Category Archives: Ulster Rugby

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?

Reasoned critique necessary for Irish leaders after Twickenham loss

Well, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go was it? The swell of optimism towards the end part of last week from those in green obviously went unnoticed by Lancaster’s men.

4 days on from a slightly sickening loss in HQ and we’re still licking our wounds.

Mike Brown skates away to being his sides try scoring move. Pic via MSN.

Heated Debate

Over the weekend I got into a bit of a heated Twitter ‘debate’ with two of Ireland’s foremost  sports journalists, one of which I feel seems to enjoy taking a good old pop at the rugby side, and has already deemed it ‘impossible’ that we win the championship this year.

Leaving aside that for a second,  the twosome did raise an interesting point that’s been touched upon quite a bit recently – Does the Irish rugby side get an easier ride than their football counterparts?

Whatever your position on this debate, and let’s face it, we’re all inherently biased at some level between the two sports, there is a logical argument to be made that the rugby goys never punch above their weight, don’t take their provincial form to international level and have dramatically under indexed in success when compared to the Welsh for example.

Is the often sycophantic love for the likes of O’Driscoll and O’Connell (I’ll put my hands up here!), and the mass of print inches devoted to a team which lacks success undeserved? Particularly when you make a comparison with Robbie Keane’s treatment for example.

As predominately a Leinster follower, I’ve been watching the reaction to Schmidt’s appointment from certain quarters with great eagerness. While ‘our Joe’ is an incredibly impressive speaker and his results so far have spoken for themselves, the response from the media has been overwhelmingly positive without even a hint of critique generally.

Similarly, while Kidney’s tenure at the helm was riddled with infuriating inconsistency, maddening decisions and, at times, downright bias, most of the above was rarely, if ever, raised in the media. The IRFU’s lapdogs (here’s looking at you Gerry), chose to support until the bitter end.

Even at this early stage, Schmidt’s more engaging media presence and openness seems to be growing a ‘cult of personality’, when compared to Kidney’s more staid outlook. Irish rugby fans and commentators must be careful to look at the bigger picture.

Remains of the schism

As a counterpoint to that, within the ‘neither regions’ of the web there’s been a certain schadenfreude around his appointment. Let’s call a spade a spade here, Irish rugby is inherently split down provincial lines, and for Munster and Ulster fans, there’s a feeling that their sides are underrepresented. The Zebo & Tuohy debates, and the support for Darren Cave’s frankly ludicrous media comments are indicative of this.

Cave’s thinking that ‘sometimes you wonder does the face not fit’ and his guarded criticism of Jamie Heaslip might not have helped his 13 credentials.

So it seems that there’s a split here between a mass body of media that, generally, doesn’t like to criticise or even critique our national side, and a web undercurrent that artificially criticises, simply because it’s not their man in the job.

Critique

For me, our big boys have gotten off slightly lightly from the weekend. Schmidt’s decision to put Jordi Murphy on the bench ahead of Tommy O’Donnell was slightly bizarre, while the lack of maul usage and the decision to leave a visibly flagging Sexton and Murray on the field perhaps didn’t help Irish chances. The coach’s constant referral to Sexton’s French fitness travails might also be seen as overbearing. This has been mirrored in the media, and while it’s partly correct, shouldn’t be used as a deflection device.

Moving on to the players, while O’Driscoll had one of his better games of the year, he’s still unfailingly praised, despite 3 missed tackles and an unnecessary ‘out the back’ flick to Sexton which killed our momentum. BOD is *gasp* slowing down, not nearly the player he once was and has been poor for Leinster this calendar year.

Meanwhile O’Connell was again outshone by his less illustrious second row partner and illustrated again his lack of carrying prowess (often flopping like a wounded salmon) and tendency to kill moves by stepping in where he’s not needed.

And then, of course, our number 10 had one of his worst days in an Irish jersey, offering little attacking threat and kicking poorly all day. An outsider might say Sexton has still never translated his Leinster form to green on a consistent basis, yet we’ve our foremost rugby journalist calling him ‘unquestionably the best 10 in Europe’.

Critique

Now, of course, I’m being slightly devil’s advocate here in an attempt to make a point, and a 3 point loss to the mighty White Orcs is hardly doomsday, but is our judgement clouded by previous achievements and heroic losses or Triple Crown wins? Perhaps there’s a need for more balance in our treatment of the national side overall.

I’m not saying we barrack our players at every opportunity, but as a man renowned for his laser analysis and straight shooting, I’m sure Joe would agree that straight shooting and smart debate is a worthwhile exercise.

Culture Club: The missing link in Irish rugby?

‘Culture’ is a fairly nebulous concept at the best of times.

Is the fact that us Irish like a few pints part of ‘culture’ for example, or should we only speak of literary, artistic, musical works when Irish culture is brought up on a world stage? That’s an argument for another day and minds greater than mine perhaps.

Transplanting the phrase to sport, I’ve always found it interesting that, even in the ultra professional times we live in, with psychologists a firm fixture in any back room staff, the theory of culture is still such a big issue.

Look at Munster and the famed ‘never say die’ spirit for example. Whether you actually believe there’s something special about the jersey, or that the ‘stand up and fight’ stuff is just media and marketing spin, the players certainly seem to buy into it. And, after all, isn’t that all that matters?

Champagne rugby

Think now about Leicester’s propensity to breed powerful, hulking tight forwards and to play a style of rugby designed around a big pack. Refer your mind back to Leinster of the pre Stoop era, when champagne running rugby and ‘we’ll score one more than you’ was the dominant theory.

Bernard Jackman spoke eloquently recently of being laughed at by his own players for targeting away games in the Top 14 for the past few seasons, and has also referenced the primitive urge to ‘defend the homestead’ when playing in your own stadium in France. Toulon’s recent loss to Jackman’s side in the Mayol brought ire from Boudjellal for example and was described as a gross dishonour to a proud rugby town.

What am I getting at here? Well, it could be argued that, rather than being a decreasingly important part of the game, it seems that this obtuse term, ‘culture’, is actually still a vital element of any great side.

Stuart Lancaster, like Clive Woodward before him, is a great thinker on this aspect of sport, and gave an incredibly open and honest interview to the Guardian this week. This line really stood out for me:

“That sense of national pride in the Wales team was a force we didn’t quite overcome. If players have a real commitment to the shirt and a desire not to let it down, it creates a higher level of determination to win.”

Like so many other rugby fans, I’ve been stumped in recent times by the unfailing ability of the Welsh to look more like a band of brothers than any other nation. How can some players who look so ‘ragtag’ at club level, who rarely taste success (bar the Ospreys) and who don’t play at the top echelons of the club game (knockout Heineken) become giants in a red jersey?

George North had barely scored a Heineken try before this season. Sam Warburton rarely looks like a top class 7 in a blue jersey and Mike Philips has looked ordinary at Amlin level when he actually bothers to play for his club.

And yet, after reading the excellent ‘Calon’, a book by Owen Sheers which travels through the 2012 season with the Wales national side, it all became clearer to me. Player after player talks about feeling more at home in Welsh red than anywhere else. Coaching staff describe an attempt to create a ‘club atmosphere’ at the Vale of Glamorgan base and even Gatland describes the ‘family coherence’ of Welsh rugby as something special.

‘Known unknowns’

Perhaps the most noticeable quote comes from Rhys Priestland, another player who looks like a rabbit in headlights at times for the Scarlets, and often Dan Carter’s long lost younger brother for Wales. According to the outhalf, Wales’ greatest advantage is thus:

“Our ability to assemble quickly and fall into routine patterns, to centralise everything and to always feel relaxed in each other’s company. All our boys live close by and can drop in any time. It’s like Wales is the biggest club rugby team in the world

Now, just labour on that point for a minute, and objectively look at the respective Irish and Welsh sides over the past 10 years. Ostensibly, Wales have been far, far more successful, but would you say either side is by far better on paper. And then you think about the intangibles, the ‘known unknowns’ as one famous leader put it.

Media pundits often refer back to the 2009 ‘Enfield Accord‘, when Rob Kearney supposedly spoke about the Munster players putting more into their province into the green jersey, and how this was a major part of the Grand Slam win.

Since 2009, we’ve had the Paul O’Connell/Dave Kearney incident, Schmidt’s ensuing anger, multiple hot and heavy derby games and a gradual ‘Leinsterification’ of the national side. Guys like Niall Ronan, Ian Dowling and others have claimed the Leinster ethos disallowed them, while the Mike McCarthy transfer left, perhaps wrongly, some bad blood between Leinster and Connacht.

We’ve also, more recently, had two Ulster players complain quite publicly in the media about a perceived lack of game time in the Irish jersey. Read WOC’s piece on a similar angle from earlier this week. Dan Tuohy had this to say for example:

“I’ve been in good form, but there has been no end product…I want to make myself available, but realistically I’m resigned to picking up scraps of caps over the next number of years. I was in good form, trained hard and came with a good attitude and still didn’t get a look-in. Joe said I was close, but he ran with Dev, Mike and Paul.”

Now these could be seen as isolated incidents, and Welsh rugby is hardly a picnic, but rightly or wrongly, it’s obviously going to be difficult for these players to switch over completely when they go into camp together.

In today’s Sunday Times, Eddie Butler makes the point that Ireland have failed to really incorporate the best parts of the three top provinces, mixed with Connacht’s famous sparky attitude, but more than that, the whole ethos of Irish rugby seems to have moved to a focus on provinces.

Ask any provincial fan whether they’d prefer to see their team win the Heineken or Ireland win a Slam, and it’s bound to at least be a close call, if not a marginal one in favour of the province. Even the atmosphere on matchday in the Aviva is noticeably muted, when compared to a provincial game in the same stadium.

This must surely worry the IRFU top brass.

Gombeen man

Kidney, by his nature, seemed a quiet voice, content to play the gombeen man in the media at times. Schmidt, on the face of it, is a far sharper, tuned in character, and he’ll understand what ‘culture’ really means to the national side.

Schmidt now has an extended period of time with his players. The choice of Paul O’Connell as captain was the right one, and both men must bring the troops together, harnessing the unity of heartbreaking loss in the Autumn.

This ‘culture’ must also extend to playing style. Schmidt’s hands were all over some of the moves during the All Blacks match, with Healy, O’Brien and O’Mahony carrying on the angle from deep, simple, speedy handling and ferocious, sometimes illegal, rucking at the heart of all good Irish play.

Maybe it’s my green tinted glasses, or maybe it’s blind hope, but a cohesive Ireland without the baggage of provincial bickering could be very dangerous. Let’s just hope that ‘Saint Joe’, as he’s known in some parts, can emulate his Kiwi mate in Cardiff and bring a sense of unity to the green hordes.