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.

Horses for Courses

With the shootout for the championship going to come down to points difference, Ireland will need to win by 5 points more than England, and not let Wales put 21 points more than them in the locker. The scarce-tries defensive focused gameplan might suffice, but keeping ball in hand, like the second half of the Wales game, albeit with more accuracy, is probably a better idea.

In the rumoured selection, Joe Schmidt has either thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or he hasn’t, depending on who you listen to. The word on Tara Street and whatever cardboard box passes for the In*o offices is that Schmidt will make two changes – DJ Church and Luke Roysh in for Jack McGrath and Simon Zebo, with Felix Jones retaining his Paddy Wallace 2012 bench role (no, honestly, he covers loads of positions).

Healy for McGrath is a close call – McGrath has played well throughout the tournament, albeit incurring Barnes’ wrath for his green shirt scrummaging angles. Healy has looked an awkward fit as a replacement – he seems to come on super-pumped and eager to make an impression, which didn’t end well against Wales, where he looked wild and off the mental pitch of the game. Based on that, you could make a case for Healy starting and McGrath on the bench as the best use of resources, but it seems odd to reward someone for being rubbish at one role by giving them a better one. More likely is that Ireland will look to play to the second half Welsh gameplan and keep the ball in hand – Healy is a more destructive carrier, and it’s horses for courses in that regard.  He’s a bit lucky to get picked, for sure, but he is unquestionably what Gatland refers to as a ‘test match animal’.

Fitzgerald for Zebo is more controversial. Opinion on Zebo ranges the full spectrum from “he is a show pony who can’t do the basics” to “he has lost a yard of pace and can only do the basics”. We wanted him in the team last season, but can see the logic for picking someone with the footwork and attacking nous of Fitzgerald for this game – where, again, ball in hand seems to be the tactic. While Zebo can also consider himself unlucky, we have to recognize that it’s another horses for courses selection – when there is less need for his aerial skills, there is a natural trade-off.

While you are likely to see headlines about sending the wrong message and such, it doesn’t make much sense for a coach not to maximize his resources to play a particular gameplan – there isn’t much point in keeping the same XV just because. And don’t forget, Fitzgerald might have had an injury-interrupted nightmare this RWC cycle, but he is a Lions test winger – he’ll be up to the job. And you can be sure Schmidt, like he did with Paddy Jackson last year, bringing Zebo along for the ride to recognize his contribution in the championship.

It also appears that strong consideration was given to bringing in NWJMB for Toner, but the presence of defensive line-out guru Big Jim Hamilton, plus Henderson’s relative lack of gametime, swung the debate to the status quo. Toner was anonymous against Wales, but it was his first poor test in a long time.  Big Jim is a wily operator, but when his absurdly long arms get the curly finger, we’ll be unleashing Hendo on .. er .. Tim Swinson. So it’s not all bad.

And Felix Jones is still on the bench despite a starting backline packed with full-time and part-time fullbacks. Sigh. We’d have Earls, but we feel like a long-playing record on that one.

Ireland (probable): Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; Toner, O’Connell; O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: McGrath, Cronin, Moore, Henderson, Murphy, Reddan, Madigan, Jones

All is not Lost

Dreams of a grand slam have evaporated after Ireland lost to Wales in Cardiff but all is not lost.  The slam is gone but the championship is still to be decided. As is our wont, despite having only two (two!) Grand Slams in our history, its Holy Grail status means we are still busy wailing and weeping in a funereal atmosphere – the championship is one hell of a difficult prize to win, and we haven’t retained it since 1949 (1983 was shared). Winning two in a row, despite (NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO) not winning a Grand Slam, is an extremely impressive achievement.

Ireland were made to pay for a poor opening quarter in which they fell 12-0 behind.  Thereafter, they dominated the match, to the extent that a couple of Welsh forwards produced tackle counts that were off the chart.  But this Irish team is not set up to chase leads as well as they are to protect them and they came up short.

They showed admirable on-field intelligence in some respects.  As we feared, Wales had sufficiently talented catchers in the back field to nullify Ireland’s kick-chase game, which had so effectively put the heebie-jeebies up the English.  Halfpenny and Williams were never likely to come unstuck, but Ireland at least showed the wherewithal to change tack and hold onto the ball instead.  Fears that Ireland lacked the carriers to gain territory with ball in hand proved less than well founded, with the forwards sufficiently robust at close quarters to put Ireland on the front foot and in the right areas of the pitch.  Paul O’Connell even made a couple of bona-fide line breaks.

It was their inability to convert the pressure into tries that was their undoing.  Three times Ireland were camped on the Welsh line but on no occasion could they breach the defence, bar a maul-and-penalty-try.  A lack of guile is certainly one problem, and Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have been picked with one thing in mind, and it is not outside breaks or distribution.  But it only tells half the story.  Wales dominated the breakdown contest and Ireland just couldn’t get quick enough ball to score the try that might have swung the match.  Another factor was that, as in Twickenham last year, neither Sexton or Murray played especially well.  Both are vital to Ireland and have been outstanding for much of the last 13 months, so we don’t want to come down too hard on them.  Both of them had an off day.  It happens.

Murray was replaced by Reddan, who is a good reserve, and Reddan did supply the backline with some fast passes, but his trick-play of the behind-the-back-pass was read by the Welsh defence.  Sexton, however, was only hauled ashore late in the match, and Madigan’s form has ebbed significantly in the last couple of months, to the point that Keatley may be the better pick right now.  Mads was spared the ignominy of kicking the ball dead from a penalty in the Welsh 22 only because Wayne Barnes hadn’t started the clock again.  It would have been tantamount to criminality. On paper, the situation was made for Madigan – in fact, it’s pretty much what he is in the team for – no need to kick, keep ball in hand, play flat, unlock an aggressive defence. The fact that the coach only trusted him to play 5 minutes makes you wonder why he was even picked.

The good news is it all sets up a last weekend of huge drama.  Three matches and each one with a possible champion.  A three-way tie on points beckons between England, Wales and Ireland, with points difference almost certainly required to settle the dispute, for the 3rd year in a row.  It leaves England slight favourites.  They begin with a four-point headstart over Ireland and a 25-point start on Wales.  They also play last, and will do so knowing exactly what is required of them.  The last time the title was decided in such a manner was 2007, when last-play tries in both matches (for Italy against Ireland and France against Scotland) proved decisive.  Had Ireland been playing last in that situation they would have won the Six Nations; but they weren’t so France did.  There’s every chance it will be as tight again.  What chance a TMO adjudication in Twickers as Courtney Lawes tries to ground the ball for a garbage-time try against France?  It’s all too much! What Irish fans can take hope from is England’s hopeless lack of awareness and accuracy against Scotland at the weekend – from countless first half line breaks, they contrived to butcher chance after chance and even went in behind at half time. England could have won that game by 30 points and put the championship to bed. But they didn’t, so there is hope.

Wales appear to be third favourites, but they face an Italian side that lost 0-29 to France and may have decided that an away win against Scotland is enough for this season.  It’s not beyond the bounds of possibilities that Wales could win by 40 points and give themselves a real chance – when they want to let the shackles off they can really play, and they’re reasonably well set up to adopt a cavalier approach from the off.  Maybe bring in Tipuric for Lydiate to signify an intent to play fast and loose? There is a real chance Wales can tag on 3 or 4 tries in the last 20 minutes if Italy throw the towel in – if all games were at the same time, you sniff around the 9/1 price on them winning, but given they are setting a target for Ireland and England, it’s a pretty big ask.

Can – and indeed should – Ireland do the same?  In all likelihood Ireland will need to win by 15 points to have a realistic chance.  Scotland are porous in midfield, but not completely hopeless in attack, and are good for 55 minutes of decent performance.  A 15-point winning margin points to needing to score somewhere in the region of 25-30 points, which probably requires three tries.  Ireland have scored four in the whole series so far; one from a pick and jam off a lineout, one a penalty try and one a catch from a kick.  They’ve scored exactly one try where someone is running with the ball in their hands over the tryline.

So, while the temptation is to appeal to management to start Earls, Fitzgerald and Henderson, logic points to Schmidt keeping with the approach that won ten test matches in a row, and giving his team a chance to atone for the Welsh match. After all, the team showed they could execute a ball-in-hand gameplan .. until the tryline beckoned. In Schmidt we trust, even if we recently lost a test match. Although, like a long playing record, we’ll once again ask how having Felix Jones on the bench contributes to the goal of winning by a large number of points.

Return to Traditional Values

As we think about how to gauge Ireland’s chances against Wales on Saturday, in what is (for them) effectively a Grand Slam decider, the thought occurred to us that Joe Schmidt has Ireland operating at a level close to the Southern Hemisphere big three. We based that on our wins over the Boks and the Wobblies in November, and the clinical nature of our wins over France and England. Wales were beaten last year, leaving BNZ the only peaks unscaled by Schmidt’s Ireland in 18 months. Not bad, but it’s qualitative – Ireland are the best team in a Championship that has left a little to be desired in terms of quality. Is there something we can quantify (we started life off as a rugby nerds blog, then somehow evolved into a platform for bitterness, so in a way we are, prepare the sick bag, returning to traditional values).

The recent run of 10 wins in a row left us thinking where this should rank in the greater scheme of things – on the face of it, not much since 2 of those wins were against Italy and one against Georgia. In fact, its not even a standalone record, with Ireland under Eddie having already nailed 10 wins in a row from Sept 2002 – Mar 2003, but that included wins against Fiji, Russia, Romania and Georgia. If you look at the list of longest streaks, what stands out for us is that five of the top nine (top seven if you exclude Cyprus and Lithuania) are by BNZ – BNZ almost never play useless minnows (disgracefully so in the case of the plundered Pacific Islands) and play the Boks and the Wobs every year, plus away games to the top European nations, and occasionally Wales. Winning streaks of 17, 16 and 15 (twice) in the professional era are bloody impressive.

That in turn got us thinking – what if we shrank the rugby universe to the Southern Hemisphere big three, Argentina, plus England, France, Wales and Ireland and the timeframe from 1999-now (emergence of Argentina as a serious force). Perhaps its a conceit to include Ireland in that company given our hopeless RWC record and paucity of actual silverware (not including Triple Crowns) compared to the rest, but bear with us. How long would record winning streaks be if only games between these 8 nations be in scope?

  • New Zealand: 16 (June 2013 – June 2014) – 4 vs France, England, 3 vs Australia, 2 vs Argentina, SA, 1 vs Ireland.
  • England: 11 (March 2002 – August 2003) – 3 vs Wales, 2 vs BNZ, Australia, 1 vs Ireland, France, SA, Argentina. This was Johnno’s team at the peak of its powers.
  • South Africa: 7 (August 2008 – August 2009) – 3 vs BNZ, 2 vs Australia, 1 vs England, Wales. This Bok team also beat the Lions twice in the middle of that run, and lost the Third Test – since they played the reserves in that Test, it doesn’t feel right to include the series, but worth bearing in mind
  • Australia: 7 (October 1999 – July 2000) – 2 vs SA, Argentina, 1 vs France, Wales, Ireland. Ireland certainly weren’t great shakes here, but this is another one of the great teams of the professional era
  • Ireland: 7 (March 2014 – Present) – 2 vs France, Argentina, 1 vs SA, Australia, England
  • France: 6 (November 2005 – June 2006) – 2 vs SA, 1 vs England, Wales, Ireland, Australia
  • Wales: 3 (on three occasions, latest February 2012 – March 2012) – in each of Wales 3 Grand Slams of the era, they quite obviously beat England, France and Ireland consecutively
  • Argentina: 2 (several times, latest Aug 2014 – Present) – Aus and France have been beaten in the Pumas most recent games. They won 5 from 7 from May-Oct 2007, when they were st their previous peak

First reaction – that list contains some of the best teams of the professional era – the BNZ team that equalled the record of Colin Meads great team, the England team that won RWC03, the Springbok Lion-tamers of 2009 and the 1999 Wobblies. Second reaction – the Greatest Team in World Rugby isn’t quite at the races – we’ll come back to that. And what about Ireland? You can pick holes in the strength of the Argentina teams we played if you want, but you still need to beat them, 10,000km away from home, at the end of the season. And we haven’t played BNZ in that timeframe. Yet still, we are in pretty glided company, even by this imperfect metric, and all the teams we’ve already beaten are likely the ones we’ll need to beat to get to the RWC15 final – we’ll take that for sure.

Ireland at present have attained a high level of consistency of results against the best teams in the world – they have a coach who has instilled a deep commitment to accuracy and execution, which is essentially the thing that has brought them to where they are. When we consider how Ireland will fare against Wales, we need to consider how Wales have fared against the big Southern Hemisphere teams they have played. And anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock will no that Wales record against that hemisphere under Gatty is awful:

  • New Zealand – played 7, lost 7
  • South Africa – played 11, won 1, lost 10
  • Australia – played 11, won 1, lost 10

They rarely lose by much (particularly to the Wobblies), but they consistently lose – and its the biggest stick that Gatland gets beaten with in Wales. The Lions Test series win with a majority Welsh side provides some counterpoint, but the reality is that if Kurtley Beale had worn longer studs, they would have lost – and that was to one of the worst Wobbly sides since Australia got to be a Lions tour destination.

Wales have picked their team for this game and its as you were. Tactics? As you were – classic Warrenball awaits. While we see big danger in the Welsh players who are least likely to play super robotically – Rhys Webb and Liam Williams (ironically, probably the two players Gatland felt least comfortable bringing in for Warrenball veterans Mike Philips and Alex Cuthbert), we just think this Ireland team is operating at the kind of level that Wales struggle against. It will likely be a tougher test than previous games, as Wales are similar to Ireland in that they play low-risk rugby designed to force errors. They profited from Scottish and French ineptitude in the last two rounds, but when put under pressure by England they looked rudderless and highly unlikely to win the game, despite starting with a 10 point lead.

If Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton maintain their accuracy of kicking and Ireland continue to own the ruck, we feel this will be enough of a platform for victory. It will be fraught I’m sure, but another bloodless coup would not surprise us. We expect by Saturday evening, Ireland will have a trip to Murrayfield to nail a Grand Slam, and an incredibly favourable draw all the way to their next meeting with BNZ.

Squeaky Bum Time

Egg was minding his own business contemplating watching Jurassic Park III on <insert rubbish cable TV channel> on Saturday night when he noticed a tweet from a chap he’d never heard of. No, not the Examiner’s chief rugby correspondent, but “Paul Morgan”. Morgan had the following to say for himself: “The key thing since European qualification has changed… People are talking about and caring about the Pro12 more than ever”.

It was only after one of our eagle-eyed followers pointed it out that we noticed Morgan was Communications Director for Premiership Rugby aka the lackey of McCafferty, Craig and co. Sigh. Propaganda justifying a position held for monetary reasons then? Well, in Morgan’s case, yes, obviously. Unless this view, which is his own of course, happily happened to mirror 100% the views of his mates (and paymasters in this case). It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? – kind of like when Charlie Mulqueen points out that it wasn’t Denis Hurley’s fault that Munster got knocked out of Europe, and his stint at 12 was an unreserved success story. Right.

Anyway, back to Morgan. Problem is, fulminate away, but when you have finished thumping your John Knox-signed bible/infusing your olive oil with white truffle/singing Amhran na bFiann extremely passionately/going to Saw Doctors concerts (delete as appropriate depending upon provincial affiliation), you’ll realize that he’s right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but he’s right.

Take Friday night’s Cardiff-Connacht game for example – Cardiff’s last minute win was exciting sure, and would have been equally exciting in years gone by, but it meant a whole lot more this time. Cardiff kept their faint hopes of an ERCC slot alive, and kept Connacht close to the chasing pack at the same time – and the huge roar at the final whistle spoke volumes to the importance of the game for the league as a whole, as well as both teams. And the bizarre story Pat Lam had to tell about parking spaces and refereeing bias in the heat of passion would likely not have made it to print were it a meaningless mid-table clash. Less two bald men fighting over a comb, more two thinning on top men fighting over the right to be fed to Toulon in bite-size chunks.

At the top of the Pro12, there are five teams who are more or less qualified for the ERCC – Glasgae, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Leinster – and four of them will make the knockouts. Glasgow have the top spot more or less sewn up, but behind them it’s three into four.  The Irish provinces have just come off the back of a torrid weekend, with all four losing to their somewhat less illustrious, regionally composite Welsh counterparts.  A portent of doom for next weekend?  Hopefully not.

Leinster are in a bit of a jam, lying in fifth, but they are still in the reckoning.  They have still to play both Ulster and Glasgae, and are well in the reckoning.  They have made an unusual habit of throwing points away against the poorer teams in the league this year, and chances are they will have to go to Ravenhill and win.  They are also the only team in the competition that has European distractions ahead of them.

Ulster and Munster are locked on have the toughest fixtures, with only two home games and three against fellow top five teams. Their meeting on the penultimate weekend may swing it – not only do Ulster have a good record against Munster, but its in Ravers, so advantage Ulster for that one.

One of the hapless Italians will join the big five in Europe, plus one of Connacht, Scarlets, Embra (or maybe – at a stretch – Cardiff). Scarlets host Embra next, and also have games against both hapless Italians – albeit away. They are entitled to be considered favourites to nab the final spot. From an Irish perspective, Connacht will need to earn it the hard way if they are to qualify – with games against each of the current top 4 to come. Perhaps they should, y’know, reserve a parking spot for the ref at the dog track..

Law Re-Emphasising

With rugby struggling under the sheer mass of its players and the negativity of much of the tactics employed – or at least the most successful tactics – it appears certain that a rash of law changes – or should that be changes in law emphasis – are on the way.

Consensus is that nothing will be done until after the World Cup. It’s too close to the Grand Shindig to start experimenting now. The IRB caused a bit of a ruckus in the past when they asked referees to ensure there was clear daylight between the tackle being completed and the tackler competing for the ball on the ground, between rounds two and three of the Six Nations. We all remember the image of O’Driscoll and Wallace looking aghast as a penalty was awarded against Wally when he had his feet planted on the ground. The week prior Wally would have won the penalty.

So that won’t be happening, but we can expect a comprehensive post-world cup review. The trouble with these law changes is they are all subject to game theoretic issues. Take the laws around what happens after the tackle: load the dice too far in favour of the defensive team and it’s obvious what will happen. But load the dice too heavily in favour of the attacking team and the defensive side will simply reserve the right not to compete. Why chase a losing cause when you can keep all your defenders in a line and fan out across the pitch? Which will bring us back to where we started. It’s a balance that’s nigh on impossible to strike.

The areas most likely up for review are the ruck, the maul and, obviously, the scrum. Issues around tackle height and the choke tackle may also be up for debate.

The Maul

Once the maul is set it’s difficult for the defending team to deal with, as the attacking team is allowed to twist the maul ninety degrees and so long as one opponent remains bound, the ref shouts ‘same maul’ and the thing trundles forward. Sacking the maul at source or refusing to compete are the best options available for teams defending lineouts close to the try-line. To some, refusing to defend a maul is against the spirit of the game, but it is hard to deny a team their entitlement to do so. Besides, the attacking team only has to delay the transfer of the ball to the back of their wedge; if they keep it in front they can simply walk forward. It seems more than likely that attacking teams will start to denude this threat by better managing their ball transfer.

Scrum

The scrum remains a mess, but chances are any changes will be to what happens after a scrum failure than to the technicalities of how the front rows mash into one another. Possibilities include downgrading of certain offences to stopping the match-clock for resets or simply cutting out resets altogether, awarding a free kick to one orother team after one scrum failure.

The Ruck

There might be 10-20 scrums in a game, and a similar number of mauls and lineouts, but there are over 100 rucks, so what exactly is or isn’t allowed to happen once a player is tackled has a huge bearing on the game. One thing that may well come up for review is the much vaunted ‘golden metre’ where the attacking team tries to ruck far beyond the ball and effectively move the ruck forward. This used to be called ‘going over the top’ and was illegal. The main barrier to this is that the Kiwis are the best in the world at it, and they will whinge and moan a lot if it comes under threat. Clearing out by lifting legs into the air may also be reviewed; this resulted in a sending off offence for Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey recently, but it’s not really clear what is and isn’t allowed.

The Tackle

The choke-tackle whingeing by teams who are often exposed by it has begun, and chances are this will at least come under the microscope. But outlawing it seems ridiculous. It could be made harder to execute by lowering the tackle-height, but it would need to be demonstrated that tackling at chest height has a direct impact on player safety.

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