The Leinster outfit that he took over in 05-06 were a try-happy, score-for-fun bunch who loaded up on the five-pointers on the way to eight four-try bonus point performances from twenty-two games in the Magners League.1 By the time he left the club at the end of the 09-10 season, they had finished top of the league2 but were a miserablist, shoe-gazing lot who could only manage one four-try bonus point game from eighteen efforts, and only averaged a try-and-a-half per game. Bo knows sports, Cheika knows pragmatism.
1 That’s a 36% rate of four-try bonus point performances in 2005-06, and a 5.5% rate of four-try bonus point performances in 09-10 … and Leinster still finished top of the league!
2 But would lose the first Magner’s League Grand Final at home to the Ospreys.
Now in his second season coaching Stade Français, Cheika has recently appeared on BBC broadcasts as an English-speaking man on the ground in the chilly environs of Stade de France, and gives his old mate Dexy’s an informed opinion on the French team and the prospects for a good game on Sunday in today’s Irish Times.
The first thing to mention is that he doesn’t have a horse in the race: he’s an Australian of Lebanese extraction who played in France [for Castres], then played and coached in Italy before coming to Ireland to coach Leinster for a good few years, and is now back in France and coaching a Top14 outfit in the capital. He’s got a good knowledge of all the players involved, either from having trained them personally or having prepared his teams to play against them. It’s a good move from Dexy’s to seek his opinion out, and he’s got some interesting thoughts on how Ireland should play.
“… you need to keep the ball. You cannot give it to them too much. You gotta play a lot with it. If you’re going to give them the ball, you’ve got to give it to them from set piece. You cannot give it to them on reckless kicking or turnover, that’s where they can do some damage to you.”
By bringing the spring-heeled Julien Bonnaire back into the fold, France have significantly improved their lineout with minimal damage done to their scrum; selecting Julien Pierre in the second row would have had a similar effect on the lineout, but would likely have damaged the scrum, for example. They’ve probably improved their kick-off reception too, because Bonnaire is so mobile and easily lifted. So with one change in personnel, the Mole would argue that PSA has improved two of France’s forward set-pieces.
With Harinordoquy and Bonnaire in tow, their lineout will once again be a potent force on both their own ball and on opposition ball. The Mole would be surprised if Ireland can put them under any pressure on French throw-ins, regardless of how deep we are in their territory. Pape is a very able front jumper, and the aforementioned backrows are simply two of the greatest airmen of the professional era.
Cheika feels that France are less dangerous off first-phase ball than when the game breaks open. He’s probably right [Irish fans have seen France tear us open umpteen times over the last couple of decades], but first-phase ball provides for a significant amount of one-on-ones, especially with such slick handlers as the French backline.
Aurelien Rougerie speed-bumped Gordon D’Arcy in the decisive moment of the last Six Nations encounter between the teams, and there is no doubt in my mind that PSA will look to run Rougerie and Malzieu down Earls’ defensive channel off first phase ball early in the match. Earls has a reputation – whether deserved or not – as a defensive weakness in the centre, and Rougerie asks a lot more questions of tacklers than the two Italian boys [Sgarbi and Benvenuti] did last week.
“I would like to see them cut loose. I think they need to play with quicker ball and just let it flow. Like, their game is good, I just think they need to cut loose a little bit more and play on the front foot a lot more.”
It’s incredible how quickly the optimism of going into the tournament with three teams in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals has been lost. Coming off the back of a reasonable World Cup [statistically Ireland’s most successful ever, if in the end a little disappointing] and with all the provinces pouring it on and producing big last-day performances in the premier competition in European club rugby, Ireland went into the Six Nations with a home grudge match to kick it off … and promptly lost.
And it seems that they’ve lost a good degree of confidence as well. Conor Murray in particular looks hesitant, and Jonny Sexton’s Man of the Match award against Italy shouldn’t obscure the fact that he had a hell of an ordinary first half. Keith Earls’ self-confidence has long been an issue – probably not helped by being moved around so often – and he’s now expected to fulfill Brian O’Driscoll’s duties in the No13 jersey: that’s like taking over the All Black No10 shirt from Dan Carter. It’s a credit to him that he hasn’t gone down with a psychosomatic neck injury in the mould of replacement kiwi first five-eighth Colin Slade.
The principle reason that Robert Kearney has been so notable in his performances to date is that he’s playing with buckets of confidence, in contrast to the rest of the three quarters [even Tommy Bowe, while playing some good stuff, isn't playing with the confidence or the smile on his face that we saw in 2009 and 2010]. Kearney looks like he expects to claim every high ball and burst every first tackle. Whatever it is that Kearney’s on, Kidney needs to bottle it.
“I just think they need to believe in their attacking game more and go after it.”
In what is on the face of it a pretty bland statement, Cheika has hit upon a key point. To The Mole, it seems from
- i] the way he plays the game;
- ii] his body language; and
- iii] Kidney’s post-match musings about ‘where to play’
that Sexton doesn’t really believe in [or ‘buy into’ to use the shorthand] the attacking game he’s been instructed to play.
What defines whether you’re the attacking team? Is it whether you have the ball or where you are on the pitch? From an outside perspective, that seems to be a key point of contention between coach and outhalf: it would appear that the coach thinks that you’re on the defensive if you’ve got the ball between your own 10m line and your 22 [the ‘don’t play too much rugby in your own half’ mantra], whereas in the same situation the outhalf thinks that you’ve got the ball, therefore you’re on the attack.
Cheika is a neutral, pragmatic coach who has won trophies and is familiar with the players and personalities involved in the game: his opinions are more valid than most.