The Boshers Will Inherit The Earth

When Cornwallis surrended to George Washington at Yorktown, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down” – that’s a little how we feel here after the first two weeks of rugger on “these islands”, as John Hume might say.

In the Premiership, it’s a veritable try fest of exciting and invisive rugby – Quins have scored 11 tries in two games, one of them an absolute cracker against Wasps. Leicester have 10 tries, and there have been 8 try bonus points and 64 tries scored in 12 games – an average of over 5 per game. Even Ooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi is getting in on of end to end moves with multiple offloads and incisive lines of running.

Meanwhile in the Pro12, two of the most effective players for the Irish provinces have been Nick Williams and James Downey – two men not exactly known for their cultured approach to the game. At the RDS on Saturday, when Palla saw the team-sheets, he turned to Mrs Palla and said the Dragons 12 hadn’t been picked for his soft hands. Yet Andy Tuilagi, who might only be the 4th best player in his family, was highly effective and one of the Dragons main attacking options.  He even threw in a sidestep at one stage (and before you ask, not one of the Samoan variety).

On the stats front, the Pro12 has seen just 45 tries, an average of just under 4 – respectable, but skewed by the 3 teams with try bonus points under their belt: Scarlets, Dragons and Leinster. The other 9 teams have just 21 tries between them. Only one word we can think of for that – Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh!

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Mythbusters!

One of our readers sent us a question on Facebook last week – wow, we really feel we’ve arrived now that we can write that! It was none other than Ronan Lyons, and he asked us:

I’ve stumbled on to an opinion and would like to pass it by some people who actually understand and watch rugby. Have there been two Sean O’Briens over the last 18 months? The one that played up to and including the match against Australia in RWC, who steam-rolled all before him, and the one who has played from the Wales game on, a good player but not one to set the world alight.

We, and others, chipped in with a few possible reasons: that Seanie is maybe a bit knackered, and that, to an extent, teams have found ways of curbing his impact, in particular by tackling him low around the ankles.  The most pertinent reason, though, was that O’Brien has had to defer some of his carrying duties to get involved in the dirty work in and around the ruck area.  Ireland essentially have three carriers in the backrow, and one of them has to sacrifice their natural game.  In New Zealand, it was Jamie Heaslip who did this, but against Wales two weeks ago, he had a hugely effective game carrying the ball, while O’Brien appeared to be playing the role of ‘fetcher’.
The answer being inextricably linked to the make-up of Ireland’s backrow gives us an opportunity to look at two myths that keep coming up around the make-up of the Irish team.
Myth 1. Ireland need a ‘genuine openside’.  Without one, our backrow will always struggle.
Myth 2. Ireland’s backs are too small.  We should we be putting larger fellows into midfield to compete with the likes of Wales.
Both these myths are reactionary, after recent Irish defeats – both to Wales, as it happens.  In the World Cup quarter-final Sam Warburton wreaked havoc at the breakdown, continually slowed down the Irish ball, which stopped their attack at source.  Quick ball is the lifeblood of any team, and as we tend to drone on, you could have world class backs from 9 to 15, but if you don’t got quick ball, you won’t see them do much.
Fast forward to now and Wales’ giant three-quarter line have smashed apart Ireland and Scotland.  France also have a pretty large back line.  Ireland have had ten years of success with quick-footed, diminutive centres (Drico, Dorce and, errrr, Paddy Wallace), and the next in line have similar stature (Earls, McFadden, O’Malley).  Is it time for Ireland to look at a new approach and draft in bigger men to play centre?
Waiter!  Fetch me some world class 7s on a plate!
The claim that Ireland would be improved by a terrific 7 isn’t without merit.  Ireland’s backrow isn’t balanced, for sure.  It’s all carriers and no groundhog.  Of course we’d love a world class fetcher in there.  But amid the clamour from various media pundits (George Hook is like a broken record ) a few key imperatives need to be borne in mind.
You can only play what you have available.   The best natural 7 in the country is Shane Jennings, at Leinster.  He is a fine provincial player, but even his most ardent fans (we would count ourselves among them) would struggle to make a case for him as a first rate international player.  He is in the Leinster Heineken Cup team about 50% of the time these days.  Dominic Ryan looks to have some of the key components of a 7, but he’s what we would call a ‘six and a half’, a guy who has some attributes of a 6, and some of a 7.  Peter O’Mahony has filled the 7 jersey for Munster, but he’s definitely more of a 6 – he’s too tall to be a dedicated groundhog, though he is a fine breakdown operator.  We can’t simply manufacture world-class opensides overnight. 
Contrary to popular belief, not every successful team has a genuine 7. New Zealand have McCaw, Wales have Warburton, and so on, but World Cup finalists and Six Nations favourites France don’t.  Indeed, the French seem to have a totally different view of how the backrow should look, and it’s worked out well enough for them.  They typically set up with a ball-carrier at number 8 (Picamoles, Harinordoquy), and on either flank (it normally doesn’t matter which) station a lineout forward (Bonnaire, Harinordoquy, Jean Bouilhou at Toulouse) and a wrecking ball (Dusatoir, Gorgodze at Montpellier).  Sometimes the guy playing on the openside is the guy you’d think would be on the blindside.  Sometimes they switch positions.  It can get a bit confusing but one thing’s for sure, there ain’t no dedicated fetcher in the French team.
The solution?  It’s the gameplan, stupid.  Each of Ireland’s starting backrowers are great players in their own right, and none of the alternatives at 7 look good enough to unseat the incumbents.  The question is, how can Ireland get the best out of them?    We’d suggest they try reduce the number of one-out-from-the-ruck rumbles in to contact, and to offload the ball a lot more than they’re currently doing.  This keeps the ball off the floor, and reduces the number of times Ireland have to fight off the likes of Sam Warburton at rucks.  
On top of that, it’s a great counter to the low ‘chop tackles’ that defenders are employing to take down the likes of O’Brien and Ferris.  The chop tackles leave the carrier with his arms free to get the offload away.  That’s the cost of tackling low – and if you don’t make the defender pay it, you’re giving him a free lunch.  Leinster have had huge success with their offloading game, where Sean Cronin and Richard Strauss are experts at timing trailer runs onto offloads from Jamie Heaslip, Nathan Hines (last year) and latterly, Rob Kearney.  Ulster have developed their game in this direction too – witness Wannenbosh’s sumptuous offload leading to Craig Gilroy’s try against Leicester. 
If Ireland are to adopt this approach they’ll need more tight forwards who can handle the ball – Dan Tuohy would be a real option here, and Sean Cronin would need to be sprung from the bench more readily.  Of course, you can’t offload every time, and it goes without saying that Ireland need to be phenomenally aggressive when it comes to clearing out rucks – this is something all the provinces excel at; the personnel are there to do it.
Where the deuce is the beef?!
With BOD injured and Dorce pushing on, Ireland’s midfield is in need of renovating anyway – and after the Wales game there have been no shortage of calls to beef it up with size.  Bowe to 13 is one much-touted option (Fankie and Brent are in favour), while Oooooooooooohh James Downey is a possibility as a crash-ball 12.  A few wrong-headed shouts for O’Brien or Ferris to convert to centre have even been seen on internet fora.  It seems the nation is suddenly obsessed with the size of the Irish backs – there’s even a thread on boards.ie called ‘Can Ireland play good attacking rugby in the future without huge centres?’
Size Isn’t Everything.  That’s what she said.  But again, Ireland have to cut their cloth to what’s available.  The only big options at centre are Tommy Bowe and James Downey.  There are no Jamie Roberts’ or Aurelien Rougeries just lying around gathering dust.  Bowe has very little experience at 13 – which is considered the hardest to defend on the pitch – and has enough to worry about at the moment with his patchy form.  As for Downey, well if he was good enough for international rugby it’s highly unlikely he’d be sitting on the Northampton bench behind Tom May. Just because players are big doesn’t make them good.  Roberts, Davies and Rougerie are great centres not because they’re big, but because they’re good footballers.  Simon Danielli has similar physical stats to George North – but nothing in the way of his skill levels.  Good back play is still about football skills and lines of running – look where England have got over the last decade with any number of beefcake boshers in the backline.  Lesley Vainikolo anyone?  Matt Banahan?  Altogether now: Ooooooooooooooooooohhhh!
Erm, it’s the gameplan again, stupid. 
People need to forget about what we haven’t got, and look a bit more at what we have.  As we noted a few weeks ago, a  midfield of McFadden and Earls would have plenty of running threat, and plenty of pace.  We need to build a plan of attack, and build it around the players’ strengths, not retreating behind fears about the size of players.  As the always incisive Emmet Byrne said on Off the Ball last week, we need to look at how we can hurt teams with what we have, instead of just hoping our defence will squeeze enough mistakes out of the opposition.  
It’s much the same with all our problems: the unbalanced backrow, the uncertainty at half-back, the size of our centres, the unchanging selections: they’d all be a lot less problematic if we played with a clearly identifiable, cohesive and well executed gameplan that everyone on the team bought into.

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.

Heineken Cup Round Five

Whiff of Cordite went on its second trip of the season this weekend – a swift eight-hour round trip to Belfast.  It was Leinsterman Palla Ovale’s first proper Ravenhill experience (Ireland A v Tonga doesn’t really count).  Talk about timing – the old ground heaved as Ulster racked up a wonderful four-try victory that keeps them in the hunt.  The highlight was the three fans behind us who with, as typical Nordies, refused to get carried away when Palla began to laud the Ulster display, responding ‘Aye, but Leicester are sh*te!’.  Here’s our Good Week/Bad Week, and where else to start but at Ravenhill.

Good week

Shtand up for the Ul-[whistle]-termen:
The standout performance of the weekend – Ulster absolutely smashed Leicester, dominating the collisions and set-piece and leaving England’s most storied team of the professional era a leaderless rabble by full-time. The tone was set by an immense hit by Fez on Agulla to prevent a Tigers try early on, and the ferocious work never stopped. Once the ball made it to the piano players, they did the business as well – even PedrieWannenbosh had two gorgeous try-making offloads. The pity is that they probably won’t qualify – the lost bonus point in

Welford Road

might prove crucial. True, they will make it if one of Toulouse, Quins, Embra or Cardiff slip up, but that is still odds against. Mind you, stranger things have happened, and better to have one in the hand then to need a win in Galway when you are playing sh!te…

When Eric eats a banana, he turns into…
Bananaman!  If you closed your eyes slightly, you would have though fifteen Erics were playing on Saturday morning. Egg Chaser was enjoying a leisurely lunch with the family when he decided to check the latest score from the Zaffanella on the off-chance there would be a shock. Errr … no. It was 47-0 at half–time. Then the Erics added another 35 in the second half for a grand total of 82 points and 12 tries. Okay, it was only Aironi. But still.  Aironi beat Biarritz last year, and gave Leicester a pretty uncomfortable time of it this year.  They have home wins against Embra, Treviso and Connacht in the AAALeague and gave Cardiff and Ulster some heart-in-mouth moments. Sure, they are bunnies, and they target matches (Munster, 12th of February, watch your backs), but they are improving – they are certainly not an 82-0 team. If Clermont get 4 more tries and win on Saturday, they will likely have a home quarter final, and from there, anything can happen. Ask Eric.
Send Them Homewards tae the Knockout Stages
Scottish rugby has been in the doldrums for so long, you sometimes forget the positives. They have some decent back-row forwards, they should have won the Triple Crown in 2010, and they will soon have HupHupTim Visher. But they have loads of negatives. Glasgow have no history of rugby and struggle to get the deposit back from Partick Thistle Nil and are losing Richie Gray to Sale (Sale!).Embra do well to pack 10% of Murrayfield on a weekly basis. So with those handicaps, its great to see Embra show such bronca – 2 last minute away wins, and a 30 point comeback in this group –its the stuff quarter-finals are made of. If they beat London Samoa at home, they are in. Given they might make it at the expense of Ulster, it’s a stretch to say we will be cheering them on, but no-one could begrudge them, and Scottish rugby, their day in the sun.

Bad Week

Peter Stringer and the Wobbly Kick

There could hardly be much more goodwill towards Peter Stringer – we were in a Bath pub full of travelling Leinster fans who loudly cheered his debut appearance against Ospreys.  What a pity to see his kick charged down, resulting in a Biarritz try on Sunday.  His boot out of play to secure the win also went at a strangely low trajectory – it would have been funny-painful to see Ngwenya catch it on the full and gallop in for a winning try.  Things have gone well for Strings up til now – he’ll put this one behind him.

Biarritz and Leicester – All Pedigree and no Trousers

Pedigree is often argued to be the crucial ingredient in the Heineken Cup – it’s what digs Munster out of tight spots and gets Toulouse through the group stages without breaking a sweat.  Biarritz and Leicester have it in spades, but it will only get you so far.  Both are a pale shadow of fomer sides.  Biarritz were never the most watchable of teams, but the forward power that used to intimidate is no longer there.  Leicester became a rabble on Friday night.  They are admittedly beset by injuries, but they don’t appear particularly strong in any unit.  Castro is no longer the force of old, and the backrow was anonymous on Friday, smashed to pieces at the breakdown.  12×3 had a meltdown, and Ben Youngs is starting to look a bit overrated.  Both these teams will be focussing on domestic affairs for the rest of the season.

Stuart Barnes Has Something to Say

Oooooohhh Barnesy, what a week!  Darren Cave took him on in his Sunday Times interview (questioning his pick of Leicester as among the favourites), and came out on top.  After the Friday debacle, he made an extraordinary admission: that the Rabo Pro12 is better, and quicker, than the Premiership.  The Premiership Sky Hype, the perennial excuse that the powder-puff Rabo gives the Celtic sides an unfair advantage – all gone in a flash.  You half expected the producer to get in his ear and make him recant.

England – Revolution or Evolution? Part 2

Stuart Lancaster revealed his 32-man squad for the Six Nations this luncheon, with nine new faces arriving.  He’s kept faith with a core of tight forwards, (Cole, Stevens, Palmer, Deacon, Hartley) but outside that dark region it’s going to be a new-look England.  We can expect to see a backrow featuring Ben Morgan at 8, and any two of Wood, Robshaw and Croft.  10-12-13 will be interesting and it’s not entirely clear how that will look.  Charlie Hodgson (yes, him) has been recalled, and Lancaster may see him as the wily old head to steer the ship from 10 while the young guns busy themselves around him.  It will look like a mad call to Hodgson’s many detractors, but in Flood’s absence there aren’t that many other compelling options.  Still, it looks a weak point.

Some things never change though, and it seems Lancaster couldn’t resist picking a couple of inside-centre boshing machines in Barritt and Turner-Hall; while that in-vogue openside remains as elusive as ever, with Andy Saull having to bide his time in the Saxons squad.  Still, it’s a brave new-ish world and all that, and we’ll watch with intrigue as they travel to Murrayfield for their first game.

Good luck to them, we say. They’ll need it – the carping has started already, in fact, it started before the squad announcement. Here’s Lawrence Bruno Nero when asked if Ben Morgan and Owen Farrell should make the first XV:

“No. The lads need to experience the culture and the environment.” 

Oh dear. Would that be the culture of self-aggrandisement, and the environment of oafish behaviour? Surely the whole plan was to build a new culture from the bottom up.

Now, bear in mind that this is about Morgan and Farrell, the only two newbies who are nailed on to start against Scotland – Farrell has been the stand-out English back in this years Boshiership and Morgan hardly went from turning down the Saxons to qualify for Wales last year to switching allegiances just to hold a tackle bag for Thomas the Tank Engine. [Aside: the “Who is Ben Morgan?” pieces in the English press show a worrying insularity – do England really have nothing to learn from the Celts? Morgan is a Lion in waiting.]

What we also don’t understand is why there was no requirement for the likes of Shontayne Hape to learn the “culture” – he wasn’t even English, but was fast-tracked into the squad with nary a peep from Dallaglio. Maybe there is one rule for ageing boshers and another for young tyros.

The ’03-ers are rightly considered Heroes of English Rugby, and all have retired with unimpeachable reputations (on the field anyway). The problem for English rugby is that many have retired to the soft seats of the media, and their opinions on the current national set-up (again, rightly) carry a lot of weight. You can’t shut them up, but every unconstructive utterance such as Dallaglio’s will erode the fledgling confidence (such as it is) of the new generation. Plus, as we are tired of banging on about, it will remind everyone that the team aren’t doing as well as ’03… and are daring to pass the ball wide in the process. Ergo – bosh it up the middle to win.

To rub salt into the wound, and reduce the pressure on the likes of Farrell, Lawrence finished with the Lampard-esque rallying call:

 “Of course England can win the World Cup”

Stopping just sort of  “… because we deserve it.” Here at Cordite Towers, we wish the newbies, especially Farrell and Morgan all the best – it’s not going to be an easy ride.

PS. of course, the real indicator of the new culture in Team England is this: if Chris Ashton does his charming swallow dive when he scores his first try in the Lancaster era, forget about it.

Bosh! Bosh!! BOSH!!!

Remarkably, not changing tactics and changing personnel worked a treat for the Bokke and the Bloody Nice Chaps (except Delon Armitage). Actually, not so remarkable when you consider the best sides at club level have nailed that one a long time ago. Still, one lesson is that if boshing up the middle doesn’t work, just get other lads to try it instead. New Zealand and Australia certainly won’t mind that conclusion being reached.

Today, on Back Page Rugby, we looked at how Johnno and P Divvy made a difference from their goldfish bowls – plus we don’t think Johnno destroyed anything while he was there as an added bonus.

Read it here.