What’s this ‘guile’ business all about?

The leaves are starting to turn brown and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the annual bot of speculating as to what exactly ‘s midfield for the upcoming season will look like. With James Downey and Casey Laulala being moved on this summer, whatever happens this year it will be something new.

In their places arrive Tyler Bleyendaal, an intriguing Kiwi centre and Andrew Smith, a less celebrated signing who has the look of a classic journeyman, but in reality, a player about whom nobody really knows very much.

An interview with Axel Foley has added some intrigue to the mix. He describes Bleyendaal and Smith as adding a little ‘guile’ in midfield. These days coaches rarely talk about guile or skill, preferring to focus on physicality, and the contact warzone. So that’s a good start.

The real bit of interest is his declaration that he is open to the idea of squeezing both Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan into his team, implying a preference for a ‘second five-eighth’ type player at 12. It has been the long held belief of anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain that Munster have oodles of dangerous runners out wide but lack distributors in midfield to get them moving onto the ball. Rob Penney’s desire to get the ball wide was reasonably well founded, but too often the passing skills weren’t up to it and the ball was just too slow in getting there. Even their better centres in recent times haven’t really had great distribution skills.

Everyone seems to be assuming without really thinking much about it that Foley’s appointment represents a – brace yourselves – ‘return to traditional Munster values’, but we have never really bought that line. This bit of idle chatter encourages us further that he will try to get Munster’s to play a relatively dynamic brand of rugby, hopefully unleashing his fastmen in the wide channels. Matt Giteaus’s brilliance for Toulon and even, erm, Gavin Henson’s fleeting greatness at the tail end of last season reminded us all of the value of the distributing 12. With Stuart ‘I’m Huge’ Olding being primed for a big season for Ulster, the Keatley-Hanrahan-Bleyendaal triumvirate at Munster and – dare we suggest it? – possibly Ian Madigan stepping into the role in Leinster, is the age of the second-five eighth upon us?

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Jonny’s Coming Back

Hello everyone. Welcome back! The rugby season is cranking up and the blog will be getting back to its usual schedule after our summer downtime. We’re wonderfully refreshed after the break, thanks for asking.

So… where to begin?

The Indo is reporting that Jonny Sexton is returning to Leinster next season. And while the phrase ‘The Indo is reporting…’ should come with the usual disclaimers, the report appears pretty definitive and a bunch of other news sources have jumped on it. We’d been given a ‘you heard it here first’ last week that the deal was ‘dans le sac’.

It’s impossible to see it as anything other than great news. There has been the odd bout of griping that the IRFU could have saved a packet by leaving him in France where he was doing just fine, but such arguments miss one crucial point. The IRFU is committed to having all the players on home soil, and the model for Irish rugby that has proved reasonably successful since the dawn of professionalism has been to have the best players centrally contracted and playing their rugby for the provincial teams.

The system has its flaws and isn’t perfect, but is founded on the principal that the players’ performance is maximised by managing their gametime and ensuring that the national team’s interests are fed into by the provinces. If you don’t agree with that premise, that’s fine, but be sure to apply the same logic when, say, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson or Robbie Henshaw are negotiating their next contract. Sexton is arguably the single most important player for Ireland’s World Cup and future Six Nations chances, so if an optimally managed Sexton is just 5% better than he would otherwise be, it will be money well spent.  That’s before we even get into the benefits of visibility of our star players, marketing the game to punters and other intangibles.

We’ve said before that negotiating these high-profile contracts is a thankless job; sign the player and you’ve paid him too much money, lose him and you’re too much of a penny-pincher. So it is nice to be able to say the IRFU should be given a pat on the back for a job well done. The problems arose in the first place because they dragged their heels and looked complacent, giving Racing and other suitors all the time they wanted to sweet-talk the player, but this time they’ve wasted no time, locking things down before the domestic season has even started.

Readers will recall Joe Schmidt’s lamentation during the Six Nations preparations that ‘we have lost control of the player’, and no doubt he has impressed upon those writing the paycheques the importance of keeping the players at home where they can best manage them. Sexton is a card-carrying member of the Schmidt fanclub and it’s easy to imagine Schmidt having a hands-on role in the deal.

So, Ireland will stand to benefit. It’s a World Cup year where the players’ game exposure tends to be managed more strictly than ever. Sexton won’t get the benefit of that over the next nine months, because he won’t be here until next season, but presumably his World Cup build-up and pre-season will be managed by the IRFU now. But the biggest winner by far is Leinster. After all, Ireland still have access to the player and their frustrations in terms of Six Nations preparation time pale beside Leinster’s problem; they lost their most important player. Now they will have him back (in a year’s time) and the knock-on effect should make Leinster a more attractive proposition for other players. A Leinster with Sexton at 10 should be competing for silverware on all fronts.

There will be lots of talk of Ian Madigan being ‘the big loser here’ and it being ‘time to think about his next move’ and so on, but the be-quiffed one and everyone else would be as well ignoring it. He has an entire year before Sexton gets here and should be focusing exclusively on playing as well as he can this season; that means making himself first-choice at Leinster (whether at 10 or 12), continuing to get exposure at test level and securing his place in the World Cup squad, for which there will be significant competition. He’s contracted with Leinster until 2016 in any case, so any long, dark nights of the soul are miles down the road and there is plenty he can do to shape his career in the meantime.