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.

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Exceptional Behaviour

Anyone remember the funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) succession laws the IRFU announced a couple of years ago, which immediately went down as one of their greatest PR gaffes?  The main stipulations were that between the three provinces (Connacht were excluded), they were only allowed one NIQ player per position and that NIQs could not have their contracts renewed.  So, for example, you couldn’t have an NIQ playing tighthead prop at both Ulster and Munster, and if, purely theoretically, Ulster had a world class NIQ No.9 he would have to leave after his current contract expired, allowing the Irish kid below him to step into the role.

All on board then?  Well, obviously not.  Munster re-signed BJ Botha in spite of John Afoa being on the books at Ulster, at tighthead prop and all, which on the face of it, was the only position to which the succession laws were relevant.  Meanwhile, Ulster have been allowed to retain the services of Nick Williams and Ruan Pienaar.  Another to be granted a contract extension before his retirement was Isa Nacewa.  The signing of Zane Kirchner to replace Nacewa also goes against the rules, since an Irishman is supposed to succeed the departing NIQ player.

Not knowing any better, we assumed the rules had been more or less consigned to the dustbin of history.  They never looked well thought through, practical or even enforceable in the first place, and there was even talk that they were legally in murky water.  We wouldn’t expect the IRFU to publically announce anything, but rather they could quietly walk away from the laws without people noticing.  Never being popular in the first place, there would hardly be a public outcry.

Imagine our surprise, then when IRFU man Justin Deegan (@JustinIRFU), who generally acts as a conduit for the party line on social media and boards.ie, tweeted us to tell us the laws were very much still in place and being enforced!  All of the above – Williams, Pienaar, Nacewa and Botha – are merely ‘exceptions’.  He cited an interview given by Eddie Wigglesworth to Gavin Cummiskey in which he said that if a province didn’t, through injury or otherwise have the necessary succession plan in place, then there would be some flexibility within the framework.

Which is fine, but if these are exceptions, it’s hard to see what doesn’t qualify as an exceptional situation.  It’s a throwback to learning Irish in school, where every grammatical rule came accompanied by a list of 43 exceptions. Ruan Pienaar keeps the livewire Paul Marshall on the Ulster bench, and in Roger Wilson, Ulster would have a first-rate ready-to-go, Irish-capped replacement for Nick Williams.  Indeed, they’d also have Robbie Diack to provide depth in the role.  Is this not the very situation the succession rules were brought in to deal with, where a talented Irish player is being held back by a highly paid for’d’ner?  Come to think of it, has the one-contract-and-out law been applied to any player yet? If Pienaar and Williams are deemed exceptional, then by the same yardstick, so too will Casey Laulala, Johann Muller and Zane Kirchner when it comes to renewal time.  It appears that the IRFU will persist with the idea that the rules are still in place, but in continuing to allow for umpteen ‘exceptional cases’, they are effectively meaningless.

In practical terms, this is ultimately A Good Thing, because the laws were ridiculous, but the IRFU would be better off not drawing attention to them than persisting with the notion that they are still in place.

Our Man in Carton House

Egg read a very interesting article by Peter O’Reilly over birthday cake on Sunday (he’s 21 again) – the crux of the article was how the bean-counters at Old Fart House are concerned that Ireland’s desperate brand of rugby might impact the bottom line. It’s a valid concern – €75 to see us bitchfight the Pumas? – but something we found equally as interesting was something that wasn’t elaborated upon in the piece – the fact that the 60-0 in Hamilton went unremarked upon at the AGM.

We wonder – is this because the IRFU see themselves as having a personal stake in Deccie, and that criticism of the national team’s results is inherently critical of the union. It’s classic amateur thinking – in a professional organisation, when a vacancy arises, the best candidate is appointed, and after that time, their success or failure depends largely upon how they perform in the role (all provisoed on the assumption they receive adequate support within the organisation and such).

Compare this thinking to how the RFU operated with Johnno. Now, we aren’t saying the RFU are amazingly effective, but they have been whipped into some form of professional shape by Woodward and by the need to negotiate on an equal footing with the businessmen who run the Premiership.

Johnno was hired to succeed Brian Ashton despite having limited coaching experience, but once he got the job and got his preferred backroom appointed, he was on his own with a remit to make England tough again. Results-wise he did ok, and certainly no worse than Deccie – he brought England to a Six Nations championship win and won his RWC11 group – but it was perceived that he was too close to the players and he wasn’t the man to lead England on. So he got canned. The RFU didn’t consider it their business to be embarrassed that they had to let go someone they appointed, they just moved on. Such is life.

In the case of Deccie, it appears to be acceptable to the union that he presides over the worst result in Irish rugby history and is reduced to taking pot-shots at one of the provinces for being unsupportive. All available evidence points to him being in an untenable position, yet the IRFU are content for him to continue as Ireland coach for this season.

It looks from the outside like they see their success as wrapped up in his. Are they reluctant to fire a coach who delivered a Grand Slam, just as they congratulated themselves on appointing him at the time it was won? Is it related to the fact that a selection committee still exist, where IRFU mandarins review Deccie’s plans for each game?  It seems highly unlikely that Deccie’s contract is going to be renewed, so why play the waiting game?  If Declan Kidney’s days are numbered, better to start moving forward now than wallow for another year in stagnation.  It’s a ruthless world out there.