The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.

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.

Be Kind Rewind

In October 2009 with the Palindrome a mere nine months from opening, the blazers confirmed that the opening fixture would indeed be a rugger game. Given the small window in which it could be played (after opening but before the soccerball merchants pitched up in August), it was somewhat inevitable that the biggest names would not be involved.

So what they pencilled in was a combination interprovincial, where Munster/Connacht would play Leinster/Ulster. At the time (Autumn 2009), Munster were the kingpins of Irish rugger.  Despite Leinster being HEC champions, Munster were still considered the daddies of Irish rugby, and match-for-match had probably been the best team in the previous years HEC. They backboned the Irish Grand Slammers and that summers Lions team and were still recognisable as the Liginds. They were confident and comfortable in their own skin – no need to hype up someone with two semi-decent Pro12 outings as the next big thing when you had the real big thing in the first XV. The idea was to pair them with Connacht, traditionally the weakest Irish province, and let them chukka off against the rest.

Given there were no big names available (all on holidays), the players were picked from the Academies and sub-academies. The game itself was a complete mismatch – but in the opposite way to senior level – it was Leinster/Ulster won 68-0 and scored 10 tries. So despite the fact Leinster (then still under Mike Cheika) were far from the finished article, and Ulster were at the bottom of a trough, their collective youngsters were far, far better than those of Munster and Connacht. Initial warning sign? Maybe, but that might be being overly prescriptive with history – the acceptance at the time was that only a handful of these players might make the transition to the top level at any rate. So who were they?

Leinster/Ulster:

15. Sam Coghlan Murray (Leinster)
14. Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
13. Alex Kelly (Leinster)
12. Luke Marshall (Ulster) Captain
11. Andrew Boyle (Leinster)
10. Paddy Jackson (Ulster)
9. Peter du Toit (Leinster)
1. James Tracy (Leinster)
2. Jonny Murphy (Ulster)
3. Martin Moore (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. Robert Hynes (Leinster)
6. Steven Lecky (Ulster)
7. Mark McGroarty (Leinster)
8. David McGuigan (Ulster)
Replacements
16. Paddy Carroll (Leinster)
17. Andy Warrick (Ulster)
18. Mark Fallon (Leinster)
19. Paddy Marks (Ulster)
20. Conor Spence (Ulster)
21. Cathal Marsh (Leinster)
22. Michael McAuley (Ulster)

Connacht/Munster:

15. Callum Boland (Connacht)
14. Tadhg Leader (Connacht)
13. Daniel Horgan (Munster)
12. Ben Sargent (Munster)
11. Shane Leydon (Connacht)
10. Johnny Holland (Munster)
9. Mark Dolan (Connacht) Captain
1. Aaron Spring (Connacht)
2. Kieran Stokes (Munster)
3. Paul Mullen (Munster)
4. Rob O’Herlihy (Munster)
5. David O’Mahony (Munster)
6. Shane Buckley (Munster)
7. Aaron Conneely (Connacht)
8. Danny Qualter (Connacht)
Replacements
16. James Rael (Munster)
17. Sean Wooton (Connacht)
18. Ian Mullarkey (Munster)
19. David Heffernan (Connacht)
20. Ronan Barry (Munster)
21. Gareth Quinn-McDonogh (Munster)
22. Jack Costigan (Munster)
23. Cathal Quinn (Munster)

Not many familiar names there, unless you are a hard-core fan. But there aren’t no familiar names – second row NWJMB is now a full international and will backbone the Irish pack for the next decade plus. Craig Gilroy was the star of the November series, scoring the first try against the Pumas and adding real vigour to Ireland’s attack. Paddy Jackson (24 appearances for Ulster) and Luke Marshall (18 appearances, and spent most of last season injured) would be full internationals too, if the IRFU hadn’t signed such a restrictive agreement with Aviva. In the event, they have lined up for an ‘Ireland XV’, but will certainly expect to feature in the Six Nations.

There’s quite a drop-off in visibility after that, with none of the rest of them having as much as strung together a few Pro12 games (the next most established is probably Leinster academy prop Martin Moore who has 5 replacement appearances in the Pro12).  Yet the big 4 are contending for international recognition. And, as we’re sure some of you have noted, all four are from Ulster. We had heard plenty of rumours at the time about the great crop of apples being grown in the Ulster orchard, but here is some intriguing evidence of it – all four provinces contributed the cream of their 18-20 year olds for this game, and the only four to make it to the top at a very young age are all from Ulster. Food for thought indeed, and worth another look in 2 years time to note progress…