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.

Leinster’s Rubbish Season

In recent years it’s been customary to berate Munster for showing a somewhat half-hearted approach to the Pro12, almost turning up their nose at the second most important piece of silverware on offer. So it seems only fair that the heat should be turned up on Leinster for what has been a terrible Pro12 campaign. Leinster have been the most consistent side in the league over a number of seasons, finishing in the top 3 for the last decade and in recent years routinely getting to the final (and often losing it, but no matter). It was always a badge of honour among their fanbase that their team sees the pot as more than a ‘tin cup’ consolation prize.

Winning the league in 2007 on the back of a number of hard-fought away wins against the likes of Cardiff (a half-decent side back then) and Munster (also pretty decent back then) gave them the platform to contest the Heineken Cup the following year. The league matters to Leinster, so it matters when they perform dreadfully in it.  It also has significant repurcussions, and will see them in the pot of third seeds in next year’s European Cup draw, increasing the likelihood of a nasty pool featuring the likes of Toulon or Clermont and Saracens.

This year’s slump to fifth counts as their worst league performance in some time. Allowing the Dragons to do the double over you is a standard that no Leinster team should fall beneath, but they have limboed under the bar with ease.  Had they won those two games they’d be in the hunt for the semi-finals.

In many senses, this has been a season where the chickens have come home to roost. There was much trumped-up talk about ‘winning ugly’ early in the season, but we were quick to call the players and coaching staff out on that. ‘Winning ugly’ tends to be a euphemism for playing rubbish rugby and squeezing out wins against low-quality opponents. There’s nothing aspirational about winning ugly, but the Leinster coaching staff seemed a little too proud of it. But bad habits die hard, and sure enough as the ugly rugby has continued, the results have begun to slide.

The Mole’s outstanding analysis leaves little room for us to add anything of value, but of all the frustrations, the biggest for this fan is Leinster’s intra-match inconsistency. They do not seem capable of performing for 60, let alone 80 minutes, and they appear to sleepwalk through a 20 or 30, or 40 minutes spell in every match. It is also difficult to identify a single facet of play that this Leinster side excels at. It’s one thing setting your stall up to play a narrow gameplan, but it’s entirely another to execute even that so cackhandedly. As for Leinster’s set pieces, they’ve been fair-to-poor all year. The massive difference between December/January Mike Ross at Leinster and February/March Mike Ross for Ireland is so stark as to be embarrassing. It’s almost reaching Welsh levels where the likes of Warbs and, previously, Dr Roberts dial it in for Cardiff and turn into world-beaters in red.

[Aside: this “Welsh exceptionalism” was used to excuse Deccie’s Ireland team their poor performances and results, but was nonsense then and is nonsense now. Cardiff were a mess, Wales were not, Ireland were a mess then, and Leinster now are a mess as well]

Leinster’s sole saving grace is that they have somehow made it to the last four in Europe. They are blessed to have done so. Harlequins should have beaten them when they had their foot on Leinster’s throat in Dublin – that’s the same Harlequins who are in the bottom half of the Premiership, and were missing Nick Evans on the night. Leinster surrendered a 14-point advantage against Wasps, and most recently beat Bath only by a result of Bath’s own indiscipline. Had Quins or Bath greater inner belief, and more experience at the pointy end of European rugby, Leinster would be out. They have Ian Madigan’s boot and Jamie Heaslip’s sheer bloody-mindedness to thank for still being here.

So now, the season hinges entirely on a single game against Toulon, and it is one which we do not give them a hope in hell of winning. If the match was played out 10 times, Toulon would win all 10. It will leave their season looking a lot like Munster’s final year under the McGahan regime, where they fortuitously navigated their way through a benign Heineken Cup pool, but played badly for most of the season, and once they exited Europe in the knockout stages (in their case, the quarter final at home to Ulster) were left to reflect on a campaign where practically nothing has been achieved, and were finally whacked and bagged by the Ospreys in a harrowing 40-burger defeat.

That Munster team had the advantage of having a core of forwards and young backs to build a side around – the likes of Sherry, Kilcoyne, O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Murray, Earls and Zebo were going to be around for the long haul; and they had Paul O’Connell in the middle of it all. That turned out to be the nadir, and the appointment of Rob Penney and a coherent coaching ticket allowed them to get back somewhere close to respectability. Of course, Penney was shafted in a questionable strategic move and Teflon Axel has taken over – but they are nowhere near where they were three years ago.

With Leinster re-signing a 33 year old Isa Nacewa, who hasn’t played a game in anger in two years, as one of their precious NIQs, one has to wonder about strategic direction. He’s either the best they can get, or the height of their ambition for the backline. Neither sounds particularly inspiring. Leinster still have a talented, relatively young and deep squad of forwards, but the backline depth chart is shallow and low on quality. Jonny Sexton is coming back, but they have two old scrum-halves, a cobbled together centre partnership, and a depth chart in the back three that has necessitated reliance on AIL players like Fanj and Hipster’s Choice Mick McGrath for months at a time. The leadership of Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen is sorely missed.

It feels like someone needs to get a grip and break the team out of a comfort zone. The players themselves seem to love Matt O’Connor, which is nice, and want to do something for him, but it’s pretty clear something isn’t working, and it’s worth remembering how little they loved Cheika, who could be cantankerous, but got results.  The hunt for Matt O’Connor’s successor starts on Monday morning.

David? Are You There?

Hot on the heels of the news Paddy Butler will be joining Kiwis Smuddy and Colin Slade at (nouveau riche) Pau next season came the news that Michael Allen would not only be leaving Ulster for Embra, but be leaving the Irish system altogether, with a view to qualifying for Scotland through residency.

Butler, a ball carrying number 8 who can deputize on the flanks, was finding his path at Munster blocked by CJ Stander (Irish in 6 months) and Robo-Copey – both of whom are going nowhere and, being only on the fringes of the Ireland setup, won’t be away for weeks at a time to give Butler gametime. Up north, Allen, a wing who has spent significant time at centre, was behind a long queue of internationals – Trimble, Bowe and Gilroy on the wing and Marshall, McCloskey, Cave, Olding and Payne in the centre. The logic of leaving their current provinces is hard to argue with in both cases.

However, it seems worth questioning why they are leaving the Irish setup altogether – Ulster might have plucked Paul Browne from the Bucuresti Welsh bench just last week, but they are extremely light in the back row. Until Hendo and Henry returned, they were regularly picking from Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Naughty Nuck and Roger Wilson, and are in dire need of a decent number 8. Butler was marked as one to watch from underage but hasn’t quite made the breakthrough at his home province – wouldn’t have been worth at least exploring a move to Ulster?

Ditto Allen – Matt Healy aside, are any of the Connacht wings clearly better than the Ulsterman? Gametime would have been virtually assured – not at ERC level, but then that’s not guaranteed at Embra either.

Fans tend to overstate the extent to which player movement can be achieved.  There is an occasional tendency to view players like Panini stickers, which can be swapped around at will: ‘I’ll swap you two centres for a backrow, a lock and a sherbet dib-dab.’  But the idea of removing log-jams in various positrions with a bit of delicate prompting has been long-mooted as something David Nucifora is striving to achieve, but has been scarcely visible to date.

Given the general dearth of inter-provincial movement, one wonders what the plans are for this aspect of Nucifora’s role – he can’t force players into another province, but he can certainly tempt them with promises of gametime, and some cash. The alternatives for Butler and Allen are certainly exciting, but does it really benefit Irish rugby when there are NIQ restrictions on the one hand, and clear positional needs in other provinces on the other? It feels like a sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.

The Mole mentioned earlier this month how Munster brought in Pat Howard as a medical joker earlier this season – Howard did more or less what was expected of him, but left virtually zero legacy in Irish rugby. We don’t even know if the option of bringing in a centre from Ulster or Leinster on a short term loan was on the table, but that, at least, would have produced some long-term benefit to Irish rugby, even if small. Do we need to think a bit more expansively?

Arrivederci, Mils

Fare thee well Mils Muliaina, who is leaving Connacht and is bound for warmer, drier climes in Northern Italy. Although Mils should be warned, the Italian winters and springs aren’t entirely tropical either.

It brings to a close one of the more useless performances by a high-profile import for an Irish province. Mils has started precisely ten matches in his only season with Connacht, scored no tries and generally didn’t play much decent rugby. He was lamentable against Leinster, briefly sparked into life against Scarlets, but didn’t do much of note after that.

A certain group of Connacht fans have been quick to go on the defensive on Mils’ behalf, and appear to be in a rush to credit Muliaina with being hugely influential on Ver Kidz in Connacht’s backline. Some have even tried to credit Mils with Robbie Henshaw’s emergence as a truck-it-up inside-centre for Ireland. Go Mils! His influence must be staggering to reach as far as Carton House when he isn’t even there. Without being on the training paddock itself, it’s impossible to identify what, if any, influence Mils has had on the young Connacht backs, so it’s simply idle speculation and wishful thinking to claim otherwise. Yes, the management statement issued around his leaving contained lots of glowing reportage about his driving of standards, but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? It’s PR puff, and should be treated as such. How high he can have driven standards when mostly injured, overweight and underperforming on the pitch is hard to quantify.  It doesn’t appear that Connacht put up much of a fight to keep him on for a second year.

There was a time when Irish provinces felt they needed the type of Southern Hemisphere superstar who could add something the natives didn’t have yet. John Langford is of course the classic template – the Gospel of John “Thou shalt not drink on a Thursday night if thee faces a big game on Saturday” came as news to the Paddies, but the knowledge he brought has long been absorbed. Rocky Elsom, Dougie Howlett, Ollie Le Roux, Johan Muller are further hugely influential players in provincial development. This was what Muliaina was supposed to bring. Will Darragh Leader and Robbie Henshaw lament in 40 years time that they wanted more time to learn from Mils back in 2015? We doubt it.

There is a legitimate claim for Muliaina to be anointed the worst ever signing by an Irish province, particularly given the investment in him. Whenever this pub debate classic comes up, it’s customary to roll out the Clinton Hupperts, Harry Vermasses and Peter Borlases of the world as the nadir of provincial recruitment, but none of those were especially heralded on arrival. They were just hopeless. Muliaina arrived as one of the all-time greats – a test centurion for New Zealand, an achievement which confers upon the holder absolute world class. For a player of such stature to perform so abjectly must go down as a new low. Sure, Christian Cullen had an injury-plagued nightmare at Munster, culminating in an abysmal performance against Scarlets as Munster were thrashed in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, but he did at least appear to be trying, and the likes of O’Gara have commented on how committed he was to turning things around, but just couldn’t stop getting hurt.

There’s a risk of embarrassing failure with any high-profile import, but it tends to be especially high with these types of ‘last of the summer wine’ type signings; bringing in players way past their peak, in the hopes of ekeing out the last drops of quality. The model for success was the afore-mentioned Le Roux, who proved that a little (or a lot, perhaps) of extra timber need not be a barrier to success – but then he was a prop and not a full-back. Muliaina will most likely go down as the model for failure. Mid-30s Kiwi superstar backs looking for a last payday: approach with caution.

NB to commenters – please don’t go into detail about The Thing That Happened with PC Plod in Gloucester. Allegations about parking spaces at the dog track Sportsground are fair game, however.

Back on the Gravy Train

News is breaking this morning that Charles Piutau has signed a 2 year contract with Ulster in a deal worth £500k a year. This is a sensational signing for a number of reasons:

  • Quality – Piutau is a full-back or wing who is in the BNZ extended squad, and is in a dogfight with the likes of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane for the last utility backs slots in the RWC15 squad. He is 23 and has 14 BNZ caps – at his age, Dagg had 11 caps, Julian Savea 20 and Ben Smith just one – this is a serious player who the NZRFU were anxious to keep in the domestic system. In recent years, the provinces have signed SH journeymen (Nick Williams, Andrew Smith, Jimmy Gopperth) or second tier talents that the SH unions were happy to let leave (Kane Douglas, CJ Stander, Franco van der Merwe) – this is the biggest signing in many years
  • It shows that in spite of the rhetoric, the provinces can compete – Piutau is the kind of player the Irish provinces were supposed to be unable to attract. Perhaps the strength of the pound is a factor (Jackman referred to this as an issue for the French on yesterday’s Go Easy Gazette), but the English clubs use pounds too. Whether the signing is funded by Ulster or the Union, it’s a serious statement of intent in the ERC era
  • NIQ rules – if the signing was funded by the Union, one should be asking why Piutau is going to Ulster. Piutau is a fullback who can play wing, and occasionally centre. As an NIQ, he is a direct replacement for fellow NIQ Louis Ludik at fullback for Ulster, but that’s ignoring the plethora of flexible young Irish talent that Ulster have in the backline – Bowe, Trimble, Gilroy, Allen, Olding, Cave, Payne, Marshall, McCloskey – there is hardly a gaping need at fullback in Ulster. Or in any province for the matter – Kearney and Jones are the Irish fullbacks and Mils Muliaina has just the century of BNZ caps
  • Backrow – there is however a gaping need in the Ulster backrow right now. At present, serious options, international class or close to it, consist of Robbie Diack and Chris Henry, with Iain Henderson and Franco van der Merwe as locks who can fill in at blindside. Then you have Roger Wilson, Williams, (no direspect to) Clive Ross, Charlie Butterworth and Mike McComish. Half a million quid a year will surely buy you two top quality backrow forwards, even in the current market.

In summary then, a fantastic player, a big statement, but a bit of a luxury signing .. unless there is more to come.

Billy Twelvetries

An extraordinary day, which showed the sport of rugby in the greatest possible light. After so much dour rugby, and so much talk about how dour the rugby was, and how the odds were stacked against it ever not being dour again, the Six Nations exploded from torpid sludge into kaleidoscopic colour right at the last. It was truly, utterly wonderful, 240 minutes of magic, and if individual test matches could be argued to have been better, it is hard to believe there was ever a rugby day which was so utterly fantastic, heartstoppingly exciting and with so much at stake. Whichever nation you were supporting, and all played their part, it would have been hard not to have been awed by the sheer excitement, but we Irish get to enjoy the deepest satisfaction.

For those lamenting how the laws of the game make it impossible to play rugby, it was a somewhat eye-opening experience. All it took was a few 20+ handicaps and everything we thought we knew about the State of Rugby Today went out the window. Quick ball, space on the field, line-breaks, running at speed, tries, brilliant handling: it was all on show. It makes you wonder if the better teams should play this way more often. After all, it’s always better to beat your opponent by 30 points than by 5. In all sports, it is up to the more talented participants to make their superior skill level count for as much as possible. The same should be true of rugby. Why give a sucker an even break, by allowing yourself to be dragged down to a game of bish and bosh by less talented opponents?  But too often that fails to come to pass.  Against Italy, Ireland were happy to play Italy at their own game, just with greater accuracy.

One interesting question to ponder is whether Ireland had been playing for a Grand Slam and merely needed to beat Scotland, would they have played this way, and won by so many? Knowing Ireland and what they do for their supporters’ heart rates, probably not. That said, Joe Schmidt talked about the gameplan being to build on the second half against Wales, where Ireland played a more ball-in-hand game and were effective too, outside the Welsh five-metre line at least.  This being Joe Schmidt, it’s reasonable to assume he had a plan all along to build Ireland’s running game over the course of the tournament, but that’s a narrative that might be too easy to weld on after the event.

Coming into the tournament, Ireland had several to-dos: bed down the new centre partnership, address other weaknesses in the squad (primarily that the tighthead prop has played every game bar one in this RWC cycle), continue to deliver results, and have the squad and team ready for the RWC. How did we do?

On the first, it’s an A – Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne started all five games together and looked increasingly assured as time went on. Defence was expected to be the biggest concern, for both the new partnership, and for Payne, who has looked leaky at outside centre for Ulster, but in actual fact it was creativity that became the biggest issue. However, as Ireland expanded their gameplan, the centres became increasingly influential – in the second half against Wales, Payne’s footwork and attacking lines caused some problems, and he deservedly scored his first try against the Scots. Henshaw was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament – it’s hard to believe he has played more games at inside centre in the last month than he has in the rest of his career.

We spent the tournament calling for Marty Moore to get a start ahead of Mike Ross. Ross himself had a solid championship, but it didn’t really change anything or tell us something we didn’t know – if Moore can scrummage at international level, he becomes the better pick in our opinion. The possibility remains that Ross will not start another frontline game this season, and when we get to the RWC warmups, we will be back in the familiar mantra of “we need to get Ross gametime to get him up to speed”. All of which is true, but still doesn’t change the fact that we are relying on a player who is past his best, and may have fallen off a cliff by August. Again, we feel like a long-playing record, but that doesn’t change the fact that Moore hasn’t started an international yet.

The squad itself was expanded with the likes of Iain Henderson now pushing for a starting slot, and our deep resources at backrow characterized by the impact of Tommy O’Donnell, our 5th choice who has still to nail down a slot in the RWC squad. The backup outhalf issue is still live – Madigan was pretty average off the bench, and himself, Keatley and Wee PJ will all have genuine hopes of going to RWC15, but it’s likely that 25+ of the 31 man squad are already in Joe Schmidt’s mind. We’re in a good place.

The results were obviously excellent, and the championship was won – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even in the game we lost, we did lots of good things, and, to be completely honest, it did no harm for Wales to expose our kick-chase gameplan a little. The reaction was positive, and it set us up well for Murrayfield – it we had lost that game 12-9 in a kick-fest where our tactics were somehow effective, we may not have had the hour of ball-in-hand that set us up for the tilt at the championship. It also might have meant we wouldn’t have needed to listen for a week for sore-losery whining about Barnesy with highly-selective videos doing the rounds – the world would be a better place if the Irish accepted defeat in a more magnanimous fashion.

Wales helped in Rome too, for there can be no question that having to win by over 20 points amounted to a throwing off of the shackles. Ireland simply had no choice but to throw caution to the wind. And in doing so they were sensational. Murray and Sexton controlled the game, the backrow rampaged, O’Connell was his usual self and the introduction of Healy and Fitzgerald seemed to galvanise the team. Healy’s selection was questioned in a lot of quarters, but it’s the sort of call that Schmidt has a habit of getting right.

And in both the post-match interview and the celebrations, Schmidt once again managed to hit every right note, even going so far as to say he ‘wished [he] could say [he] had anything to do with [winning the Championship]’. It was all terribly Declan Kidney, who also had the ability to be exceptionally humble in winning circumstances.

It seems highly improbable that this day will act as a tipping-point in the grander scheme of things. Will the coaches involved suddenly decide to throw the ball around like confetti from now on? Hardly. The World Cup takes place later this year, and chances are it will be like the last two: starting well enough, before the rugby gets tighter and tighter, and sludgier and sludgier as we get closer to the final. Saturday served as a reminder of how great the game can be, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place, but chances are it will go down in history as a weird anomaly, a day when the stars aligned to produce something extraordinary. It was a day that’s hard to apply cold hard analysis to.  Why look for patterns and themes that will never be repeated?  Its like may never be seen again; all the more reason to allow yourself to bathe in its spine-tingling magnificence all the longer.

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