Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart

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Trophy Time in de Wesht

Wasn’t there a reason it was last weekend Leinster and Munster tried to lose to one another in the Aviva? Isn’t there some important driver as to why they always play just after the Six Nations? There is some reason why we have to endure forests of self-congratulatory articles about the “biggest rivalry in rugby” and such at this time of year, but we just can’t put our fingers on it.

Anyway, it was pretty important in the context of the Pro12, and that’s absolutely the only competition happening right now. Yes sir, nothing else of note going on. Except of course the European Challenge Cup, which for some reason only Connacht get to play in – which seems a bit unfair on Ulster, Munster and Leinster, but there you go. Connacht are going to Grenoble this weekend, and, in truth, are in a bit of a pickle.

Grenoble are about the only French team who bother their hole about this competition, which can surely only be down to the Irish connection – just like Clermont fans had never thought of wearing the team’s colours before playing Munster (right Gerry?), French teams had never thought they could win away until Birch turned up. Montpellier made a fatal error by qualifying for the knockout stages this season, but they won’t over-estimate Cardiff again in a hurry.

If Connacht do win, they get to play a “glamour” (everything is relative) semi-final at the dog track against Quins (or Reading Samoa), but for all the nice pats on the head about O’Shea or Biiiiiiiiiig Bob going back to Ireland, that would be a darn tough game – English clubs are dominating Europe this year. And after that it would be a final against another bunch of proud yeoman – Glaws or Sale probably. Tough run in.

It’s worth asking if, given Connacht’s injury list, particularly in the halves, whether a more plausible route to a trophy is not going through the Premiership’s midtable fillers but through .. um .. Leinster and co in the Pro12.

Still, that path is a little tricky too. There are 3 rounds to go, and a lot of games between the top six still to come, but Leinster, Connacht and Glasgae look pretty much guaranteed playoff slots, with Ulster, Scarlets and Munster in for the final place. You can easily see a scenario where Connacht end up with a home playoff game; this probably hinges on them beating Munster at home.

Pat Lam has delivered an incredible season so far for Connacht, and a trophy would be a fine way to top it off – it’s a measure of how sure-footed they have been and how fantastic their rugby has been that not getting one would feel like a minor disappointment. The major target at the beginning of the year was qualification for something called the “European Champions Cup”, which we’ve never heard of, but it’s been sealed.

After spending hours delving through tinterwebs researching this competition, it appears there are also quarter finals this weekend in it – the English clubs look in the driving seat, and in spite of the confusing semi-final permutations, Saracens are our bet to de-throne Toulon and give Stephen Jones a big smile on his face.

Anyway, getting back to the important stuff – if Lam wants to bring some silverware to Galway, maybe he should think about throwing the kids in on Saturday. Sure, it would prompt a bout of hand-wringing about “integrity of the competition” but it’s not like the French care about it, and when the big clubs change the rules to suit themselves, integrity is a damaged concept anyway. Time to take a dive, Connacht.

Anaesthesia in the Aviva

Leinster edged Munster out at the Palindrome at the weekend.  It was a hard-fought, but low-quality affair and rather than both sides looking for the killer blow, in the last 10 minutes it felt as if each was diving to the canvas offering the other the victory. If it were boxing, you’d be asking about suspicious betting patterns.

For all the hype that accompanies these matches, they aren’t always all that great, and you have to go back to 2011 when Ronan O’Gara landed a last-minute touchline penalty to secure a thrilling 24-23 win for the last classic match between the sides.  This content of this one will be quickly forgotten, but the result was important.

Munster really, really needed the win to keep in the hunt for the semi-finals and having come up short, they appear condemned to finishing outside the top four and, worryingly, finishing fourth of the Irish provinces and finding themselves scratching around for European rugby next year.  For Leinster, and for all the handwringing over their performance level, they find themselves at the top of the Pro12.  Top of the world Ma!

Still, don’t let that mask their failings here.  Leinster tried to play a bit, but their exiting from their own half was dreadful, relying on a malfunctioning box-kicking game which tended to give the ball back to Munster no more than 15 metres away from where Leinster had it.  It was feeble stuff.  As for the lineouts; simply awful.  And what of Cian Healy, or at least the imposter who has replaced him; a player who shows little familiarity with the game of rugby?  Whatever about competing with Jack McGrath, soon he will be under pressure from Michael Bent.  Something has gone badly wrong.

Leinster were ultimately saved by the surehanded Jonny Sexton, who gave a streetwise performance and found impressive distance with his line-kicking, and Jamie Heaslip who frequently gave examples of textbook tackling technique.  At this stage in his career, it occurs to me that his durability is a result of his technical excellence, allowing him to take collisions on his terms.  Rhys Ruddock also put up a good show, and won the match-winning penalty with a trademark breakdown turnover.  With Leinster running out of ideas in attack, they were content to live off Munster’s mistakes to eke out the winning scores. And there were plenty of them.

Munster’s leading light was Conor Murray, who, like Sexton, looks like his old self after a post-World Cup slump, and Johnny Holland performed pretty well for a rookie at this level – helped by Murray in a Pienaar/Jackson 2012/13 type of way.  He was certainly better than his replacement Ian Keatley, who appears to have had a total crisis of confidence, leaving his game in a shambolic state. Foley, in a rather mealy-mouthed fashion, talked about him being “experienced” and “an international” in the aftermath, both of which are true, but at this point he looks behind a guy with about 144 minutes of Pro12 experience in the pecking order. He needs a fresh start, be it a new DOR (Mick Bradley – honk!) or a new team.

Time was that in the aftermath of these matches, an online bloodbath would take place between the two sets of fans, nitpicking over refereeing decisions (which were appalling in many cases) and what-ifs, but nowadays each group turns inwards to lament the rubbishness of their performance.  Leinster fans knew they got out of jail in the final 10 minutes, when they were truly totally lacking in composure, while Munster fans continued to grieve over a wretched season.

They must surely have watched through their fingers as David Kilcoyne butchered a three-man overlap to run into the nearest tackler.  If ever one moment encapsulated the failings of a team this was it!  It’s next to or near impossible imagining a Connacht player, let alone an Argentinian or an All-Black, making the same appalling decision.  Being able to fix the defender and pass to the man outside in a two (or four!) on one situation should be a basic minimum for a professional player, regardless of shirt number.  Sad to say it, but the team as a whole does not have anything like the required skill level, and it does not appear that management are interested in fostering a culture where skill is highly valued.  It’s all ‘contact’, ‘passion’ and ‘manning up’.  Pat Lam speaks an entirely different language.

That’s why they’re sixth in the league, with a huge game to come on the dog track in 10 days – huge for next season and huge to arrest a decline that seems never-ending. On one hand, you have a Connacht team shorn of half backs and think this is an opportunity for Munster, but then, every time you think Munster can’t do any worse they go off and shoot themselves in the foot once again. With Munster these days, they are hoping against hope in spite of the coaching ticket. Connacht seem to be like Wales, where Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny can get crocked and the newbies come in to a well-coached and slick setup with very little impact on performance. It’s increasingly difficult to see how Munster conjure up a winning performance – which would leave them with a high-stakes ERC playoff in Musgrave Park against Embra. Surely that can’t be lost too?