Willie Anderson on the VCR

While idly thinking about how terrible Leinster were on Sunday, something popped into our head – was this the end of the great Leinster side? A few names are already gone – Dorce, BOD, Cullen, Jennings – and we’re certainly long past the peak. The difficulty about managing this type of decline is having to do a huge amount in a small period of time.

Consider the Munster Liginds – their peak was, ironically, the year Leinster finally broke through – 2009. They were European champions, the best team in Europe and the backbone of a cracking Lions side. But less than 2 years later, their shark-jumping moment happened – a 32-16 thumping in Toulon (then European novices) that was notable for how shocking it was to see such a great team eviscerated. That kicked off the gradual process of putting the Liginds out to seed, albeit not before winning that years Pro12, with the young Conor Murray to the fore.

Three years later, Munster made the HEC semi-final, also playing Toulon, but with only five of the players from 2011. There were still Liginds on the payroll – O’Connell, O’Callaghan – along with a few stopgaps – Downey, Dougall – but, amazingly, only 12 of that team are still at Thomond, and just one played in the first Toulon game five years ago. An incredible amount of change.

  • Toulon 32-16 Munster (Jan 2011): Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Tuitupou, J Murphy; O’Gara, Stringer; Du Preez, Varley, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Coughlan, Wallace, Leamy. Replacements used: Mafi, O’Leary, Darragh Hurley, Sherry, Buckley, O’Driscoll, Ronan, D Ryan.
  • Toulon 24-16 Munster (April 2014): Jones, Earls, Laulala, Downey, Zebo, Keatley, Murray, Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, Foley, O’Connell, Stander, Dougall, Coughlan. Replacements used: Denis Hurley, Hanrahan, Cronin, Casey, O’Callaghan, O’Donnell
  • Players playing in both games (5): Earls, Cawlin, Varley, O’Connell, O’Callaghan
  • Players from 2011 currently playing for Munster (1): Earls

The same weekend as Toulon ended the Ligind, Leinster beat Racing Metro with 13 players who are still on the payroll (Nacewa, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Boss, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ruddock, O’Brien, McFadden, Reddan, Toner, Ryan) and Ulster beat Biarritz with 7 men who are still plying their trade in Belfast (Trimble, iHumph, Pienaar, Best, Tuohy, Falloon, Henry) as well as BJ Botha.

Are Leinster facing the Munster scenario, where only one player is around in five years time? Or the ‘Leinster’ one, where the bedrock of the team is already on the books? Much of that in theory relates to the age profile – you’d look for your core 25-30 year olds to backbone that transition and help bring through the younger cohort. Looking at the 2011 Munster team, there is a dearth of players like that – something the Mole has looked at in the past.

Looking at the list of Leinster players (Heaslip didn’t play in that match – I know, weird – but was and is a key player from that era who remains on the books), the concern is not perhaps the age profile but injury-afflictions. The main age-related concerns are the two scrum halves, now more fitfully effective than ever, Nacewa and Mike Ross.  Heaslip can’t go on forever but is astonishingly durable and could conceivably go on for another three seasons – although Nick Easter might think that’s a low estimate.  Mike Ross is in decline, but with not one but two internationals – three if you count Mike Bent – waiting to take over from him, that position doesn’t appear to be a major concern.  The scrum half position is a live issue, though, and it remains very much in the balance whether Luke McGrath is technically good enough to be a Heineken Cup starter in the future.

What was worryingly evident on the pitch on Saturday was a lack of on-pitch leadership. Leinster’s biggest problem is that each of Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Richardt Strauss appear to be struggling under the weight of accumulated injuries.  Healy and O’Brien are two of Ireland’s most dynamic and explosive players, destructive ball carriers blessed with fast-twitch muscle fibres.  Their like is rarely produced.  However, neither has been able to be at their best over… what…  two to three seasons at this stage as a result of numerous injuries.  Jonny Sexton has had concussion issues and has yet to reclaim his usually regal form since his extended layoff.  On Sunday he was unrecognisable as the player we know.  Luke Fitzgerald’s class remains, but he’s another who is injured more often than not. Ian Madigan might be an important member of Joe Schmidt’s squad, but it’s reasonable to say he needs to spend at least as much time specialising and developing his own game as he does stepping into the officer corps. And there would have been Kevin McLoughlin too, profoundly underrated and at his best a hugely influential presence.  That’s your 25-30 class right there – guys who may only have seen Willie Anderson through the medium of video – but none at this point are where Leinster need them to be.

It’s worth mentioning of course that they are all just back from the World Cup, and fatigue is one possible issue – something Dorce highlighted today. That said, only Sean O’Brien of the above would be happy with his RWC performances – Ireland’s on-pitch leaders were largely from Munster (O’Connell, O’Mahony, Earls) or Ulster (Best, Henderson), and the 25-30 Leinster men were curiously absent when talking about Ireland’s standouts (Heaslip was the best Leinster player on view in our opinion).

This was to be the generation of leaders who would take over from the previous one; the O’Driscoll-Darcy-Cullen-Horgan-Jenno generation.  But if this group of players is taken out of the equation, for whatever reason, it’s a step down in terms of quality and experience to the next group of would-be leaders.  One man who has long been inked in as a future captain is Rhys Ruddock.  Tough and willing to put his body where others wouldn’t, he is an obvious contender, but he is only making his way back from injury himself.  But who else?  Leinster have a number of somewhat enigmatic talents such as Noel Reid, Jordi Murphy and Sean Cronin; players whose ability isn’t in question, but it’s not clear they have the credentials to become the spiritual successors to Gordon D’arcy, Shane Jennings and Bernard Jackman.  It looks a way off for the time being. Garry Ringrose looks nailed on, but ask BOD during the Gary Ella era how much difference at outside centre can make on his own.

We can all agree that Leinster are unlikely to be troubling the horses in Europe this season, but there is always the soothing balm of the Pro12.  Last year Leinster were hopeless in this competition, and it was that which did for Matt O’Connor (not the style of play as stated by Shaggy in the Sunday Times – Leinster fans were quite happy when Cheika was winning trophies without troubling the whitewash).  Leo Cullen will be expected to deliver Leinster to the semi-final stages and hopefully to go and win it.  But then this year it’s likely to be a soothing balm for pretty much everyone.  It seems unlikely that any of Munster, Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets or Ulster will be still alive at the pointy end of things in the ERC.  There’s only so much soothing balm to go around, and not all wounds can be balmed sufficiently.  But such a challenge will only be mounted if their key 25-30 year old leaders are at their best.  Leinster desperately need Healy, O’Brien, Kearney and Sexton to overcome their current issues and regain their effectiveness.  Failure to do so and this transition could be longer, and deeper, than anyone has probably considered.

Advertisements

Nothing to Celebrate

It’s been a grim and tragic weekend in Europe, and rugby’s relevance has been put in perspective. The games in France were postponed, and only Toulouse in the ERC were demanded to play – incorrectly in our view. As for us, we’ve been a bit bogged down with the Mini Eggs and Petit Pallas, but, in lieu of a full article, we tweeted our predictions for Europe on Friday. And we weren’t positive – we expected all three provinces in the ERC to go out before the knockouts – nothing about the on-pitch action has compelled us to change that call.

Ulster look hopelessly weak in the backrow – in three of this weekend’s six games, backrow forwards won MOTM, and backrow forwards are often the difference between the best sides and the pretenders. Win the breakdown and you win the etc. In a key position like number 8, Ulster will be fielding Nick Williams in direct opposition to Louis Picamoles and Billy Vunipola – ouch. Plus they have so little depth, they have been flaking around the AIL, giving Steven Mulholland a start against the Dragons – to say it didn’t work would be an understatement. Ulster have been linked with Victor Vito – it would be better if a transfer was somehow arranged for one of the quality Irish number 8s – but one way or another, they don’t have much hope with Diack and Williams in the first team.

Four years ago, when Ulster’s run of knockout HECs began, in the absence of Fez they fielded a backrow of Diack, Henry (only a couple of seasons into his conversion from 8), Wannenburg in a shuddering defeat to the Saints – Courtney Lawes physically dominated Ulster single handedly, and that type of superiority can be expected when Toulouse and Globo Gym come calling. While Saracens may have continued a recent inability to get a fourth bonus point try in Saturday’s facile victory over Toulouse, it is hard to envisage Ulster being in a position to take advantage of such sloppiness. Only Oyonnax can realistically be beaten over two legs.

As for Leinster, our thoughts were that we didn’t see a path to four wins for them, and with more than 140 characters, we’d truthfully have said that three looked like an ask. Now, following a desperately poor home thumping by Wasps, the goal becomes winning any game in this extremely difficult pool – away to Bath then two games against Toulon are all unlikely games to win. When Bath come calling in early January, they may be desperate for points against an already eliminated Leinster – don’t bet on that being won either. In addition to the quality of the teams in the pool, Leinster have to deal with the fact that Bath and Wasps feel they owe Leinster one after last year – and the joy of the Wasps players was obvious.

Even Jonny Sexton’s return was unable to galvanise Leinster, and indeed it might have been his worst professional display since he was packed back to St Mary’s seven year ago – leadership within the squad was sorely lacking and Cullen has some serious work to do. For all Jamie Heaslip’s qualities, his captaincy credentials have to be questioned.  It is well and good leading by example, and we imagine he is thoroughly respected within the squad, but there are times when a bit of blood and thunder are called for too.  The players still seem insistent that the squad are in a good place and a performance is just around the corner – a mantra that has been consistent for over a year. Perhaps it’s time to accept that isn’t the case and something urgently needs to change to break the malaise.  It was telling that after Dave Kearney’s untimely slip let Wasps in fdor a desperately soft try, not one player came over to him individually.  It’s at such times that leaders need to step forward, but nobody did.  Troubling stuff.

Munster at least won their game, but in front of a sparse crowd, the rugby on offer was dire, with error after error, and a bonus point only secured against the weakest team in the competition in the 74th minute. CJ Stander looked about the only decent player on the pitch. We felt on Friday that Munster would struggle to qualify while missing Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Last season, any time they were down two of O’Connell, O’Mahony and Murray, the level of performance was well lower.  Add to the loss column Tommy O’Donnell and, sadly again, Mike Sherry and things are looking grim indeed.  If we assume that Munster win their home games and beat Treviso away, bringing the pool down to bonus points, its going to be really tough to secure the necessary points without being at their best – which they clearly aren’t. Plus, at Saturday’s level of performance, they are unlikely to win all their home games. Next weekend in Paris will tell us a lot – a scoreline/performance like Saracens in January and the jig is likely up for Munster this year. It will be an incredibly emotional occasion for Paris and for Stade, and warning lights should be flashing.

On the bright side, we thought Connacht would win five games and get a home QF in the Euro Vase – even though they are 18 points ahead of the Hairsprays in the Rabo, this competition still carries a significant carrot. The Premiership sides should be favoured, based on last years engagement levels from the French, but Connacht have a good draw (the Siberian trip may have been arduous, but you’d be surprised how positive these things can be for team morale; the team that sleeps in the dugout together under a mountain of blankets stays together) and are playing better than at any time we can remember. Thank goodness for them.

BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.