Category Archives: Leinster Rugby

‘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.

 

Little generals and the steep learning curve

I was one of the most vociferous naysayers about Tomas O’Leary. Certainly, the Corkman was likeable, athletic and liable to make the odd break or two in a game. But for Ireland in particular, TOL’s form went off a cliff before the last World Cup. Of course, this all came to a head in a warm-up against France when he literally handed a try to Francois Trinh-Duc.

Yet on the other side of my protestations, I was also firmly against dropping TOL for the World Cup.

Kidney and co. had made their bed at that stage. Despite floppy haired Conor Murray‘s form for Munster, he simply wasn’t ready to come up to that level. Indeed, in the Wales game he showed his inexperience.

Murray’s starting point for Ireland was quite ignominious. His fluid, languid style of play deserted him, and incessant ‘meerkatting’ at rucks, coupled with some poor decision making had many calling for his head.

But how quickly that changed.

Gradually, Murray and Ireland started to reap the benefits of being thrown into test level so young. His passing, while still not Stringer/Reddan standard, has drastically improved. But more importantly, he’s marshalling his pack, kicking well and using the benefit of an impressive physique in covering and breaking. Murray’s performance last Autumn against the All Blacks was one of the most impressive Irish 9 outings of the last 10 years, while on the Lions tour, he again showed his worth off the test bench.

 

Like tighthead prop and outhalf, 9 is a position where players benefit greatly from experience. Seldom is the player who can come into a test or Heineken level and excel from the outset.

Often, getting this experience takes a lucky break (an injury or transfer) or a patient coach. Murray had both, and another future Irish scrum half does too.

Kieran Marmion has been excelling and leading for Connacht for quite a while now, coming to the national consciousness again last week after a virtuoso solo try against Leinster. The former Exile has played over 50 games in a row out west, gaining that golden experience that’s so valuable to a young career.


Like Murray, originally I was skeptical of Marmion. For Ireland underage he looked ponderous, unsure of himself and a poor passer. While not the finished article yet, he looks a sure fire ‘bolter’ for the World Cup, and may even usurp Mr. Reddan for the bench spot if the form trend continues.

And that mention of an Irish underage career is a nice segue to another young 9 filled with potential. Since school, Luke McGrath has been pegged as a future star for Leinster and Ireland. With a notorious break, an excellent tackling technique and the look of a Yachvilli esque controlling 9, McGrath stood out constantly at underage. Indeed, despite being almost exactly a year younger than Marmion, it was McGrath who played the better at U20 level when the two overlapped.

But things have been a bit stagnant since then. Despite an excellent, injury enforced outing against the Ospreys in 2012, game time for the Blackrock scrummie has been limited. O’Connor has preferred Boss over him constantly, a cautious move that’s drawn some ire from Leinster fans, particularly given the former Ulsterman’s dip in form.

For McGrath’s part, he hasn’t made it easier to select him. Issues with his pass persist, and despite a strong B&I Cup season last year, this season he’s been mixed off the senior bench. Crucial mistakes against Connacht and Glasgow have pockmarked otherwise solid outings.

But as we’ve seen with Murray & Marmion, that’s to be expected.

With Reddan and Boss on their last legs, it’s critical for Leinster’s continuity that the youngster is tested a lot more this season. Experience is vital at this stage of a career, and with two similarly youthful role models in other provinces, McGrath will feel his time has come.

Little leaders need game time to mature into generals, and with MOC staying for at least another year, it’s time to back youth a little bit more in this pivotal position.