Category Archives: Heineken Cup

‘Gentle’ Ben Te’o and the Leinster offloading game

He’s here, he’s finally here! Leinster’s marquee signing to replace BOD, everything is going to be ok and we’ll hear no more whinging about our style of play for the rest of the year!

Well no, not really, but the Te’o experiment has begun in earnest, and at the very least, it should be entertaining.

‘Backplay’

Leinster’s ‘backplay’ (I use inverted commas there for good reason) has been essentially non existent this season, despite having two 10s in the team for most of the games.

Bar flashes against a Scarlets team that were happy to allow quick ball and easy metres, the team has looked toothless. There are quite a number of reasons why.

Injuries to key carriers Healy and O’Brien and to our key ‘quick ball ensurer’ Jennings are certainly factors. Dominic Ryan may be a big hitter and serious athlete, but the inclination has always been that he’s more of a 6. Leinster’s lack of pressure on opposing ruck ball in the first two Heineken European games has reinforced that point. Remove such experience, quality and ‘X Factor’ from any team and they’d struggle.

Further out, Gopperth has been a shadow of what he was last year. The default, and indeed only tactic in the arsenal is the dreaded inside ball to Fanning on the charge (resulting in a pick 7 against Wasps) and Gopperth’s breaks have more often resulted in a difficulty in getting the ball back, rather than a good platform.

Madigan, while playing in an unfamiliar position and kicking immaculately, simply isn’t a playmaker. There are varying types of ‘creativity’. Madigan has always been about creating for himself, rather than creating for others generally, and that flat, wristy pass has been sparingly used so far.

And the final piece in the jigsaw is, of course, the coach. Realistically, all unbiased opinion of O’Connor from fans is now a thing of the past. The majority of Leinster fans have turned on their coach, and despite two hard fought wins from two, seem to have written off the season. Indeed, some across fan sites are tacitly hinting at actively wanting Leinster to lose,  so O’Connor will ‘bugger off back to Leicester’. But enough about that nonsense.

Conjure

In reality, the drop in skillset and attack from Schmidt to O’Connor has been one of the main issues with a lack of buy in from fans. Though Leinster often played hard, attritional rugby under St. Joe (remember Montpellier, Glasgow, Bath away for example), this was always tempered by the feeling that at any second, the backline could conjure up something.

O’Connor would likely say that backplay is much easier when you’ve geniuses like Nacewa, Sexton and O’Driscoll in tow, but nonetheless, this is an area that needs work.

Against Castres on Sunday, Leinster had 63% possession. And yet never looked like scoring a try.

At one point, a lineout maul broke away. Leinster had the width of the field to play with, a backline full of talent and quick ball. Boss tosses to Gopperth. Gopperth immediately fires a lame duck pass to his inside centre partner. Madigan then throws a forward pass to an onrushing Darcy, and Leinster are back under the kosh in the scrum.

Indeed, one of the only bits of backline attacking play that looked structured was the usage of the old outside/inside move that Schmidt patented. The same one that bore fruit against Clermont in Bordeaux and England in Twickers last year.

Offloading

A major part of this paucity of attack play is illustrated in the offloading game.

Here’s a pretty damning stat for all the MOC haterz out there.

In the first two rounds of Europe and including the Munster clash, Leinster made a total of 14 offloads in 240 minutes rugby. That’s despite having the majority (a vast majority in the case of Wasps and Castres) of possession in all games.

This works out as 8 against Munster, 5 against Castres and 1 against Wasps at home.

Whether a ploy, or simply poor skillset, that’s not going to win any trophies.

For context, Munster made 19 in the same period, despite a supposed ‘return to basics’. Toulon have made 27 in just their two European games so far.

Special Delivery

The gif passage below illustrates three of Leinster’s top carriers taking contact on their own terms, offloading smartly and reaping the rewards. Despite two of these players not being available, it’s a template that Leinster can and will need to still employ at times.

On Friday night, Big Ben Te’o strides out at the RDS for the first time. Inclinations this week from inside the camp have been positive, with rucking an obvious sticking point.

Our new arrival’s physicality needs to, and will, be used.

If we’re to go by the stats on the Leinster website, Te’o is bigger and heavier than Shane Jennings. But he’ll have to do more than bosh it up from midfield.

Coming from NRL, the Samoan seemingly has a strong handling skillset, including, importantly, a good offload. (Gif from TheScore.ie)

In the guise of  Jamie Roberts, Ma’a Nonu or indeed Casey Laulala, Leinster should be relying on their new signing to take the brunt of big defenders, pick up the carrying slack and look to free his arms in contact.

This subtle change to the backline structure, with a new physical presence, means Te’o can help to release outside back ‘trail runners’ on dummy pop passes and offloads in the tackle.

He also has the physicality, speed and step to bring momentum into the tackle, which makes the offload far more likely to be successful.

If Leinster’s patterns in backplay aren’t up to scratch, and we’re missing some of our key forward carriers, it becomes increasingly important that when metres are made, by Heaslip, Cronin, Ruddock or indeed our new #13 that players are on hand to receive. Toner too has some of the best hands in the game. O’Connor needs the likes of Madigan, Fitzgerald and Kirchner, all smart players, to come onto the these big guys at pace.

Sure, there will be some positional slip-ups from Te’o at the start, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Leinster’s back play needs to change.

Rightly or wrongly (and the latter in my view), Leinster fans sometimes value aesthetics of attacking play over the result. But in this case, there’s no reason why the two can’t be married a bit better.

Let’s hope O’Connor, Richie Murphy and co. are awaiting a special delivery from Oz to do just that, because a display like last weekend against a better team will result in elimination in 2015. It doesn’t need to be champagne stuff, but a little more diversity would be nice please.

 

Past the parcel – Munster and Leinster’s ruck nous

It’s a fairly simple old game this at times isn’t it?

At least, that is, the best teams make it look simple by cheating like fcuk at the breakdown! Quick ball is the lifeblood of any good attacking team. Say what you like about gamebreakers and speedsters out wide, if the ruck isn’t cleared within a short space of time (Bernard Jackman has spoken before about a 2-3 second ruck being optimum), then your attack is often slow, static and needs a reset, or a big burst to make yards.

Masters

Ritchie and his All Black mates are pass masters at this.

If you ever wonder why no matter who plays at 10 for BNZ, they always seem to have time and space, it’s likely because of this. Most effective off a quick phase ball, this smart tactic serves to make that next wave of attack even quicker, putting the defence on the back foot, and often leading to more significant gains around the ruck area.

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This so called ‘golden meter’ is generally technically illegal. Often, players are so far past the tackled player that they become unbound, and could be pinged for off side, tackling players off the ball or obstruction. Yet, with so much going on in a game, only the top class refs will call this one continually. But it’s oh, so effective.

The technique involved is almost that of an offensive lineman in gridiron. Players get low, step over the ball and drive upwards, dipping and using their upper body to lever the opposing player out of the way.

Honing

So what’s the relevance? Well under the new Foley regime, Munster have been consistently honing this part of their game, and using it to make hay close in with big carriers like POM, Kilcoyne, Cronin and TOD.

The excellent Murray Kinsella called it out against Munster, and I noticed during the game how far they were rushing past the tackled man, offering that extra little bit of linespeed to their attack. Of course, Leinster were noticeably poor in that game, but the tempo of the Munster play rendered them even more ineffective. They attacked in waves. In a game Shane Jennings usually excels in, his absence was keenly felt.

Look closely here at the 23.34 timestamp and see how Stander takes out two men, thereby offering clean ball for his 9.


Against both Scarlets last week, and again versus Sale on Saturday, particularly for the first 15 minutes or so, Munster ramped up the tempo and were rewarded handsomely. Quick ball allowed Murray to snipe, or to bring in the big runners like Stander.

Watch here as Casey and co draw in Sale defenders for the first try by pushing well past the ball, and disallowing them from defending or slowing. Textbook stuff.

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Foley was rightly critical of the poor referring after the game, with the breakdown a complete free for all, though Munster also benefitted, with O’Donnell in particular developing an 80 minute habit of coming from the side and clearing men out.

Digging

If we switch to Leinster, a key part of the poor start to the season in the blue corner has been the lack of quick ball, leading to scrum halfs needing to go digging, and a thus a slow attack relying on big carriers like Ruddock, Heaslip and Cronin to create a hole.

Traditionally, against teams like Ospreys or Glasgow in particular, Leinster have suffered when teams have slowed them down and taken liberties at the ruck. Yet even this season,  when Leinster have been at their best, against Scarlets in the RDS, again this ruck ball came quick and the old ‘golden metre’ was implemented. See here how Toner and Kirchner offer that silver platter ball to Boss.

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On Sunday, despite not playing to their full ability, Leinster scraped a win, due in no small part to another venture ‘past the parcel’. For Fanning’s try, Heaslip makes quick ball and Toner and D’arcy commit two Wasps defenders by pushing past them, again dipping upwards in the ruck. This opens the door for the ginger winger to nip in.

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For both sides, tricky tests await against better breakdown teams this weekend, but a combination of a continuation of this sort of rucking and an obliging man in black would certainly help.

 

Ulster need ‘enforcers’ to stand up for 14/15

It’s that time of year when the real rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is slowing down and the squad analysis for next year begins in earnest.

This is likely to be one of the most interesting off season periods in quite a while. Each of the provinces face many unanswered questions that could be viewed from a variety of angles.

Who’ll replace BOD? Who’ll replace Humphreys? How will Connacht’s new found fortune be spent and how will the new signings integrate? Will Munster’s indigenous coaching team provide a new coherency, or the same old league ambivalence and European near misses?

That’s plenty of cannon fodder for the unwashed online masses!

But one of the questions that nobody has yet asked concerns our Northern neighbours and recruitment. Is Ulster’s pack looking a wee bit soft for next year?

The shock loss of the senior Humph to moneybags Gloucester is a huge blow. DH has led a revolution up north, and helped shaped the province into European heavyweights playing in front of a full house in a gleaming stadium. Perhaps most importantly, he’s seemingly played a big part in bringing in quality imports that have propelled Ulster forward. Time will tell how keenly this loss will be felt.

Enforcer

Let’s take the debate back to a higher level for a second. At its core, rugby places an emphasis aggression, intensity, physicality and strength. Look at the great teams of the past and reel off the names. Thorn, Johnson, Matfield, Shelford, Dallaglio – all enforcers, each a man you wouldn’t like to cross at the bottom of a ruck.

In ice hockey, a sport with little enough overlap with our beloved union, the role of the enforcer is hallowed. They’ve even made terrible Hollywood movies about it.

An enforcer’s job is simple.

You don’t need silky skills, you don’t need great athleticism, your job is to be violent. The enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, be the first man into a brawl and in particular, to ‘react’ (often with a fist) to violence against star players.

Leo Cullen & Alan Quinlan by another name basically.

Leo Cullen summed up in one image.

As the excellent WOC blog once put it:

Great packs of forwards have a couple of lightning rods, explosive enforcer type characters who will ensure that nobody dishes out any unfair hurt on their team. In general nobody likes these players, except the fans of the team they play for.

Even currently, look around any of the great packs in Europe and the ‘enforcer’ type (or usually types) are easy to spot. Clermont have, an albeit ailing, Hines and Cudmore. Toulon carry Big Bad Bakkies, Ali Williams and JMFL.

Gorgodzilla & Lawes are other origins of the species. Tough, hard bastards that wouldn’t think twice about walking on you at a ruck or smashing you with a slightly ‘mistimed’ tackle. Or eating your scrum half.

Snarling

Let’s take this back to the provinces, particularly the Champions Cup contenders.

At Leinster and Munster, it’s fairly easy to see where that dog comes from.

Down south, Paulie and Donners are both ‘men of the cloth’ so to speak, second rows that not many would cross. Add in D. Ryan and POM, the latter has come good on his early hardman promise this year, and you’ve a pack with some snarling aggression. Whatever about ‘gameplan’ (or even ‘backplay’!) Munster won’t be pushed around, that’s for sure.

In Leinster, while Leo is a huge loss to the ‘enforcer quotient’ there are plenty of young pups ready to take the mantle up. Ruddock, most notably, fills this role with aplomb, particularly at ruck time. Although less overt than a POM for example, he’s ridiculously powerful (as illustrated by his rip from three Glasgow players in the Rabo final). He also seems to like a scrap.

Despite Mike McCarthy’s recent Rabo histrionics, he too slots into an aggressor role through choke tackles, first up tackling, some ‘questionable’ rucking and general leadership, despite his size. Add in new boy Kane Douglas (all 6’8 of him), a noted powerhouse, the sheer ferocity/borderline nature of Healy and a small matter of the Tullow Tank (a man who’s no stranger to unbridled aggression) and there’s plenty there to fill the gap.

Picking up the slack

And then we look up north. If Leo is a big loss for Leinster (despite his form last year), then Johann is a huge one for the white knights. Ulster have struggled slightly in big games in the past few years for a variety of reasons (the Leinster Rabo knockouts, Northampton at home and Sarries in Twickers come to mind). The forwards seem to have turned the corner this year, after being slightly powder puff in 12/13, but the losses will make a big dent.

Ulster’s starting pack next year, fitness pending, could be:

Murphy, Best, Fitzpatrick/Herbst, VDM, Tuohy, Henderson, Henry, Big Nuck Wulliams.

Other than Tuohy, where’s the bite? Henry is an excellent, international level 7 with the engine to compete with anyone. But does he strike fear into opposition players like, say, an O’Brien or Gorgodze?

Unlucky with injury during the 6N last year, DT offers Ulster a snarling sniper type in the pack. His fitness is key to success next year.

Williams is sheer physicality, but as we saw in the Rabo Ravenhill game, perhaps doesn’t have the subtlety that many great enforcers have, and doesn’t influence the game enough away from his carrying.

Tuohy certainly fits the bill, and keeping him fit will be very important to Ulster. Baby face Henderson certainly has the sheer power to become this type of ‘lightning rod’ player for Ulster, but at the moment does more in the loose than the tight for me. This will come with age, and next year, Big Iain needs to come into his own to provide some aggression back up.

New man VDM is an unknown to me, and a bit of Saffer beef to replace Muller would be perfect. At 18st 2lbs and 6’5, he’s more Mike McCarthy than Damien Browne, but we’ll trust Humph’s recruitment and reserve judgement until he arrives.

Of course, big backs like Mccloskey, and particularly Trimble and Marshall can take up some of the slack here too. Andy is always a good man for a scrap and looks in fine form.

Overall, this period of ‘transition’ has crept up on Ulster somewhat, particularly the Humphreys loss. It could be a long year if some of these young bucks don’t turn into mean-spirited bastards. Take Henry, Best and potentially Henderson or Tuohy out of that first choice pack, and it doesn’t look too capable of just-inside-the-law shenanigans and getting through the tight work that often defines Rabo success.

Any chance we could get a copy of ‘NHL Big Hits & Injuries’ for the team dressing room?

 

Do you think Ulster’s signings and squad depth are a worry for Anscombe, or can they continue to punch up with the big boys?