Category Archives: Heineken Cup

Taking the positives from a post World Cup meltdown

It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.

After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.

Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.

But enough of the wallowing.

Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.

Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.

The west’s awake

After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.

I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability  to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.

Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6'9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he's handling the ball.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6’9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he’s handling the ball.

Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…

A Christmas Kiss

Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.

Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.

But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.

It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.

Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.

McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.

 

And then of course, we have the other two.

Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.

In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.

Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.

Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.

Stander's blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

Stander’s blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.

So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.

Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?

Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath

Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls 

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 impenetrable 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.

 

 

 

 

The ballad of Michael Bent

It was a picture so staged and contrived that one wondered whether the IRFU press team were actually having an in joke, or perhaps taking the piss out of Declan Kidney, the Irish fans and the media with this new recruit.

‘Take up that stick there Benty and give us a pose!’

Fresh off the plane from New Zealand and ready to be thrown into the white hot heat of battle, we knew little about the Taranaki man, other than the fact he was known by Greg Feek, had played both sides of the scrum, had a sister here and came off the back of a successful season.

Contempt

Since then, the story of Michael Bent has been one fraught with dismissal, often outright derision and at times, from certain quarters, an unfair contempt.

And yet, the scorn around Bent is mostly down to the fact that he’s measured incorrectly.

Let’s get things straight.

Bent never was, and is nowhere near an international prop standard. So it’s wrong to measure him in this way.

Whatever Mr. Feek told Mr. Kidney and Mr. Schmidt about his talent, it was incorrect. Bent saw a meteoric rise and fall, from winning a penalty against South Africa with his first action to struggling in the bottom rungs of the Pro12. But gradually, he has found his level.

Like most Leinster props, his first 12 or so months were defined by an inability to lock a scrum, and a problem getting to grips with the pace and style of the Leinster game. Ask Mike Ross, Jamie Hagan, Tadhg Furlong or Stan Wright what’s expected of a Leinster TH, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

However, having gotten over this hump, Bent has proven his worth. With a long back and a little less weight than most ‘barrel shaped’ tightheads, playing at #3 was always going to be difficult. Yet, he has grown into both a passable tighthead, even at European level, and actually quite a solid, dare I say destructive LH (his original position).

Every team needs it squad members. In fact, those guys who make up the 23 when marquee players are injured, or away with Ireland, can often make or break a season. In recent years, Leinster have made up ground with good wins during the 6N period for example.

In reality, Bent will, barring a lot of injuries, never play for Ireland again, but he’s an increasingly important part of Leinster’s squad.

Yet the muck keeps being slung. It’s a situation reminiscent of Tom Court, where people forget that he’s actually quite a good LH, and let the media focus on one bad day in Twickenham cloud judgement.

Trolls

In the past three weeks, we’ve had separate instances from those delightful media trolls George and Neil (funny, Mr Francis’ recent issue with ‘the gays’ seems to have been neatly forgotten doesn’t it?). Here’s what these charming, always conservative fellows had to say:

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I would ask whether either of the two had watched any of Bent’s performances at LH in the Rabo last year. But of course, that would be a moot question wouldn’t it? Imagine, an Irish analyst actually doing some real analysis!

Similarly, the mood within Leinster’s fanbase has been unforgiving, with Bent being actively booed by a section of the ‘ultras’ in the RDS terrace in recent weeks. Delightful stuff.

Value

Personally, I like to look at it this way. In the past few weeks, Bent has played: 

80 minutes at LH against Munster
14 minutes at TH against Zebre
65 minutes at TH against Wasps (where he held Matt Mullan steady)
70 minutes at TH against Castres (where he looked in trouble, but only gave up one penalty)

This weekend, with no tight head cover and a half fit Tadhg Furlong, he will likely play 80, switching across the scrum near the end.

That’s not easy, nor is it something that any other prop in the Leinster squad can do. Anyone remember the last time Jack McGrath played on the other side for example? Paul James does.

Taking a step back, and removing from the equation that the guy was (wrongly) parachuted into the national squad, due to a lack of passable props at the time, Bent is at best a third choice LH (fourth choice last year, until Jack O’Connell left) and a fourth choice TH. There’s a good case that he’s one of the best players in Europe in this quite valuable position.

He’s likely on peanuts, and at worst, is a passable, ‘ambipropsterous’ player who’s always available and content to sit on the bench. That’s worth a lot of weight in squad gold. If Billy Beane turned to rugby, Bent would be one of the first players he’d pick up.

The season isn’t nearly over for Benty, with Healy out, McGrath overworked and semi-fit tightheads, he’ll be needed again. He’ll continue to be derided and jeered by those who refuse to actually watch him, or fail to measure his worth in reality terms, rather than international terms. Except of course lads like George and Neil like to crow about the ‘price’ of everything, but know the value of nothing.

Anyway, if nothing else, he can always turn to the hurling eh?