Bully Boy Tactics

The launch of the new European Champions Cup brought with it a promise of more competitive groups. Fewer rubbish teams and more talent concentrated into five pools; it would be harder to qualify and more exciting. We were sceptical, but said we would return before the final round of matches and review. So here we are.

To be fair to the Champions Cup, it has more or less made good on its promise. Whether this is by accident or design is hard to parse, but for sure this is the most interesting round six for a good few years; there are plenty of games with a lot at stake and a less than certain outcome. The scrap for the last couple of runners-up places is going to be especially fraught, and could go down to the final minutes of the weekend, which looks set to provide drama by the bucketful.

Things get off to a pretty good start with Wasps vs. Leinster, which has the look of the game of the weekend. An up-and-coming team at home to an established one, with qualification at stake. James Haskell vs. Jamie Heaslip in a battle of the metro men. Forget awesome power and thudding collisions, feel the hipster sandwiches and post-match grooming discussions. It’s set to be a cracker.

Next, Northampton play Racing Metro, and while both should qualify, the winner tops the pool and wins a home quarter-final. Later that evening, Ulster play Leicester. The Nordies are out but they will put it up to Leicester, who need a five-pointer to have any chance at all of going through. The two have had some great ding-dongs in recent years, and this fixture offers a chance for Ulster to salvage something from what has been a miserable campaign.

Sunday afternoon brings us to Pool Four, where any one or two of Bath, Toulouse and Glasgow can go through. Bath vs. Glasgow sees two of the most enterprising teams in the tournament go up against one another. Slammin’ Sam can’t get into the Bath team, and anyone who saw Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond last week will know why. If Bath win, that takes them to 19 points, and probable qualification. Finally, Clermont take on Saracens. In spite of a decent campaign, Saracens are in a pickle and are odds against to qualify. They’ve already beaten Clermont, did the double over Sale, but may rue a lack of bonus points. They failed to get anything from Thomond Park and should have knocked Sale for four tries at least once, and butchered umpteen opportunities to get a fourth try against Munster last weekend. Even a losing bonus point in Clermont – a fine achievement if you can do it – might not be good enough. They’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to get and there’s every chance the outcome to be in the balance as the match clock ticks over into the red.

So, how has it all come to pass? None of the factors that were trumped up in the fractious birth of the new format have been relevant. Premiership sides’ supposed battle against the threat of relegation has been non-existent thanks to Bucaresti Welsh, while the usual suspects in the Pro 12 miraculously find themselves on course for qualification again next season without having to divest huge resources to the league campaign.

What has been notable is that the Pro12 teams have had a particularly rubbish campaign. The most likely scenario is that just one of their number, Leinster, will qualify, and that may not even come to pass. Ospreys and Glasgow have still to find a way of bringing their league form to bear against the more physical English and French sides, while the challenge of Ulster and Munster, serial qualifiers over the last few years, has been particularly hopeless this time around for various reasons.

Back in our original analysis, we implored the middle-ranking sides to step up to the mark and put it up to the established teams. The English sides have achieved this more than any other: all of Wasps, Harlequins and Bath have had a bearing on the tournament. Bath have been revelatory, and look set to qualify. Wasps also have a great chance, meaning two teams who lost their first two games might qualify – a first (and second) by our reckoning. Quins dropped the ball in round five, but remain in the hunt, just about. Even Sale, marooned on two points, have been somewhat unlucky in their three home games and could have won all of them. For all the talk of sugar-daddies and bully-boy tactics, many observers have noted that this year’s Aviva Premiership is faster paced and more watchable than previous vintages, with a greater emphasis on running and passing, and less on boshing and kicking. Less Oooooooooohhh! and more Aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Bath, Northampton, Harlequins and Wasps are all playing with a degree of width and purpose in attack. Even Saracens have widened their game. It looks to be paying dividends on the European stage.

Worth noting as well that the qualification criteria have changed – points obviously first, then results & points difference in the pool, then it’s points difference for the runners up, and not tries – because, it’s y’know, what the fans want. It’s pretty correlated anyway – except for Ulster, who have the 6th best try count and the 16th best points difference. Pity they are gone. Anyroads – here’s the Cordite Predictions for the knockout seedings:

  1. Northampton (23)
  2. Toulon (22) – better points difference
  3. Clermont (22)
  4. Bath (20) – win pool due to better points difference with Toulouse, and better tournament points difference than Wasps
  5. Wasps (20)
  6. Toulouse (20)
  7. Racing Metro (19) – better points difference than Leinster
  8. Leinster (19)

Two all-French quarter finals, and all-English and a trip to Northampton. In truth, Leinster would take that ahead of trips to Toulon or Clermont, but we implore them to go to Wasps and win: for the fans, for Ireland, for the Pro12 and for the foreign markets which are more important than ever nowadays.

Ireland Squad Announcement Day

It’s Ireland squad announcement day tomorrow, a day which typically allows fans to grumble that their favourite fourth choice wing has been overlooked for someone they perceive to be not quite as good, for the role of holding tackle pads opposite Tommy Bowe in Carton House. As ever, it will be a case of trying to read between the lines to try to form an insight into Joe Schmidt’s thinking, but chances are he won’t give too much away. Expectations are that a single squad of 40 or more names will be named, with those being dispatched for Wolfhounds duty to be decided closer to the match

Nonetheless, a handful of themes to look out for are:

  1. Just back from injury

A number of prominent players are at the cusp of returning, or have just returned, from lengthy lay-offs. Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Keith Earls and Iain Henderson would enhance any team, so no doubt Joe Schmidt will want to give them every chance to prove their fitness. Rhys Ruddock is also in line for a return after a not-so-long period out injured, and Jared Payne is another who is recently back to fitness. There’s also Nathan White, who could be in the test squad. On l’autre hand, he’s unlikely to throw in so many players who are short of match time together into his test team. Chances are he’ll want to see these guys get as much action as they can over the next few weeks. Hopefully we’ll see Keith Earls start for Munster this weekend. The Wolfhounds match could prove a handy tool, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a very strong panel on paper, if somewhat rusty in practice, named for that game.

  1. Low representation for Ulster

Ulster’s nightmare season and heavy injury toll looks set to leave them with their lowest representation since, well, since Kidney was in charge. Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are injured, while Robbie Diack has lost his form. Payne, Best and Bowe are all likely to be in the squad and Henderson should be there too provided he shows a bit of spark in the next two weeks, but who else? Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy, at a push. Dan Tuohy is particularly unlucky to be injured as he was one of their few forwards to impress in recent months, but alas, he’s out.

  1. Sea change at prop?

As Mike Ross’ season has gone a bit John Hayes c.2011, Joe Schmidt has some decisions to make at prop. Matt O’Connor described it as a sea change, as Mike Ross has been left out altogether, with Marty Moore starting and Tadgh Furlong his deputy. Moore has turned the fortunes of the Leinster scrum on their head since returning from injury and his newfound status as first choice prop at Leinster is almost certain to be emulated at test level. Could Mike Ross be jettisoned entirely, on the premise that once your time’s up, your time’s up? Or will Schmidt want to see him for himself before throwing him into the bin? Nathan White, Tadgh Furlong and Rodney Ah Here are all liable to be in the mix so the cupboard isn’t bare, although none are names that will give sleepless nights to Joe Marler or Tomas Domingo. The end of one of the most remarkable test careers in recent history may be about to end.

  1. The Leinster three-quarter line is back

Useless most of the season, Leinster’s back play has been much improved with the return of Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is guaranteed to be in the squad, and we’re dreaming of a Henshaw-Luke centre partnership for the Italy game. Kearney and Fitzgerald should make the enlarged panel too, with Bowe, Zebo and Earls likely to be the back-three men joining them.  The new-look backline at Leinster has seen Gordon D’arcy squeezed out, and it may be his Ireland career will go the same way as Mike Ross.  He’s likely to skate in to the enlarged panel but may find himself out of the matchday 23.

  1. Say hello to Jack Conan

… but just don’t stand in his way. New caps may be thin on the ground after a number of players broke their duck in Novemeber, but one player certain to make his acquaintance with Carton House’s Farrow & Ball muted tones is Jack Conan. With Ireland lacking carrying prowess and Rhys Ruddock and Robin Copeland missing in action in recent weeks, Conan has not so much climbed up the pecking order as run into it and smashed it out of the way.

  1. Fly-halves needed

With Jonny Sexton out of the Italy game and only able to participate in non-contact training and Paddy Jackson sidelined altogether, Ians Madigan and Keatley are walk-ins to the squad and matchday 23. It probably leaves room for an additional fly-half, with a view to playing the Wolfhounds game where Schmidt is unlikely to risk either of the above picking up an injury. It might just be a good opportunity to call JJ Hanrahan up to the squad to give the poor lamb a reminder that somebody out there loves him. In 2009, Declan Kidney made a similar move by picking an out-of-favour Jonny Sexton for the Wolfhounds ,and the selection paid great dividends, with Sexton acknowledging that he gained in confidence from it and it started to turn his season around. We all remember how it ended.

We’ll follow up with post-announcement reaction below the line.

Just What Was That?

When we heard the news that Conor Murray was going to miss the trip to Globo Gym and their 4G pitch (bet you hadn’t heard Sarries had one, had you? The Irish media don’t dwell on it much), any lingering hopes we had that Munster could eke out a win pretty much disappeared.  On the eve of the game we tweeted that Egg Chaser was predicting a drubbing by Saracens but Palla was going for more of a bloodless coup.  It turned out to be both.

Munster were routed in every facet of play – the scrum, which had creaked under BJ Botha all season, was marched backwards. By Mako Vunipola! The breakdown was a breeze if you were a Saracen – every ruck resulted in nice easy ball, whereas when Munster had possession, poor Duncan Williams, hardly blessed with decisiveness at the best of times, had opposition forwards all over him. The lineout was a fiasco. Munster’s kicking game took no account of the Allianz Park surface. Their big players were not a factor. Munster simply could not get into the game.  Any time they had a platform they made a mistake.  Saracens are a good side, one of four sides (Toulon, Clermont and the Saints being the others) who will not be happy unless they win this competition, but the scale of Munster’s humiliation was frightening to behold. Just how did it come to this?

It was all neatly encapsulated by the two trademark BT Sport-mid-match interviews with coaching staff.  Mick O’Driscoll’s vox-pops sounded just as Saracens were in the process of gaining 30m and setting up the platform that would result in their first try.  It gave the impression of a man fiddling while Rome burns.  At around the 60 minute mark, Saracens’ Paul Gustard was asked to discuss the victory in waiting and tried to convince those watching at home that it wasn’t done yet, but you could tell from his demeanour that he knew the game was won.

It’s been a miserable first half-season for Axel Foley in the job he has worked so hard to get – the brave and the faithful can live with indifferent league form, especially when it comes sweetened with two thumping victories over the arrogant Ladyboys from Dublin, they can live with defeats to sides as good as Clermont and Saracens, but Munster fans are wondering how the team can go out so far off the mental pitch required for a game aptly described by Axel as one with “no tomorrows”. They had a tough pool, no question, but it wasn’t in the script needing a last minute drop goal to beat Sale, or losing their home unbeaten record to French teams, or to lay down so meekly against a team perfectly placed to make Munster bitter. Rob Penney’s teams might have benefitted from kinder draws, but any European exit was with their heads held high, making a higher-quality team sweat buckets before getting over the line.

Penney himself never got an easy ride from the press – the stuttering league performances were seen as evidence he didn’t fit, and the wide-wide games with Donncha O’Callaghan popping up on the wing before Munster had “earned that right” were scoffed at as an alien style imposed on an unwilling team. When Munster did resort to a fruitier forwards-based effort and won, the credit went to the players. When Penney’s contract wasn’t renewed and Axel Foley was given the job, many felt Penney would be glad to be out of there – getting not much credit for dragging a transitional team to successive HEC semi-finals. But no Penney team ever capitulated like Foley’s Munster did at the weekend, and it makes you wonder where the camp is right now – when Paul O’Connell is making elementary errors and Peter O’Mahony is anonymous for 60 minutes, it needs to to be asked why the players aren’t producing.

Is it the personnel? Well, it’s a very similar squad to the one that made last year’s semi-finals – POC might be a year older, but Murray is if anything even better, players like Dave Foley, Duncan Casey and CJ Stander are much improved, and Ian Keatley is having his best season as a professional. The centres are different, but hey, what’s new? It’s more or less the same panel.  Injuries?  Sure, Varley and Sherry are a miss at hooker,. but Casey has played well enough to be a minor cause celebre when he didn’t get picked for Ireland in November.  Keith Earls hasn’t been fit, but he missed a lot of rugby last year, and if anything the backrow options have been enhanced by the return to form of Tommy O’Donnell.

Is it the gameplan? The narrow forwards-based plan is certainly more like (cover your ears) “traditional Munster values”, but then again, so is winning important games in Europe, as is producing the type of clinical control exhibited by Saracens on Saturday. Their most-talented youngster, JJ Hanrahan, has tired of not playing and has flounced off to Northampton – Foley pronounced himself “mystified” then picked Dinny Hurley and left Hanrahan kicking his heels for 76 minutes.

Is there something else? It feels like raking up old muck, but when emailgate happened, most of the punditerati were on the TV and the radio to say it was much ado over nothing and the squad would quickly move on. All except Bernard Jackman that is, who said it would destroy the dynamic in the dressing room and take a very long time and hard work to move past – it’s important and relevant because Jackman was the only pundit asked who actively coaches a proper side – Grenoble, currently sixth in the Top 14, and with a good case to be a better side than Ulster, Munster or Leinster. Maybe the squad just hasn’t move on yet.

Four years ago, the last time Munster failed to make the quarter-finals, the coach had the Week 6 balm of a home game against an average English side – last time Lahn Oirish, this time Sale Sharks – Munster will want to see an angry response to get some mojo back, for what it’s worth. Then the real business gets underway.  McGahan used the ensuing Pro12 campaign to rebuild and made some changes, notably bringing in Conor Murray and James Cawlin for Strings and Leamy, and Munster went on to win the Pro12. It’s imperative that Munster do something similar – though probably more along the lines of expanding the gameplan than bringing in new personnel – and grab this season by the scruff of the neck. No-one wants the defining memory to be the limp capitulation in Allianz Park.

There Is No Such Place As …

Harlequins! Or: Ospreys! Or: Wasps! Or: Racing Metro! And, of course, Saracens – as we will doubtless hear tired repititions of for the rest of this week. But the existence, or otherwise, of a place called Saracens is completely irrelevant to the game this weekend. The club itself is as stable as it has been since Nigel Wray got involved – they are close to celebrating two years in Allianz Park, where they consistently attract 8,000-9,000 for Premiership games, and Mark McCall is approaching four year of quiet excellence as supremo.  And I hear the tannoy rings out clear as a bell.

McCall has finished 1st in the league three times out of four (once helped by half a season of Brendan Venter), won the grand final itself once, and was a TMO call away from doing so again last year. In the HEC, Saracens might have been memorably outclassed by nouveau riche arrivistes Toulon last year, but they thumped big game chokers Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, feeding them an ugly forty-burger. The previous years saw losses to Toulon and Clermont in the semis and quarters respectively.

The squad itself is stable and well-balanced, and has quality throughout – the pack is as strong as you would expect from a Premiership side, and there are internationals in most backline positions. They are a proper club, like it or not, and the fact that Munster is a coherent geographic entity that you can be from will not be a decisive factor in the game.

But what factors will be decisive? Saracens have been defeated only three times in two year at Allianz Park – twice to the Northampton Saints, and once (when depleted by the Six Nations) by London Oirish. They defeated (and scored four tries against) Clermont Auvergne there in Round 1 of the ERCC while Munster laboured to a last minute victory over Sale Sharks. This won’t be a matter of turning up, singing louder, and letting the cowed Britons bend the knee – an actual gameplan will be required.

And they need to win – before the season, we expected this pool to come down to bonus points, but its not going to happen – Clermont’s win in “Tomond” means that someone will finish with 5 wins, someone with 4 and someone with 3. If Munster are to avoid being the ‘3’, this is the one they need to win.

First, discipline – don’t give Saracens easy points. Saracens are the top points scorers from the boot in the Not-So-Boshiership, scoring 195 points in 13 games – a neat average of 15 points a game. With a front row of, at best, Cronin (just back from injury), Casey and BJ Botha, there is a risk Poite will earn further ire by rewarding the dominant scrum (likely to be Saracens), as he tends to do. But that is out of Munster’s control (largely) and can only be managed, as opposed to turned on its head. But if Munster start giving away breakdown penalties in their own half, the jig is up – even an easy 6 points to the boots of Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell (both kicking 80% this season) is likely to be insurmountable, the margin of error being very slim.

Regular viewers of Saracens (we don’t see enough of them – we have yet to sup from the poisonous chalice of BT Sport, but that’s likely to change, given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really) tell us that they are vulnerable to being attacked through the centres, utilizing quick hands and smart lines. Something that Dinny Hurley brings to the table, for example. Wait, what? Joking aside, a Munster selection with JJ Hanrahan at 12 is one that Saracens won’t like to see. With potential wingers of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, the last thing Saracens will want is someone who can get them the ball. A selection of Hurley will signal an attacking gameplan whose scope barely extends beyond the fringes of the ruck. Saracens will treat this as meat and drink, and is almost certainly a losing hand.

The first game between these sides was as tight as the proverbial duck’s arse until Rhys Gill went and did something stupid. Munster profited from his absence to score the game’s only try and tag on an extra three points, which ended up being the difference between the sides. The game was essentially lost by something dumb from Saracens. Flip the venue to England, and look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites – for Munster to win, they can’t rely on Lady Luck in the form of a bounce of the ball or a silly yellow card. Simply turning up and giving it all isn’t going to cut it – they’ll need a gameplan to take advantage of Saracens’ weaknesses.

Expect the game to be described as a ‘must-watch’ from all corners of the media, and while any do-or-die game involving Munster has a reasonable chance of a dramatic finale, chances are it will be spirit-sappingly dull.  Foley admitted his team needed to ‘not get bored’ executing their game-strangling kicking game in the last match, and expect more of the same here.  Conor Murray put air on the ball 17 times in that game, and we can expect something similar again – assuming he recovers from a neck injury.  The game might not be so much ‘must watch’, unless you’re really into that sort of thing, as ‘must follow’ on your Ultimate Rugby app, which could be the best vantage point, at least until the final 20 minutes which should provide a pulse-raising endgame.

Competition for Places

Without being especially impressive, competition for places has begun to heat up at Leinster.  Whatever their issues, they are unique among the provinces in their strength in depth.  Where Ulster and Munster’s team selections for the big games are relatively clear-cut (and not in an especially good way either, unless you’re a really big fan of the Ross ‘brothers’ Clive and Bronson), Leinster find themselves with some hard decisions to make ahead of the last two rounds of pool matches in Europe.

The team has yet to click into gear, though they do appear to have improved a little in the last couple of weeks, with a more structured attack and less willingness to resort to a lowest-common-denominator game of kicky-chase.  Their main problem against Cardiff was the number of times they dropped the ball in good positions.  Another issue was the breakdown, where the likes of Josh Navidi and Gethin Jenkins were able to dominate and slow ball down, or worse yet, win turnover penalties.  It’s been an issue all season, where Leinster have been working off slow ball far too often.

Castres are coming to town in Europe next weekend, and Matt O’Connor should have tries on his mind.  Win the game whatever, don’t disrespect the whatsitsface, physical team who will present a something: expect to hear it all this week in the meeja interviews, but pay no mind. This Castres team will have their minds on the post-match dinner from the moment they leave the dressing room.  Leinster must win with a try bonus point, and should be looking to cut loose.  Wasps had the 5th point wrapped up after little over half an hour and put seven tries on the scoreboard by the finish.  Leinster should be aiming to do likewise.

Jerseys up for grabs start in the front row, which has been largely mediocre in the tight all season.  Encouragingly though, against Cardiff the front row unit of Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss and Marty Moore put in the best scrummaging performance from a Leinster team this season.  With Mike Ross running out of steam, Moore’s return to fitness couldn’t be more timely.  We’d pick him from the start to stabilise the scrum, which was destroyed by Harlequins.  At hooker Strauss vs. Cronin has always been competitive, and it might just be worth retaining Strauss for his superior scrummaging and throwing.  Cronin to cut loose in the final half hour?

Second row is more like an anti-competition for places, as Mike McCarthy and Kane Douglas strive to underachieve one another.  Douglas appears to be going around the pitch looking to make eye-catching hits, but makes no impact for vast swathes of the game.  McCarthy had one of his better games against Cardiff and was fairly prominent.  We’d give him the start, alongside The Northern Hemisphere Brodie Retallick – thanks Barnesy.

The backrow has become a source of apparent riches at Leinster, even without Sean O’Brien.  But for all that they can’t win a breakdown.  Odd.  Jordi Murphy is back and more up to speed than he was against Harlequins, and the emergence of Jack Conan presents a serious ball-carrying option.  Shane Jennings is fit again and Rhys Ruddock is presumably in the mix for selection, as is Dom Ryan who is having a fine season.  The only man certain to play is Jamie Heaslip who is expected to return from injury.  That’s right, Jamie Heaslip picked ujp an injury.  But only for one game, obviously.  Which cards to play from the deck of five?  Here’s a strange thought: given the breakdown issues, why not relinquish Healsip from carrying duties and ask him for a shift in the trenches, a role he has performed to great effect with Ireland.  Draft in Conan to the blindside to make up the carrying deficit, and put Rhys Ruddock at openside, where he was superb for Ireland in November.  Could it work?

Eoin Reddan should start at 9.  Luke McGrath has a vocal fanclub, and he had a good game against Cardiff.  He’s explosive and exciting but his basics aren’t at the required standard yet, and Reddan continues to be one of the most underrated players on the island.  Don’t forget he was last seen saving the day against Harlequins.  McGrath to bench perhaps?  Isaac Boss’ days are surely numbered.

Fly-half.  That old chestnut.  Gopperth or Madigan?  Gopps’ place-kicking was awry against Cardiff but there was much to commend elsewhere in his game.  I expect we’ll see Gopperth picked with Madigan at 12.  Does that spell the beginning of the end for Gordon D’arcy?  It just might, especially with Noel Reid, Ben Te’o and Luke Fitzgerald also in the mix for centre jerseys.  Te’o showed he has the footwork to go with the crashing and – whisper it – looks like he might bring something to the backline.  Fitgerald is a must at 13 where he has been excellent on his return.  Again, what about this for a slightly wild-card, but potentially devastating midfield: Madigan-Te’o-Fitzgerald?  Ay karamba, what a lick-smackingly exciting prospect!  Just do it aready, Matty!

On the wings, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden are back and starting to look match-fit.  We’d pick both of them.  Kearney can beat defenders, and the Kildare Lewis Moody can win yards in contact.  It’s harsh on Darragh Fanning, but Kearney and McFadden are just a notch better in terms of class.  Zane Kirchner may miss the 23 altogether.  He has been a curious signing: a 30-cap Springbok with great pedigree but not really what was needed for the team.  He is most effective at full-back where Leinster already have Rob Kearney, and as a wing he is somewhat pedestrian.  He looks like an expensive luxury at this point.

Probable Selection: Bent, Strauss, Ross, Douglas, Toner, Ruddock, Murphy, Heaslip, Reddan, Gopperth, Kearney, Madigan, Fitzgerald, McFadden, Kearney

Our selection: Bent, Strauss, Moore, McCarthy, Toner, Conan, Ruddock, Heaslip, Reddan, Madigan, Kearney, Te’o, Fitzgerald, McFadden, Kearney

Systems Failure

A few years ago TG4 stated a series called ‘Rugbai Gold’ where they showed ‘classic’ matches from the 1970s and 1980s. To those of us whose memories of those games consisted of, at best, watching them on our parents’ knees, it was like watching a different sport to the one on display today. Backs were tiny, jerseys were enormous billowing cotton things, scrum-halves passed the ball with a full-length horizontal dive thrown in, the lineout was a back-alley brawl where the team with the throw had a marginally better chance of winning the ball, and if they did it was the pig ugly sort you could do nothing with. And the scrums! About 90 of them a match, and largely self-regulated, more a means to restart the game than a licence to draw penalties from the opposition. The rucks were generally a pile-up where you could flop in off your feet at your leisure. Well, at least some things never change.

Yes, indeed, it was a different sport – until John Langford came along and told the Paddies that going out on the beer on a Thursday perhaps wasn’t the best preparation for a game on a Saturday. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to go back 30 or even 20 years to see an anachronistic version of the game which bears little resemblance to that which is played today. You don’t have to go back even 10. Have a look at the highlights reel of Toulouse vs. Leinster, the high-watermark of the Cheiks & Knoxy version of Leinster. Defensive lines are broken at will, dog-legs appear everywhere, the contest flows from one end of the pitch to the other and back ; several sensational tries are scored as backlines create mismatches and speedsters find themselves up against second rows with regularity. And this is Toulouse – the best team of that era! These days, the only time the action could be described as end-to-end is during one of the frequent kick-tennis battles that punctuate most games.

The game has changed irreparably. Players are huge, from 1 to 15. Injuries are more numerous and serious and the nature of how the game is played has totally changed. Off-the-cuff rugby is a thing of the past. Who even talks about ‘broken field running’ anymore? It never happens. When the full-back catches the ball these days the chase is so organised the field is scarcely broken. It’s become a game of systems. The best teams and coaches are those who devise systems to expose the weaknesses in the opposition’s systems. The all-conquering All Blacks team rarely plays off the cuff; they adhere to their principles of clearing the ruck, kicking for territory in their own half, and lethal accuracy in execution of passing and offloading. Make no mistake, they are great to watch and a superb team, but don’t mistake what they do for ‘flair’. The closest we have seen to real flair this year was Clermont’s win at home to Munster, where they showed an impressive willingness to put the ball into the hands of their unstructured game-breakers Napolioni Nalaga and Wesley Fofana.  Oddly, some of the better rugby on display this season has come from the Not-so-Boshiership, where a handful of teams, chiefly Bath, have been commited to trying to play the game in a watchable fashion. Until Sam Burgess was shoe-horned into the team anyway.

The combination of highly organised defensive systems and huge players mean that space is at a premium. Breaking the defensive line is difficult, so clean breaks are rare.  Even if a player can break the first tackle, he is usually swept up by the second layer of defence. As a result the battle for metres is fought out either with the boot or on the gainline, with leg-driving forwards deployed to win yards after contact.

The 2003-2007 era may well be viewed as something of a sweet spot in the game. By 2003, professionalism had bedded in to ensure the players were fitter and stronger, and some sort of cohesion and structure had been imposed on defences, but sides with a creative streak could impose themselves on more physical opponents. Cheika’s Leinster, for example. They had a mediocre pack, but could somehow get their backs enough ball to thrive and while they didn’t win silverware, they were plenty competitive. It wouldn’t be possible today; the glitzy three-quarterline would simply be squeezed out. Ulster’s team this season have a similar make-up. They might have coped in 2006, but not today, where it’s nigh on impossible for a pack lacking the necessary oomph to impose itself on an opposing group of monsters. Having superior skill in the back division counts for little these days if you don’t have the power up front.

The 2007 World Cup and 2009 Lions tour were game-changing events. Argentina’s monstrous pack and kick-chase tactics redefined the approach to competing for territory, while the 2009 Lions series was unmatched in its ferocity by anything in the game up until that point. It also marked a turning point in the sheer number of injuries a panel must learn to deal with. Since then, player sizes, emphasis on physicality and gym work and the number and scale of injuries have only increased further.  When Jack Conan was awarded man of the match last week, his coach Leo Cullen appraised him as a fine player, noting in particular the numbers he was posting in the gym.

You can’t stop progress and it’s pointless to wax nostalgic for times past, but it would be remiss to fail to acknowledge that something has been lost in the process. The spectacle of rugby has been diminished. With fewer Christophe Dominicis and Shane Williamses, and more Yoann Hugets and Alex Cuthberts, rugby has lost a little of its watchability. It’s still a great game, no question, but the ratio of good, watchable matches to rubbish is not as high as it was.

We talked about Ireland and New Zealand as systems based teams, but at least they’re well coached and play like they know what they’re doing. What about the poorly coached sides? The rugby they produce is simply awful. Munster’s season is kept afloat by two pick-and-jam wins over their neighbours. Their focus in attack is so narrow it barely extends beyond the ruck. Their only player with a maverick instinct, JJ Hanrahan, has been marginalised, with more mundane, steady-hand-on-the-tiller types preferred in his place. They play a ‘rugby of fear’, encouraged to take the lowest risk option every time. Anything remotely unpredictable is treated with suspicion. It’s this sort of mentality that sees JJ Hanrahan leaving Munster. It’s a remarkable, ridiculous state of affairs. Munster have been crying out for a midfield player who can pass the ball to their fastmen like Simon Zebo and Keith Earls for god knows how long, and when they finally get one, they leave him out of the team, instead picking a big lad who can run straight, so he packs his bags for Northampton. It’s like waiting in the rain for a bus for 40 minutes and when it finally arrives deciding you’re going to walk instead.

Up the M7,  Leinster are teeth-grindingly poor to watch. Any feedback from within the camp is all about how much the players like Matt O’Connor and how they feel they owe him a performance. He has empowered the players an given them freedom to play within their own structures, apparently.  Jamie Heaslip even said that the players really enjoy having so much freedom to think, after the “robotic” Joe Schmidt years. That’s fine, but Robotic Rugby was pretty successful, and pretty good to watch – and probably pretty satisfying as a player. It immediately set off an alarm in our mind, and put us in mind of a polar opposite comment from Paul O’Connell – after his first experience of Schmidt, he spoke of how pissed off he was at the coach continually interrupting sessions to point out pedantic and minor errors in things like O’Connell’s ruck positioning and clearing out.  Schmidt appears more demanding and authoritative than O’Connor.  O’Connor may be popular in the dressing room, but Schmidt gets results.  These days, there’s little room for improvisation and empowering.

If you look at the successful coaches in world rugby post the 2009 Lions series, you have names like Warren Gatland, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Heineke Meyer, Joe Schmidt, Bernard Laporte – all ruthless pragmatists for whom the system is everything, and the players’ job is to fit into the system and execute accordingly. Each of these coaches are inextricably linked to on-field generals who act as their coach’s de facto rep on-field – respectively Sam Warburton, Ruchie and Kieran Read, Victor, Jonny Sexton and Jonny Wilkinson. Everything is directed to a minute degree – and incredibly successful.

Compare these men to those currently coaching the provinces – Pat Lam spoke on OTB about his vision for Connacht this week, and it was all about systems, outcomes, processes and players executing within those confines. Witness how his centres and short passing game ruthlessly exposed Munster’s defensive weakness in that area last week.  Matt O’Connor, meanwhile, presides over a Leinster team who are keeping above water merely on the individual quality in the squad – the players wax effusive about how much they like him, but is that really the point? It’s not working. Neil Doak, up in Ulster, is too new is his role to reach a definitive judgement, but Ulster look less effective every match he is in charge – individual errors multiply and there is no coherent sense that the players know what they are doing. Munster, to Axel Foley’s credit, at least seem to know what they are doing. It might be pretty ineffective – leaving aside the Leinster games, Munster have had a poor year on the pitch – and unambitious enought to prompt their most talented young back to jump ship, but at least it’s something. But only Lam looks like the kind of new-era coach who might go on to bigger and better things.

One final, strange thought.  Systems?  Robotic rugby?  Processes?  Didn’t Ireland once have a coach who was hounded out of the job for imposing too much of a stranglehold on the players?  Come back Eddie, all is forgiven.  Maybe he didn’t so much become outdated as simply arrive before his time.

Tenwatch

Three years ago, when BOD went down, we started a #thirteenwatch series – we joked at the outset that Deccie would take a careful look at all the contenders and pick Keith Earls anyway. In the event, when Face Doesn’t Fit got injured himself in January, Deccie’s decision was made for him – Cave was edging the shirt on form, but Deccie, 2012 edition, wasn’t one for taking a punt – this was the year of zero non injury-enforced changes. Anyway, Earls it was, and it was the right call – he had a good series and justified Deccie’s call. This year, the equivalent debate is at number ten – and will the Milky Bar Kid take a careful look at the contenders and pick Ian Madigan anyway?

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland career to date, no one player is indispensable – any personnel loss has been ridden with ease, and this has included the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, BOD and Tommy Bowe at different times – all have been replaced from within the squad without a huge discernible impact on performances and results. While it’s tempting to think Schmidt is an alchemist who can turn provincial base into national gold, he’s just the ultimate pragmatist – the system is everything, and every cog knows his role to a tee. The provincial academy system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to produce mature, driven and intelligent players (the type who are happy to go for a 10k run at 6am when they are 17) – this is a boon for Schmidt as even square peg backups (Rhys Ruddock the openside flanker?) tend to be able to slot into round holes in the system. However, if you were to peg any Ireland players as indispensable, you’d stick that label on Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton – both among the best in their position worldwide, anchors of a Lions series win (admittedly an ugly and scrappy one against a rubbish team) and pretty much impossible to replicate.

In O’Connell’s case, Iain Henderson, while a very different player, is likely to be the next giant of Irish second row play (metaphorically of course – Big Dev hasn’t gone away you know), but he isn’t there yet. In Sexton’s case, there is a cadre of players who are all of a pretty similar standard right now behind him – none offer quite the same combinastion of tactical brain, passing skill or on-field leadership, and none are currently making and ironclad case to be his backup. And it’s not just an academic question either – Sexton has been stood down and his return is at the mercy of the French medical system. Repeated concussions mean that training of any sort has yet to be possible, and the earliest return date is the 14th of February – when Ireland have the small matter of France at home and before which Ireland face Italy in Rome.   Given the importance of Sexton to the national team, and the fact that this is a World Cup year, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of not seeing Sexton in green until August. Schmidt is looking for not just a reserve, but a test starter.

In Joe Schmidt’s first season, the situation in November coalesced that if Sexton went down, Paddy Jackson would step in and start at 10, as was the case against Samoa, but that Ian Madigan offered a better bench option as he covered other positions in the backline – he was in the 23 for the Wobblies and BNZ. When it came to the Six Nations, Jackson had edged in front, manning the bench in four Six Nations games to Madigan’s one. Jackson was first choice at Ulster, while Madge was having a difficult season at Leinster and was stuck on the bench behind Gopperth.  The view in April was that Jackson would start in Argentina, and it looked like he would have a chance to cement his place as Sexton’s backup. Meanwhile, Munster’s Ian Keatley was further down the pecking order.

In the second half of this year, its tightened up considerably – Jackson went down with a back injury (related to his kicking style) and missed the Argentina tour.  Meanwhile, Madigan sparked into form in the Pro12 playoffs, albeit playing in the centre.  He played both games in Argentina and emerged in credit as Ireland secured two hard-fought, if workmanlike wins.

Jackson returned for Ulster’s ERCC campaign, but has looked rusty, and missed out on the squad for the November series. He has spent more time recuperating, but looked something like his old self in the RDS on Saturday – playing flat on the gainline and bringing the backline into the game well early on, but he faded from view as Leinster gradually got on top. His biggest problem is he is still not kicking goals – something that is recovery driven, for now anyway, although his place kicking has often been shaky.  Ireland do not have a Ruan Pienaar in the team, and the 10 will be required to kick the all-important two- and three-pointers.

This November, Madigan started for Ireland against Georgia and was in the 23 for the big games. He again played well in those matches, even winning the crucial penalty turnover to win the game against Australia.  He has recently been getting some extended gametime at outhalf for Leinster, and it’s fair to say its been a bit of a curates egg. He has been standing a mile behind the gainline and is struggling to get the Leinstertainment thing going. As ever, his tactical kicking – judging when to kick and executing well – is a way off the highest level, and this is the biggest black mark in his game.

We have the feeling that at this stage of his career, Madigan may never develop into a strong ‘controlling 10′, but he is outstanding at certain aspects of the game.  Keatley and an in-form Jackson are probably more rounded footballers, more Sexton-like, but neither offers the same game-breaking ability or explosiveness.  Even at provincial level, when the ERCC kicks back in and Matt O’Connor has full jurisdiction on team selection, it will be interesting to see if he reverts to Jimmy Gopperth – it would certainly seem the logical MOC choice for a trip to Wasps and their gargantuan pack. But it is also worth noting the Madigan’s goal kicking is not juist the best of the bunch but exceptional bny any standard – perhaps even better than Sexton’s (we can’t locate Sexton’s Top14 stats for a complete comparison – feel free to educate us):

  • Madigan 90.3%: Pro12 36/38 ERCC 20/24
  • Keatley 79.7%: Pro12 33/41 ERCC 14/18
  • Jackson 76.7%: Pro12 17/22 ERCC 6/8

Ian Keatley has been something of the ugly duckling of this bunch – given his career path it’s pretty tempting to dismiss him as a modestly talented journeyman. Indeed, until very recently, he’s been painted merely as a placeholder between Munster ligind Rog and future Munster ligind JJ Hanrahan – a filler-inner until Hanrahan is ready. In reality, since Keatley took over as Munster starter, he has continually improved and is playing at a level few – and not us – would have predicted possible two years ago. He still has a tendency to disappear out of games a little, but he is a solid option, and has the advantage of being Conor Murray’s regular partner.

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Spanish Inquisition-esque ruthless pragmatism, he will select whoever fits the system best – right now that seems likely to be Madigan, who is familiar with Schmidt’s methods and is effectively the incumbent. But it isn’t set in stone – this time last year, Madigan seemed likely to be backup for the Six Nations, but Paddy Jackson edged ahead in January. Jackson, nearly three years younger than Madigan and five younger than Keatley, has a more impressive body of work at that age that either of the contenders (it’s easy to forget how young he is – he is a month older than Ronan O’Gara was on the occasion of that Scotland game, and a year and a half younger than Sexton was when he got his first Ireland start), and seems likely to improve further as time time goes on – but in the here and now, he feels like a coltish and unreliable option. Plus he is coming back from an injury and re-modelling his kicking action to prevent further injury. We’d have him in third place at this moment.

Has Keatley done enough to oust Madigan?  At provincial level, you could certainly make that argument – Madigan has yet to be selected at 10 for a European game this season. Part of that is down to backline injuries and Madigan’s ability to fill other positions, but it makes it more difficult for Schmidt to pick him at 10 if he hasn’t been playing there in the important provincial matches.  It’s very easy to blame that on Matt O’Connor, but O’Connor is a professional rugby coach who sees Madigan every day, and is yet to be convinced that Madigan is the best outhalf he has. If Sexton was fit, we’d be 100% certain that Madigan would be in the 23 – but don’t rule out Schmidt picking Keatley to start and keeping Madigan in his 23. It’s still odds-against at this moment, but Keatley is pretty close right now.  It’s still all up for grabs, with two rounds of European matches to show what they can do.

Interpro Mini League

And the winner of the Holiday Season Interpro League is… Leinster. They were the only province to manage two wins over the festive period which was low on memorable rugby matches and high on debates about whether international players should be more readily available for these matches or not.

By far the best match over the period was Connacht’s superb victory over Munster. For those who don’t get to see Connacht as often as they would like (count us as members of the club) the win was notable for the amount of rugby Connacht were willing to play on a rain-and-wind-lashed (i.e. slightly above average weather) night in Galway. With Kieran Marmion controlling the tempo, Connacht showed far more enterprise than Munster in creating space. Ex-pro commentators tend to be remarkably conservative types and generally implore the team they are discussing to play less rugby, typically suggesting they kick the ball away or stick it up the jumper, but Connacht confounded everyone with a willingness to play ball. Their short-passing game was especially impressive, with the passer frequently delaying his popped pass to perfection. Passing!  Instead of just running at the chap in front of you!  Who knew such things were possible?  Their youthful second rows were marvels to behold, especially in the carrying stakes, but the outstanding players on the pitch were their footballing centres, Bundee Aki and the increasingly magnificent Robbie Henshaw. It was Connacht’s only win of the mini-series, but their two other games were tough away matches and they got a bonus point out of Ravenhill. They stay on course for the top six.

For Leinster and Munster it was a curious series. With home advantage ruling supreme, Leinster won two, while Munster won one. However, the supine, apologetic nature of Leinster’s defeat in Thomond Park almost counts as a double-defeat. It was a result that had been threatening for some time, with Leinster having played numerous get-out-of-jail cards in the weeks leading up to it. Finally, the full-scale awfulness of their form was laid bare and we suspect that the ‘spoiled Leinster fans’ line will harder to dredge up in light of this defeat; any fanbase would be entitled to ask for more than that. It was like the clock was rewound to 2005.

As for the men in red, they seem to have the opposite problem to Leinster. They keep on losing, but nobody seems to notice. A fine and impressive win over Leinster in which Donncha O’Callaghan passed the ball at least twice masks the fact that they have now lost four games from five including at home in Europe, away to Glasgow where they surrendered a handsome lead, and in Connacht where they routinely win. They’ve allowed Leinster to close the gap on them to a point and given that a European exit is more likely than not, they need to keep the points column ticking over in the Pro12.

Up in Ulster, injuries and a lot of behind the scenes messing around have scuppered the season. All the talented blonde backs in the world count for little when there is nobody up front who can make the hard yards. With Nick Williams injured for the foreseeable, and useless anyway for at least the last 12 months, Iain Henderson not back until possibly after the Six Nations, Stuart McCloskey also crocked and Chris Henry’s return as yet unknown, their only decent yard-maker is a second row, Dan Tuohy. One supsects they would offer a king’s ransom for a decent bludgeon and a passable openside, where the only available player is Clive Ross. As Stephen Ferris sort-of put it, ‘I don’t mean to disrespect anyone but something-something Clive Ross’.  Ulster may find the squeeze coming on for semi-final places; it looks increasingly like a season that will be put down to experience, possibly including Neil Doak’s experience as a head coach.

The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

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