Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart


A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

Free Pass

In the aftermath of Connacht’s win at Thomond Park, Murray Kinsella did a fantastic piece of analysis on Connacht’s skillset – and one worth reading if you haven’t done so yet. It has been a consistent feature of Connacht’s play this season – good on-pitch awareness and skillful play executed well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other provinces, who continue to stink the place out.

The most pungent right now is Munster, who followed up the defeat to Connacht with a lamentable defeat away to the Dragons. Without a doubt, missing their best two players (POM and Conor Murray) is a big blow for Munster, but the on-pitch ineptitude was pretty shocking – bar a questionable (at best) TMO decision, they never looked like beating either Connacht at home or the Dragons away. And, with all due respect to our Western Brethren and Stephen Jones’ local Pro12 muckers, that’s quite a come down for Munster.

So, you’d think everyone would be up in arms about it, asking tough questions about where they are going? What the gameplan is? Whether such an abundance of turnovers and gormless attacking is worthy of criticism? Not a bit of it – on Second Captains yesterday and in the IT today, Gerry was at pains to pin Munster’s issues on a host of extraneous factors:

  • “The Dragons have a decent home record and Rodney Parade isn’t an easy place to go” – cut me some slack, provinces would view this as a chance for 5 points in recent years
  • “Munster suffering more than anyone from fans’ post-RWC hangover” – not sure of the science behind this, but in 2007 and 2011, Munster seemed rejuvenated by having their Irish players back
  • “We know how hard Limerick has been hit during the recession” – not downplaying the impact of a savage recession, but it’s been pretty much nationwide, and the economy has been improving for three years now
  • “The 7.45 kick-off on a Saturday night in December isn’t helpful.” – really? A few years ago, Gerry was complaining that Munster didn’t get enough Saturday night kickoffs due to “English arrogance”

When we talk with Munster fans, we hear a very different suite of concerns, and we can’t help but feel a concerted effort is being made to avoid asking tough questions of our native coaches. When Rob Penney was Munster coach, Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball with the now-SC team was at times a long diatribe against Penney’s selection/tactics from Thornley and Wood, yet there was nary a mention of any questions for the coach to answer when McDevitt had Gerry on yesterday. Equally, when Matt O’Connor was Leinster coach, he was the lightning rod (correctly, certainly by his second season) for criticism. Now, it’s just a collection of things that Foley can do nothing about – although there is a pretty coherent argument that dropping attendances are directly related to the faire on offer, which is not being explored.

Thing is – no-one wants to just beat up on people just for the sake of it, particularly when they have the status the likes of Axel and Leo Cullen have, but if we want our native coaches to develop, we surely need to hold them to account honestly. And in a world where Pat Lam has the likes of Denis Buckley and Ally Muldowney playing like All Blacks (sorry for using the term, but we feel it is appropriate here), Foley really should be doing better with the players he has, many of whom Lam would kill for. Time for some honest discussion.

O’Connell’s Swansong

Paul O’Connell is bound for the sunny climes of Toulon. It’s a richly deserved payday for the all-time great second row, but don’t for one second imagine that he’s heading down there just to get the sun on his back and gently wind down his career.

The first indicator that this is the case is that the deal is for two years, so it’s not just a post-World cup lap of honour. The second signifier is that this is Toulon, where full and total buy-in to the local rugby hotbed’s way of doing business is required. None of Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson or Simon Shaw were coasting when they headed to Toulon in the latter part of their careers, and Paul O’Connell won’t be either. The third, and most obvious clue is that we’re talking about Paul O’Connell, a man who knows only one way of playing: at full throttle.

The length of the deal may raise a few eyebrows. Two more years will take O’Connell up over the age of 38, but on close inspection it’s not unreasonable to expect O’Connell will still be going strong at that stage. Last we checked O’Connell was still playing at an exceptionally high level. His standard has scarcely tailed off in any way. Sure, there was the odd quiet game, like the Saracens nightmare this year, where he didn’t bring his usual ferocity to bear on the match, but that looks like a rare one-off rather than a bellweather of any precipitous decline.

Plus, O’Connell hasn’t quite as many miles on the clock as you might think. He had his share of injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods and, if anything, he is as fit as ever: he’s right in the middle of as long an injury-free run as can be remembered. He’s going to be an indispensable member of Ireland’s world cup bid, and if he’s good enough for that, he’s good enough to keep going through the rest of the season with Toulon.

There has been some loose talk of release for Ireland training camps, but it appears wrong-headed. Almost certainly, for all the points made above, O’Connell won’t have the reserves of energy to devote himself to both Toulon and Ireland, and will retire from international footie after the World Cup. It makes sense that he hand over the reigns of captaincy to Jamie Heaslip and his role as lock enforcer to Iain Henderson for the next four-year-cycle.

No Munsterman will begrudge O’Connell two years in Toulon, even if they end up coming face-to-face with him in the European Cup, as fate will surely decree they will at some stage. There is crazy talk of the province looking for a contractual clause that he can’t face them, but that’s ridiculous on so many levels – not least the fact that it would be the preference of the likes of Dave Foley and Billy Holland to face the big man. So here’s hoping he turns out at Thomond Park for one last time.  If only there existed an all-encompassing word to describe the almost mythical nature of his contribution to Munster and Irish rugby, we would apply it to this man.

David? Are You There?

Hot on the heels of the news Paddy Butler will be joining Kiwis Smuddy and Colin Slade at (nouveau riche) Pau next season came the news that Michael Allen would not only be leaving Ulster for Embra, but be leaving the Irish system altogether, with a view to qualifying for Scotland through residency.

Butler, a ball carrying number 8 who can deputize on the flanks, was finding his path at Munster blocked by CJ Stander (Irish in 6 months) and Robo-Copey – both of whom are going nowhere and, being only on the fringes of the Ireland setup, won’t be away for weeks at a time to give Butler gametime. Up north, Allen, a wing who has spent significant time at centre, was behind a long queue of internationals – Trimble, Bowe and Gilroy on the wing and Marshall, McCloskey, Cave, Olding and Payne in the centre. The logic of leaving their current provinces is hard to argue with in both cases.

However, it seems worth questioning why they are leaving the Irish setup altogether – Ulster might have plucked Paul Browne from the Bucuresti Welsh bench just last week, but they are extremely light in the back row. Until Hendo and Henry returned, they were regularly picking from Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Naughty Nuck and Roger Wilson, and are in dire need of a decent number 8. Butler was marked as one to watch from underage but hasn’t quite made the breakthrough at his home province – wouldn’t have been worth at least exploring a move to Ulster?

Ditto Allen – Matt Healy aside, are any of the Connacht wings clearly better than the Ulsterman? Gametime would have been virtually assured – not at ERC level, but then that’s not guaranteed at Embra either.

Fans tend to overstate the extent to which player movement can be achieved.  There is an occasional tendency to view players like Panini stickers, which can be swapped around at will: ‘I’ll swap you two centres for a backrow, a lock and a sherbet dib-dab.’  But the idea of removing log-jams in various positrions with a bit of delicate prompting has been long-mooted as something David Nucifora is striving to achieve, but has been scarcely visible to date.

Given the general dearth of inter-provincial movement, one wonders what the plans are for this aspect of Nucifora’s role – he can’t force players into another province, but he can certainly tempt them with promises of gametime, and some cash. The alternatives for Butler and Allen are certainly exciting, but does it really benefit Irish rugby when there are NIQ restrictions on the one hand, and clear positional needs in other provinces on the other? It feels like a sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.

The Mole mentioned earlier this month how Munster brought in Pat Howard as a medical joker earlier this season – Howard did more or less what was expected of him, but left virtually zero legacy in Irish rugby. We don’t even know if the option of bringing in a centre from Ulster or Leinster on a short term loan was on the table, but that, at least, would have produced some long-term benefit to Irish rugby, even if small. Do we need to think a bit more expansively?

Squeaky Bum Time

Egg was minding his own business contemplating watching Jurassic Park III on <insert rubbish cable TV channel> on Saturday night when he noticed a tweet from a chap he’d never heard of. No, not the Examiner’s chief rugby correspondent, but “Paul Morgan”. Morgan had the following to say for himself: “The key thing since European qualification has changed… People are talking about and caring about the Pro12 more than ever”.

It was only after one of our eagle-eyed followers pointed it out that we noticed Morgan was Communications Director for Premiership Rugby aka the lackey of McCafferty, Craig and co. Sigh. Propaganda justifying a position held for monetary reasons then? Well, in Morgan’s case, yes, obviously. Unless this view, which is his own of course, happily happened to mirror 100% the views of his mates (and paymasters in this case). It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? – kind of like when Charlie Mulqueen points out that it wasn’t Denis Hurley’s fault that Munster got knocked out of Europe, and his stint at 12 was an unreserved success story. Right.

Anyway, back to Morgan. Problem is, fulminate away, but when you have finished thumping your John Knox-signed bible/infusing your olive oil with white truffle/singing Amhran na bFiann extremely passionately/going to Saw Doctors concerts (delete as appropriate depending upon provincial affiliation), you’ll realize that he’s right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but he’s right.

Take Friday night’s Cardiff-Connacht game for example – Cardiff’s last minute win was exciting sure, and would have been equally exciting in years gone by, but it meant a whole lot more this time. Cardiff kept their faint hopes of an ERCC slot alive, and kept Connacht close to the chasing pack at the same time – and the huge roar at the final whistle spoke volumes to the importance of the game for the league as a whole, as well as both teams. And the bizarre story Pat Lam had to tell about parking spaces and refereeing bias in the heat of passion would likely not have made it to print were it a meaningless mid-table clash. Less two bald men fighting over a comb, more two thinning on top men fighting over the right to be fed to Toulon in bite-size chunks.

At the top of the Pro12, there are five teams who are more or less qualified for the ERCC – Glasgae, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Leinster – and four of them will make the knockouts. Glasgow have the top spot more or less sewn up, but behind them it’s three into four.  The Irish provinces have just come off the back of a torrid weekend, with all four losing to their somewhat less illustrious, regionally composite Welsh counterparts.  A portent of doom for next weekend?  Hopefully not.

Leinster are in a bit of a jam, lying in fifth, but they are still in the reckoning.  They have still to play both Ulster and Glasgae, and are well in the reckoning.  They have made an unusual habit of throwing points away against the poorer teams in the league this year, and chances are they will have to go to Ravenhill and win.  They are also the only team in the competition that has European distractions ahead of them.

Ulster and Munster are locked on have the toughest fixtures, with only two home games and three against fellow top five teams. Their meeting on the penultimate weekend may swing it – not only do Ulster have a good record against Munster, but its in Ravers, so advantage Ulster for that one.

One of the hapless Italians will join the big five in Europe, plus one of Connacht, Scarlets, Embra (or maybe – at a stretch – Cardiff). Scarlets host Embra next, and also have games against both hapless Italians – albeit away. They are entitled to be considered favourites to nab the final spot. From an Irish perspective, Connacht will need to earn it the hard way if they are to qualify – with games against each of the current top 4 to come. Perhaps they should, y’know, reserve a parking spot for the ref at the dog track..

Just What Was That?

When we heard the news that Conor Murray was going to miss the trip to Globo Gym and their 4G pitch (bet you hadn’t heard Sarries had one, had you? The Irish media don’t dwell on it much), any lingering hopes we had that Munster could eke out a win pretty much disappeared.  On the eve of the game we tweeted that Egg Chaser was predicting a drubbing by Saracens but Palla was going for more of a bloodless coup.  It turned out to be both.

Munster were routed in every facet of play – the scrum, which had creaked under BJ Botha all season, was marched backwards. By Mako Vunipola! The breakdown was a breeze if you were a Saracen – every ruck resulted in nice easy ball, whereas when Munster had possession, poor Duncan Williams, hardly blessed with decisiveness at the best of times, had opposition forwards all over him. The lineout was a fiasco. Munster’s kicking game took no account of the Allianz Park surface. Their big players were not a factor. Munster simply could not get into the game.  Any time they had a platform they made a mistake.  Saracens are a good side, one of four sides (Toulon, Clermont and the Saints being the others) who will not be happy unless they win this competition, but the scale of Munster’s humiliation was frightening to behold. Just how did it come to this?

It was all neatly encapsulated by the two trademark BT Sport-mid-match interviews with coaching staff.  Mick O’Driscoll’s vox-pops sounded just as Saracens were in the process of gaining 30m and setting up the platform that would result in their first try.  It gave the impression of a man fiddling while Rome burns.  At around the 60 minute mark, Saracens’ Paul Gustard was asked to discuss the victory in waiting and tried to convince those watching at home that it wasn’t done yet, but you could tell from his demeanour that he knew the game was won.

It’s been a miserable first half-season for Axel Foley in the job he has worked so hard to get – the brave and the faithful can live with indifferent league form, especially when it comes sweetened with two thumping victories over the arrogant Ladyboys from Dublin, they can live with defeats to sides as good as Clermont and Saracens, but Munster fans are wondering how the team can go out so far off the mental pitch required for a game aptly described by Axel as one with “no tomorrows”. They had a tough pool, no question, but it wasn’t in the script needing a last minute drop goal to beat Sale, or losing their home unbeaten record to French teams, or to lay down so meekly against a team perfectly placed to make Munster bitter. Rob Penney’s teams might have benefitted from kinder draws, but any European exit was with their heads held high, making a higher-quality team sweat buckets before getting over the line.

Penney himself never got an easy ride from the press – the stuttering league performances were seen as evidence he didn’t fit, and the wide-wide games with Donncha O’Callaghan popping up on the wing before Munster had “earned that right” were scoffed at as an alien style imposed on an unwilling team. When Munster did resort to a fruitier forwards-based effort and won, the credit went to the players. When Penney’s contract wasn’t renewed and Axel Foley was given the job, many felt Penney would be glad to be out of there – getting not much credit for dragging a transitional team to successive HEC semi-finals. But no Penney team ever capitulated like Foley’s Munster did at the weekend, and it makes you wonder where the camp is right now – when Paul O’Connell is making elementary errors and Peter O’Mahony is anonymous for 60 minutes, it needs to to be asked why the players aren’t producing.

Is it the personnel? Well, it’s a very similar squad to the one that made last year’s semi-finals – POC might be a year older, but Murray is if anything even better, players like Dave Foley, Duncan Casey and CJ Stander are much improved, and Ian Keatley is having his best season as a professional. The centres are different, but hey, what’s new? It’s more or less the same panel.  Injuries?  Sure, Varley and Sherry are a miss at hooker,. but Casey has played well enough to be a minor cause celebre when he didn’t get picked for Ireland in November.  Keith Earls hasn’t been fit, but he missed a lot of rugby last year, and if anything the backrow options have been enhanced by the return to form of Tommy O’Donnell.

Is it the gameplan? The narrow forwards-based plan is certainly more like (cover your ears) “traditional Munster values”, but then again, so is winning important games in Europe, as is producing the type of clinical control exhibited by Saracens on Saturday. Their most-talented youngster, JJ Hanrahan, has tired of not playing and has flounced off to Northampton – Foley pronounced himself “mystified” then picked Dinny Hurley and left Hanrahan kicking his heels for 76 minutes.

Is there something else? It feels like raking up old muck, but when emailgate happened, most of the punditerati were on the TV and the radio to say it was much ado over nothing and the squad would quickly move on. All except Bernard Jackman that is, who said it would destroy the dynamic in the dressing room and take a very long time and hard work to move past – it’s important and relevant because Jackman was the only pundit asked who actively coaches a proper side – Grenoble, currently sixth in the Top 14, and with a good case to be a better side than Ulster, Munster or Leinster. Maybe the squad just hasn’t move on yet.

Four years ago, the last time Munster failed to make the quarter-finals, the coach had the Week 6 balm of a home game against an average English side – last time Lahn Oirish, this time Sale Sharks – Munster will want to see an angry response to get some mojo back, for what it’s worth. Then the real business gets underway.  McGahan used the ensuing Pro12 campaign to rebuild and made some changes, notably bringing in Conor Murray and James Cawlin for Strings and Leamy, and Munster went on to win the Pro12. It’s imperative that Munster do something similar – though probably more along the lines of expanding the gameplan than bringing in new personnel – and grab this season by the scruff of the neck. No-one wants the defining memory to be the limp capitulation in Allianz Park.

There Is No Such Place As …

Harlequins! Or: Ospreys! Or: Wasps! Or: Racing Metro! And, of course, Saracens – as we will doubtless hear tired repititions of for the rest of this week. But the existence, or otherwise, of a place called Saracens is completely irrelevant to the game this weekend. The club itself is as stable as it has been since Nigel Wray got involved – they are close to celebrating two years in Allianz Park, where they consistently attract 8,000-9,000 for Premiership games, and Mark McCall is approaching four year of quiet excellence as supremo.  And I hear the tannoy rings out clear as a bell.

McCall has finished 1st in the league three times out of four (once helped by half a season of Brendan Venter), won the grand final itself once, and was a TMO call away from doing so again last year. In the HEC, Saracens might have been memorably outclassed by nouveau riche arrivistes Toulon last year, but they thumped big game chokers Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, feeding them an ugly forty-burger. The previous years saw losses to Toulon and Clermont in the semis and quarters respectively.

The squad itself is stable and well-balanced, and has quality throughout – the pack is as strong as you would expect from a Premiership side, and there are internationals in most backline positions. They are a proper club, like it or not, and the fact that Munster is a coherent geographic entity that you can be from will not be a decisive factor in the game.

But what factors will be decisive? Saracens have been defeated only three times in two year at Allianz Park – twice to the Northampton Saints, and once (when depleted by the Six Nations) by London Oirish. They defeated (and scored four tries against) Clermont Auvergne there in Round 1 of the ERCC while Munster laboured to a last minute victory over Sale Sharks. This won’t be a matter of turning up, singing louder, and letting the cowed Britons bend the knee – an actual gameplan will be required.

And they need to win – before the season, we expected this pool to come down to bonus points, but its not going to happen – Clermont’s win in “Tomond” means that someone will finish with 5 wins, someone with 4 and someone with 3. If Munster are to avoid being the ‘3’, this is the one they need to win.

First, discipline – don’t give Saracens easy points. Saracens are the top points scorers from the boot in the Not-So-Boshiership, scoring 195 points in 13 games – a neat average of 15 points a game. With a front row of, at best, Cronin (just back from injury), Casey and BJ Botha, there is a risk Poite will earn further ire by rewarding the dominant scrum (likely to be Saracens), as he tends to do. But that is out of Munster’s control (largely) and can only be managed, as opposed to turned on its head. But if Munster start giving away breakdown penalties in their own half, the jig is up – even an easy 6 points to the boots of Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell (both kicking 80% this season) is likely to be insurmountable, the margin of error being very slim.

Regular viewers of Saracens (we don’t see enough of them – we have yet to sup from the poisonous chalice of BT Sport, but that’s likely to change, given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really) tell us that they are vulnerable to being attacked through the centres, utilizing quick hands and smart lines. Something that Dinny Hurley brings to the table, for example. Wait, what? Joking aside, a Munster selection with JJ Hanrahan at 12 is one that Saracens won’t like to see. With potential wingers of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, the last thing Saracens will want is someone who can get them the ball. A selection of Hurley will signal an attacking gameplan whose scope barely extends beyond the fringes of the ruck. Saracens will treat this as meat and drink, and is almost certainly a losing hand.

The first game between these sides was as tight as the proverbial duck’s arse until Rhys Gill went and did something stupid. Munster profited from his absence to score the game’s only try and tag on an extra three points, which ended up being the difference between the sides. The game was essentially lost by something dumb from Saracens. Flip the venue to England, and look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites – for Munster to win, they can’t rely on Lady Luck in the form of a bounce of the ball or a silly yellow card. Simply turning up and giving it all isn’t going to cut it – they’ll need a gameplan to take advantage of Saracens’ weaknesses.

Expect the game to be described as a ‘must-watch’ from all corners of the media, and while any do-or-die game involving Munster has a reasonable chance of a dramatic finale, chances are it will be spirit-sappingly dull.  Foley admitted his team needed to ‘not get bored’ executing their game-strangling kicking game in the last match, and expect more of the same here.  Conor Murray put air on the ball 17 times in that game, and we can expect something similar again – assuming he recovers from a neck injury.  The game might not be so much ‘must watch’, unless you’re really into that sort of thing, as ‘must follow’ on your Ultimate Rugby app, which could be the best vantage point, at least until the final 20 minutes which should provide a pulse-raising endgame.

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.