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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Six Nations: Lions Coach Wanted. Apply Within.

We’ve had the World Cup, we’ve had the group stages of the Heineken Cup, heck we’ve even had some Rabodirect Pro12 League Mega Sized Action, but now all those terribly nouveau tournaments move aside, and the Grand Olde Dame of world rugby, The Six Nations, looms into view.  The annual event should bring the usual array of dashed hopes, stagnant rugby, corporate days out, banal press conferences, inter-provincial blame-gaming and George Hook, but y’know, we can’t help but get excited about it.  We’re the sort that dares to get his hopes up.

This year, we are eschewing the usual “England will be hard to beat and Ireland can’t score tries”-type country-by-country preview for something a bit more thematic. We will be previewing this year’s tournament by asking a series of questions:
  • What are the management teams doing? And why are they all wearing their ‘Power of Four’ wristbands
  • How will the recently-finished HEC group stages impacted the Six Nations?
  • Post RWC11-rebuilding – who is doing what and how?
  • A, ahem, deeper dive on Ireland – was all the pedestrian back play down to Gaffney??
  • Actual predictions where we put our neck on the line. Like when we confidently predicted Biarritz would make the HEC knock-out stages and the Liginds would struggle.

In the first, we run the rule over the coaches overseeing the whole shambles.  Here goes nothing.

One curious side issue of this year’s Six Nations is that the Lions administrators have effectively said that the manager of the 2013 Australia tour will be one of Warren ‘Wazza’ Gatland, Declan ‘Deccie’ Kidney and Andy ‘Andy Robinson’ Robinson, with a backstop of St. Ian McGeechan if each of those three are deemed suitably hopeless.  They haven’t ruled out anyone else (in the whole world) but they would prefer the coach to be affiliated to one of the home unions, with the anointed one required to take a year out to dedicate himself to the role (those Premiership games won’t watch themselves, and somebody has to mail out those Power of Four wristbands).

It makes for an intriguing competition within a competition, even if it’s not quite a straight shootout based on final placings.  We can’t but see Wazza as being firmly in poll position.  He’s already been on a successful tour, as an important presence in 2009, he’s a progressive selector, and the way he tactically outwitted Deccie in the World Cup is fresh in the memory.  He’d also provide good copy with his pre-match bluster, and as a Kiwi, is au fait with dishing it out to the Aussies.  This Six Nations we can expect him to be in bullish mood.  He’s already very proud of himself for picking 18 year old speedster Harry Robinson, and his currency has rarely been higher.  We’re not sold on the whole Wales Are The World’s Greatest thing, but a halfway decent Six Nations and the gig should be his.

The image of Andy Robinson punching walls in the Lions’ technical box seems a bit far fetched, and we can’t quite see it.  Robinson has done a decent job with Scotland, but they still haven’t made that breakthrough that they keep threatening, and have a tendency to freeze on the big occasion.  Even if Scotland do brilliantly, we just can’t see him as Lions head coach.

We have to admit to hoping against all hope that Deccie gets the call, if only for moments like this…

Sky Hype Interviewer:  ‘Well Declan, congratulations on a historic Lions win.  What did you make of the incredible Oooooooooohhh 17-tackle, 6 lineout-takes, 60m carrying performance by Oooooooohhh Courtney Lawes?’


Deccie: ‘Courtney went well, but maybe if we’d gone with Donncha we would have won by more points.  Sure, aren’t we blessed to have two such great fellas.’

The Aussies wouldn’t know what to do with him.

Away from the Lions circus, Stuart Lancaster is in something approaching a win-win situation.  England are at such a low ebb that the only way really is up.  Nobody’s expecting too much, and if they play a fairly watchable brand of rugby the public will be happy, regardless of results.  Even if England get the wooden spoon, he can say he has given the next generation their head.

France are under new stewardship, with Philipe Saint-Andre stepping into the breach.  He’s picked a strong squad, and it seems he wants to break with the Mad Lievremont years.  Such is the depth of talent in the French squad, it looks like even a halfway decent coach should be able to coerce them into playing some decent stuff.  Saint-Andre’s CV isn’t that impressive (his Toulon side finished ninth in the Top 14 last year) but some consistent selection and a clear gameplan would be half the battle.

Finally, Italy are also under a new coach, with former Perpignan man Jacques Brunel taking up where Nick Mallett left off.  Mallett was popular and respected, so Brunel won’t want to rock the boat too much.  Keeping Italy hard to beat while gradually broadening their game will be the order of the day – and that should have been made easier by the Pro12 sides beginning to throw the ball around a bit, and some talented youngsters like Benvenuti and Semenzato.