O’Connell’s Swansong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rugby’s Great Institution

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

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

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

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

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

Replacements:

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

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

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

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

The Clermont of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Matty Gets The Chop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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