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Leinster’s pack leaders need to show their teeth

I saw a post this week in a Facebook group asking people for their favourite memories of the Heineken Cup. As a Leinster fan, my mind immediately shot back across the many incredible days out that the team has given us since 2009. Munster in Croker, the famous ‘game of two halves’ in Cardiff, the Ulster demolition in Twickers and even the Clermont QF in a rocking RDS.

But ask any Leinster fan of a certain vintage to offer an opinion on the most important Leinster victory of the professional era, and it’s likely you’ll get a slightly more obscure answer back.

It was a Sunday lunchtime in April 2009. Quins were riding high in the Premiership, had taken apart a pretty tough pool, and were welcoming an Irish raider to the Stoop, ready to repeat their performance against Ulster from earlier in the year.

Leinster, meanwhile, were trudging along, coming off the back of a mixed pool performance, including a loss to Castres, and relying on a big, smart pack to get them through, along with Kurt Mcquilkin’s┬áimpenetrable defensive system.

One almighty siege of an 80 minutes later, Leinster, so often derided for a soft underbelly, seemed to finally have shown that mettle.

This time around, the stakes are slightly lower, the teams much changed, but Leinster will be relying on some similar attributes.

Leadership

I read a book by James Kerr recently called ‘Legacy’, in which he picks apart the mystique and purposeful culture of the All Black set-up. One of the most interesting passages from the book revolves around leadership, and more specifically, devolved leadership.

After France in WC 2007, the AB coaching team decided that enough was enough, and on-pitch leadership needed to be ramped up. They set about creating a system whereby they chose a group of 5-6 leaders within the team. These men would control what happened during a game, making decisions, taking the temperature of their team-mates and generally keeping control in the heat of a test battle. Off the pitch, senior players were given a portfolio of responsibilities, and asked to ‘pass the ball’ – bring younger players into the culture and set-up.

According to Graham Henry:

‘Dual leadership was a very important part of our success. Indeed, perhaps the reason for that success’

If I had one critique of the Leinster set-up in the past 3-4 years, it would be that this leadership production line perhaps hasn’t produced enough, while NIQ recruitment hasn’t been up to the same standard either.

Umbilical Cord

We can have the Matt O’Connor debate till the cows come home. Indeed, it’s one that’s currently raging across the province.

But one thing many are missing is the sheer lack of leaders in this Leinster team, particularly when you remove internationals.

In Schmidt’s time, Nacewa, Jennings, Boss, Hines, McLaughlin and others would step up during the test window.

For a variety of reasons (injury, loss of form, age and poor replacements) the same umbilical cord between management and players doesn’t seem to exist. Last weekend, Reddan, Gopperth and Kirchner were three of the most experienced players on the pitch, in pivotal positions, particularly given how much kicking went on.

Each had a stinker, and quite obviously, showed no game nous at all from where I stood.

Granted, Jennings was injured and Ruddock benched, but the pack too was devoid of that edge, and it certainly showed.

Stoop

Going back to the Stoop.

On the field in April 2009, Leinster mauled, tackled and rucked like tigers. Like the year before, when a solid pack led the way to a Magners title, the team relied on the basics to get it through.

On the day, the pack leadership group included Mal O’Kelly, Leo Cullen, Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, with Felipe Contepomi and BOD out the back for a bit more comfort.

Each of these players have either captained Leinster, or reached over 100 caps for the province.

On Sunday, Leinster’s pack leadership team will probably consist of Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip. While the first two have captained sides, and Heaslip is a former international captain, it doesn’t have the same look about it, does it?

Fluid

Leinster are not playing fluid rugby. The style has definitely changed to become more forward and size dominated, rightly or wrongly, and in a funny way, this should suit against Quins. I’ve been slightly amused this week at the continuing pompous outpouring from ‘fans’, that ‘Leinster have to play a certain way’ or ‘I won’t renew my season ticket if we don’t start entertaining’.

Cups aren’t won in December, but they sure as hell can be lost, meaning on Sunday, winning rugby needs to be prioritised, whatever that looks like. But to do that, our returning leaders must stand up and be counted. A pack of McGrath, Cronin, Ross, Toner, McCarthy, Ruddock, Ryan and Heaslip may be a little less experienced than the one I referenced above, but it has more than enough to take on a faltering English side away.

Just like Cheika in 2009, this trip to London feels like it could either be era defining if it goes wrong.

But if our pack leaders stand up, and get support from the experienced heads out the back, there should be enough to eek out a win.

After that, the rest of the season opens up, injured players return, and anything can happen.

Just like that famous day in the 2009.

 

 

 

 

Sir Clive’s formula and and the Autumn progress review…

I’m re-reading Clive Woodward’s book ‘Winning’ again.

Yep, you heard that correctly! While I’m not necessarily a fan of the bald one, it’s one of my favourite rugby/business books, and offers a fascinating insight into how that England squad marched into the professional era.

Woodward, whatever you might of him, was truly a rugby visionary, combining psychology, world class coaching and analysis with a professional edge that hadn’t previously been seen in the Northern Hemisphere game. In that way, there’s quite a few similarities between the step change that he oversaw with England, and the current culture shift that Joe Schmidt is bringing the Irish camp through.

Without wanting to denigrate the work of Declan Kidney, EOS or Gatland, the common purpose that the national side has right now just feels very different to what’s gone before.

Of course, Woodward isn’t shy about putting his success across in his book, and perhaps that’s the key difference between him and Schmidt, but both men share a love for structure, the famous “1% margins” and an analytical, methodical personality.

Progress review

Throughout the book, Woodward emphasises building blocks, iterative goal setting and constantly reviewing progress, learning and refining as his tenure moves towards the famous ’03 win. He uses a 7 step guide to measure success on a few occasions, and as I re-read, it struck me how relevant each of the headlines were min the guise of where Schmidt’s Ireland finds itself currently.

So, with the Autumn Internationals in the rear view mirror, let’s review using Uncle Clive’s method.

Scoreboard

In all three games, Ireland were incredibly clinical, setting up high return kicking opportunities, and making the most of ‘red zone’ visits. An continuation of the average of 24.5 points against both Oz and South Africa should be enough to win any test game, particularly given how mean the Irish defence usually is.

Performance

Perhaps the worst area, since none of the three performances were ‘Schmidt perfect’. The backplay likely needs work, the centre conondrum needs to be solved, and, perhaps most importantly, the set-piece fell apart twice. There’s been talk of a ‘smooth transition’ between Plumtree and Easterby, and indeed it hasn’t been too bumpy, but losing 4 lineouts and scrum penalties to James Slipper won’t have pleased the management. The Irish maul also looked like it had dropped a level from Spring and Summer, though perhaps this is by proxy of a shaky lineout and different personnel.

Team

Going back to Woodward, there’s a story in his book about a trip to a Royal Marine training camp, where the inspectors opened his eyes about ‘energy sappers’ within the group, the guys who moaned when the going got tough, and ‘sapped’ the positivity from others. After a dressing down from the coaching team, some of these stepped up, while some never played for England again.

Jamie Heaslip told a story last year of how Schmidt operates in a similarly manner, emphasising positivity. According the the number 8, the manager mentions all of the negative points in a player’s game early in the week, and after Wednesday, only says positive stuff to his team.

Bringing a team of four proud provinces, with such separate identities together has always been a challenge, but looking at the way POM embraced Madigan after the latter’s final turnover on Saturday, and how cohesive the team has looked generally, this problem seems to finally be relegated to a bygone era.

Enjoyable Experience

Similar to the above, the Irish camp hasn’t always been the highlight of many careers. You got the feeling at stages in the EOS camp, and particularly in the latter stages of the Kidney era that players just wanted to get back to their provincial side.

Of course, that’s an indictment of both the players and the coaches. But listening to Sexton talk yesterday about how he’ll be looking forward to Christmas camp, and hearing the players speak so glowingly about Schmidt’s methods, Carton House, like Woodward’s Pennyhill Park, is a fortress of unity. ROG made a good point on Against The Head last night with regards how these players ‘aren’t robots, and need to be enjoying themselves’. It seems the balance is right at the moment.

Competition

Given the loss of so many players to injury, this was always going to be a series where fringe players got their opportunity. It’s no stretch to say that competition in Irish rugby is at its healthiest since the start of the professional era. Foley, Ruddock, Zebo, Madigan, Payne, Henshaw and McGrath all showed their test credentials across the three game period, while Jones, Olding, TOD and Cronin all re-iterated their worth. Injury will happen, and the guys coming back in, perhaps other than SOB and Healy, will find it difficult to get back in. Healthy competition breeds healthy results.

Supporters

Similar to the supposed provincial divides within the team, the support base is usually split down provincial lines when it comes to selection. Of course, winning denigrates all dissenting voices, and this time around, there’s been little to give out about, even if the denizens of a certain Munster fan site still have the claws out! The atmosphere at the new Aviva has been a slight sore point, but against South Africa, and particularly Oz, the decibel level really rose. Irish fans love a good bandwagon, and with England at home this year, along with a ‘home’ World Cup, expect the support to only ramp up.

Consistency

Perhaps the most impressive point of the Schmidt reign has been the flexibility, but without losing consistency. Sure, we’ve had better days than others, but one loss in 2014 in Twickers is an incredible result. I’ve discussed before how Irish rugby needs to move beyond needing to be written off as underdogs, towards accepting favouritism. That’s a journey that Leinster and Munster have come through since the early 2000s, and it seems our national side is now accepting it too. The Oz victory, given the pressure and expectation of the new world ranking, was most impressive.

Being an international head coach is no longer sending out 15 lads to do battle. Without wanting to be too sycophantic (we’ve seen with Lancaster how the narrative can change so quickly in international rugby), across the full gamut of management (psychology, culture, strategy, innovation, team building) Schmidt has united Ireland. By Sir Clive’s standards, we’re on course for a World Cup tilt.

Let’s hope we see a Schmidt equivalent of ‘Winning’ in early 2016. Somehow, even if the unthinkable happens and we do the business, I doubt it. It’s just not Joe’s style.

 

 

 

3 wins, but more rapier needed for Ireland to really flourish?

There was a joke going around at the weekend that Joe Schmidt analysed the performance of the surgeon who removed his appendix on Saturday night, and had some video analysis pointers for improvement!┬áIt’s always good to be a little bit ‘positively contrarian’ after big wins in Irish sport, and I have my inclinations that St Joe will be bringing some realism to proceedings when he wraps up this November.

First thing first, what an Autumn series eh?

Many, myself included said before that given our injury crisis, 2 from 3 would be very useful. The South African win and the way we held onto our shape and defensive structure despite waves of Aussie attack on Saturday were a joy to behold.

Sure, we’ve been here before with Eddie, but this time it’s different right? Well, let’s temper things slightly with a more sober analysis of our Autumn.

At a recent ‘Off The Ball’ roadshow after the Saffer game, an audience member asked the panel, including BOD, Wood and Gerry a question along the lines of ‘is Joe Schmidt’s gameplan too rigid, and hampering Ireland’s backs?’. The poor fella was ridiculed by Ger Gilroy and the crowd, and his question rubbished by the panel.

But if we’re to be very self critical and realistic, it’s a relevant question that Schmidt’s Ireland will have to answer before RWC’15.

Contenders

In my opinion, we’ve a long way to go before we can really be seen as World Cup contenders, despite being third in the world, with a ‘good’ 6 Nations year, fixture wise, on the horizon.

It might be blasphemy to say it, and indeed it is picking holes in three excellent performances, but relying on manic defence, frenzied, structured and high tempo attack and Murray/Sexton to kick well will only get us so far. Both big wins this Autumn came without much of a sniff of backplay, with our centres primarily used as close in carriers.

Looking at it, Ireland’s gameplan is relatively limited. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but another string to the bow would be useful.

Cast yourself back to the last famous Aussie win in Eden Park, and remember how we demolished them up front, but struggled to put anything together in the backs, bar Bowe & Kearney kick chases. Similarly at the weekend, and against South Africa, low risk, smart kicking and measured rugby was the order of the day.

But as we saw against a brutish England pack in Twickenham last Spring, this sort of rugby doesn’t always work. Mike Ross looks worryingly like he might not last until next September at this early juncture, and given our paucity at scrum and lineout time, it will only take one off day from our halfbacks and we could be staring down the barrel of a defeat.

Incision

This might sound like a slight over-reaction and an attempt to bring the mood down, and perhaps it is, but, smart kicking moves and forward play aside, Ireland struggled a little for incision this Autumn, compared even to 12 months ago.

So what’s the answer? Getting Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy back into the team would be one way to do it. Both bring a carrying X Factor that none of Heaslip, Ruddock, POM, McGrath or Best can match.

Similarly, with Toner’s form dipping slightly in the past few weeks, both Iain Henderson and Dave Foley might be worth looking at in the second row. For all O’Connell’s incredible superhuman showings, the weakest part of his game is still carrying. Toner is very effective at maul and lineout time, but perhaps we can sacrifice that?

But it’s the backline that the bigger questions need to be asked. Darcy and Henshaw worked pretty well at the weekend, but neither man is going to unlock a defence too often with subtlety. Without making the mistake of writing dear old Gordon off, perhaps we could benefit from a certain golden haired Ulsterman to step up? Olding isn’t test standard yet, but his footwork, passing and skill set bring something very different to Ireland’s backline, as the line against an admittedly tiring Georgia for his try showed.

Or maybe the answer is in front of us, in the form of Blackrock’s finest Mr. Madigan? Another assured performance on Saturday will have done his confidence the world of good.

On the wings, Zebo had his best game for Ireland for quite a while. Strong in defence and elusive with the ball, his game still has kinks, but he could be a critically important wildcard for Schmidt in the coming year. The Corkman was criticised for attempting an offload to Sexton and giving the ball to Oz, but for me, that was unlucky more than poor play, along with smarts from Foley to knock it back.

Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be an Irish rugby supporter. With 10 or so games left until the World Cup, we’re looking in good shape for our best attempt of the professional era, with a strong squad and many walking wounded to come back in. There are many ways to skin a cat as they say, and a low risk, high tempo gameplan will likely continue to be our mainstay, but if Ireland really want to maximise their chances next Autumn, we need gamebreakers who can create without structure. Zebo, Olding and Henderson might be inexperienced and gambles, but you don’t win a World Cup without that X Factor, and that’s the sort of rarified air that Ireland are now part of.