Competition for Places

Without being especially impressive, competition for places has begun to heat up at Leinster.  Whatever their issues, they are unique among the provinces in their strength in depth.  Where Ulster and Munster’s team selections for the big games are relatively clear-cut (and not in an especially good way either, unless you’re a really big fan of the Ross ‘brothers’ Clive and Bronson), Leinster find themselves with some hard decisions to make ahead of the last two rounds of pool matches in Europe.

The team has yet to click into gear, though they do appear to have improved a little in the last couple of weeks, with a more structured attack and less willingness to resort to a lowest-common-denominator game of kicky-chase.  Their main problem against Cardiff was the number of times they dropped the ball in good positions.  Another issue was the breakdown, where the likes of Josh Navidi and Gethin Jenkins were able to dominate and slow ball down, or worse yet, win turnover penalties.  It’s been an issue all season, where Leinster have been working off slow ball far too often.

Castres are coming to town in Europe next weekend, and Matt O’Connor should have tries on his mind.  Win the game whatever, don’t disrespect the whatsitsface, physical team who will present a something: expect to hear it all this week in the meeja interviews, but pay no mind. This Castres team will have their minds on the post-match dinner from the moment they leave the dressing room.  Leinster must win with a try bonus point, and should be looking to cut loose.  Wasps had the 5th point wrapped up after little over half an hour and put seven tries on the scoreboard by the finish.  Leinster should be aiming to do likewise.

Jerseys up for grabs start in the front row, which has been largely mediocre in the tight all season.  Encouragingly though, against Cardiff the front row unit of Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss and Marty Moore put in the best scrummaging performance from a Leinster team this season.  With Mike Ross running out of steam, Moore’s return to fitness couldn’t be more timely.  We’d pick him from the start to stabilise the scrum, which was destroyed by Harlequins.  At hooker Strauss vs. Cronin has always been competitive, and it might just be worth retaining Strauss for his superior scrummaging and throwing.  Cronin to cut loose in the final half hour?

Second row is more like an anti-competition for places, as Mike McCarthy and Kane Douglas strive to underachieve one another.  Douglas appears to be going around the pitch looking to make eye-catching hits, but makes no impact for vast swathes of the game.  McCarthy had one of his better games against Cardiff and was fairly prominent.  We’d give him the start, alongside The Northern Hemisphere Brodie Retallick – thanks Barnesy.

The backrow has become a source of apparent riches at Leinster, even without Sean O’Brien.  But for all that they can’t win a breakdown.  Odd.  Jordi Murphy is back and more up to speed than he was against Harlequins, and the emergence of Jack Conan presents a serious ball-carrying option.  Shane Jennings is fit again and Rhys Ruddock is presumably in the mix for selection, as is Dom Ryan who is having a fine season.  The only man certain to play is Jamie Heaslip who is expected to return from injury.  That’s right, Jamie Heaslip picked ujp an injury.  But only for one game, obviously.  Which cards to play from the deck of five?  Here’s a strange thought: given the breakdown issues, why not relinquish Healsip from carrying duties and ask him for a shift in the trenches, a role he has performed to great effect with Ireland.  Draft in Conan to the blindside to make up the carrying deficit, and put Rhys Ruddock at openside, where he was superb for Ireland in November.  Could it work?

Eoin Reddan should start at 9.  Luke McGrath has a vocal fanclub, and he had a good game against Cardiff.  He’s explosive and exciting but his basics aren’t at the required standard yet, and Reddan continues to be one of the most underrated players on the island.  Don’t forget he was last seen saving the day against Harlequins.  McGrath to bench perhaps?  Isaac Boss’ days are surely numbered.

Fly-half.  That old chestnut.  Gopperth or Madigan?  Gopps’ place-kicking was awry against Cardiff but there was much to commend elsewhere in his game.  I expect we’ll see Gopperth picked with Madigan at 12.  Does that spell the beginning of the end for Gordon D’arcy?  It just might, especially with Noel Reid, Ben Te’o and Luke Fitzgerald also in the mix for centre jerseys.  Te’o showed he has the footwork to go with the crashing and – whisper it – looks like he might bring something to the backline.  Fitgerald is a must at 13 where he has been excellent on his return.  Again, what about this for a slightly wild-card, but potentially devastating midfield: Madigan-Te’o-Fitzgerald?  Ay karamba, what a lick-smackingly exciting prospect!  Just do it aready, Matty!

On the wings, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden are back and starting to look match-fit.  We’d pick both of them.  Kearney can beat defenders, and the Kildare Lewis Moody can win yards in contact.  It’s harsh on Darragh Fanning, but Kearney and McFadden are just a notch better in terms of class.  Zane Kirchner may miss the 23 altogether.  He has been a curious signing: a 30-cap Springbok with great pedigree but not really what was needed for the team.  He is most effective at full-back where Leinster already have Rob Kearney, and as a wing he is somewhat pedestrian.  He looks like an expensive luxury at this point.

Probable Selection: Bent, Strauss, Ross, Douglas, Toner, Ruddock, Murphy, Heaslip, Reddan, Gopperth, Kearney, Madigan, Fitzgerald, McFadden, Kearney

Our selection: Bent, Strauss, Moore, McCarthy, Toner, Conan, Ruddock, Heaslip, Reddan, Madigan, Kearney, Te’o, Fitzgerald, McFadden, Kearney

Systems Failure

A few years ago TG4 stated a series called ‘Rugbai Gold’ where they showed ‘classic’ matches from the 1970s and 1980s. To those of us whose memories of those games consisted of, at best, watching them on our parents’ knees, it was like watching a different sport to the one on display today. Backs were tiny, jerseys were enormous billowing cotton things, scrum-halves passed the ball with a full-length horizontal dive thrown in, the lineout was a back-alley brawl where the team with the throw had a marginally better chance of winning the ball, and if they did it was the pig ugly sort you could do nothing with. And the scrums! About 90 of them a match, and largely self-regulated, more a means to restart the game than a licence to draw penalties from the opposition. The rucks were generally a pile-up where you could flop in off your feet at your leisure. Well, at least some things never change.

Yes, indeed, it was a different sport – until John Langford came along and told the Paddies that going out on the beer on a Thursday perhaps wasn’t the best preparation for a game on a Saturday. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to go back 30 or even 20 years to see an anachronistic version of the game which bears little resemblance to that which is played today. You don’t have to go back even 10. Have a look at the highlights reel of Toulouse vs. Leinster, the high-watermark of the Cheiks & Knoxy version of Leinster. Defensive lines are broken at will, dog-legs appear everywhere, the contest flows from one end of the pitch to the other and back ; several sensational tries are scored as backlines create mismatches and speedsters find themselves up against second rows with regularity. And this is Toulouse – the best team of that era! These days, the only time the action could be described as end-to-end is during one of the frequent kick-tennis battles that punctuate most games.

The game has changed irreparably. Players are huge, from 1 to 15. Injuries are more numerous and serious and the nature of how the game is played has totally changed. Off-the-cuff rugby is a thing of the past. Who even talks about ‘broken field running’ anymore? It never happens. When the full-back catches the ball these days the chase is so organised the field is scarcely broken. It’s become a game of systems. The best teams and coaches are those who devise systems to expose the weaknesses in the opposition’s systems. The all-conquering All Blacks team rarely plays off the cuff; they adhere to their principles of clearing the ruck, kicking for territory in their own half, and lethal accuracy in execution of passing and offloading. Make no mistake, they are great to watch and a superb team, but don’t mistake what they do for ‘flair’. The closest we have seen to real flair this year was Clermont’s win at home to Munster, where they showed an impressive willingness to put the ball into the hands of their unstructured game-breakers Napolioni Nalaga and Wesley Fofana.  Oddly, some of the better rugby on display this season has come from the Not-so-Boshiership, where a handful of teams, chiefly Bath, have been commited to trying to play the game in a watchable fashion. Until Sam Burgess was shoe-horned into the team anyway.

The combination of highly organised defensive systems and huge players mean that space is at a premium. Breaking the defensive line is difficult, so clean breaks are rare.  Even if a player can break the first tackle, he is usually swept up by the second layer of defence. As a result the battle for metres is fought out either with the boot or on the gainline, with leg-driving forwards deployed to win yards after contact.

The 2003-2007 era may well be viewed as something of a sweet spot in the game. By 2003, professionalism had bedded in to ensure the players were fitter and stronger, and some sort of cohesion and structure had been imposed on defences, but sides with a creative streak could impose themselves on more physical opponents. Cheika’s Leinster, for example. They had a mediocre pack, but could somehow get their backs enough ball to thrive and while they didn’t win silverware, they were plenty competitive. It wouldn’t be possible today; the glitzy three-quarterline would simply be squeezed out. Ulster’s team this season have a similar make-up. They might have coped in 2006, but not today, where it’s nigh on impossible for a pack lacking the necessary oomph to impose itself on an opposing group of monsters. Having superior skill in the back division counts for little these days if you don’t have the power up front.

The 2007 World Cup and 2009 Lions tour were game-changing events. Argentina’s monstrous pack and kick-chase tactics redefined the approach to competing for territory, while the 2009 Lions series was unmatched in its ferocity by anything in the game up until that point. It also marked a turning point in the sheer number of injuries a panel must learn to deal with. Since then, player sizes, emphasis on physicality and gym work and the number and scale of injuries have only increased further.  When Jack Conan was awarded man of the match last week, his coach Leo Cullen appraised him as a fine player, noting in particular the numbers he was posting in the gym.

You can’t stop progress and it’s pointless to wax nostalgic for times past, but it would be remiss to fail to acknowledge that something has been lost in the process. The spectacle of rugby has been diminished. With fewer Christophe Dominicis and Shane Williamses, and more Yoann Hugets and Alex Cuthberts, rugby has lost a little of its watchability. It’s still a great game, no question, but the ratio of good, watchable matches to rubbish is not as high as it was.

We talked about Ireland and New Zealand as systems based teams, but at least they’re well coached and play like they know what they’re doing. What about the poorly coached sides? The rugby they produce is simply awful. Munster’s season is kept afloat by two pick-and-jam wins over their neighbours. Their focus in attack is so narrow it barely extends beyond the ruck. Their only player with a maverick instinct, JJ Hanrahan, has been marginalised, with more mundane, steady-hand-on-the-tiller types preferred in his place. They play a ‘rugby of fear’, encouraged to take the lowest risk option every time. Anything remotely unpredictable is treated with suspicion. It’s this sort of mentality that sees JJ Hanrahan leaving Munster. It’s a remarkable, ridiculous state of affairs. Munster have been crying out for a midfield player who can pass the ball to their fastmen like Simon Zebo and Keith Earls for god knows how long, and when they finally get one, they leave him out of the team, instead picking a big lad who can run straight, so he packs his bags for Northampton. It’s like waiting in the rain for a bus for 40 minutes and when it finally arrives deciding you’re going to walk instead.

Up the M7,  Leinster are teeth-grindingly poor to watch. Any feedback from within the camp is all about how much the players like Matt O’Connor and how they feel they owe him a performance. He has empowered the players an given them freedom to play within their own structures, apparently.  Jamie Heaslip even said that the players really enjoy having so much freedom to think, after the “robotic” Joe Schmidt years. That’s fine, but Robotic Rugby was pretty successful, and pretty good to watch – and probably pretty satisfying as a player. It immediately set off an alarm in our mind, and put us in mind of a polar opposite comment from Paul O’Connell – after his first experience of Schmidt, he spoke of how pissed off he was at the coach continually interrupting sessions to point out pedantic and minor errors in things like O’Connell’s ruck positioning and clearing out.  Schmidt appears more demanding and authoritative than O’Connor.  O’Connor may be popular in the dressing room, but Schmidt gets results.  These days, there’s little room for improvisation and empowering.

If you look at the successful coaches in world rugby post the 2009 Lions series, you have names like Warren Gatland, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Heineke Meyer, Joe Schmidt, Bernard Laporte – all ruthless pragmatists for whom the system is everything, and the players’ job is to fit into the system and execute accordingly. Each of these coaches are inextricably linked to on-field generals who act as their coach’s de facto rep on-field – respectively Sam Warburton, Ruchie and Kieran Read, Victor, Jonny Sexton and Jonny Wilkinson. Everything is directed to a minute degree – and incredibly successful.

Compare these men to those currently coaching the provinces – Pat Lam spoke on OTB about his vision for Connacht this week, and it was all about systems, outcomes, processes and players executing within those confines. Witness how his centres and short passing game ruthlessly exposed Munster’s defensive weakness in that area last week.  Matt O’Connor, meanwhile, presides over a Leinster team who are keeping above water merely on the individual quality in the squad – the players wax effusive about how much they like him, but is that really the point? It’s not working. Neil Doak, up in Ulster, is too new is his role to reach a definitive judgement, but Ulster look less effective every match he is in charge – individual errors multiply and there is no coherent sense that the players know what they are doing. Munster, to Axel Foley’s credit, at least seem to know what they are doing. It might be pretty ineffective – leaving aside the Leinster games, Munster have had a poor year on the pitch – and unambitious enought to prompt their most talented young back to jump ship, but at least it’s something. But only Lam looks like the kind of new-era coach who might go on to bigger and better things.

One final, strange thought.  Systems?  Robotic rugby?  Processes?  Didn’t Ireland once have a coach who was hounded out of the job for imposing too much of a stranglehold on the players?  Come back Eddie, all is forgiven.  Maybe he didn’t so much become outdated as simply arrive before his time.

Interpro Mini League

And the winner of the Holiday Season Interpro League is… Leinster. They were the only province to manage two wins over the festive period which was low on memorable rugby matches and high on debates about whether international players should be more readily available for these matches or not.

By far the best match over the period was Connacht’s superb victory over Munster. For those who don’t get to see Connacht as often as they would like (count us as members of the club) the win was notable for the amount of rugby Connacht were willing to play on a rain-and-wind-lashed (i.e. slightly above average weather) night in Galway. With Kieran Marmion controlling the tempo, Connacht showed far more enterprise than Munster in creating space. Ex-pro commentators tend to be remarkably conservative types and generally implore the team they are discussing to play less rugby, typically suggesting they kick the ball away or stick it up the jumper, but Connacht confounded everyone with a willingness to play ball. Their short-passing game was especially impressive, with the passer frequently delaying his popped pass to perfection. Passing!  Instead of just running at the chap in front of you!  Who knew such things were possible?  Their youthful second rows were marvels to behold, especially in the carrying stakes, but the outstanding players on the pitch were their footballing centres, Bundee Aki and the increasingly magnificent Robbie Henshaw. It was Connacht’s only win of the mini-series, but their two other games were tough away matches and they got a bonus point out of Ravenhill. They stay on course for the top six.

For Leinster and Munster it was a curious series. With home advantage ruling supreme, Leinster won two, while Munster won one. However, the supine, apologetic nature of Leinster’s defeat in Thomond Park almost counts as a double-defeat. It was a result that had been threatening for some time, with Leinster having played numerous get-out-of-jail cards in the weeks leading up to it. Finally, the full-scale awfulness of their form was laid bare and we suspect that the ‘spoiled Leinster fans’ line will harder to dredge up in light of this defeat; any fanbase would be entitled to ask for more than that. It was like the clock was rewound to 2005.

As for the men in red, they seem to have the opposite problem to Leinster. They keep on losing, but nobody seems to notice. A fine and impressive win over Leinster in which Donncha O’Callaghan passed the ball at least twice masks the fact that they have now lost four games from five including at home in Europe, away to Glasgow where they surrendered a handsome lead, and in Connacht where they routinely win. They’ve allowed Leinster to close the gap on them to a point and given that a European exit is more likely than not, they need to keep the points column ticking over in the Pro12.

Up in Ulster, injuries and a lot of behind the scenes messing around have scuppered the season. All the talented blonde backs in the world count for little when there is nobody up front who can make the hard yards. With Nick Williams injured for the foreseeable, and useless anyway for at least the last 12 months, Iain Henderson not back until possibly after the Six Nations, Stuart McCloskey also crocked and Chris Henry’s return as yet unknown, their only decent yard-maker is a second row, Dan Tuohy. One supsects they would offer a king’s ransom for a decent bludgeon and a passable openside, where the only available player is Clive Ross. As Stephen Ferris sort-of put it, ‘I don’t mean to disrespect anyone but something-something Clive Ross’.  Ulster may find the squeeze coming on for semi-final places; it looks increasingly like a season that will be put down to experience, possibly including Neil Doak’s experience as a head coach.

The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

Back to Black

Munster’s late, and largely irrelevant, bonus point wrapped up what was a pretty horrific set of double headers from the Irish provinces in the ERCC. Munster lost 8-2 in match points, gave up their first home loss to a French opponent and were thoroughly outclassed by (the admittedly brilliant) Clermont Auvergne. With a bit more concentration yesterday, Clermont could have won the double header 9-1, and that would not have been an outcome which any Irish fan could have seriously queried. The late bonus point does at least have them feeling a bit better about themselves, and they will need to be feeling good to win in Globo Gym. Leinster broke even, 5-5, but are behind Quins on the tie-breaker (match points this year) and in the table. Ulster won their double header 5-4, but, since their faint hopes required 9 points, the fact they lost one of the games is the relevant point.  When future generations are asked if they know their Clive Ross from their Bronson Ross, they’ll look quizically at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’.

By our reckoning, the last time two of the three major Irish provinces lost their double headers was 15 years ago, the year after Ulster won what was then the European Cup – Leinster won and lost to Stade but were behind on both tie-breakers (bonus points hadn’t been invented yet), Ulster lost twice to Llanelli (not the Scarlets – they are completely different, obviously) and Munster saved Irish bacon by beating Colomiers twice. The Liginds were European newbies at that stage, and the ensuing tear-soaked journey to the final went quite a way to kindling the love affair with Europe.

We find it hard to envisage an Irish side making this year’s final though – they simply look too far off the French teams, and a home quarter-final is odds-against in both cases. In fact, for all the crowing from Bruce Craig et al about increased competitiveness, and following the pattern of recent seasons, most of the quarter-final places have been more or less decided – with Munster/Saracens the only serious question mark, unless Glasgow can secure a rare win on English turf.

Pool 1: Clermont are home and hosed – two more wins takes them to 22 points, and another point is a possiblity. The runners-up slot will be decided at Allianz Park in the next round, when Munster bring real fans to drown out the PA system. Saracens put a bonus point on Clermont in Round 1, have only lost to the Saints at home this year, and beat a Munster side superior to this current edition two seasons ago – it’s a big stretch to call this for Munster right now, and we can’t get there. We reckon Saracens to finish second on 17 points. If Munster do make it, they’ll likely have 18/19 points.

Pool 2: Quins have a home game against Wasps and visit patsies Castres in the last round – 8 points is virtually a given, with 9 a possibility – that takes them to 21/22. Leinster should just about be able for Castres, but might struggle with Wasps’ gargantuan pack – they’ll need to lose that one 5-0 in match points to go out, which is pretty unlikely, but we wouldn’t fancy them to win if that game was today. Leinster to finish second with 19 points.

Pool 3: Toulon will win both games, and probably score four tries against Ulster – that brings them to 22. A likely home win each for Leicester and Ulster won’t be enough to get them into the mix for the quarters, but Leicester to finish second on 14 for what it’s worth.

Pool 4: Toulouse are the only team to date with a 100% record, and look likely to finish the pool stages that way, with games against the Sam Burgess XV and Montpellier, who have thrown in the towel in hapless and hilarious fashion. Glasgow have a home game to feed off Montpellier’s rotting corpse, after which they go to Bath, where a win will be needed to be in the qualification mix. It’s an intriguing match-up, with Bath most likely out of the qualification picture by then, but it’s a big ask for Glasgae to win in the Rec. So we think Glasgae will finish second on 16.

Pool 5: Racing Metro will go to the Saints in the last round, and if Northampton don’t beat Ospreys away in round 5, a losing bonus point will suffice to top the pool on 20, with Saints losing the tie-breaker and finishing second on 20. Spare a thought for the Hairsprays, who could finish 3rd on 17 points, which might be enough to qualify from other pools (helped by Treviso).  If Northampton can beat the Ospreys, and beat Racing Metro, they’ll top the group.  Either way, both look good to progress.

That would leave us with:

  1. Toulouse 24
  2. Clermont 22/23
  3. Toulon 22
  4. Quins 21/22
  5. Racing Metro 20
  6. Saints 20
  7. Leinster 19
  8. Saracens 17/18

A win for Glasgow in Bath would push them up to 19 and would create an every-point-counts finale between themselves, Leinster and the winner of Saracens and Munster.

If there is a silver lining to be had, it’s provided by Connacht, who sent a fully reserve team to France and won.  Okay, it was only Bayonne, where the ham comes from, and it was only the Challenged Cup, but still.  They’ll hit the interpros with more feelgood than any of the other provinces.  They look the best coached of the four at the moment, by a mile.  Their next opponent: Leinster.  Great.

Play Badly, Lose Ugly

Whenever John Giles is asked the age-old question about the sign of a good team being that they can play badly and win, he usually has the same response: ‘Well, Eoin, there’s nothing wrong with playing well’.

So it goes with Leinster, who made a lot of brouhaha about their ability to ‘win ugly’ last weekend. Winning ugly is fine in so far as it goes – no team can play at their best for 40 weeks in a row, and it’s better to peak in May than in December. But winning ugly should be no sort of aspiration; at some point the team has to aim to perform. Better to play well and win handsomely, surely? That needn’t mean flinging the ball around in the name of Leinstertainment, it just means playing with a high degree of accuracy and intensity. More often than not ‘winning ugly’ is a euphemism for playing badly, but thankfully the opposition were that bit more useless than we were.

It’s one thing to win ugly in a hard European away game, it’s another to repeatedly win ugly at home to the lesser teams in the Pro12. If you win ugly at home to Zebre, chances are you played badly. Leinster’s problem is that they play badly a lot. In fact, it’s hard to recall a game this season in which they haven’t played badly. That’s translated into winning ugly a lot, because most of their opponents have been fairly poor. But any time they’ve come up against even remotely decent opposition, they’ve lost. They lost to Connacht, they lost at home to Munster and last week they lost to Harlequins. They lost those matches because they played badly in them.

Last Sunday’s defeat to Harlequins was another error-strewn performance to add to the catalogue. To be fair, Leinster tried to play a bit more rugby than they did against Ospreys the previous week, with Gopperth taking the ball to the gainline and causing problems with his running game, which is generally pretty good. But their handling was poor for a side graced with so many internationals and once they found themselves in wide channels they were hopeless. It was as if the touchline was alien territory: ‘Do we run straight over this thing, or throw the ball over it, or do we just throw it one of their chaps?’

By contrast, Harlquins’ skill levels were superior. In Nick Easter and Luke Wallace they had two forwards capable of creating space by passing the ball in tight traffic, and creating a link between forwards and backs. Nick Easter must be ageless, because I thought he was ancient five or six years ago, but he’s still as good as ever; a fantastic player with great hands and a tack-sharp rugby brain

Leinster have picked up bad habits in the last 18 months, and the thing about bad habits is they’re hard to break. It’s rarely a question of simply saying ‘Right, this is a proper game against a real team, so let’s sharpen up the passing today because we’re going to move it wide.’ Good teams forge the right habits week after week and stay true to the team’s identity no matter the personnel on the pitch.

This Leinster team’s identity is becoming one of a team which plays pretty ugly. That’s fine when you’re winning ugly, but once you start losing ugly, it becomes a problem. Another ugly, or bad, performance this weekend, and Leinster could be out of Europe. Leinster need a win, but they need a performance to get it.

Matt O’Connor’s Tactical Rigidity

The heat is being turned up on Matt O’Connor as Leinster continually struggle for form. Last year, they won a richly entertaining final against Glasgow to secure silverware for the fourth season running – a fine achievement, but it covered over a whole lot of pretty mediocre rugby over the course of the season. Aside from the Glasgow game and the Saints away game, Leinster didn’t do a whole lot, and were pretty fortunate in the semi-final to get past Ulster. As for the HEC exit, that was as supine as anything from the bad old days.

As we mentioned in Monday’s post, we took the view that O’Connor was bedding down his systems and that a more cohesive and, indeed, watchable brand of rugby would follow this season.

So far, though, the signs of progress have been minimal. To give O’Connor his dues, he has had to deal with a horrendous injury list and his team won their first two rounds of the Heineken Cup, including a hard-fought tussle away to Castres. But there was something so depressingly reductive about Saturday’s game against Ospreys that it felt like a tipping point. What if last season wasn’t a stepping stone and was in fact as good as it gets? How exactly does Matt O’Connor want the team to play?

To these eyes, it seems like he wants to play a lot of one-out stuff and kick the ball a huge amount. Which is fine, if it’s done well. Ireland have just been lauded for a campaign in which they passed little and kicked a lot. But rather than kicking to reclaim contestable balls, like Ireland, Leinster seem to deliberately kick the ball to the back field and chase up in defensive alignment, in the hope of forcing the opposition into errors in their own half. If Graham Taylor were a rugby coach, that’s probably how he’d set up his team too (aside: does this make Jimmy Gopperth the Carlton Palmer of Leinster)?

Playing a simple gameplan is no bad thing in itself, but playing it so badly, and when it seems so unsuited to the players available to him, is another. It appears that he is rigidly attached to a particular playing style regardless of what resources are available to him.

It’s the exact opposite to how a certain J Schmidt operates. Schmidt is a master of pragmatism, of identifying what resources he has available to him and maximising them accordingly. When he arrived at Leinster, his first statement was that he wanted to make them ‘the best passing team in the Northern hemisphere’. He recognised that he had internationals across the backline, a rugby genius at 10 and crucially, time to hone the players’ passing skills on the training paddock.  When Luke Fitzgerald ran the length of the pitch against Bath, the initial space had been created by nothing more complicated than fast, accurate passing across the backline.

With Ireland, Schmidt has identified a lack of training time as his chief obstacle, so the chances of turning Ireland into a similar passing team are remote.  Instead, he has handed the team a simple gameplan that they can execute to a high degree of accuracy. It speaks of a coach who is flexible enough to tailor his gameplan to what he has at his disposal. The one binding ingredient is accuracy of execution.

Even Heineke “the only fetcher I need is my son to get me a beer” Meyer has shown some tactical flexibilty of late. The high priest of Bulls-style bosh-it-up-the-middle had the Springboks playing heads-up pass-first rugby in this year’s Rugby Championship. The primary reason for this particular Pauline converstion is the existence of hot youngsters Willie “nice pass mate” le Roux and Handre Pollard – not much point in playing a pair of gap-spotting gainline merchants if you are going to be asking them to Morne the ball into orbit.

O’Connor, on l’autre hand, seems determined to bring his rugby-loigue-style bish-bash-and-boot game to Leinster regardless of whether or not those players that have to implement it are Jamie Heaslip, Ian Madigan, Noel Reid and Gordon D’arcy. Talk of turning Leinster into Leicester appears off the mark – Leicester were never this turgid.  Against Munster in the Palindrome earlier this season, at one stage Munster were down to 13 men but Leinster persisted in kicking the ball long. It showed an astonishing tactical rigidity.

The natives are getting restless. Leinster fans are a demanding bunch. Truth be told, they’ve become a little spoiled over the last five years, at times conveniently forgetting how Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright helped grind out 9-6 wins away from home in 2008. They expect not only to win silverware, but also to see the team play with a certain panache. The province has a long tradition of dashing three-quarters and exciting, running rugby. To go against that is one thing – Cheika did, after all, so it’s not anathema – but to go against it and fail miserably would be entirely another. It’s fine playing Puma captain Pippo Contepomi over a raw young Jonny Sexton, but it’s different playing an out-of-sorts Kiwi journeyman Jimmy Gopperth over improving Ireland international Ian Mad-dog. We’re not joining the ‘MOC out’ brigade yet, but the bedding-in period is over.

Grim Oop North. And out East.

Ulster and Leinster face mounting problems as the season enters its next phase.

Leinster simply can’t get a thing going right now and have to face down Harlequins in the biggest two weeks of the season to date. They enter this critical double header with no form whatsoever to speak of. The injury list is much improved from where it was in October, with a number of players recently returning to the fray, but that will count for little if they continue to play with such a high error count and reductive gameplan as they have shown this season, up to and including Saturday’s tedious 18-12 defeat of a depleted Ospreys team.

At the risk of going all cause-celebre, the only hope-against-hope of seeing Leinster put some attacking rugby together is if they can reunite Reddan and Ian Madigan at halfback, but Madigan’s participation is in doubt after he failed to emerge after half-time on Saturday. Not, of course, that O’Connor would be of a mind to start him in any case. If he was planning to, surely this would have been the game in which to give them a rare run together? Matt O’Connor seems wedded to Jimmy Gopperth at 10, even though Gopperth’s form is pretty awful at the moment.

The selection of Gopperth had its critics last year, but to be fair to O’Connor, Gopperth was the man in form while Madigan looked to be forcing things, so it made a degree of sense, even if it wasn’t popular. This year, though, it’s baffling, because Gopperth just isn’t playing well. He looks short on confidence and has failed to launch anything resembling a cohesive backline all season. Madigan, meanwhile, is more like his old self, and comes off a positive November series for Ireland. Alas, it has come to the stage where it feels as if he simply doesn’t have the trust of his coach. On Against the Head last Monday, Matt O’Connor took the opportunity to be a bit sniffy about Madigan’s chances as a test centre. ‘He’s been playing there for us’, he remarked before asking ‘Is he a test centre?’, leaving the question open but implying that he didn’t think so. Curious behaviour from his head coach. In Munster, Axel Foley is only too keen to talk up the test credentials of his players.

Meanwhile, it’s grim oop north. Ulster almost snatched a victory in Thomond Park, but it would have been fortuitous to the point of bizarre had they done so. They’re more or less out of Europe, and should be refocusing on capturing long-overdue silverware by way of the Pro12. As such, the next couple of weeks aren’t that important, but it’s hard to see how they can compete for anything right now, such is the calibre of their pack. With Henry, Henderson and Tuohy all injured, they’re without most of their best forwards right now. Tuohy is likely to return for Saturday, and will provide some relief, as will Ruan Pienaar, but the reliance on rookie centre Stuart McCloskey as the teams primary carrier is far from ideal.

The team is lacking both aggression and effective carriers in the pack, as their go-to-men for the hard yards are failing them. Roger Wilson has never quite looked the player who was so consistent in Northampton’s surge to the 2011 Heineken Cup final and unfortunately Nick Williams is a busted flush. Williams was hugely effective at Pro12 level in his first season at Ulster, but his performances have receded badly since then. It all leaves Robbie Diack looking like their best loose forward, by a country mile. It’s a far cry from the Ferris-Henry-Wannenbosh unit that was so effective in 2012. Modern teams can win without scrum or lineout dominance (Exhibit A: Ireland), but if they lose the backrow battle, they are in trouble – it’s hard to see how Ulster can construct a coherent unit from their current fit options. On Tuohy’s return, to get their best players on the pitch, could they press-gang Franco van der Merwe (not exactly pulling trees up at the moment) into the blindside and put Diack at 8? But then who plays openside? Neither Reidy or Ross look the business, and Roger Wilson at 7 offends all sorts of principles about the role of an openside. Chances are they’ll persevere with Williams and Wilson and put Diack at 7.  As we moaned at the beginning of the season, patchy recruitment in recent years is starting to bite.

Tough times, but if they can keep ticking over until after the Six Nations, they might have enough left in the tank, and some of their important players back, for a big push for the pot. They’re still at the right end of the Pro12 so there’s no immediate concern. Not so for Leinster however. We gave Matt O’Connor a bit of a free pass last season, working on the assumption that he was bedding down his systems and that greater fluidity in attack would follow. But if anything they’ve gone backwards this season. The next two weeks will reveal a lot.

T Minus 400 – Part One

Following the November series / Autumn internationals / over-marketed “Irish” drink owned by London-based multinational series, Ireland now have the following games left on their pre-RWC schedule:

  • 5 Six Nations games (Italy, France, England, Wales, Scotland)
  • The Barbarians in the Debt Star in May
  • four World Cup warm-ups (Wales x 2, Scotland, England)

Ignoring the money-spinner in Thomond, and taking the reasonable case that Joe Schmidt will have his RWC15 squad close to finalised before the warm-ups, that gives Ireland’s players 400 minutes to cement their place in the squad .. or not, in some cases. We can’t, of course, ignore that possibility that someone will play themselves out of the squad in August, as did the unfortunate Tomas O’Leary four years ago, but then again it’s unlikely Joe Schmidt will persist for someone so badly out of form for so long that it becomes feasible. What is more likely, given the attrition rate in general, and even for the well-managed Irish players in recent years – only Jamie Heaslip of the notional first XV has avoided injury in Schmidt’s time – is that certain players will need to prove their fitness in the warm-ups. But that’s an unknown. For now, anyway. And the warm-ups themselves might result in injuries – Wally, and then Jirry (in training) were casualties in 2011.

It seems a good time to review what the composition of that squad might look like – and there is very little scope for experimentation left, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many changes from here (injuries, as ever, excepted)

This time out, the RWC squad will be 31, with the extra player presumably designed to be a tighthead prop – 23 man matchday squads in international rugger are an innovation from this cycle. In the three previous World Cups, Ireland have gone for splits of 17-13 (2003) and 16-14 (2007 & 2011). A working assumption of a split of 17-14 seems like a good starting point. Based on previous picks, we can expect the following:

  • 3 hookers
  • 5 props (1 more than in 2007 and 2011)
  • 4 second rows
  • 5 backrows (note: do not need all to be specialist blindsides)
  • 3 scrummies
  • 2 fly halves
  • 3 centres
  • 4 wingers
  • 2 full backs

While some Irish players, particularly in the backline, are multi-functional in nature, they are not necessarily viewed as Swiss army knives by the coach. For example, while Mad-dog might provide bench cover in several positions, most indications from Schmidt are that he is seen primarily as a fly-half. Equally, Ferg has played centre for Ireland (most recently in Argentina) and provided bench cover for centre during the Six Nations, but was used exclusively as a wing in Schmidt’s final season at Leinster, and started his 8 tests prior to Tucuman on the wing. It feels unlikely that he’ll fall into the centre bucket, but is really a wing who can cover centre if necessary.

Let’s have a look:

Hooker: Besty and Sean Cronin are miles ahead of the pack and are on the plane – Besty is a key lieutenant on the team, valued for his work in the scrum and at rucks; and Cronin is a very different player, an excellent carrier who offers dynamism, if not quite the same technical attributes as Best. Both players are prone to the yips – there was genuine surprise when Cronin, the hooker, was able to … er … hook effectively against the Boks; and Besty’s radar has the habit of going down for games at a time – even resulting in his omission from the original 2013 Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions squad. After that, Risteard O hOstrais is next in line, and had a good November series coming back from injury. Damien Varley stepped in for Jirry in 2011, and he’s the most Best-like replacement – questionable throwing, good scrummager and brilliant breakdown merchant. He’s injured right now, but could be in the mix. With Mike Sherry’s perma-injury problems showing no sign of abating, Rob Herring, who did well in Argentina, hs some credit in the bank but has been a marginal figure at Ulster this season. One bolter is Duncan Casey, whose lineout stats this year are exceptional.  He didn’t even make November’s training squad – but it’s early days for him and Ireland’s lineout wasn’t any great shakes this series, so his throwing could make him a valuable option.  If he keeps on playing like he is, he could come into the reckoning.  But currently, all signs point towards Best, Cronin and Strauss.

On the plane: Besty, Cronin. Most likely for final seat: Strauss Also in the picture: Varley, Casey, Herring, Sherry

Prop: The flogging of Mike Ross continues unabated – he’s started every game under Joe Schmidt, and his importance of the team is illustrated by the 80 minutes he played against the Wobblies. However, it’s worth noting that the next two best tightheads were injured, and by all accounts the plan was to reduce his workload until injury stepped in. Rodney Ah Here was his backup both in Argentina and this November but, if fit, Marty Moore should be the number two to Ross. Of the other options, Nathan White had been pencilled in for Ah Here’s role until he got crocked, Deccie Fitz might be the best scrummager in Ireland (bar none) but struggles for 20 minute shifts these days, and Stephen Archer is behind Ah Here, which isn’t saying much. On the other side, DJ Church and Jack McGrath are on the plane.  It could be Schmidt picks two specialist tightheads and uses McGrath as the filler inner in case of tighthead emergencies. Dave Kilcoyne had a good series and has probably put some clear blue water between himself and James Cronin at international level – even if Cronin out-wrestles him by the end of the year, Schmidt will put some value on his being involved in the camp up to this point.

On the plane: Ross, Moore, Healy, McGrath Most likely for final seat: Killer Also in the picture: Cronin, White, Ah Here, Archer, Fitzpatrick

Second Row: The incumbents are the mighty, manic Paul O’Connell and the ever-improving Devin Toner – this pair are on the plane. Next up, its Iain Henderson, the new Willie John McBride. Henderson is laid up having taken elective surgery to be in prime nick for the RWC – taking one of Ulster’s best players out for 4 ERC games, when the backups are average, shows his importance to Ireland. We expect Henderson to slot straight into the Six Nations 23, and perhaps even start a game – Henderson still likely has bulking out to do, but, of Irish locks of the same height (198cm) he is already 6kg heavier than Dave Foley (4 years older), 1kg heavier than Dan Tuohy (7 years older) and 2kg heavier than O’Connell (13 years older). And all that while being the best ball carrier in the unit, and a skillful and influential player already. The kid is a phenomenon. The last place is a shootout between that aforementioned Foley and Tuohy, the possibly sometime returning Donnacha Ryan and the slowly sagging Mike McCarthy. If Ryan comes back from injury the player he was 3 years ago, he’s red hot favourite – at this stage however, the question seems to be if he comes back at all, not what type of player he comes back as. McCarthy has been slowly regressing since that performance against the Boks two years ago, and appears unlikely to reverse that career graph. Dan Tuohy was unfortunate (in our view) to miss out on the RWC11 squad, and offers something that the others don’t – good hands and a handy eye for the tryline. However, Foley feels like he is a nose ahead right now – if he keeps up this seasons form, he is favourite. You would have a slight qualm about dropping him in against the big second rows Italy and France like to field – Will Skelton treated him like a speedbump on Saturday – but he’s 4th choice, hopefully that won’t be necessary.

On the plane: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson Most likely for final seat: Foley or Tuohy Also in the picture: Ryan, McCarthy

Back Row: At one point, we seemed like we  might have a mighty fight over the last slot in this unit, but if we bring five players, it looks like we know who they are. Rhys Ruddock was our best player in the Argentina tour, and stepped into the stricken Chris Henry’s shoes with aplomb, putting in two excellent displays against two very tough (and different) opponents. He appears to have put himself in an excellent position to be on the plane. And speaking of Henry, if he comes back from a frightening brain injury, he’s likely to travel as well – Henry is one of the very few players than Joe Schmidt has specifically tailored a gameplan for (the 2012 HEC final) and was a huge influence in the Six Nations. But little can be taken for granted with such a serious condition; Ulster have said they are ‘hopeful he will return to professional rugby’, so it’s a case of fingers crossed for now.  Moving on to more clear-cut matters: Jamie Heaslip – he’s in, and Peter O’Mahony – he’s in too. Which leaves one of the few world class players in our ranks – Sean O’Brien. If fit, he is most certainly not only going, but playing. But he’ll have been out for so long, he will have to show that he’s capable of being the same player as previously.  So assuming the best for our two injured men, that’s the five – simples. Now, this is a very tough and attritional position, so, to be frank, we’d be pleasantly surprised if we get to September with all five ready to play. So hope remains for the rest. Of those, Jordi Murphy, backup during the Six Nations, is probable first reserve. Another in contention would be Tommy O’Donnell, who looks close to his form of 2013, although not making it off the bench against Oz didn’t speak volumes to the coaches confidence in him. Robbie Diack has had a steady start to his international career, albeit an unspectacular one – to be frank, it’s difficult to see us winning the tournament if we are this far down the depth chart. Dom Ryan and Robin Copeland, a genuine number 8, saw gametime in November too, and got some good reviews, but both are likely to be thinking about provincial starts before the World Cup is in their mind.

On the plane: Heaslip, O’Mahony, Ruddock Fitness permitting: O’Brien, Henry Also in the picture: Murphy, O’Donnell, Diack, Ryan, Copeland

So that’s the forwards, and, of the 17 slots up for grabs, we reckon 14 are pretty much decided, injuries allowing. That’s a pretty good and stable base to be building from. Our eyes and brains are getting tired now, so we’ll be back tomorrow with the backs, where we have a bit more uncertainty.  We have question marks at inside centre, and wing is a position where there is scope to take form into account a little more, plus we have two giant elephants in the selectorial room – no, not Ah Here and Deccie Fitz, but Keith Earls and Luke Roysh – their performances could range anywhere between ‘never play again this season’ or ‘break into the Ireland team’ – we simply have no idea. But we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.