Six Nations Preview

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as dead-eyed brickies in Cricklewood). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain, and our columns will be re-produced on the blog on Fridays.

It’s that time of year again: Hooray Henrys braying in the finest hostelries of Dublin 4, sour-faced Welsh fans complaining their team didn’t win by enough, and Cedric Heymans and Clement Poitrenaud in the smoking area of Coppers late on a Saturday night. It’s the Six Nations.

And it’s a fresh-feeling version of the old tournament as well – it seems pretty open, and all countries are well on the World Cup 2015 trail (well, all except the usual suspects, Ireland and Scotland) with their cycles into the second year. France and England in particular look much improved from last year, when the Welsh rode their World Cup 2011 semi-final all the way to a third Grand Slam in seven years. Yet it was low-quality fare in general – only the Taffs will have been content with their form.

Now, let’s look forward to the next five weekends of John Inverdale-filled fun. We’ll start with the French. Phillipe Saint-Andre has now begun to put his stamp on the team, having stated that it was time they “switched generations” – the Servats, Bonnaires and Yachvilis are out and the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Machenaud are in. The most visible change is, of course, the rebirth of Freddy Michalak.

It’s seven years since the flawed genius last electrified this tournament and, it’s safe to say, he owes it – what a feeling of unfinished business he must have.  England grabbed the November headlines with their stunning victory over New Zealand, but France were the best in Europe – they hammered an Aussie team that wiped a purple-clad England, and ground down a fine Samoa team. They’ll probably lose in Twickenham (plus ca change) but win the tournament, with Wesley Fofana the star of the competition.

Speaking of Twickers, the red-blooded, upstanding chaps in the white jerseys have a nice look about them. Stuart Lancaster is now full-time in the job and their squad is sprinkled with exciting youngsters that might just light up their home World Cup in two-and-a-half years – Joe Launchbury, the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), Freddy Burns and Manu Tuilagi for example. They still struggle for consistency, which is to be expected, but won’t see too much to fear. A win in Dublin looks an ask, but four wins would constitute a good tournament. And the performances will surely be better than the abominations against Scotland and Italy they produced last time. England are serious contenders and look like they will be right through to 2015.

Unlike Ireland.

The IRFU’s amateur-era blazers are saddled with a coach who is one loss in Wales away from being the lamest of lame ducks. Finishing a largely-disastrous 2012 on a high, Declan Kidney is into the final few months of his contract and Ireland are six months away from starting our World Cup cycle – is it any wonder we flatter to deceive when we get there?

This is make-or-break time for Kidney; he badly wants a new contract, but it is time to show if he can lead this team in the right direction. Post-2009, Ireland can’t seem to break a pattern of one-off performances and maddening inconsistency.

The feelgood factor is at least reasonably high after an autumn in which a team shorn of its older generation of leaders tore Argentina apart. But can Ireland overcome the twin distractions of Brian O’Driscoll being stripped of the captaincy and Jonny Sexton leaving for Racing Metro?

Memories of Ireland’s lacklustre starts in recent series and three desperate losses in a row against the Welsh mean we can’t be confident about getting a win in the Millennium, and until Ireland beat France, we remain unconvinced the team has the mental strength to do so. We’re forecasting three wins and another curate’s egg of a tournament. It won’t be enough to save Kindney, so it’ll be back to the coaching drawing board 18 months after everyone else.

Speaking of the Welsh, it’s hard to know what to make of them. After looking chock-full of Lions this time last year, it’s hard to pick their starters this time out. Rhys Priestland is injured and inspirational captain Sam Warburton should be benched on form.

Worst of all, they’re missing their five (five!) best second rows and ironclad blindside Dan Lydiate. And yet – even missing all of the above and Lions coach Warren Gatland, they could get their act together. They have a solid front row and giant, skilful backs, but Rob Howley doesn’t fill us with confidence – three wins, and discontent in the Valleys.

As for Italy and Scotland, we cannot get too excited. Jacques Brunel has the Azzurri playing some silky stuff while making progress. But until they find some half-backs of passable quality, all their grunt is in vain.  Scotland replaced Andy Robinson with the serially unimpressive Scott Johnson after Tonga felt their sporrans in November and, despite the wooden spoon playoff being in Murrayfield this year, we think (and hope, for Sergio Parrisse’s sake) the Italians will do it.

Of course, this is a Lions year, which adds an extra dimension. Four years ago, Ireland had an unprecedented number of tourists as St Ian McGeechan tried to bring the Munster spirit, and half their team, to the tour. This time last year, the Lions-in-waiting team was festooned with Welsh, but they have the most to lose –the likes of Warburton, Mike Phillips and even George North could easily play themselves out of test contention.

It’s the English who look to have most to gain – any of the aforementioned nippy youngsters, plus Danny Care and Chris Robshaw could all be on the plane by Easter if they bring their recent club form to the white shirt. Robshaw is even a potential captain, even if he may not quite have the pace for the hard Australian ground. The hope, of course, is that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and O’Driscoll hit enough form to join already-on-the-plane Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and Rob Kearney.

So then, France to win it all, but no Grand Slam and no Triple Crown, with Scotland at the bottom – you heard it here first!

The Munsters

A thought struck us during the recent HEC action – in their times of greatest need this season, the second half of the Embra game, the must-win home fixture with Saracens and the away-day bosh-up in Lahn, Munster have reverted to the type of rugby the province is most comfortable with – 10 man boot and bollock with rolling mauls, marauding backrow forwards smashing everything that moves and kicking for territory.

Thing is, Rob Penney came on board loudly promising to introduce a more expansive style of play, but it looks like he has tempered those plans.  After the Edinburgh game he talked about how the team being ‘un the put’ where they are having to learn a new way of playing, but when they eventually come out of ‘the put’ they will be so much the better for it.  But if they keep reverting to the old ways, will they ever get out of ‘the put’?

It’s worth thinking back to how the early promise of the Ludd McGahan era (recall the 43-9 beasting of a star-studded Ospreys side) crumbled into a mish-mash of styles as the coach struggled to get his ideas across to a team used to something different. Before you say, ah but McGahan was crap, note how the Wallaby side he is now defence coach for won 3 (vs England, Wales and Italy) and drew 1 (vs BNZ) of their 5 game Northern Hemisphere tour, while conceding just 5 tries despite a lorry-load of injuries – McGahan was a capable coach, but the message didn’t get across.

So is the Penney Revolution struggling to get air? Its obviously way too early to reach a definitive judgment, but there are some issues that he already needs to address:

The Forwards

While the current edition of the Munster pack has its plus points, it’s nothing like the pack of 2008 – only BJ Botha (for John Hayes) and Donnacha Ryan (for Stakhanov) would make the grade. For all their old school endeavour in the Thomond Park Saracens game, the McGahan problem of discipline came back to haunt them, and they essentially only won because Owen Farrell left his kicking boots at the IRB POTY ceremony. 

In the Vicarage Road game, the sight of Munster rumbling into contact and losing metres to a powerful bunch of forwards when they were a man up must have had Rob Penney tearing his hair out – they spent 4 minutes boshing and going backwards which ended in a wobbly drop goal attempt, and it was just the tactic Saracens would have welcomed. Why they didn’t try and use their extra numbers a bit more productively was mystifying.

The traditional Munster game is rather ill-suited to the current squad of forwards they have. And even if Penney gets his guys doing what he wants, do Munster have the ball carriers in the pack – they are fairly lightweight and only Cawlin and JC Stander would strike you as consistent getting-over-the-gainline guys.

The Backs

The Munster outside backs are most exciting, and using them to chase bombs is not really maximising resources – Earls, Zebo, Jones, Howlett and O’Dea look dynamite with ball in hand. It’s playing to your strengths to get them on the ball as much as possible instead of the comfortable, mucky repeated one-out rumbles into contact. At home to Saracens, who themselves have a high class backline, the most dangerous outside back by far looked like Keith Earls – but they never got him on the ball.

The Ireland-style aimless shuttling across the backline against Embra was easily repelled, with nary a dangerous angle or intelligent switch pass in sight. Simon Zebo must have looked at the type of opportunities the Ulster backs got in Northampton (Andrew Trimble running from blindside wing into first receiver and making a try for instance) and wondered would he ever get that chance in a big Thomond Park game.

Its hard to see it as a profitable long-term strategy to have your most dangerous players guarding rucks instead of passing and moving.

The Leader

Ah yes. The elephant in the room. Paul O’Connell is a massive leader, and one of the best captains Munster have ever had – he was perfect as the pack leader in the HEC years, and accepted nothing less than excellence in pursuit of success. Problem is, he actually isn’t that suited to the modern game – his ball-carrying is poor, and he does far too much of it. The Mole wrote about the sight of O’Connell calling one-out ruck ball to himself for Ireland, charging 70cm into contact, and forcing the likes of Fez and Jamie Heaslip to clear out the ruck – defences will take that all day long.

Does O’Connell have the desire to evolve his playing style at this stage of his career? His second row partner of so many red and green occasions is making a decent shift at it, despite not being in the same league as a player – but O’Connell has never been a follower. If he cannot adapt, and Penney prefers other players to execute his gameplan, he’s going to have a problem.

The Outhalf

Barnesy has talked about the flyhalf being the key cog in the machine, around which the spokes of wheel turn – his vision reflected how he played the game – head-up, looking for breaks and creating space – and was the reason why England preferred the more prosaic approach of Rob Andrew. That was the type of game they wanted to play. The illustration shows the problem for Rob Penney rather neatly. For his entire career, the Munster approach has been territorial, based on Ronan O’Gara putting the pack where they want to go. Penney wants to move on, but O’Gara simply does not have the skillset to execute a high tempo, handling based game any more.

Much as some might wish it not to be so, Ronan O’Gara is long past his best, and his on-field decision-making has deteriorated markedly in the last 12 months – he is nothing like the domineering figure of the past decade. Admittedly, his performance in Saracens was excellent out of hand, but in the context of a narrow gameplan and heavily unambitious opponents.

The reality is Penney is going to have to play someone else if he is to realise his vision – maybe Ian Keatley, maybe someone else altogether. The management of this issue, as we have said before, will largely define the success, or otherwise, of this season for Penney and Munster.

Culture

It’s clear how the senior players want to do it, and its getting results – they scored 4 tries in 40 mins against (an admittedly inept) Embra, and beat high-flying English/Saffer bosh overlords Saracens doing it their way. And after the success of the old approach against Saracens (home win and losing bonus point secured) – it’s going to be ever more difficult for Penney to further his case to the already sceptical dressing room bigwaigs now they can point to Munster’s 5 points against the English heavyweights. The mathematics of a defeat then 0 tries scored in 1.5 games of New Munster and 4 tries, then a win, then a losing bonus point in 2.5 games of Old Munster might look compelling, but there is a danger the wrong lesson will be learned. Munster might be well-positioned for a quarter-final slot, but what benefit would that be in the long term if they reverted to a gameplan that doesn’t suit their younger players (and future stars) to get there?

Its fine to say you need to earn the right to go wide, but that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that you must win the set-piece first and only. Sure, its important, but manufacturing mismatches through intelligent running angles and offloading in the tackle to force more defenders into a ruck than attackers, thus creating numbers out wide, is far more relevant. If Munster go down to Toulon or Clermont in a HEC quarter-final with the mindset that they must win up-front before thinking about going wide, they will get mashed into the turf and badly beaten to boot. Leinster have showed in the last 2 seasons that a solid (if unspectacular) scrum and a good defensive lineout is more than enough to play an accurate and ambitious game – maybe the most important difference their is that was something the senior Leinster players not only were comfortable with, but welcomed.

On another point, the importance of the muck and bullets Shannon-type AIL style can be overdone at times – its a playing style from a different era which was succesful, but its highly unsuited to the current crop. And a perceived attachment by Munster fans to a certain style of play is nonsense – recall the reception Craig Gilroy got when playing Fiji – this is a chap who ruined Munster’s season last year, but his exciting and daring brand of rugby went straight to the hearts of the Thomond Park crowd. They swooned over him, and the cheer for him the next week in the Aviva was as warm and loud as the one for any player.

The fans who have got into Munster rugby in the professional era were fine with Craig Gilroy when they saw him play – they aren’t inherently wedded to any style – just a desire to win! Clearly Munster are in a rebuild phase, but the idea that they must play in a particular way, or its not really Munster is just untrue – their challenge is to play in a way which maximises their playing resources. The atmosphere in Thomond Park on a Saturday night will be equally as well-harnessed playing ambitious rugby as it is playing a fenzied forwards-based game.

Marrying a tough, if lightweight, looking pack to exciting and creative backs looks the only way forward for Munster if they want to win again in European rugby – the best teams, like Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester and Ulster, have mean-looking packs who can take you on up front, plus backs to finish it off – scoring in 3s isn’t going to win you the big pots.

One thing is for sure, unless Munster can find an identity they can move forward with, they aren’t going to move forward – the McGahan era petered out into embarrassments against Toulon and Ulster without a united front. Rob Penney has some young talent to work with, but a reversion to a game which works in the short term to the detriment of the long term is not a recipe for sustained success – maybe now is the time to make some painful decisions, which may be unpopular with senior players (and the media) and live up to the hard-ass reputation he has come over with.

Six Nation Preview: The Joy of HECs

Part 2 of our Six Nations preview looks at what the HEC has thrown up, and how this might have a bearing on the international sphere.
It’s been an extremely positive tournament for both Scotland and Ireland. Scotland have their first quarter-finalist in 8 years and this has got to be good news for Robbo. For a start, he will have some players on the field who know what it takes to win close games, a facet of performance in which Scotland fell notably short in the RWC. True, Edinburgh weren’t exactly in the Pool of Death, but you still need to beat the teams in front of you – 2 away wins laced with cojones are positive signs, as is the try count – 17 – more than Scotland have managed in the last four Six Nations put together. In addition, the team is largely Scottish, and is well-marshalled by Greg Laidlaw at 10 – a position where Scotland have failed to find consistent leadership of late.
Ireland, in turn, have an unprecedented 3 quarter-finalists, with one guaranteed semi-finalist and the press full of breathless talk of a Munster-Leinster final. It’s all positive then, right? Possibly not. The contrast between and confused bumbling in the green shirt and the sure-footed confidence in the blue/white/red shirt has grown starker and starker since 2009, and, despite a decent RWC, it’s not clear anything is changed. Ulster are marshalled by the accents of Bloemfontein as much as Belfast, and Munster and Leinster operate to disparate gameplans. Talk is emerging of a new style and clearer attacking strategy, and it would want to, because Ireland frequently look an uneasy, confused hybrid of the two. The squad announcement was a flat affair, and there’s been little sense among the rugby public that Ireland can capitalise on the provinces’ dominance.

For England and Wales, the HEC did not augur well. England’s RWC squad was backboned by players from Leicester, Northampton and Bath (16 out of 30 including Thomas the Tank Engine, drafted in for Ted Sheridan). All 3 suffered merciless and record-breaking beatings at the hands of Irish provinces this year, which has given rise to hilarious hand-wringing in Blighty. Ackford thinks the solution is more English teams (no, really), Barnesy has started touting the Pro12 as the model, and Cockerill has pointed his pudgy fingers at the salary cap, referees, injuries, the heavy Christmas programme, the Catholic Church, Dick Cheney and the euro.
All that aside, what looked like a new-ish broom swept in by Stuart Lancaster has already turned into a damage limitation exercise – the HEC has left English rugby’s confidence dented, and it needs to find its pride again. Even Harlequins have stumbled. Confidence will likely stay dented right up until Chris Ashton
belly-flops his way to 3 tries against Italy, when they will be prospective world champions again.
The Welsh had exactly the opposite problem after NZ – how to temper expectations (not their strongest suit, it must be said). However, the regions have done a pretty good job for Gatty and co. The Scarlets produced a signature performance in thumping the Sinners in Franklin’s Gardens, but failed to follow through, losing 3 of their last 4 games in circumstances where a team with belief and a pack would have won at least 2 of them. NKOTB Rhys Priestland has been de-scoped from the 10 slot in favour of bearded has-been Stephen Jones and the marvellous young backs (Scott and Liam Williams, JJV Davies, George North) have been successfully neutered.
The Hairsprays didn’t expect to capitulate so rankly in Biarritz on the last weekend, although double losses to Sarries and a draw with Treviso had snookered them before the off. Cardiff qualified, but only as a runner-up, and made extremely heavy weather of an easy pool. Anything less than a severe thumping at the hands of Leinster in April would be considered progress after a measly 9 tries in 6 games – against 2 sides determined to throw the ball around like confetti (Edinburgh and Racing Metro) and 1 of the worst sides in the HEC (London Samoa). It looks like positive momentum lost, but then again, the Welsh national side has never fed off the regions. They’re a curious side whose performance can go any which way, depending largely on what mood they’re in. It might not matter that much.
For France and Italy, it was all a bit … meh. Of the 6 French sides, only 3 bothered – Toulouse (group winners), Clermont (group winners) and Biarritz (narrowly pipped for a knockout place, and began looking more menacing after the Harinodoquy-Yachvili-Traille spine was bedded back in for the later games). The other 3 sides used the tournament for practice – either backline moves (Racing Metro) or scrummaging (Castres, Montpellier). The Top 14 will always be a priority for French sides (despite their lack of connection with their fan bases, Gerry), and HEC success is a pleasant side-dish in most cases. It’s hard to know what impact this all will have on the national side – not much we suspect.
The Italian sides were a curates egg. The positives came from Treviso’s home form and their willingness to play a more rounded brand of rugby – no longer can you go there and rely upon your scrum breaking even and your kicker to kick 80% in order to win. On the flip side of that, Aironi regressed from last year. No-one expected miracles, but they beat Biarritz last season and were generally niggly at home. This time around, they got fed an eighty-burger (thank you Demented Mole) by the Clermont reserves, and the only success, such as it was, was denying Leicester a bonus point in the Zafanella. One hopes that Italy will take more from Treviso’s performances, and make it a proper Six Nations.