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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All The Rugby

“They didn’t play any rugby” Matt O’Connor, of Connacht, who Leinster had just narrowly beaten, 26th October 2013.

Leaving aside the unedifying nature of the Leinster head coach’s remarks about Connacht and turn that on its head. If Connacht didn’t play any rugby, then Leinster played all the rugby on the night, right? Sheesh – if that was all the rugby Leinster will play, they are in trouble. Saturday seemed to herald reality setting in around the Oar Dee Esh – Leinster are really in transition now, both in terms of personnel and gameplan. And grace of the head coach, but that’s another matter.

We have blogged about this recently, but it seems more real now after two successive home games in which Leinster played desperate rugby against two limited teams (apologies to our Western friends and any freaks who follow us in Castres).

The Scooby Doo ending after the Milky Bar Kid swanned off to Lansdowne Road to be biased in favour of Leinster players (© C. George, Cork) was that Matt O’Connor would come in, hand local favourite Ewan “Ian Madigan” Madeegan the keys to the house and continue to play the intelligent and incisive offloading and running game that Schmidty used to conquer Europe. After all, when he was hired, ‘continuity’ was the keyword bandied around by the bigwigs upstairs.  Sure, results might decline a little, but we’ll still get to the HEC/RCC (delete as per status on the financial-oblivion-o-meter) knock-out stages and the Pro12 playoffs, they said.

Now, they might still do that, but it seems they will be doing it the down and dirty way. There was a lot of pointing at Leicester Tigers try-scoring record and the surprising sight of Oooooooooh Manu Tuilagi eschewing running into someone to find actual space  when O’Connor pitched up in D4 – but the Tigers are the masters of the pragmatic and are fundamentally a team of tough forwards. O’Connor’s Leinster will be using route one as their base, and possibly adding baubles when the appropriate time comes.

And this is rankling a bit with the D4tress faithful [Aside: can one be faithful if not from Munster? Maybe faithful but not brave. Or something. JOKE] who have gotten fat on a diet of spellbinding tries and Europe-conquering under Schmidty. Don’t forget, when Cheika came in with a mandate to toughen up the pack who had been eaten up by the Liginds, there was plenty of discontentment about the grim style he adopted, even while it was acknowledged that his job was to start with the forwards. And the 2008 league win would have been a platform for absolutely nothing had they lost to Munster in *that* game in 2009.

They were rank outsiders for that game for a good reason. They had played a huge amount of dross in Europe that year – a limp defeat in Castres and a dire try-less drudge against Embra in their final game. The reason Leinster had to travel to the Stoop for the quarter-final was that they had qualified as the lowest-ranked group winner, in spite of a perfect start where they were on ten points after two tricky games – and then when they got there, the combination of manic defence, Quins butchery and a minor miracle got them through. The Liginds were a far superior team that got ambushed. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The functional league win and Stoop game have become part of the narrative, but it’s easy to forget how unhappy many Leinster fans were with the rugby being played by Cheika.

It’s easy to sympathise with O’Connor – he has an impossible succession job: his best player has left, his best remaining player is being heavily linked with a move to France, and the best player in Leinster’s (and Ireland’s) history has a maximum of twelve-ish games left in blue should he stay fit. Tough gig by anyone’s standards. But no-one at all expected Leinster to end up playing like this so quickly. Hopefully it’s a passing phase (the first this season in blue – lolzers) but it’s funny how quickly a decline can kick in – 21 months after the Munster Rolls-Royce cruised over the Galactico Ospreys side, they were a rabble being beaten senseless in Toulon and looking way, way over the hill. Leinster fans will hope that, if they do plumb the depths of those results, they at least do it while playing decent rugby. Right now, that doesn’t look a good bet.

Parallel Universe

Montpellier and Castres will be in action this weekend against Irish opposition; both at the same time in fact, which is very convenient for those who might have a passing interest in both matches.

Montpellier pose a significant threat to Ulster’s hopes of qualification.  They’re a beastly team with a mean pack of forwards and when they bring their A game they’re as unplayable as the best French sides.  They never quite bring the same energy on the road with them, but hey, plus ca change, plus ca meme chose and all that.  Hey Gerry, get off our typewriter!

The way the French typically set up their back five and operate their lineout is very different to Irish teams.  Their second rows are designed primarily with scrummaging and mauling in mind, with a side order of lifting – yes, lifting, not jumping – in the lineout.  In the winter months, the Top Quatorze turns into a slog, invariably decided by penalties, so having a hefty scrum to milk the opposition for three pointers is seen as de rigeur.  So the French think nothing of picking two of what we would call ‘tighthead locks’, the oversized granite-hewn chaps that add heft to the scrum and maul.  For Ireland think Mike McCarthy or Donncha O’Callaghan, though in France Donners would probably be considered underpowered.  For the French, think classical baby-munchers like Lionel Nallet and Romain Millo-Chluski.  Both top out at 195cm, below the 1.99m mark that is almost considered minimum for the role in Ireland.  Clermont’s gruesome twosome of Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines are old and not particularly tall or athletic in the lineout, but bleedin’ heck, what a lot of grunt they add to the team in the tight.

This weekend Castres will line out (assuming they bring their A-team, which they probably won’t, but anyway) with Richie Gray and Uruguayan behemoth Capo Ortega in the second row.  Gray is a decent lienout jumper, in spite of his size, but don’t expect to see the burly 195cm Ortega get in the air too much.  At the weekend they won five lineouts, but only one of those won by Gray, while Ortega took none.

Same goes for Montpellier, who will have to try and get all 124kg of Jim Hamilton off the ground a few times, but the 134kg Robins Tchale-Watchou will be positively earthbound throughout.

So who catches the ball in the lineout, then?  The chaps in the backrow, that’s who.  Most French teams contain a light, athletic backrow who they can fling in the air with ease, and who runs the lineout.  The model performer in this role has been Julien Bonnaire, who has ruled the skies for eons for both France and Clermont Auvergne.  Toulouse’s unsung hero Jean Bouilhou was their lineout specialist even when Fabian Pelous was around.  Imanol Harinordoquy’s lineout skills are almost unparalleled in world rugby – some of his one-handed takes are to die for.  Montpellier’s main lineout man is the exceptionally athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo.  Though not especially tall, he has an extraordinarily springy leap and at 102kg he can be flung miles into the air.  He’ll pose Ulster massive problems at lineout time this weekend.  Each of the Castres backrow caught a lineout against Northampton and between them they stole two of Northampton’s throws.

For Ireland, picking a second row of, say, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy would be unthinkable; too unbalanced.  Where’s the lineout man?  If Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin were French, they’d probably be the main lineout callers in their teams.  Both are tall, springy and athletic and are great catchers when in the air.  More interestingly, and it’s a point Demented Mole has made before, if Tony Buckley were French he would never have been converted from the second row to prop.  At 196cm and a whopping (according to Wikipedia) 138kg, he could hardly be expected to catch much lineout ball, but that would be no barrier to success if he had the likes of Ouedraogo around him.  Buckley’s decision to convert to front row was no doubt a result of Ireland’s dearth in that area, while locks would have been in abundance.  Had those around him been able to forecast how the scrum dynamics would shift (almost impossible, unfortunately), and how important all-conquering power in the engine room would become, it would probably never have come to pass.  Buckley’s career has been mired by an inability to master the technicalities of scrummaging; in a parallel universe somewhere he’s lording it up, dishing the hurt out with his sheer bulk in the second row.

Numero Uno, and Triskaidekaphobia

There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.

When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?

He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.

Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history.  ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’.  The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.

So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.

Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.

The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it.  With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months.  They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.

The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose.  As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest.  But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.

Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference.  So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players.  No room for creativity here.  That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary.  Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre.  It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed.  But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.

Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.

With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders.  Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).

The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky.  Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far.  Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side.  Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue.  The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today.  As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric.  He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.

Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything.  Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves.  While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test.  Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.

Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.

But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.

Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 2

Teams: Leicester Tigers, Ospreys, Toulouse, Treviso

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Low. Treviso may have finished outside the top 6 of the Pro12, but they are de facto Italian champions, and deserve a place. The other three are either league champions (Ospreys, Toulouse) or runners-up (Leicester).

Preview: The proverbial group of death, containing the best team in Wales, the best team in France, historically the biggest guns in England (and the most successful at this level) and the best team in Italy.

Treviso are the obvious bunnies here, but they are no mugs at home – they spoiled Ospreys’ European season last year and nearly turned over Leicester themselves in the recent past – both will be forewarned, but don’t expect Treviso to lose six games, despite the quality of the opposition.

All three of the other sides are domestic heavyweights, but they will all have their eyes on success in both competitions – you won’t find any Castres types here. Each of them are armed with ferocious packs, and will expect to win their home games. Ospreys have often flattered to deceive at this level, but fear nobody – the binning of the galacticos has barely impacted their effectiveness, and Justin Tipruic is the best openside in the NH at present.

As for Leicester and Toulouse, no-one needs reminding of their pedigree in the competition, but they are both coming off disappointing seasons in Europe. Toulouse scraped into the QFs on the back of Quins’ implosion in the Sportsground, following their own implosion to Gloucesters Road Runners, then limply capitulated to Embra. Leicester endured a fearful beating in Ravers on a classic freezing Belfast night and finished 3rd in a nightmare pool, albeit with wins against Ulster (beaten finalists) and Clermont (beaten semi-finalists) and a team decimated by injury. Both will be hoping for redemption this season.

Verdict: This is a desperately difficult pool to call. Each of the big three will win their home games, and it will come down to who doesn’t slip up in Treviso, and how many bonus points they can glean away from home.

We have a slight leaning towards Leicester by dint of their general toughness, and memories of how disinterested Toulouse looked in their crunch game against Glaws last year – the attritional nature of the Top14 seemed to take more focus than usual for Les Rouges et Noirs. Ospreys are much improved, but are perhaps a year or two away from being able to win a group like this. Either way, expect this one to go down to the last breathless mucky scrum.