Category Archives: Munster Rugby

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 

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.