour in New Zealand, should he be daft enough to take on what from this distance appears to be a tour that can only irreparably break the reputation of whoever chooses to take it on. Best leave that one to Wazza. After all, he did so well on the last tour and seems to enjoy the wretched thing, and if Schmidt does have ambitions to coach BNZ, best not to show them up too publicly.

O’Connell’s Swansong

Paul O’Connell is bound for the sunny climes of Toulon. It’s a richly deserved payday for the all-time great second row, but don’t for one second imagine that he’s heading down there just to get the sun on his back and gently wind down his career.

The first indicator that this is the case is that the deal is for two years, so it’s not just a post-World cup lap of honour. The second signifier is that this is Toulon, where full and total buy-in to the local rugby hotbed’s way of doing business is required. None of Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson or Simon Shaw were coasting when they headed to Toulon in the latter part of their careers, and Paul O’Connell won’t be either. The third, and most obvious clue is that we’re talking about Paul O’Connell, a man who knows only one way of playing: at full throttle.

The length of the deal may raise a few eyebrows. Two more years will take O’Connell up over the age of 38, but on close inspection it’s not unreasonable to expect O’Connell will still be going strong at that stage. Last we checked O’Connell was still playing at an exceptionally high level. His standard has scarcely tailed off in any way. Sure, there was the odd quiet game, like the Saracens nightmare this year, where he didn’t bring his usual ferocity to bear on the match, but that looks like a rare one-off rather than a bellweather of any precipitous decline.

Plus, O’Connell hasn’t quite as many miles on the clock as you might think. He had his share of injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods and, if anything, he is as fit as ever: he’s right in the middle of as long an injury-free run as can be remembered. He’s going to be an indispensable member of Ireland’s world cup bid, and if he’s good enough for that, he’s good enough to keep going through the rest of the season with Toulon.

There has been some loose talk of release for Ireland training camps, but it appears wrong-headed. Almost certainly, for all the points made above, O’Connell won’t have the reserves of energy to devote himself to both Toulon and Ireland, and will retire from international footie after the World Cup. It makes sense that he hand over the reigns of captaincy to Jamie Heaslip and his role as lock enforcer to Iain Henderson for the next four-year-cycle.

No Munsterman will begrudge O’Connell two years in Toulon, even if they end up coming face-to-face with him in the European Cup, as fate will surely decree they will at some stage. There is crazy talk of the province looking for a contractual clause that he can’t face them, but that’s ridiculous on so many levels – not least the fact that it would be the preference of the likes of Dave Foley and Billy Holland to face the big man. So here’s hoping he turns out at Thomond Park for one last time.  If only there existed an all-encompassing word to describe the almost mythical nature of his contribution to Munster and Irish rugby, we would apply it to this man.

Rugby’s Great Institution

Between now and the World Cup, Ireland have .. let me count .. one, two, three, four, five games to go. Four of which are in the weeks before the squad needs to be named, with the other one being tonights knockaround against Rugby’s Great Institution in the library.

This time last year (roughly), Team Ireland were jetting off to Argentina for a few weeks of steak, malbec, Quilmes and some soft power photo ops at the Hurlingham Club and Newman College, with perhaps a few easy rugby games thrown in. But enough about Gerry – the squad weren’t expecting to be worked too hard either, and were taken aback at the intensity of Schmidt’s expectations when they got there. The main lesson learned is that Joe Schmidt will absolutely take every opportunity to run the arse off his players.

Which means you would be right to expect Ireland to approach this game as if they were playing BNZ in Dunedin – good performances will gain real credit with Schmidt and bad ones for fringe players might knock them out of RWC contention. The Munster players are unavailable and Connacht players have been rested – which isn’t really helpful to the likes of Matt Healy or Denis Buckley as they try to make an impression on the last few spaces in the RWC15 squad – so it’s an all Ulster/Leinster selection:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Colm O’Shea
12. Luke Marshall
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Ian Madigan
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Robbie Diack
7. Chris Henry
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Michael Bent
18. Mike Ross
19. Ben Marshall
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Cian Kelleher

Here’s our thoughts, with a working assumption of a 31 man squad breakdown of 6 props, 3 hookers, 4 second rows, 5 backrows, 3 scrummies, 2 outhalves, 3/4 centres, 4/5 back three:

  • Outhalf: Madigan gets the start ahead of Jacko, which is fully unwarranted on any measure of recent form. Under Matt O’Connor, Mads had a miserable time (maybe he didn’t understand the structures of Leinster rugby?) and has stalled in his development; whereas Jackson has been the form ten in Ireland since the Six Nations finished. The selection of Madigan here suggests the backup outhalf slot is still his to lose for the RWC
  • Centre: while it’s nice to see Collie O’Shea get a start, the really interesting pick is Bamm-Bamm. With Robbie Henshaw now ensconced at inside centre, it would be sensible to identify a like-for-like replacement in the case of injury – Schmidt being a systems man and all. One might have thought Stuart McCloskey was the likelier contender here, but he’s off to Georgia and Schmidt goes back to Marshall, who started in Schmidt’s first game against Southern Hemisphere opposition (the Wobs). Schmidt will bring 3 or 4 centres, and Marshall could be in the mix, which would be extraordinary, but with Olding injured and Madigan-to-12 looking half-baked at best, there are not many inside centres on the scene.
  • Wing: Craig Gilroy gets a well-deserved recall to green following an electric period of form for Ulster, joining a queue that includes Tommy Bowe, Zeebs, Luke Roysh, Keith Earls and his teammate Little Bob (it’s probably too late for Trimby) – and Felix Jones as a Schmidt favourite. A good display here, particularly if he outshines Dave, will probably cement a place in the wider RWC training squad, and then he has a good a chance as anyone
  • Tighthead Prop: MIKE ROSS IN NOT STARTING FOR IRELAND SHOCK! Which is a first since June 2012 (even if this is a non-capped game). If we bring three tightheads, Furlong is essentially duking it out with Nathan White, Stephen Archer (stop laughing at the back) and Rodney Ah Here for the final place.  Even if the RWC comes too soon for Furlong, this is money in the bank for further down the line
  • Loosehead Prop: similarly, the final loosehead prop will likely be one of James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne (stop laughing at the back) and Michael Bent (we said stop!). Bent is on the bench here, and a decent cameo might force Schmidt to not completely eliminate him from contention
  • Second Row: Yer Man From Limerick, Big Dev and NWJMB are nailed on, leaving one slot for a Celebrity Deathmatch between Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan. Tuohy gets a start here, and this is a really good opportunity to make a statement and pencil himself into Schmidt’s plans. Tuohy and Ryan are a cut above McCarthy in terms of quality, and while both have been beset by injuries, if one or other can force their way into the panel it is good news.
  • Backrow: this is the most competitive line. We have NWJMB in the second row as Schmidt had him there during the Six Nations. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony are nailed on to be picked, leaving two seats between Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell, Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock. Henry has long been a Schmidt favourite, and given he has proved his fitness, he would appear to be in the box seat for squad selection. Diack starts ahead of Murphy, with Ruddock missing out altogether – although he’ll play in Georgia. Which is .. um, not a good sign we suppose.

Maybe we are over-analysing, but, with Schmidt, that seems unlikely. Everything is now directed towards RWC15 – and this game will be worth watching.

The Clermont of Ireland

Ulster’s long wait for a trophy continues, after another heart-breaking loss – this time to Glasgae in Scotstoun. Ulster have made it a bit of a speciality to lose knockout matches in ever more imaginative fashion, and this one was the worst yet. The 2013 Pro12 final was largely acknowledged as pretty unlucky – Leinster were the better team on the day (and, admittedly, one of the best teams in Europe), and their experience told. Still, Ulster didn’t help themselves then, showing a distinct lack of composure when it mattered .. something that sounds familiar now.

Last year, they stepped out to an absolutely boiling Ravers … and managed to get Jared Payne sent off after 4 minutes. They nearly won, but then again – they didn’t. We, unlike most of Ireland, thought it was a red card, but whatever you think about that – Ulster lost largely through losing a man so early.

This year, after 70 minutes, the game was locked down. Ulster, though only 5 points ahead on the scoreboard, were well on top all over the field – Glasgow were desperate and one more score and it was over. What happened?

  • Dumb Penalties: ah yes, the familiar Irish refrain – someone else’s fault. Gerry today demanded that Clancy be held to account for giving a penalty to Glasgow for Ricky Lutton high-arming Matawalu. He also claimed Owens would not have given the penalty, which is rubbish. Sure, Matawalu embarrassed himself and Glasgow by going down like an Italian in the box, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a penalty. It was, and it was so incredibly stupid at a critical stage of the game, that it still infuriates us now. And its funny – Gerry wasn’t demanding that Garces be held to account for a lopsided outcome in his favourite statistic – the penalty count – when Leinster played Bath .. would that have anything to do with the Irish team being favoured?
  • Composure: even when Glasgow did score, Ulster had 4 minutes to fashion an opportunity. Four minutes – a lifetime for the best teams. Even for above average ones – France in 2007 in Croker, Ireland in 2009 got a drop goal, Munster on countless occasions, BNZ against us on numerous recent occasions. Ulster not only didn’t get a sniff, but they barely got the ball back – they approached the task with nothing that felt like dead-eyes cold-blooded focus, more of a harum-scarum hope-for-the-best mentality. They looked defeated. Even when Glasgow insanely went for a 30% penalty kick with time already up, and inevitably gave Ulster one final, undeserved, chance – you never sensed a score was on.

The same old problems over again. You have to compare this Ulster team does pressure to how the most recent great Irish provincial side would have reacted – Joe Schmidt’s Leinster team. That team was festooned with intelligent, streetwise, shrewd and assured players – DJ Church, Ross, Cullen, Hines/Thorn, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, BOD, Dorce, Nacewa, Kearney all fit that description. And they had the best coach around , who got those players to that stage. At various points early in their career, Healy and SOB were both indisciplined penalty machines – but both had got that out of their systems by that stage.

Unlike, say, Iain Henderson – NWJMB is a force of nature and one of Ulster’s best players, but he gives away too many penalties. We are pretty sure he will lose that from his game – he’s pretty laid back and intelligent, but he is still learning his trade. Dan Tuohy is another man who never seems to be able to shake off the ability to get on referee’s wrong side.  Roger Wilson is a player who is great at running into things, but lacks composure at crucial moments – you’d never mix him up with someone like Heaslip, despite what Darren Cave thinks.

Elsewhere in the Ulster pack, Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure .. but there aren’t many other names that jump out at you from the forwards as ones you’d want on your teamsheet during squeaky bum time. Even Pienaar doesn’t have the best record when the heat is on. Ulster have the same problems they had two years ago, and they have lots of work to do this summer. Until Ulster prove otherwise, they are the Clermont of Ireland – likeable, play great rugby, but crumble under pressure.

 

Matty Gets The Chop

Matt O’Connor has been sacked by Leinster Rugby. It brings an end to an undistinguished chapter in Leinster’s history.  Now that he’s been shown the door, perfect hindsight allows us to see the recent public slapdowns from Joe Schmidt and Shane Jennings as the death throes of a dying regime.  The news will be well recieved by a fnabase which had grown frustrated by the team’s performances and results over the last number of months.

It’s alsp a little surprising, and the details of the exact status of the third year on his contract seemed to be shrouded in mystery, but the Leinster branch has bit the bullet. It’s the right decision; Matt O’Connor had his good days, none better than their victory over Glasgow which secured silverware in his first season, but while he was given a bit of a free pass in his first year for some of the error-strewn rugby he deployed, the second season was one of marked decline. Any glass-half-full analysis of his first season quickly evaporated as Leinster’s attack and set pieces became sloppier than ever. In short, the rugby Leinster have played has been dull, unambitious and inaccurate. The players spoke highly of O’Connor, but their actions on the pitch have spoken louder.  A third year of such torpor was unimaginable, and there was no signifier that things were about to improve.

It’s worth remembering that when O’Connor was hired, the keyword was ‘continuity’; Leinster’s previous coach had been a roaring success and O’Connor was seen as somebody who would be able to keep the train on the rails. He was seen as a coach with a similar profile, having been a No.2 at a big club, and his Wikipedia page described him as ‘steeped in the ethos of the ACT Brumbies’, which appeared to give off all the right vibes for a team which had come to be regarderd as the most accurate passing team in Europe. It’s been alarming just how little continuity he has provided, how different his ethos has been to Schmidt’s, and indeed how it appears to owe nothing whatsever to the ACT Brumbies.

The excusemakers in the meeja have repeatedly lined up the Sexton-O’Driscoll-Nacewa absenteeism argument, which has been a factor for sure, but doesn’t excuse the shoddy passing, directionless game-planning and ho-hum breakdown work that have littered every single game this season. There has been no occasion this year on which Leinster have cut loose and looked a great team, or even a potentially great one. Even in the days of Bad Leinster, they were able to conjure up occasional brilliant performances. The narrow loss in Toulon was held up in some quarters as ‘epic’, but the truth is it was a torpid match between two nervous teams content to hang in for as long as possible and wait for mistakes.

It seems from the outside that O’Connor simply didn’t ‘get’ Leinster. While the phrase ‘buying into the ethos’ of a province is almost always applied to Munster, it would appear that Matt O’Connor didn’t buy into the Leinster ethos, where the players and fans are used to playing the game with a certain style. That’s not out of a sense of entitlement, and nor does it make Leinster fans ‘spoiled’, just as much as Munster fans expecting their team to play with a certain level of ‘passion’ doesn’t make them entitled. It’s just in keeping with the identity of a province which has a long tradition of dashing three-quarters, and has operated on the principle of giving them the ball at least a few times a match. Every club or province has a sense of identity, something that makes them who they are, and if it’s going to be compromised it had damn well better be worth it.  O’Connor never really presented any evidence that his vision for Leinster Rugby was an improvement on the old one.

Judging by the players’ comments, O’Connor is an ‘enabler’, a Declan Kidney-style coach, who allows the players leeway to make their own decisions on the pitch. The players appear to like him, and he seems to be a decent fellow. But perhaps Leinster’s success has allowed people to forget that this is a group that has done best when dealing with hard and exacting taskmasters. It seems that despite the large medal hauls, they still benefit from the big stick treatment.

Now, for the tricky bit. Amid the hallooing that an unpopular coach has been shown the door, there remains the important job of identifying and securing his successor. Previous appointments have been put in place long before the season was over, with both Cheika and Schmidt giving notice of their plans to leave well in advance, affording the men upstairs ample time to identify the next recruit. That won’t be the case this time around, and the race is now on. The risk is that they fall into the same trap as Ulster, patching together solutions on a season-to-season basis. The only certainty is that it is only a matter of time before the likes of Graham Henry, Nick Mallett and – of course – Jake White are linked to the role.

The State of Denmark

Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings were considered something of a bellwether for the health of Leinster rugby in general in the noughties. When they jumped ship in 2005, it was considered a damning indictment of where Leinster were, and where they were (not) going. After two seasons abroad, their return was an endorsement of Cheika – the Wild Geese had bought into his vision for the province and were in a position to bring knowledge of one of the best professional setups in Europe and stand apart as exemplars of standards within the squad.

It was a model for successfully on-boarding a host of young Irish players of Lions standard that would backbone the team for a decade and more (Healy, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, Fitzgerald, Kearney) handily augmented by selected foreigners like Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines, Pippo Contepomi, Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn. And of course, his BOD-ness.

Last year, Leo Cullen retired and joined the coaching staff as forwards coach and Shane Jennings is now repeating the trick – although he is getting out of rugger altogether and joining the big bad world of business instead. Cullen’s transition into the tracksuit has been difficult – Leinster’s on-field play has been as un-structured and aimless as it has been since before he left for the Tigers and the pack has been dragged along by Jamie Heaslip for much of the season – but the large stock of goodwill built up over the years has insulated him from much of the criticism being directed at the rest of the ticket. While it can be hard to parse exactly who deserves criticism for what, he should be reasonably culpable.  The stock-in-trade of most team’s forward play – mauling, rucking, set-piece, has been as poor as any of the other elements of Leinster’s play.  Against that, it’s his first season going it full-time and he needs some time to learn his trade.

As an insider, we are unlikely to learn Cullen’s true thoughts on where Leinster are right now – but that isn’t of course the case with Jennings, who can fire bazookas all he wants now he is getting out. And he took the opportunity to do just that, in conversation with O’Reilly on Sunday. Not many were spared:

  • He doesn’t see “selflessness” from Leinster’s international cohort where they work as hard as the non-international folks when they return from duty
  • On the flip side of that, he hasn’t seen the non-internationals take ownership of the team during November and February/March
  • He sees “guys” (players, coaches, both?) who have come into a HEC-winning environment without understanding what it took to get there

It was pretty damning stuff, which we would love to link but for the Times paywall, and it certainly should be very concerning from a Leinster perspective. The squad are certainly suffering from losing the on-field leadership of Cullen and BOD this season, and now they have someone considered something of a squad muse filleting the players’ attitude on the way out. It’s clear that whatever is going on at Leinster is not working on the pitch, and one has to suspect it isn’t working off the pitch either – while it’s fair to ask whether there is any residual bitterness over no longer being as close to the first XV in the past, the vast majority of Leinster fans would take Jennings’ thoughts at face value.  He has always appeared a thoughtful, considered type, and not one to throw his toys out of the pram.

The supreme irony of this is that Jennings’ official send-off to the fans came at half time in front of a half-full RDS in a damp squib of a game in which Leinster failed to score at home to Treviso for over an hour. He deserved better, and his parting words should be heeded by all.

Hashtag Isa Isa Isa

Today Leinster announced that bona fide Ledge-bag (D4 for Ligind) Isa Nacewa has re-signed with the province. The reaction from fans has been largely positive – and why not indeed, Nacewa being firmly established in the pantheon of all-time Leinster greats with the likes of Cameron Jowitt and Simon Keogh. No, that’s not right. But you get the idea – his contributions and leadership in his first spell were critical, particularly for the Joe Schmidt iteration of Leinster. He made key contributions to all three stars on the blue jersey, and his try against Leicester Tigers in 2011 will live long in the memory.

But why is he coming back? And why are Leinster signing him?

Nacewa has spent the last couple of years as “mental skills coach” for the Auckland Blues, whatever that is – while he has still been in a professional rugby environment, this isn’t the same thing as playing; there’s no tangible connection between the role and retaining match fitness or match sharpness.

A further curiosity is that the Leinster statement around his arrival is vague in terms of how long he is contracted for.  One imagines it will be a full season, maybe he’ll end up staying for longer, or perhaps he’s just arriving to perform the role Cillian Willis stepped into during the last World Cup; filling in for three months while Kearney, Fitzgerald, Madigan et al are off with Ireland.  Either way, nobody is especially keen to  make it clear.

If he is coming initially as RWC cover at outhalf / back three, it’s an ask to get him to match pitch in such a short time, even if the matches are against Treviso and the Dragons (who did the double over Leinster this year admittedly). If it’s for longer, it will be a huge ask for him to be even close to as good as he was. Matt O’Connor has lauded Nacewa’s hunger and sense of unfinished business, but that’s another stretch – if he was that hungry, why did he retire in the first place, and what unfinished business he could possibly have at a place where he won every team and individual gong going is something we can’t work out.

As for Leinster themselves, they have missed on-field leaders this year – the sky high standards that Leo Cullen and BOD held the team to have disintegrated, and disjointed messy performances have become the norm. This hasn’t been helped by the decline of the likes of Dorce, but it seems like only Jamie Heaslip is dragging Leinster to respectability (at best). It surely can’t hinder to have a guy with Nacewa’s experience and nous on the field. And if he is replacing Kirchner in the squad, it’s probably an upgrade; at least he’ll be willing to try a leg.

Still, with half of Australia and BNZ brandishing their passports and fluttering their eyelids at potential European suitors, the thought that a precious NIQ slot is going to be used up on what is essentially a luxury signing with pretty limited upside doesn’t smack of much ambition. It would be too Machiavellian to consider it a sop to a fan base unhappy with rank rugby and season ticket prices, but there aren’t many obvious on-pitch reasons to point to.

The best case scenario is probably a Nacewa that operates at 80% of previous peak, dragging those around him to those levels, and writing another chapter in the story. But the worst is that he fills the void left by Mils Muliaina and gets packed off without much fuss in 12 months time.

Mario Puzo, the creator of such philosophers as Michael Corleone, wrote “What is past is past. never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness.”. Let’s hope those words don’t ring in Leinster and Nacewa’s ears in 2016.

Ulster’s Resurgence

Leinster’s season is over after losing comprehensively to Ulster on Friday night in Ravers. It was an opportunity to back up their performance in Toulon – if indeed it you believed that performance to be as good as some claimed it was – and the opportunity was missed. Sure, Leinster were always going to struggle in the last 20 minutes after a tight turnaround and extra time last week, but they only played for 10, after which Ulster owned the ball and controlled the game with ease.

Worst of all for Leinster, it is another defeat in a sobering run where they have won two out of ten matches. They have lost the winning feeling. Last season and earlier in this, for all the dour, error-strewn rugby on display, they at least had the nous for how to win matches. They came out the right side of the scoreboard in any number of tight games; the trend has reversed, and they now find themselves under pressure to hold on to fifth place, and could yet find themselves in a playoff to ensure they are in the Champions Cup next year. With respect to Embra and the Scarlets, it would amount to an embarrassment, and surely the last nail in the coffin for the O’Connor regime.

As for the good ship Ulster, it sails on. They hardly fired a shot in Europe this year, but that would all be forgotten if they won the Pro12. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it is remarkable what a difference having three of their best forwards back playing can make. Remarkable insight, I’m sure you’ll agree, but Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson are such a step up in quality from Lewis Stevenson, Clive Ross and Mike McComish that the side cannot help but be transformed.

Another key to their form is the resurgence of Paddy Jackson, who was outstanding on Friday night. With Ian Madigan’s confidence bound to be at a low, Jackson surely comes back into the reckoning for not just the World Cup squad, but the test 23 on this form. While Jimmy Gopperth made a couple of terrific breaks which look amazing, they are ultimately no substitute for an ability to consistently get the backline moving on to the ball in a threatening manner; something Gopps has struggled with all season, but which Jackson accomplishes with natural grace. Subtly timed passes at the right height and pace for the receivers may not look as flash as running 30m and breaking tackles, but over the course of 80 minutes they add up to a lot more. It’s notable just how much Ulster get Bowe and Gilroy into the game, and the result is that Gilroy – another who could come back into the international picture on form – is the league’s leading tryscorer. He’s got his mojo back.

Whether they have the depth, or the quality at No.8, to mount a serious challenge in Europe next year is open to question, but for now that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about winning the Pro12. For all the progress over the last few years, they’ve yet to win anything, frequently losing their composure once the competition switches to a knockout format. Last year they struggled to convert pressure into points when in the red zone. This year they have looked more efficient, with the backline a potent threat.

At this point, they look pretty unlikely to lose to anyone at Ravers, and with a guaranteerd home final, it would seem that winning the big (ish) one requires one big away win out of maximum two attempts; they must either win in Scotstoun to ensure they force Munster or the Hairsprays to travel north, or failing that, go to Thomond Park to beat Munster. Neither is in any way easy, but Ulster are one of the few teams for whom a trip to Thomond Park brings little fear, and they have had some notable results there in recent years. They are the team in the tournament with all the momentum, and the final being in Ravenhill should only add to their motivation. And they have Iain Henderson.  They can’t lose, right?

Leinster’s Rubbish Season – Still

Leinster bowed out of Europe with a narrow defeat to Toulon.  The game was far closer than expected, going to extra time and was ultimately settled by a cheaply surrendered intercept try.  For all the fears that Leinster would be beaten out the gate, they got stuck in, and buoyed by a strong set piece and better discipline than their hosts, stayed in the match right until the end.  Indeed, had Jimmy Gopperth nailed a pretty makeable drop goal near the end they might even have made it to the final, which would have been extraordinary.  It’s not his specialty: that was Jimmy’s third clutch-drop goal miss of the season, and he looked like he needed to be a couple of metres further back in the pocket.

The match ultimately followed a familiar pattern to recent semi-finals involving Irish provinces, this time with Leinster replacing Munster in the role of gallantly losing underdogs.  Twice in recent years, an unfancied Munster took their amply remunerated French opponents to the wire, and lapped up the plaudits in the process for their noble efforts.  But on both those occasions they lost.

Amid the halooing over bravery and fronting up and such, it shouldn’t be lost in the wash that this was one pig-ugly game of rugby.  Robert Kitson tweeted that it was the ‘worst Euro semi-final anyone can remember’ and he was not wrong.  Sky Sports did an admirable job claiming that it was compelling, even if it lacked, y’know, tries, line-breaks or any frisson of anything, and the Champions Cup twitter handle was doing it’s odious thing by retweeting tweets from delusional viewers claiming the match was fantastic.  Purr-lease spare us.  Most of it was awful, and really quite boring.  Sure, any close game will throw up a bit of drama at the end, but even that was hardly the stuff of legend, unless you’re really into missed drop goals or swing-and-hope penalties from 55 metres.  Over on Eurosport you could instead have watched the Amstel Gold Race, a Dutch classic bike race, where nobody took any risks, hoping to still be in it at the decisive final climb.  One was a bike race, the other a rugby match, but they weren’t all that different.

Once the misty-eyed reverence for defending and not being thrashed by a Toulon side who themselves were utterly devoid of any creativity passes, it will have to be accepted that this wasn’t really all that different to the garbage Leinster have played over the rest of the season.  Certainly, their forwards fronted up to deliver a decent platform.  Undoubtedly, their set piece was improved.  And they didn’t go walkabout for a full quarter of the game, which is a big improvement on the norm.  But the same commitment to woefully narrow attacking and aimless kicking of the ball was on full display.  At no point in the first 80 minutes did they look even remotely like scoring a try.  In the first half they made four gainlines and carried for a collective 34 metres. Manning up in the set piece and making tackles is about the minimum demand that should be placed on a team in a European semi-final.  They did just that, they put their bodies on the line, they were disciplined, the fans can be proud of their team; but they still played an awful lot of abject filth.  The midfield of Madigan and Te’o played as if they had met each other for the first time that morning.  To these eyes, Madigan’s pass for the intercept wasn’t especially floaty, but the runners in the 13 and 14 channel were running too laterally, away from the ball.

Things changed after that moment.  In the second period of extra time, now having to chase the game and with Eoin Reddan at scrum half, Leinster upped the tempo, made significant ground off a number of phases where quick ball was plentiful and ultimately manufactured a try.  A try!  It was their first in Europe since the first half against Wasps, all of 200+ rugby minutes ago.  However, it only served to highlight how limited the gameplan had been up to that point.  It is well and good playing a certain way when chasing the game, but what was required was the bravery to play that way  when the match was there for the winning.  Instead, Leinster’s only attacking plan appeared to be a low-flying cross-field kick that even if caught gained no more than a handful of metres.

So that’s it.  Leinster’s dignity is intact, but it doesn’t really change much.  The season has been a poor one.  This was not the Toulon piloted by Nicolas Sanchez, which filleted Ulster; this was a team with Michalak at 10 having one of his rubbish days, Matt Giteau unable to influence the match and an old pack looking leggy after a long winter.  Forget the reverence for their star names; they were there for the taking.  The Irish Times have continued, this morning, to treat Leinster fans like a sort of baying mob, saying their ‘largely ignorant’ criticism of Matt O’Connor should be put on pause for a while now.  Largely ignorant?  Did they read Demented Mole’s piece last week and conclude this?  And the assertion is wrong in any case.  Leinster fronted up here, but they need to be aiming for one rung higher than coming out the losing side of the worst semi-final anyone can remember.

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