Leaders, and Being in the Lead

On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.

A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team.  ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet.  They don’t shout at each other.  They don’t need to.’

No surprise there.  If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring.  If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown.  No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.

So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game.  Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no.  ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie.  ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.

Superb leadership.  In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).

It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven.  Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense.   It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver.  Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it.  One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular.  The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it.  It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.

It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.

A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.

But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.

One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.

Advertisements

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Well. What about that? Ireland finally exploded into life in this tournament and it had everything great about the Schmidt era – strong systems, disciplined defending and accurate rugby – allied to the old school emotional highs of previous glory days. As Ireland’s players dropped like flies, the team, every time, stepped it up another level – the collective desire reaching higher and higher pitch. The so-called replacements managed to make the team even better, and the controlled fury displayed by the likes of NWJMB and Chris Henry would do the stricken O’Connell proud.

As the game went on, Ireland somehow got better and better – what started out with Peter O’Mahony continued throughout the game with Besty and Sean O’Brien, and was picked up and returned with interest by the replacements. The most incredible thing was the response to losing 2 gold-plated Irreplaceables and our best player of the tournament was how we didn’t collapse, but took the adversity, and turned it around on the French. By full time, Ireland had their fourth biggest victory over France of all time, their first double digit win in 40 years, and it could have been more.

The Mole opined on this forum a few weeks ago that he thought Henderson was better than Fez – certainly his tackle on Bernard le Roux was Ferris-esque, and on a big man too. He was truly unstoppable, as was Chris Henry in his cameo. With O’Connell, Henderson’s level of play is clearly now on a different and higher level, but its the intangibles you would worry about replacing. Munster and Ireland are typically 30% better (we’ve done the science) with O’Connell on the pitch – while the team has a strong leadership corps, O’Connell is still the heartbeat. By the same token, despite O’Mahony being our best player for the first 50 minutes, we lost nothing with Chris Henry. With Henry, its more of a step sideways to a different kind of player than a step down. Yet O’Mahony is Munster captain, and we have lost that.

And a word for Ian Madigan – you are coming on to replace Jonny Sexton – a Test Lion starter, one of the best outhalves on the planet. You’ve spent the last two years stuck behind a Kiwi journeyman at provincial level and had to listen to everyone telling you that you are the poor mans Carlos Spencer – and extravagantly talented player who cannot control a game. Well, way to answer them – the second half was bossed by Madigan in a performance we would be hailing as world class if was produced by Sexton, or Carter, or Sanchez. His emotions at the end of the game reflected how we all felt – immense pride, and definitely a few tears.

The mid-game losses were severe – Sexton was vomiting on the pitch, and it looked to us like a whiplash injury. With his history of head trauma, this is very bad news. There official story is that it was muscular, and we really hope that is the case. The alternative could be career-threatening .. as O’Connell’s injury looked to be. Tearing a muscle off the bone requires long-term rehabilitation, and one wonders if his Toulon adventure is still on the cards. Finally, up to the point he went off, O’Mahony was everywhere – the rock of our defensive lineout, he’s a massive loss.

The French, as *ahem* predicted by us, were atrocious  – Picamoles was a force of nature in the first half but in attacked they offered nothing bar speculative Scott Spedding penalties. We saw Flaky Freddie, and even Dusautoir was mishandling. This, of course, was entirely predictable – anyone with a set of functioning eyes could have seen Saint-Andre’s (lack of) coaching leading the team to this point. The team was unstructured, directionless and shapeless for four years, and chickens are coming home to roost. Despite all the claptrap we read last week about them, France were as bad as expected:

  • They have never been in better shape. Really? I would hate to see them in worse shape – wilting after an hour, they had nothing in the tank at the end
  • They are a united camp after spending months together. They were a collection of individuals, like they have been for the entire PSA reign
  • You never know what team will turn up. You do – they haven’t beaten Ireland or Wales in this RWC cycle
  • They prefer World Cups to Six Nations. Another cracker – this must be why they won the 6N in 2007 before crashing out of the RWC to a rubbish England team and then finished runners-up in 2011 before enduring a miserable RWC in which they made the final almost by default.

Thankfully, Barnesy never bought into this rubbish and stated unequivocally France were hopeless. He was in a sad minority. They will lose to a spluttering BNZ by 20 points.

The flip side of this is that, while we’ve beaten them so comprehensively, we have paid a massive price for doing so. When the emotional high dies down, you wonder would you have preferred to have played as badly as we did against Italy and lost, but have Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien (following his reaction to Pascal Pape, a dirty dirty player, giving him an impromptu prostate massage) for the quarter final. That’s a loss of 252 Test caps and 3 Test Lions – a huge price to pay. And, indeed, the successive highs were themselves driven by the losses – a counterfactual with O’Connell and Sexton present for 80 minutes could well end with a similar result without such a huge investment of emotional energy.

That experience is what we’ll struggle to replace. Joe Schmidt’s systems are so strong that the likes of Madigan, Henry, Henderson and McGrath can come straight off the bench with no negative impact on team performance. But it will be very different with upheaval in the camp (minimum three players being replaced), a diminished bench and the loss of 252 caps from managing the endgame. Factor in the investment in emotional energy expended and this will be a long tough tiring week for the squad, ahead of a really hard game. But for the moment, we’re still on a high.

It’s Alive!!!

The best test of last weekend (and November so far) was the France-Australia showdown in the Stade de France. In the gold corner were a Wallaby team coming in on the back of the traditional single-digit victory over Wales (but they were SO close this time – if only they didn’t <insert brain freeze here> they’d always beat the Southern Hemisphere sides) and in the blue corner a French team that is impossible to predict to any degree whatsoever – any result between a 10 point French win and a 40 point Wallaby win (as per two years ago) was a possibility. The relevance for Ireland was obvious – not only are the Wobs the next victims in the Joe Schmidt I-always-said-he-was-the-best-coach-in-the-world Ireland bandwagon, but the French are the team we’ll need to beat if the easier path to an historic RWC semi-final is to be realized.

In Ireland, we have a complicated relationship with the French – we disdain the way their club sides roll over away from home, lecture them on culture and passion, encourage them to be more like us in kicking corners and showing discipline; yet simultaneously go weak-kneed at Yoann Huget’s expressive eyebrows and wet ourselves at the prospect of being on the receiving end of a Wes Fofana piece of brilliance. In recent years, we’ve turned around our addiction to defeat – draws in 2012 and 2013 were bested by that incredible win in the Stade de France in March. Amazingly, we haven’t been beaten by France since Tomas O’Leary played himself off the RWC11 plane with that suicide pass in the Palindrome; and only once in the last 9 meetings (W2 D2 L5) have we lost by double digits.

Madcap French coach ™ Philippe Saint-Andre broke the habit of a lifetime and actually picked the same side as a week before – this was both surprising and concerning – is there something to worry about all of a sudden? Seems like there was – the French came out to bash the Aussies up front and stop them getting the kind of quick ball they could have fun with. The front row not only did their thing, but introduced the monstrous Samoan-Frenchman Uini Atonio to the world – we hold our hands up and confess to not watching much Atlantique Stade Rochelais – but we missed a phenomenally strong carrier and a destructive scrummager. Uh-oh.

Also, the French love a beefy second row to smash rucks and add a chunk of power to the scrum. Yoann Maestri has often flattered to deceieve a little – he never quite plays as well as he looks. On Saturday, he did, and had the Australian forwards scattered asunder on several occasions – the French urgently needed an injection of ugly brawn to the pack, and Maestri may have come of age at just the wrong time for us. Above all though, was the sustained excellence of Thierry Dusautoir – like Paul O’Connell, who brings the Munster and Ireland teams up about 30% every time he plays, Dusautoir carries the French to a high level and keeps them there. The man who haunts even Ruchie’s dreams is their key man.

Equally, the imposition of the Waratahs defensive system to the Wobblies wasn’t going to plan – the non-Tahs were struggling and the French outhalf Camille Lopez was carrying the ball right to the gain-line and through them. Lopez has been seen as the future for a couple of years now but has either been held back or got injured – he might look like a student bum looking for summer work on a vineyard, but he plays like a ballerina and had les bleus purring. He even laid a couple of eggs on restarts to remind us he is at heart an enigmatic Gallic superhero, who probably smokes 20 a day and sups beer at half-time, a la Bernard Hinault. Incredibly, this was his first game in le Stade, as it was for Teddy Thomas, who scored a brilliant individual try.

For Ireland, it was all a bit nerve-shredding. Because it looked to be dying on its feet, but IT’S ALIVE, and it has the power to dash our RWC dreams with one insouciant flick of its incredibly good-looking tail.  But let’s not forget the coach is still a lunatic, and who would safely put money on even ten of the starting fifteen making it to the World Cup team.  Camille Lopez won’t have it all his own way over the next twelve months and they could be back to fiddling around with second-raters before we know it.

In terms of the short-term goals, the Wobblies look there for the taking. Cheiks has said he is targeting the sagging behemoth that is England, and 5 or 6 changes are likely (including Portly returning in some capacity). Unlike against the Boks, we will have no qualms about mixing it with their forwards, so a subtly different gameplan is possible – and judging by the defensive shenanigans in evidence Saturday, less boot and more passing might be in order. But not that much more – it’ll be up to Ireland to keep the game structured; the looser it gets the better it suits the Wobs.  Some variation on the tried and tested formula of smashing the breakdown with ruthless accuracy and utilising Sexton and Murray’s ability to guide the team aroud the right parts of the pitch looks to be in order.  Ireland might use their attacking maul a bit more.  It worked a treat in the Six Nations and the Wobs are the sort of team against whom it can be harnessed to good effect.  We have a great chance to go 3-for-3 this November and end the year in 3rd in the rankings, but the medium-term goal of an RWC semi-final just got a little more complicated.

The Spectre of Historical Bamboozling

When New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup in outrageously fortuitous circumstances, we gave them some credit in spite of the dubious manner of their victory.  The reason was because they not only had to beat France, but the weight of history too, after so many diabolical chokes.  In similar circumstances, Ireland must beat France in Paris this weekend.  On the evidence of the tournament so far (and what better evidence is there to go on?) Ireland are a vastly better team, a better coached and selected team, more unified, fitter and more skilful and should be strong favourites for the win.  Their greatest obstacle is the weight of history; that so many visits to Paris have ended in sorry defeat and that this will affect the mentality of the players.  Ireland have a well-earned reputation as the nearly men of international rugby, and their inability to beat France more often is the prosecution’s Exhibit B (you know what exhibit A is).

The build-up this week will feature and has featured lots of phrases such as French unpredictability, the difficulty of winning in Paris, backlashes and France having one big performance in them – Gerry has even rolled out 1982 in the case for the defence.  The job for Joe Schmidt is to get such thoughts out of the players’ minds, and surely there is nobody better able to do so.  Schmidt’s modus operandi is to hand players the solution to beating opponents.  How many times have we heard that he is obsessed with process, detail and accuracy.  If the players can get previous defeats in Paris out of their minds, and focus on exploiting the French team’s weaknesses (and there are many) they will win the game, and the championship.  One thing that came out of the recent Q&A that went viral was Schmidt’s unwillingness to accept ‘received wisdoms’ and we cannot envisage how he will be in any way daunted by Ireland’s miserable record in Paris.  Focus on the process!

[Note: another was, ironically, Schmidt’s reluctance to give the 2011 BNZ team any credit for the final – he claimed they had choked worse than 2007 and were indebted to an even bigger choke – from Joubert]

Listen to, say, Keith Wood describe playing the French in Paris and he talks about a whirlwind of pace; just as you clear your lines, the French take a quick lineout, you spend the first 20 minutes without the ball as the French create ruck after ruck, phase after phase, attack after attack.  But them days is gone; the chances of Ireland struggling to handle this French team’s pace in the first 20 minutes would appear almost non existent.  Phillipe Saint Andre has stuck to his selectorial guns and excluded Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc, so a sudden upping of their slow-motion grindathon rugby is off le carte. Our catalogue of betes noires from the noughties – Clerc, Servat, Pelous, Harinordoquoy, Heymans, Jauzion, Poitrenaud – are nowhere to be seen.

We can also expect plenty of rumours of player power and a French revolt, but again, where can it come from?  Some sort of dressing room coup seemed to take place in the World Cup, when the hapless Lievremont was in place, but the leadership corp of strong personalities who were in place then are all gone – none of Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, William Servat, Dmitri Yachvili or Thierry Dusautoir are in the current squad.  Pascal Pape is the current captain and he does not have the demeanour of a man about to wrest the controls from the coach.  Heck, the man looks like he got out of bed five minutes before kick-off.

Paul O’Connell talked after the Italy game of the respect they showed Italy, and how the result came from that; well, this week, it’s important we show a healthy lack of respect for France.  If anything, in the past, we appear to have shown too much respect for them.  So many defeats appear to have been borne out by standing off the French, apparently seduced by their good looks and Galois-smoking coolness. Gerry’s oft-repeated warning about kicking loosely to their back three is as much a love letter as anything else.

Look a little closer, though, and that’s maybe not quite the case, not in the last decade anyway.  While Ireland’s record in Paris clearly points to some sort of inferiority complex, it is not so much that they are beaten out the gate; more that reactions to on-pitch events have let us down.  Recent visits to Paris have more often than not been notable for Ireland starting really well and even taking the game to the home side.  The matches have typically slid away from Ireland due to a game-changing moment going against us, or some sort of utterly wretched point-gun-at-foot-and-pull-trigger incident, or panic setting in at the first sign of momentum shifting against us.  Even the pretty abject 2012-vintage Ireland took the game to France and stormed into an early lead, before a lucky French try brought them back into the game, which was eventually drawn.

And while a scoreline of 33-10 in 2010 looks like a classic French drubbing, for the first 30 minutes Ireland were the better side, and should have scored after Gordon D’arcy’s break and chip-and-chase bounced cruelly.  Ireland paid for a daftly selected bench and were forced to bring on Paddy Wallace for the stricken Rob Kearney and had to change around most of their backline.  The pendulum swung France’s way and first Jirry Flannery, and then DJ Church, had hugely expensive moments of madness.

2008 was similar again.  Ireland were badly stuttering in the Last Days of Eddie, but they attacked France from the first moment, but gave Vincent Clerc a couple of soft jog-in tries and a freakish Cedric Heymans try appeared to put France out of sight.  But Ireland refused to lie down.  Jamie Heaslip had finally been given a start by a reluctant Eddie O’Sullivan and was outstanding, as Ireland fought back to almost win at the death.

And who could forget the 2006 bonkers-fest?  Again Ireland played most of the rugby, but just couldn’t stop punching themselves in the face, and allowed France to score a bunch of utterly ridiculous, boneheadedly farcical tries.  Geordan Murphy’s reputation of not having a ‘happy hunting ground’ in Paris was sealed here, as he endured a nightmare.  This was the game where Neil Francis gave a somewhat raw Tommy Bowe zero out of ten.  But again, Ireland refused to lie down.  Trimble replaced Bowe and was superb as Ireland countered with no less than four second half tries and had France hanging on at the end.

Ireland need to foster the same attacking spirit as they have in the past.  The key to winning will be maintaining cool heads in the face of pressure and the inevitable occasional hometown decision. Ireland should be better than France in every other respect.  A performance on a par with those delivered against England or Wales will be good enough – and more.  A win for Ireland and the sceptre of historical bamboozling can be slain.

Psychiatrists Couch

The secretary comes into the waiting room. She spots the torrid wreck on the sofa and says “the doctor will see you now”. The patient uneasily walks in and lies on the coach. “Thanks Dr Freud” they say, “we need this”.

Dr Freud: So tell me about your dream, Ireland

Ireland: Well, I keep seeing these muscular, dark-eyed stubbly geniuses in my dreams. They are so silky, fashionable and effortlessly cool. They make me feel so inadequate.

Dr Freud: What do these men say?

Ireland: They don’t even look at me. They simply go about their business. And it’s such a stylish and enigmatic business. I end up so weak-kneed that I just kick loosely to their Rolls-Royce like outside backs and they run riot as we invite them to do what they want to us. They glide past me like shadows. Such good-looking long-haired shadows. *sniffs*

Dr Freud: Let’s be more specific. Tell me about the good-looking ones.

Ireland: Well, there’s Emile N’Tamack running in try after try in the Parc des Princes. Then Philipe Saint-Andre in Durban, laughing at our heavy-legged attempts to shake off altitude. That Freddy guy, toying with our minds as he shreds our confidence and defence. Vincent Clerc – he’s the worst – he makes us cry before he even gets level with us. And Cedric Heymans – smoking a Gitanes outside Coppers, our women on his arms – so suave.

Its so unfair Doctor, we try so hard, but they don’t respect us. They are full of self-confidence and look down on our mental frailties. They ruined our holidays in South Africa, Australia and then France. They won’t let us have the ball.

Dr Freud: Hold on. Do they sing?

Ireland: They do. They sing such a manly, raucous song – a song of revolt, of brotherhood, of liberty and of great red wine. It makes our pair of dirges sound even worse. It makes them grow, I swear. Listen for yourself, you’ll find yourself saying eminense grise when talking about Yannick Jauzion.

Dr Freud: Ah! The French!

Ireland: Yes. the French. *sobs* All I can see is a tattered tricolore flying over Paris in ’89, General de Gaulle strutting down the Champs Elysee in ’45, Eric Cantona’s poetry about seagulls and trawlers and Vincent Cassel’s chiselled cheekbones. Their orange sauce is to die for!

Dr Freud: This is a severe case of inferiority complex. Sure, their unstructured backline play of the 1970s and 1980s made you look like the bunch of fat amateurs you were, but things have changed – I mean, you can beat everyone else.

Ireland: Except the All Blacks.

Dr Freud: Don’t call them that! And leave it – this session is only an hour.

Ireland: Ok. Go on.

Dr Freud: You have knocked off the Springboks a few times, Australia semi-regularly, England more often than not since the Millennium, that Scotland hoodoo has gone. I mean, it’s not 2006 any more – they aren’t even that good.

Ireland: What? But all I read is about how dangerous they are when cornered – that Wesley Fofana is like Christopher Dean.

Dr Freud: Listen, their forwards are out of shape and trot from ruck to ruck with the stamina of the bastard lovechild of CJ van der Linde and Matt le Tissier. Their captain is injured. The nincompoop coach has done nothing since Sale Sharks – Sale Sharks! – and has managed to fall out with his two best players. I mean – look at them – look! They hate each other. How can you say you can’t beat them?

Ireland: *mumbling* but … Medard’s chops … Szarszewski’s hair … Huget’s beard

Dr Freud: Forget all that – the referee on Saturday has more testosterone in his little finger than the French team have in their staring XV. Let me call in my assistant.

The doctors assistance enters the room.

Joe: Get up off the floor, you gibbering wreck. This is insane – all those great players are gone. The Saint-Andre guy – he’s ruining the team! You guys have a gameplan and are well-coached – these guys are a shambles. Here’s what we are doing – we are forgetting any mental hangups and concentrating on process. We will design a gameplan to beat a flawed and uninterested team, and we will beat them. I could not care less what has happened in the past. This is a professional sport, and we are going to win. Text all your friends with one reason why we will win, then come back to me on Saturday.

Ireland: Are we nearly done here? I’ve a puff piece to do with Gerry for Saturday.

Joe: Gerry! Do not under any circumstances speak to that man – we’ve to foster a healthy lack of respect for France. And think about this: you get their respect by beating them. They’ll like you, and might even be friends. If you are serious about getting pulling lessons from Parra, make him want to go out with you. Now, where is O’Mahony – I need to tell him he’ll turn to stone if he looks Walsh in the eye.

*curtains fall*

The truth is, Ireland’s rugby relationship with the French mirrors exactly our national hangups – we would like our society to be more open, more egalitarian and with better trains, we want to be more fashionable, eat better food and drink better wine. We look at France and see not the clapped-out third gear country of now, but a gleaming idealist paradise, with great-looking citoyens.

For all that we protest that we a modern country now with the Troubles and the banana-republic capers behind us, the reality is we don’t believe it ourselves. If we can begin to beat the French on the field, who knows where it might lead in the sphere of national development. The DORSH might even start to run regularly and on-time! Let’s start that journey on Saturday. Allez les verts! Wait, I’m over-respecting their romantic and expressive language … darn, how do we stop!

Four Plus Two Nations

If this Six Nations has yet to produce any truly classic matches, it has at least risen above the torpor of the last couple of seasons – the three middle game weeks were appalling last season, for example.  The weather has been largely favourable and the standard of play has been decent, for the most part.  It has also provided us with a uniquely intriguing endgame, where four teams share the lead with two wins from the opening three games.  Talk about up for grabs; any of England, France, Wales and Ireland can win it – with all this competition it’s almost like the .. err .. Five Nations used to be.  The championship will almost certainly come down to two matches: England vs. Wales this weekend and France vs. Ireland, the last game in the tournament.  The match in Twickenham will rule out one of England and Wales, but provided Ireland and France can overcome the might of Italy and Scotland this weekend, they’ll join them on three wins and any of three teams will go into the final weekend as potential champions.

It’s hard to call.  England are probably marginal favourites.  They look the best team of the series and they have home advantage in their crucial game against Wales.  Wales themselves are the outsiders; they have yet to spark and look jaded, their points difference isn’t looking great and beating England in Twickenham looks tricky for them – despite them being the BEST TEAM EVER ©BBC.  Ireland have looked good (admittedly at a very narrow subset of competencies i.e. technical forward play), and their points difference is very healthy, but they have to win in Paris, which almost never happens (once in our lifetime).

But here’s the bizarre bit; totally misfiring, abject, awful, bickering France are in a pretty good position.  They have two games left against teams they habitually beat.  This weekend they travel to Murayfield.  Scotland may have won against Italy, but against the better sides they have been inept, accruing six points in aggregate against Ireland and England.  Even in third gear, presumably fighting with one another and relying on Picamoles to bail them out, France should win at a canter.  Then they play Ireland in Paris.  The last two matches between the sides have been drawn, but playing Ireland has a habit of bringing the best out in them.  Can even this rubbish French team find a faster tempo and run Ireland ragged as so many previous vintages have done?  Doubtful, but you never know – Ireland have a habit of standing off the handsome Mediterraneans like a bunch of hewn demi-Gods and letting them do whatever they want – and France like nothing better, apart from maybe a spooked New Zealander in a crucial World Cup game.

Aside: we really need to get out of that habit – when the RWC15 draw was made we said we had three years to learn how to beat France – we’ve made a good start, time to follow through.

For the sake of the championship one hopes France do not win.  Unless France find some inspiration from somewhere, they would be a most unworthy winner.  Indeed, it looks like their win over England could be the defining result of the championship, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see it bordered on the freakish.  England must be kicking themselves, especially after watching the tape of a mediocre Welsh side dispatch Les Bleus with ease.  Against England, France raced into a somewhat fortuitous early lead as England looked jittery and tentative – Jack Nowell in particular, but the bounces of the oval ball were pretty favourable to the home side.  However, England dominated the remainder of the match and were easily the superior side, fighting back to deservedly take the lead.  They had the game won, until an ill-advised switch at 9 (by England, the French switch was 100% advisable) and an extraordinary, totally unexpected and really quite brilliant try from Gael Fickou stole it at the death.  It was a try that never looked like coming, but it has given France something to play for, and has stopped England from racing away from the chasing pack.

What about Scotland and Italy? Last season looked like they might have taken a tentative step away from being perennial basement dwellers, but an ageing pack and still-too-young backs isn’t a good combination for Italy and useless coaching and mystifying selections isn’t working for Scotland. Transition, then, for both, a familiar state.

Lobster Pot

Rugby is a 23-man game now, “they” say. And “they” are rarely wrong, and certainly not in this case, though it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 2007 RWC final, South Africa made just one permanent change, and that after 72 minutes (we aren’t counting Bismarck’s brief appearance as a blood sub for John Smit). Such a situation is unthinkable today, where coaches pick an eight man bench with a substitution policy in mind.

Even players are conditioned in such a way – one of major reasons for the Leicester Tigers relative lack of success this year is the inability of Dan Cole to burn himself out for 60 minutes then let Castro take over. For example:

  • In this years HEC, in the 4 games against Ulster and Montpellier, Dan Cole played 314 minutes and Fraser Balmain (!) 6 – Leicester lost twice, won in the last minute once, and needed a last minute Ryan Lamb drop goal to seal victory in the other game
  • In the 2012-13 HEC, in the 4 games against Toulouse and the Hairsprays, Cole played 235 minutes (58, 54, 60, 63) with Castro coming off the bench and totting up 85 minutes in total. Leicester won twice, drew once and topped the pool

The loss of Castro to France is a major driver in the lower effectiveness of the Tiger pack this year. And speaking of France, French props would self-destruct were they asked to do a full 80 these days.

Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day. Frequently big performers are asked to do what Cole was – give it all for 50-60 minutes – that’s their role in the 23. In the backline, a bit more thought is required – bench backs are not always there to provide relief, but to give options in case of injury or a change in gameplan – a classic example here would be Ulster’s use of Paul Marshall last season, where Pienaar stepped into the ten channel and provided a more structured game, while Wee PJ had a breather.

It’s a form of the classic cliche forwards win matches, backs decide by how much (aside: the American football equivalent of offence wins matches, defence wins championships was proven in brutal fashion late Sunday night) – your forward replacements roles are to continue whatever the starter was doing, but the backs have a more cerebral role. That’s simplified of course, but the principle stands.

One critical error that must be avoided when changing backs on the fly is losing momentum. Last year in Fortress Aviva, Ireland were 13-6 up on France after the hour and Conor Murray was bossing the game – the entrance of Eoin Reddan saw Ireland lose all momentum, and almost the game.

And there was another classic example in Le Bosh on Saturday night – England had started abysmally with Jack “Pat McGibbon” Nowell to the fore and quickly went 16-3 down. In 20 minutes either side of half-time oranges, they scored 18 points and for all intents and purposes had the game won – the first score was created by a cheeky tap penalty (scrum-halves always tap penalties cheekily, don’t they? They assuredly do) by Danny Care, and the last was a cheeky Naas Botha-esque zero-backlift drop goal by the same player.

England essentially had the game won, but fell victim to substitution by numbers – Care was hauled ashore for Lee Dickson. Dickson’s selection above Ben Youngs in the first place was perplexing, and his play took all the wind out of England’s sails – they went from snappy incisive ruck ball that made Owen Farrell look like Carlos Spencer on the gain line to hand-waving, flapping and rumbles. An English acquaintence described Dickson as a “lobster in a bucket” – waving his bound claws ineffectively while predictably moving in a small arc.

The change corresponded with the removal of the laughably ineffective Jean-Marc Doussain (didn’t it seem like Nyanga played scrum-half more than Doussain?) for Teen Wolf Maxime Machenaud – with England dawdling and France actually having someone who passed the ball from the base of the ruck, the dynamic of the game completely changed. France suddenly looked dangerous and the game seemed alive – it wasn’t guaranteed that France would win, but England sacrificed the initative voluntarily, and it might end up costing them the championship.

PS wouldn’t it be great if Machenaud wore Joe Namath’s fur coat – if you’re going to have hair like that, work it Maxime, work it

Gallic Shrug

There was an air of inevitability about Munster’s five-try qualifying haul on Sunday.  Not even Munster’s most ardent supporters – heck, not even Frankie Sheahan – would claim there was anything miraculous about it, or hold it up against famous last-round wins against Sale or Gloucester.

Why?  Because we’ve become accustomed to the middle tier French rugby clubs capitulating in the latter rounds of the Cup.  When Racing gave up a generous lead at home to Saracens the week before, Leinster’s goose was more or less cooked.  For some – Leinster fans anyway – it resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory finale to the pool stages.  How much more exciting would it have been if Munster really had it put up to them, as Leinster did in Exeter?  That’s not to discredit Munster.  As discussed in Monday’s post, they had their destiny in their own hands and did what they had to do; they deserve their place in the last eight.

The question is, can anything be done to ensure sides remain competitive to the last?  Not really.  Sure, you could try to impose fines on teams for putting out weakened sides, but in the days of heavy squad rotation, how do you define first and second choice players?  On the face of it, it looks unworkable.

And besides, it’s more a question of attitude than names on a team sheet.  Rugby is a game where bodies are put on the line; if one side’s need is greater, they will generally prevail, even if they possess less quality.  As an example, Toulon put out a strong line-up for Saturday’s do-or-go-through-anyway game against Montpellier, but it was clear from the moment Freddie Michalak gave a Gallic shrug and allowed the Montpellier centre to canter over the line for their first try, that their hearts weren’t in it.  The best that could be achieved would be that if the French are to be given concessions as part of the much-discussed tournament restructure, that they are reminded of their responsibilities to uphold the credibility of the competition.

In defence of the French sides, that they were more consistently competitive this year than in any in recent memory.  Clermont and Toulouse will always treat the tournament with respect and Biarritz – although rubbish these days – have a tradition of giving it a go.  Toulon, with their mega-squad, have no excuse for not being competitive, and took advantage of an easy pool to amble through to a home quarter-final.  It was only Montpellier’s second season in the competition, and while their pool was straightforward, they showed terrific commitment throughout and clearly wanted to make a statement, and qualified deservedly.

The performances of Castres and Racing were also committed for the most part.  Castes are notorious for throwing matches on the road, but they won in Glasgow and kept Northampton tryless in Franklin’s Gardens, a result which effectively took the Saints out of the competition.  Racing also won in Scotland, beat Munster at home and looked suitably gutted at the end of their hard-fought defeat to Saracens.  It was only once they were ruled out that they couldn’t be bothered.

If one thing could be done to improve the tournament, it’s a change to the lopsided seeding system, which counts the previous four years of tournament points to determine each side’s place in the rankings.  Four years is too many, and allows the deadwood to hang around for too long.  Cardiff were a top seed this year, which seems farcical.  They were losing semi-finalists four years ago, when Martyn Williams missed a penalty in a shoot-out against Leicester, but not many of the names that played that day are still on their books.  While there is no points system that can account for a loss of players to other clubs, two years’ ranking points appears more appropriate, and if the ranking coefficient included an element of domestic league performance, then all the better.

Toulousers

What has happened to Toulouse? We were watching their opening Top14 game (on the 17th of August! … A whole other debate needed there) and were struck with how … shit … they were.

Toulouse have historically been associated with vibrant rugby, the embodiment of what is good about French rugby – local passion, youth-oriented ambitions, ferocity upfront coupled with inventiveness with ball in hand.

The team they put out consisted of a foreign front row, a backrow and three quarter line with a huge amount of mileage and Pacific bosh merchants off the bench, all piloted by the poor man’s Morné Steyn, Lionel Beauxis. Granted, they won with a late try from Matavanou, but the game itself was an abomination – bad tempered, boring, and essentially boiling down to a penalty contest.

These were/are two of the best four teams in France, and if that is the case, you have got to worry about French rugby. Toulouse won the *puts on Gerry’s French accent* Bouclier de Brennus last season, but the play-off series was woeful – it was a kicking contest which Wilko almost swung for Toulon. The semi-finals and final produced not a single try between them.  By contrast, the Aviva Premiership and the much maligned Pro12 produced thrilling finals. Its hard to imagine any French team earning a try-scoring bonus point 6 games in a row, like Leicester did last year – the Top14 deserves much more Oooooooooohh-ppobrium than the Premiership.

In Europe it’s been no great shakes either.  Toulouse were beaten by Embra in last season’s HEC quarters (after getting hammered by Gloucester and losing at home to Quins), and only Clermont joined them at that stage. The Amlin turned into a Top14 second tier playoff contest, but the final was another mindless boot contest.

Clermont stand alone as an exciting and vibrant side, and are worth watching, but Toulouse are becoming Toulon with a better PR department. You have to be concerned about the future of French rugby when so many of the top level clubs play such a desperate brand of rugby, so far away from the (admittedly self-professed) traditions of the game in France. Even Toulouse, the self-appointed guardians of le rugby, resort to utter dross. And we haven’t even mentioned the winter months when the grounds turn into puddings and the league turns into a Scrum & Drop Goal Competition.  Sigh – perhaps we expect too much!

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Six

The Match: Ireland 30 France 21, 7 February 2009

What it Defined: Ireland’s Grand Slam and unbeaten calendar year in 2009

The State of Play

At the end of 2008, Irish rugby is doing everything it can to move on from their disastrous World Cup.  Eddie O’Sullivan resigns in the aftermath of the following Six Nations, and is replaced by another Corkman, Declan Kidney.  That’s about all they have in common, though.  Where O’Sullivan is technical, dictatorial and a control freak, Kidney is a man manager, an enabler and a delegator.  At some expense, he is backed by a world class coaching team: Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss and Gert Smal.

After a summer tour led by interim coach Michael Bradley, on which Ireland play reasonably well, the full scale of Kidney’s task is laid bare in the autumn internationals.  Ireland beat Canada in Thomond Park before the main course: New Zealand and Argentina in Croke Park.  The atmosphere before the New Zealand game is white-hot, and there’s a feeling that Ireland can do something.  After all, both Leinster and Munster are in good form in the Heineken Cup and it’s a good time to face New Zealand.  But they never fire a bolt, and New Zealand barely need to get out of third gear to win 22-3.  Ireland’s feeble performance is shown up by Munster’s reserves, who bring a second string New Zealand team to the brink in thrilling style the following Wednesday. Ronan O’Gara, watching in the stands, comments that Ireland ‘need to buy into the jersey a bit more’.

The Argentina match is an aberration.  It happens to be Ms Ovale’s first time going to an Irish international, and so awful is the game, it is a wonder she has made it back for another since.  Argentina lose Hernandez in the warm up, and appear to lose interest in the scoreboard, and choose instead to turn the game into a brawl.  The match is played almost entirely between the two 10-metre lines, virtually every ruck is punctuated by fisticuffs, but Ireland grind out a 17-3 victory, eventually conjuring up a decent attack as Tommy Bowe gathers a cross-field kick to score a try.  The victory is significant in one sense: Ireland have maintained their second-seeding for the World Cup draw, but other than that there is little to take from the series.

Kidney and his team are taken aback at the lack of confidence in the Irish players, and at the poor atmosphere within the group.  Some weeks later, players and management convene at Carton House to try to resolve some issues before the Six Nations.  Here, Rob Kearney makes his now famous, possibly overstated, but probably very significant ‘Munster look more united than Ireland’ comments.  While it’s hard to gauge just how big a deal it was, the team do appear fractious and cranky with one another on the pitch, and it’s not hard to imagine that factions along a provincial line may have developed within the squad.  With Kearney’s comments, it appears the elephant is finally removed from the room and the team can move forward.

A new tactical approach is also devised.  By now, many of the Munster forwards (who make up most of the pack) are frustrated with Eddie’s wide-wide gameplan, and would prefer a more attritional approach.  Deccie hands the forwards a licence to take on the opposition pack, and resolves to play a more territorial game.  He wants the players to play it as they see it, but to try and ensure each phase is played further up the field than the last one.  It’s essentially the formula with which he had so much success with Munster.  The players leave camp with a sense of a lot of baggage having been removed, and a greater clarity around the gameplan.

The good news is that the Six Nations is in its ‘odd year’, where Ireland face France and England at home.  And the schedulers have pitted Ireland against France in the first round.

The Game

While some are convinced that the new broom needs to sweep out the vast majority of Eddie’s Untouchables, Kidney decides to persevere, recognising that these great players have something left in the tank – he tinkers with some of the lineup, but it’s largely the same faces.  Flannery starts at hooker, and in the back row, Ferris, having impressed in the autumn is given the No.6 jumper.  Paddy Wallace is a surprise pick at 12, albeit as a favourite of Deccie’s from the underage days, and Gordon D’arcy, recently back from a long spell out with a broken arm that wouldn’t reset properly, is able to take a place on the bench.  For France, the selection is typically Lievremont.  He picks an exceptionally athletic backrow of Ouedraogo, Dusatoir and Harinordoquy, but puts Chabal in the second row and plays Sebastian Tillous-Borde at scrum half, while Parra kicks his heels on the bench.

The 2008-09 season is blighted by the ELVs, but this is one of the few games which rises above the torpor.  In short, it’s a cracker.  Ireland lose a try early on as Chabal smashes aside the last line of defence, but they rally.  After great work by Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe up the left touchline, Paul O’Connell pops a pass into Jamie Heaslip.  The Leinster No.8 gallops into the space, before bamboozling Clement Poitrenaud with a sidestep to get over the line.  It’s a classic try from a player who is becoming central under the new coaching regime.  Ireland lead 13-10 at half time – the general feeling in the stands is that they’re playing their best in some time, but kicking too much to France’s livewire back three.

The second half performance is outstanding.  Off a set piece, Brian O’Driscoll breaks the line and wrong-foots Malzieu to get in under the posts.  Minutes later, Gordon D’arcy, off the bench for the bloodied Wallace, wriggles over the line from five metres out.  In an iconic image, he is mobbed by his team-mates, thrilled for him after such a long and difficult spell out.

The other memorable image, for WoC anyway, is that of Paul O’Connell hauling Jamie Heaslip – by now the man of the match – up from the ruck, slapping his back and grinning widely, after Jamie has won the match-winning penalty.  We are not writing with hindsight when we say that the sight of the Munster captain commending the Leinster tyro so vigorously really made us sit up and take notice.  Maybe there was a new hunger, a greater unity of purpose to this Irish team…

The Aftermath

The rest we know.  Ireland went on to win the Grand Slam, the nation’s first for 60 years.  There’s little need to go back over the details of Bowe’s try, ROG’s drop goal, Paddy Wallace’s hands in the ruck, Stephen Jones’ mercifully just-short penalty again – and we’ll skip the bit where Palla got so nervous before the game that he would let out a little yelp every time the camera cut to the empty Millenium stadium, couldn’t watch England v Scotland and instead had to go and play tennis for an hour to try and take his mind off the match.  It’s worth recalling a few details though.

For a start, Ireland never played as well, or as freely, again in the series as they did against France.  The stats showed that they passed less and kicked more than any other team.  Rob Kearney had looked electric counter-attacking in the previous summer tour, but with the game now dominated by defence and referees allowing the tackler huge leeway around the ruck, he was reduced to catching and kicking.  Tomas O’Leary’s game was tailor-made to the ELV-based gameplan.  With quick ruck-ball in such short supply it hardly mattered how quickly you passed to the fly-half, who was only going to kick it anyway, so his passing limitations were scarcely exposed, while his physicality around the ruck effectively gave Ireland an extra flanker.  After the France game it was a case of shutting up shop and trying to grind out wins.  Line breaks were in short supply, Fitzgerald barely touched the football and BOD’s ability from one metre out was Ireland’s best scoring threat.

Kidney’s management was astute from first to last.  While we’ve grown to be frustrated by his gnomic utterances over the last three years, when media expectation is building and all anyone wants to do is get the coach to talk up his grand slam hopes in front of a microphone, he’s the man to manage it.  One game at a time, not even thinking about it, sure isn’t this why we got into the game – he gave the media absolutely nothing.  When Warren Gatland cracked and said the Welsh disliked the Irish players more than any other nation’s, it appeared that Kidney had gained a slight advantage over his opposite number.

His greatest stroke was changing four players for the Scotland game.  Probably mindful that some players might be looking a week ahead to the Wales match, he shook up his team for the first time in the championship, dropping four players, some of whom were among his best.  Crucially though, he changed only where he knew he had quality reserves, so the team would be losing little.  Heaslip, O’Leary, Wallace and Flannery made way for Leamy, Stringer, D’arcy and Best.  Heaslip, in particular, was having an outstanding championship, and was not happy about it.  As it happened, Leamy got injured early on and Heaslip played most of the game, scoring the winning try, set up by a break from Stringer, who passed with metronomic accuracy.  Three of the four – all bar Wallace – were reinstated for the Wales game.  It was terrific, proactive management and had the desired effect.

It must also be said that Ireland were lucky.  They were lucky that France were having a season of experimentation.  Lucky that Danny Care lost his head and that by the time England got themselves to within a point it was too late in the game.  Lucky not to be further behind at half time against Scotland.  Lucky that Stephen Jones missed a penalty he would expect to score, and lucky that Gavin Henson, traditionally Wales’ kicker for long distance, didn’t insist on kicking it.  Lucky that Wales miscalculated and put the ball out on the full so Ireland could set up the winning score.  Most of all, though, they were lucky with injuries.  While Deccie deserved praise for making the four changes before the Scotland game, it must be recognised that doing so was a luxury.  At no time since that game has he felt he could make such changes, and now only really changes players when injury strikes.  Effectively, Kidney could put out his preferred XV in every game.  These days, to be able to do that five times in a row, is unheard of.

The contrasting legacy of Ireland’s two most recent coaches effectively boils down to a missed restart against France and a late missed penalty by Wales.  Fine margins.

Ireland and Kidney’s purple patch didn’t end with beating Wales.  They went the calendar year unbeaten, signing off with a distinguished autumn series in which they drew, somewhat fortuitously, with Australia and beat South Africa, piloted by a new fly-half, Jonny Sexton, from a newly resurgent Leinster.  It was among the best performances of Kidney’s tenure.  Everything was rosy in the garden.  It had been a remarkable season.  But the game was going to change.  The IRB, frustrated with the hideous kick-and-chase monster the game had become, were about to change the “interpretation” of the breakdown law, requiring tacklers to clearly disengage from the tackled player before competing for the ball.  It was enough to hand the initiative back to the attacking team.  Rugby would become a phase game again, and Ireland would have to adapt or be left behind.