The future of Leinster Rugby – Time for a change of tack?

Let’s be honest here, usually rugby stocking fillers are complete shite. They generally consist of heavily edited re-runs of the season gone by with plenty of banal interviews with players and highlights or images that you’ve seen before.

In 2012 though, Leinster actually decided to create something of value. Rightly cashing in on the bandwagon, the ‘history of Leinster Rugby’ DVD actually turned out to be an eminently watchable, thoroughly enjoyable long form story. Legends like Ollie Campbell, Ronnie Dawson, Willie Duggan, Slattery were wheeled out and given a mandate to speak freely, something which the current media trained, manicured pros don’t often do. (We miss you Radge!)

‘Champagne Rugby’

For me though, the DVD’s tagline was probably the most interesting biggest part of the story.

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Leinster have always been the ‘flash harrys’ to Munster’s forward grunt, and it seemed that the makers of this product were happy to play up to that with ‘running rugby’.

CEO Mick Dawson mentioned has mentioned the legacy of backline play and running rugby informally on numerous occasions, and when BOD spoke of creating a winning culture and legacy after the Twickenham HEC win, it was tinged with this idea that Leinster’s culture must always be more ‘Harlem Globetrotter’ than ’10 man kick and chase’.

Indeed, I remember fondly the days before ’09 with the dream team of Contepomi, D’arcy, BOD, Horgan and Hickie, along with the necessary safe pair of hands at the back in Girve the Swerve. Think of evenings out like Bath and Toulouse and how Leinster lived and died by the sword.

The ‘same old Leinster, champagne rugby’ chant was a particular favourite.

Exposed

For years, Leinster’s soft underbelly was cruelly exposed by bigger, more powerful, hungier forward packs, while the lack of control from the mercurial Contepomi could often render a supposedly easy task more difficult than it needed to be. Remember Wasps in Adams Park, Edinburgh in Murrayfield (twice) and the dreaded Black Sunday?

And then, with Mr. Cheika, we realised there was more than one way to skin a cat. Hard nosed forward signings and returnee leaders like Cullen and Jennings were brought in.

The Magners League success of 2008, but in particular the ‘stand at the Stoop’ of 2009 were based on forward power and, quite often, Sexton stepping in to add control. (Many forget the role the Mary’s man had in the league victory in particular, playing over 1,000 minutes).

Players like Stan Wright, Bernard Jackman, Nathan Hines and of course a certain Mr. Elsom were hugely important signings for Leinster.  But two of the most important were old sons of the sod. Cullen & Jennings went away, learned and brought back for leadership, on pitch smarts and the ability to understand how to get under opponent’s skins rather than allow them get under yours. There’s a strong case to say that these two were more important than any overseas signing.

Let’s more forward a bit.
While the era of Schmidt has been tinged with a positive tint, many also forget that his three years in charge weren’t based on the ‘attack at will’ morals of old. You don’t go to Clermont and take on a French pack with that type of attitude. Indeed, Schmidt was probably the first Leinster coach to mix the forward power of the late Cheika era with

  • a real top quality cohort of international players and signings
  • a smart malleable game plan
  • a core group of cool headed leaders
  • the wider player base, coaching team, hunger and accumulated skillset to match.

Now the MOC question has been done to death across forums, in the media and online in the last few months. I seem to have a different theory on him than most, but the fact remains, for whatever reason, the above bullet points are either fully or partly missing at the moment.

So where do we go from here?

Proposal – An ethos change…

At the Leinster Rugby awards dinner last night, the annual player of the year awards were handed out.

Previously, we’ve seen the likes of Nacewa, O’Driscoll, Sexton, Contepomi and Kearney challenging for honours. This year, Ruddock, Toner, Healy and Murphy made up the key contenders, and the awards for senior and young POTY were handed to Martin Moore and Jack McGrath.

Spot a trend here?

I made an off the cuff point in a ‘TheScore.ie’ piece last Summer that perhaps Leinster’s future was more forward dominated than driven by beauties out the back.

Today, it’s emerged that Leinster will likely be signing Kane Douglas, a 24 year old 6’8 lock who’s almost 20 stone.

Douglas has a rugby league background and is known to be a bit of a bruiser.

A potential Leinster pack for next season could look like this:

Healy, Cronin, Moore, Toner, Douglas, Ruddock, O’Brien, Heaslip

Strauss, McGrath, Ross, McCarthy, Murphy

Quality at every position, but perhaps more importantly, beef in every position too.

MOC Critique

Rightly, some of the criticism of O’Connor this year has centered on the backline play and willingness to bring in big, ostensibly less talented backs like Fanning, Kirchner and particularly Tuqiri.

But here’s an interesting question.

Has he foreseen something that many Leinster fans are missing?

Is it time that we stop thinking about Leinster as a silky backline dominated entity and more of a brute power force?

Less New Zealand and more South Africa?

The talent is there, the willingness is obviously there from management and the pipeline is filled with similar players too.

While not a Leinster back in the traditional sense, and perhaps not HEC level, Darragh Fanning has done all that’s been asked of him in blue this year. At almost 28, he probably doesn’t have much of a future, but is he a template Leinster should be looking at?

The Academy Factory

Now, I know this suggestion isn’t going to go down well with some. After all, rugby is a game we fans are hugely passionate about, but also pay to be entertained by. Nobody wants to see Leinster turn into a Saracens.

But could we turn into a Leicester?

Along with the players mentioned above, whether by design or coincidence, there are options.
Look at the calibre of forwards on the way through, and the nature of the backs. The ‘farm system’ (as it’s termed in MLB), is bringing up a core group of players that would certainly fit that system.

Furlong, Byrne, Dooley, Leavy, Conan are all bruising, powerful, potentially world class forwards.

While behind that we have big, athletic and potentially world class backs in Robb, Crosbie, Daly, Brewer, Byrne et al. Each of these is over 6 foot and, when fully grown and developed within a pro setup, will likely top out at at least 15 1/2 stone.

At 6’3 and almost 16st, Carlow’s Tom Daly is an example of a skillful, but importantly brutish back that Leinster seem to be developing at the moment. Should the senior team’s ethos be cut to measure the academy pipeline?

Top that off with a few classy signings and the future looks a lot brighter than some might be making it out to be.

I’m a big proponent of team culture as an important factor in pro sport. Read James Kerr’s ‘Legacy’ for an insight into why the All Blacks have been so successful.

So should Leinster be leaving the history of beautiful backline moves and running rugby and looking down a different path that’s more bludgeon than rapier?

While this is more of a discussion starter than a firm mantra, whatever your opinion, there’s certainly some evidence to suggest it’s a salient option.

Leave your thoughts below…

 

  • Cillian Hogan

    Rugby players in general are continuing to get bigger and that certainly is the trend with the ambitious moneyed NH sides. I’ll be surprised if we see Darce/BOD sized centers again even if Ferg/O’Malley are similarly sized.
    The arms race for size over skills is a dangerous road, look at Toulouse.

    While our academy is producing larger players, they are players possessing high skillsets (just listen to the commentary on the improvement of the schools game over last 5yrs v 15 years ago). You could argue that Robb (a truly rare physical specimen) and Daly fall below the traditional expectation of a Leinster player in that regard but so did Shane Horgan. I hope they manage to get there eventually.

    We also have to remember that the purpose of the provincial teams is to feed the national one. We know Joe wants accurate passers. The more we play in an non-Leinster like fashion, the fewer men we’ll have earning green shirts.

    While we are now big, others are bigger. The way you beat the bigger teams is to be faster and more accurate than them. It has worked since Cheika. More of the same please

    • Oval Digest

      I think it’s a little harsh to be measuring up Robb and Daly for example to pro players. While both are hardly at the level of an Eoin O’Malley for example when he was that age, both have a lot of learning to do.

      I would also say that accurate passers do not necessarily mean smaller players.

      I think you misread what I’m saying slightly. I’m not advocating poor skillsets, but merely a shift in thinking and moving with the times.

      You also must look at the types of players Schmidt has chosen to play with, including the likes of Nalaga at Clermont, but also Marshall and Henshaw in recent times. Surely big men with good skills are better than small men with good skills?

      We saw this year, most notably against Toulon, but also against Northampton, that this Leinster side can struggle against physically bigger teams. Personally, I think it would be head in the sand stuff to ignore that, and given the resources available and the management team’s knowledge, I think it’s a relevant route to bring up at very least.

      • Cillian Hogan

        How is it harsh to point out where two developing players are along their journey to hopefully being full pros in Leinster?

        A good passer is a good passer. Nonu is world class from 2nd/5 in that regard.

        We’ve shifted before from “we score more than you” to having Kurt’s defensive wall. We also used to be big on roaming wingers looking for “Work” to Joe’s mantra of having a man in the tramlines allowing the near permanent option of putting width on it. Nalaga’s highlights are nearly all clips of him doing his stuff less than 5m from touch. Joe’s use of winger has evolved and he now expects more work from them, especially as we need strong kick-chases.

        Who would we have instead of Henshaw or Marshall? I’m glad they’re bigger as we expose ourselves less to physical domination but they’ll either play Joe’s way or they won’t play.

        We’ve always run the risk of being exploited due to a size deficit in Europe. Bringing in Douglas is a nod in the right direction to combat the ever increasing size that can end up steam-rolling over oppositions but I expect to beat them doing things differently to them. It’s how NZ do it, Aus less so and occasionally Eng/SA do manage to roll them over.

        Throwing stoppers or passing to the ground, running laterally and individual runners with poor ruck support or passing options are unacceptable. I don’t mind tweaking a culture to improve it but every culture has its core values. Creative accurate passing, running positive lines that deceive defences and hard working support play is what I expect to see.

        • Oval Digest

          Again Cillian, you’re twisting my point here.

          Firstly, both Robb and Daly are nowhere near the finished article.

          Most importantly though, I’m not advocating we lose accuracy or skill levels, merely that we edit the way we play the game to suit the players that are available. Don’t think that’s outlandish?

          We can say we want to play like NZ all we want, but if the players aren’t there, it’s prudent and realistic to play a more forward dominated game with bigger players, a la how Wales use their backs.

          I would also disagree with you that Schmidt’s wingers don’t ‘look for work’. In fact it’s probably the best description of what’s expected of them.

          If you look at Leinster over the last few years, a Fionn Carr or Earls type of player has never suited us. It’s more about continuity, speed and accuracy and wingers coming infield on angles than staying wide. That’s part of why Fitzgerald, McFadden and DK both have low scoring rates, but also suit the gameplan down to a tee.

          I think you’re slightly representing my points to make them into something which I’m not referencing.

          Why are you assuming that a bigger side will automatically mean moving away from a skillful attacking game and poor support play?!

          • Cillian Hogan

            Me twisting! Where did I say Schmidt’s wingers don’t look for work?

            “Why are you assuming that a bigger side will automatically mean moving away from a skillful attacking game and poor support play?!”

            Because we have already headed that direction this season. And unless we happen to get genetic freaks the bigger they are, the slower and less accurate they’ll be.

  • Conor Nugent

    The Leinster ethos of playing running rugby is one which has enthralled fans for years but I think that your assessment of what the current and likely future squad are capable of is realistic. Kane Douglas rumours aside, Leinster have been producing power up front with a lot more ease than they have mercurial backs through the academy. This 2nd generation of professionals is one which has grown up with more emphasis on playing systems and gym work than ever before. Not that the rugby playing element has been ignored but I think that the current schools cup format’s professionalism and competitive nature means that players who make it to the top level are much more focused on executing their job in the system than on simply playing with flair, as this is what they’ve had to do to get there. The talent is still there but the game has obviously become much more structure and system based through competitive necessity. This breeds players who bring a level of brute force to the table which Irish rugby has never enjoyed before. While we may lament the current lack of creative back-play, a lot of this is probably due to a power game being seen as more effective at present. I’m rambling, anyway, I would absolutely love to see Madigan throw the ball around the RDS in the May sunshine but if it’s a choice between that and winning then I would prefer to hand the ball to Ruddock to crash up and win more trophies. Hopefully it doesn’t have to be a case of either, or.

    • Oval Digest

      I think your last line is key certainly.

      I would also say that fans have this sepia tinged memory of some of Leinster’s play over the last few years and a sort of inbred pretentiousness when it comes to the type of rugby we play, perhaps based on years of media stuff.

      For example, in the 11/12 campaign, we played with a very forward dominated style against the likes of Clermont, Bath, Glasgow and at home to Montpellier.

      I don’t think that bugger players necessarily mean worse skills either, and certainly that pack is hugely skillful.

      I agree, if it comes down to player in a slightly edited style and winning or maintaining tradition and perhaps not being as effective, give me the latter every time. It’s like great businesses, moving with the times is vital.

      Look at Munster for example and how confusion over style and unrealistic expectations of players can have a major impact on success.

      • Conor Nugent

        I would definitely agree that having bigger players doesn’t necessarily mean worse skills however I would hope that we never go down the route England seem to have, producing hordes of bosh merchants in the back line and accidentally finding a creative player or two along the way. I don’t see any problem with altering to a forward dominated game, especially as we’re producing bigger and more skilful forwards than before however I hope that the backs maintain the ability to play off the cuff when needed rather than a move towards a ‘Gatland-ball’ style.

        Do you think there is anything that could help promote more creative players emerging from the underage system?
        Although I think the skill level at schools level has increased dramatically over the past number of years, I still fear that the professionalism of schools cup teams is leading us down a path where players think about the game in a particular way and lose some of the freedom to simply play what’s in front of them.

        It’s a strange complaint to have about an amateur underage set up, but is it becoming too professional?

  • FrannoFan

    I agree Leinster look like they have nearly two packs capable of playing the power “leicster” game and i think that explains why we are top of the league while not playing great rugby. The thing is that won’t work in Europe if we will be playing squads of players of bigger guys playing the same thing we won’t win(Toulon) We need to play a brand of rugby the opposition can’t live with-not just a power game.

    The big backs i think is as much “a good big ‘un, beats a good little ‘un” i think with Dardis and others coming through skill will still come to the fore. http://dementedmole.com/2012/09/13/the-dying-days-of-the-diddymen/

    I don’t buy the MOC is preparing us for life without skillful backs-he has a lot of the players capable of playing better rugby than he exhibited this year as the same guys demonstrated over the past 3 seasons.
    forward rugby will take us so far but Leinster fans are used to being dominant in Europe and we won’t be able to dominate the big French and English without an expansive 15 man game. If the Power back/power forwards is the future for Leinster it won’t be successful beyond the rabo

  • phat guerilla

    Came across this post by accident while working on one of my own, I think its a great point that has been missed by a lot of spectators and journos. In addition I think a lot of people (not Oval Digest) assume we are leaving behind highly skilled but smaller players like a future BoD, which is really missing the point. Size is very much related to environmental factors and Ireland since the 90s has become a much richer country. There should be no surprise that the guys coming through now with birth certs that say 93/4/5 are much bigger and taller in particular, on average, than the guys who had 83/84/85. We’re not missing out on a future bod so much as the next great back is going to over 6’2” and more than 15 stone.