Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.

#Flogged

We dreamed up this post lounging around on Northside grass, peeled grapes being handed to us by the Irish Times sports staff, having conned them into thinking we might need them to ghost an autobiography at some indistinct point in the future. But we soon realized the subject matter was far too serious for us, and we needed to rope in stats guru Andy McGeady for a joint post.

You’ll be able to tell who is responsible for what – the critical insight, relevant statistics and funny bits are from Andy, and the bitterness, carping and anti-Munster bias from us.

The issue of player welfare is something that will be big for us this year. Careers are getting shorter (Ian McKinley, Eoin O’Malley), the level of concern for serious injury differs among observers, and those players who are lucky enough to forge long and successful careers are increasingly paying for it with huge playing time. On this year’s Lions tour, Warren Gatland said that the physicality of rugby had gone up a notch since the last tour.  It was a statement that left us reeling; the 2009 series in South Africa was so bruising you almost felt your ribcage tightening just watching it.  The stakes are increasing all the time.  And when the NFL, where owners readily acknowledge players are mere commodities, seems more concerned about managing careers than rugby, we got a problem.

Two cases in point: Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar.

Forget Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s most important player is nerdy Corkman Ross because if you don’t have a competent tighthead prop, you’re goosed. The opposition will milk you for penalties, and if you get away with giving up 12 points from this source, you’ve done well. Consider the last time Ireland had to do without an effective tighthead for a big game – in Twickenham in 2012 when Tom Court was forced to deputize for the crocked Ross. Shudders. This isn’t a Court diatribe of course, he is a loosehead by trade and was pressed into service through necessity, but merely illustrates the point.

Not only are tighthead props the most important players on the pitch, they are also typically the biggest (BBC infographics seem to delight in broadcasting the weight of Ireland’s tighthead) and strongest. The power output has increased to the extent that in the Southern Hemipshere and France, a prop isn’t expected to last longer than 60 minutes, with a new front row often introduced en masse between 50 and 55 minutes.

In Ireland, however, we are milking Mike Ross to a terrifically dunderheaded extent. Ross has played every game of note in the last three years for Leinster, and, once he saw off the ‘spirited challenge’ of Mushy, every game possible for Ireland in two and a half. And this is literally every game possible. When Ireland played a disinterested (for multiple reasons: the IRFU didn’t give them the respect of playing a full test, and they had just buried a team-mate) Fiji in November, Ross was required to tog out to prove his fitness. Then in June, when we toured North America, it was decreed we needed Ross to see off Shawn Pittman (London Welsh) and Hubert Buydens (Prairie Wolf Pack). Why?

By the end of last season, Ross looked completely shattered, markedly less effective and in need for a long rest more than anything. Was it really necessary to fly him around the world to steady the scrum? Frankly, without Ross, Ireland would struggle to win a game in the Six Nations, never mind against a Southern Hemisphere giant.

Ruan Pienaar, in turn, is Ulster’s marquee man and their key playmaker. He joined the brethren from the Sharks after the Tri-Nations of 2010, and has not only played every game of note Ulster have had (in both the HEC and the Magners/Pro12), he’s been involved in every Springbok squad in that time – encompassing a World Cup, two Rugby Championships, a Tri-Nations, three November tours and three June tours. Not much time for day trips to Bangor, that’s for sure.

Maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s the more rarified level Ulster are operating at now, but Pienaar seems notably less effervescent than he was two years ago – at the tail end of last year, he looked mentally jaded and unimaginative. Paddy Jackson and the speedsters outside sometimes rarely saw the ball, aside from chasing box-kicks and fielding delayed passes. For Ulster to take the next step in their development, which is often the hardest one, and win some silverware, they’ll need their best players fully engaged and in top form.

In Mendoza on Saturday, Pienaar was ponderous and indecisive – it was a miracle (and a shame) he lasted 80 minutes. Perhaps if Anscombe is honest, he’ll think that a month in the Caribbean for his best player might maximise the chance of him being where Ulster need him by April and May. Sadly, with the behemoth packs of Leicester and Montpellier to negotiate, the chances of that happening seem precisely zero.  But enough speculation – this is where we hand over to stats man Andy McGeady…

When the gentlemen of Whiff of Cordite brought up the subjects of Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar I did what I am wont to do – I took out the pad and paper, scratched a few things down and had a good, solid mull.

Then I fired up the stats machine.

And I peered inside.

Mike Ross, as Leinster and Ireland’s number one tight head prop forward, is a singularly important player in Irish rugby. And, yes, last season he indeed played a very large number of minutes compared to his contemporaries in European top level rugby.

PropsPlayingTime

Note: the stats used are from the 2012/13 season proper, i.e. the same information that would have been to hand before people flew off to various summer tours.

Of all Rabodirect Pro 12, Aviva Premiership and Orange Top 14 props only six men played more minutes of domestic, European (Heineken/Amlin Cup) and international rugby than the ex-Harlequins man managed during the 2012/13 season.

Mike Ross is thirty three-years old.

1867 minutes of rugby at an average of 64 minutes per outing is a decent shift for a top level front row, especially so at that age.

But he is also thirty-three years young.

Mike Ross might have a birth certificate bearing the year 1979, but between professional club and test level rugby he doesn’t have as many rugby miles on the clock as others.

Fellow thirty-three year old Carl Hayman, for example, played the last of his 45 tests for New Zealand in 2007. Ross first pulled on an Irish test jersey in 2009 playing two summer tests against Canada and the USA, not featuring again in a test side until playing Italy in Rome in 2011.

Since then, of course, Ross has been a regular for Ireland but with just five weeks in age between himself and Hayman the contrast between the two couldn’t be more stark.

And it wasn’t just in the international arena where Ross was a late starter; it took the former UCC and Cork Con man some time to nail down a regular first team slot with a top side, becoming a regular with Harlequins in the 2006-07 season. Depending on how you look at it Ross has made between one and two fewer season’s worth of top level club appearances than the other capped thirty-and-overs in that list, Tom Court excepted.

That’s something to think about. It’s a Matt-Stevens-worth of games, after all.

Ruan Pienaar, like Ross, was the most flogged horse at his position in his league over the 2012/13 season, sitting in third place on the most-minutes-played list of halves currently plying their trade in the European game.

HalvesPlayingTime

Jonny Wilkinson and Rory Kockott might have both played more raw minutes than the South African but neither had to cope with the more rigorous physical and mental demands of the international game (not to mention travel to, literally, all four corners of the globe). The fourth placed Ian Madigan, just behind Pienaar on the list, had just 62 minutes of international rugby in that time (Ronan O’Gara had 78, for those scoring at home).

The IRFU will have no real say in how often Pienaar plays for Ulster, or at what position, perhaps with the exception of suggesting quietly that Paddy Jackson might be offered some time over the kicking tee in live games.

Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching staff will, however, have some control over the number of minutes that Mike Ross spends rambling around paddocks in the blue of Leinster or green of Ireland. But whether his odometer or registration plate is the more accurate gauge, perhaps only the man himself will know.

Credit: individual playing time stats courtesy of Opta (player ages added from other sources)

Thanks to Andy McGeady for his contribution.  Visit his own excellent site here.