Category Archives: Rabo Pro12

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?

Connacht’s big chance and why the West must wake in 14/15…

It hasn’t been easy being green over the past decade or so.

The hardship endured down the years by our Western friends is palpable. Connacht have rarely been given a fair crack of the whip, have had their most famous ode taken away from them (it’s in Galway, Munster fans) and, bar some notable big days, have never really looked consistent enough to threaten the other province’s domination. 

They’ve been dubbed a ‘development’ province, patronised and been unlucky in many ways.

Otherside

But there’s also another side to the story. While having reached the hallowed ground of the Heineken and duked it out with the big boys, Sarries, Toulouse and Quins most notably, Connacht only got there with help from others.

There’s also been a sense, rightly or wrongly, of ‘woe is me’ not helped by some incredible comments from Tom Sears after the McCarthy transfer.

And then there’s the results.

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While some progress has been made off the pitch on supporter base and stadium, Connacht haven’t exactly set the pro 12 alight. In fact, since the Italians came into the league in 2010, the points total and position has remained quite stagnant.

Make no mistake about it, it’s a big year.

For 14/15, it’s time to put up or shut up.  No longer the poor relations of the IRFU, Connacht have been given extra funding and an extra incentive with a more meritocratic league. While some Welsh journalists have been quick to dub it a ‘new era’ for the Welsh sides, after the first two weeks it’s Connacht who are the league’s success story.

With a backline filled with indigenous or young talent and the Westies have navigated two tricky ties against teams who were said to be similarly on the up. Last weekend’s 1 point victory in the cavern of Murrayfield will be particularly pleasing. Despite not playing well at all, they eked out a win in a game they perhaps would have lost before.

 

The drop down to the Challenge Cup could also be a blessing in disguise. The visit to Exeter will still bring in a bit of coin, though more importantly, the league can now be the key concentration. Lam’s honeymoon period is over and with Aki, McCartney and of course Old Mils on the way soon, momentum will be critical. As per usual, a gnarled pack will lead the way, with front row in particular looking a strength. Nathan White is a solid base, and despite injuries at hooker, Tom Mccartney will provide some Super Rugby class and experience. Denis Buckley has started the year very well. In reserve, some people would be well advised to take a closer look at Rodney Ah You, derided in some quarters but coming on in leaps and bounds.

Leadership

Truthfully, even with the new signings and optimism, the squad still looks paper thin. There’s a sneaking suspicion that Muliaina is coming in for more of a coaching and marketing optics role which might limit his impact.

At 10 in particular, the retirement of Dan Parks, while not bad news for the province, has certainly impacted the depth chart. Carty is an excellent talent. But a rough patch will come at some stage and injuries will hit. The question remains, will he and others have the experience to navigate the storm?

It’s here the likes of Muldoon, White, Swift and Muliaina will need to step up to a leadership role. But perhaps more importantly, it’s critical now that Marmion, Henshaw, McKeown and Heenan really step up. At Leinster, the likes of Ruddock and McGrath have long been part of a core leadership group. Connacht’s younger men must take a step forward. Ironically, the hope will be that Schmidt continues to ignore Marmiom, given his growing importance as the pivot of the side.

Success

Success this year, as has already been stated by Gavin Duffy and others, will be a 6th place finish. Nothing more or less. This will take a jump from the 35-38 points market towards an end of season total of 54-56 one estimates.

To do that, Connacht will likely have to beat Edinburgh, Dragons, Scarlets and Cardiff to the spot, and start to turn some heroic losses into victories. No mean feat.

Away games in Wales in February and March will likely seal the fate, so the squad needs to be managed intelligently, perhaps at the expense of a tilt at the Challenge Cup. Connacht had 7 LBPs in last year’s tournament, the second highest. In the MLB, teams statistically measure the ‘extra wins per season’ that new players will likely bring. Maybe the addition of some quality and less European stress might indicate more success. My prediction? They’ll be close, but no cigar come May.

The ‘new era’ gets its first big test against champions Leinster on Friday night. No doubt there’ll be bile in the air as usual, but Connacht need to move beyond peaking for these big games and letting themselves down elsewhere.

Wake up West…

 

 

 

Matt O’Connor and the anti cult of the coach

The ‘cult of personality’ has historically been a very effective tactic for mass brainwashing. From Hitler to Soviet Russia, and indeed many would say the current POTUS. Using storytelling, media and manicured, positive P.R. to define a idealised hero is common, with the essence  often being being knee-jerk irrationality.

But it’s not just relevant to politics. There seems to be a recurring theme within many high level team sports recently. It’s always impacted American Football, as we know from famous names like ‘Bear’ Bryant, Vince Lombardi and (prior to recent years) Joe Paterno. But now, the ‘cult of the coach’ has firmly taken its roots on this side of the water.

Jesus Jimmy

Jim McGuinness was recently hailed as a demi god for his role in plotting the downfall of the heretofore unbeatable Dubs. Brian Cody of course maintains a certain mystique that adds to his legacy. And in the Premiership, the cult is finding very fertile ground. Have you ever witnessed a bigger media feeding frenzy than the sycophantic coverage of Louis Van Gaal this Summer?

Granted, the illogical, brainwash aspects are somewhat less relevant. After all, LVG, Jimmy McG, Jose and Brian have all had sustained success at the highest level.

But of course, irrationality is never far from the surface of debate about sports.

Just tell that to Matt O’Connor, who’s suffered the counterpoint of the ‘cult of the coach’, an unnecessary, unproductive and unrealistic blame game from some fans.

Abrasive

Granted, it was never going to be easy to take over from St. Joe, another who has been toasted for his unique methods and success in recent times.

O’Connor is abrasive, foul  mouthed often difficult with the media, executes a far less nuanced style than his predecessor and indeed Leinster played some terrible rugby in his first season in charge.

A tough to like Ozzie coaching Leinster with an emphasis on directness? Now where have we heard that before

And yet, O’Connor managed a better season standing in 13/14 than Schmidt did in his last year, winning a Rabo and getting to a HEC QF despite a far weaker squad, and a far tougher HEC group.

But don’t tell that to a certain cohort of Leinster fans.

Egotistical

Sports fans, by their nature, have short memories and will always find something to complain about. But some of the reaction to O’Connor from Leinster fans who should know better has been, for me, egotistical.

The theories that the team are ‘not playing the Leinster way’, or that he has ‘ruined our style’ are at best, a little rich. Granted, Leinster have always been a team which has emphasised running rugby, and there’s been a noted decline in our passing skills since Schmidt left, but have these ‘fans’ conveniently overlooked the forward dominated game that both Schmidt and Cheika revelled in? Remember Bath away, Glasgow away, The Stoop or indeed any number of Leinster’s games in the past few years. And then remember the slogging, forward arm wrestle that ensued.

It’s also pointed out that O’Connor favours big backs. Granted, the Tuqiri experiment in Thomond last year was amazingly poor, but Darragh Fanning, another to come in for unwarranted criticism, has shown himself to be a shrewd operator at Rabo level.

A Madigan sized elephant

And yet, despite all of this, the critique continues.

On the Leinster fans site, a thread started on the 11th April entitled ‘MOC Out’ is over 31 pages long.

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Soon after, Leinster won the Rabo with their most convincing home performance of the season.

Take a look at any comments section on any of the major news sites, and you’re never too far from the theory that ‘MOC is ruining Leinster’, or most notably, ‘MOC is ruining Madigan’.

That’s the elephant in the room for many. And it’s a bit of a rod that’s been used against MOC constantly too. The truth of the matter is, Madigan is a supremely talented rugby player, who hasn’t kicked on to become a supremely talented number 10.

Psychic

Gopperth, while more of a journeyman and harbouring less of the sheer vigour of the lama haired one, is more steady, controlling and understanding of the ‘ebb and flow of psychic energy’ as GT would say. He’s not ROG, but he did lead Leinster to a Rabo title.

People will point to Madigan’s 12/13 season, or his displays against Northampton and Ulster. And they’d be right.

But the critics also tend to forget that Madigan has always been great behind a pack who’s handing him ball on a platter, has always been an excellent stepper and zip passer, and has always been a threat coming on late in a game.

The facts are, he just doesn’t exhibit the control needed, and it’s likely that he’ll be moved to 12 with J10 on the way back.

Yesterday, O’Connor made some fairly innocuous comments about Madigan’s future, which were ostensibly positive. Yet reading the reactions of some fans, you’d think he’d sounded the death knell for his career.

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The baying mob has made up its mind

Reasoned critique is most welcome, and indeed, O’Connor’s tenure has warranted plenty of that.

But this rabid attempt to discredit our coach with constant, and most importantly incorrect criticism? The constant hysterical calls of ‘HE’S RUINING OUR TEAM’?

Certainly, some are the rants of the notorious anonymous comment section rugby troll.

But some are from fans with enough knowledge of Leinster that they should know better.

As Nige would say, it’s just not rugby lads is it?