Je Ne Sais, Mate.

Splintered from his early partnership with the unpredictable David Knox, Michael Cheika’s pragmatic streak grew wider and wider as his career at the head of Leinster progressed. 

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.

Leinster's performances in the Magners League under Michael Cheika, 2005-10. Laws changed, defences improved, players became more well-known and thus more markable, and of course age and form swings made a huge difference. The biggest difference though was that Cheika turned the 'galactic' into a pragmatic, gritty outfit. Because whatever about his volatile temperament, he's a pragmatic, gritty coach.

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.

Mate, yer playin' for the jumpah – alright, maybe not this particular jumpah ...

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.”

Bonnaire – right up there with Harinordoquy as one of the greatest lineout forwards in the modern game. Teak-tough, intelligent, skillful ... I'd imagine that this guy is going to make a hell of a coach when he finally retires.

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.

Rob Kearney – the most confident of theIrish back. Who's the 'bluffer' now, Slatts?

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.

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8 thoughts on “Je Ne Sais, Mate.

  1. “I just think they need to believe in their attacking game more and go after it.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    And yet I know that it just ain’t gonna happen.

    Monsignor Kidney’s choice of scrumhalf so far this year is the clearest indication why not.

    I believe Reddan is the better scrummie to choose if one wants to facilitate Sexton’s ability to run his backline with confidence. (And surely that’s what you want if you want to up the tempo and “believe in your attacking game more”.) Think Ireland v. England in the last match of last year’s 6N. Think of the tempo we played with against Australia in the RWC.

    When quizzed by Le Thornicator, Kidney’s focus was clear: “Kidney was also notably defensive about Murray’s performance when asked if he saw a need to quicken the game up. ‘The quickening up came from the quality of the ball we got in the last 25 minutes. I wouldn’t go with that at all. Where does the balance come between things? You’ve good players on the bench; there were things Conor did in the first half that I thought were excellent that would be the hidden work, some of it defensive, some of it tidying up on the chip lines’.”

    OK, so Murray put in a pretty ordinary shift box-kicking-wise last Saturday, and his ponderousness at the breakdown directly led to at least one turnover in our “red zone”. But I certainly agree with Monsignor Kidney about his defensive performance. I was at the game and so probably missed a lot of his work, but I certainly remember when he singlehandedly shut down that Italian front-of-lineout move in the second quarter. Epic, try-saving stuff.

    In other words, I like Murray. I think he has the potential to be a great player. After all, his relationship with Sexton is only in its infancy – perhaps we should just give it time? On the other hand, is it asking too much of Murray at this stage in his career to adapt to playing with Sexton? Either way, I have no doubt that – right now at least – putting Murray in the number 9 jersey undermines Sexton’s attacking capacities.

    Much like Cheika, my bottom line is: I would like to think that Monsignor picks a team which is best equipped to go out and win matches on our own terms by playing positive rugby.

    For me, that means picking Reddan and Sexton.

    But I know that’s not quite Monsignor’s style.

    Is mór an trua é….

  2. We’re Murray fans here at Mole Towers as well – but there’s no harm in saying when a player plays badly. His options and speed of service were poor against Italy: pretending that they weren’t or pretending that it didn’t have an impact on the way Ireland played is a nonsense. It doesn’t make him a bad player, it just means he had a bad game.

    On the other hand, Reddan has been a bit of a punch-bag for Kidney and has been quite badly treated [in The Mole's opinion]. Look at his record … the longest run he has had as a starter under DK is three games in the 2011 Six Nations, and he came off in the middle one of those against Wales after getting a ball in the mush in the first minute: http://www.espnscrum.com/statsguru/rugby/player/15107.html?class=1;template=results;type=player;view=match

    Nobody in the media really goes out to bat for Reddan because he doesn’t have a particularly clear identity or a back story: Munster didn’t want him at first, so he signed up with Connacht, then moved back home to Munster, then Gatland coaxed him over to Wasps [where he was first rate] and then on to Leinster.

    He doesn’t really count as a late-developer or a Cinderella man who made it against the odds, because he’s a guy who WON a lot of stuff when he was over in England [including the Heineken Cup]. Because he moved around a lot over his career, he didn’t ‘grow up’ in front of any particular bunch of fans.

    He doesn’t have the obvious small-man-in-a-big-man’s-game look to him that Stringer had, nor is he a ‘physical’ scrum-half in the mould of O’Leary or Boss … he’s just a guy who plays scrum-half well, but has a couple of brainfarts every season that people who don’t like him use to denigrate all the good work that he does.

    The key to him is tempo, which is a fairly abstract thing to look out for! Look how rarely he goes to ground or takes ball into contact. Look how quick he gets from breakdown to breakdown, and how quickly he’s up off the turf when he does get knocked over. Look how rarely he’s absent at the base of a ruck. Look how quickly he gets the ball away to the out half … none of these things are particularly noticeable, but if you’re looking at how a scrum-half plays, they’re notable in their absence.

  3. Redzer happened upon the UCD rugby club Christmas party in one of Dublin’s less glamorous watering holes a few years ago, was manhandled (in good spirit) into doing a beer bong which he did with great gusto. For this alone I have a soft spot for him as a person.

    The fact that he is a cracking scrumhalf, especially when paired with J10, means I call for him as a player to be involved as much as possible.

    Murray, for Ireland at any rate, looks like he’s trying his best to follow the coaching staff’s instructions, which is commendable. But it’s at odds with his instincts, so the whole process gets slowed down to ineffectiveness. Come Sunday I hope we’ll see the wunderkind that ran the show in the Magners final last season rather than the bland showing so far.

  4. Good points all round lads. Cheika is correct (and presumably has more success than anyone contributing on here) and i mostly agree with wipers, but I’m not sure about going over to Paris and atttack attack attack. Eventually your tempo will drop, and they will have their spell. If this game was in Dublin there should be no doubt that reddan should start, but going with Murray has good logic for over there. You are definitely right mole, reddan has had a raw deal in the past though. I have always been cautious with heaping praise on Murray. Not that i do not rate him, but because his rise has been so meteorotic, it is hard to believe his game has the maturity or genuine confidence to cope with all the demands. It is inevitable he will have to deal with some problems eventually, it is more a matter of when.

    The template being laid out for this game is pretty clear, take them on up front, “try to play in their half” for 50 minutes and then ask questions of their fitness and intensity with greater tempo and attack when Ryan, cronin and reddan come on. Sexton needs to stay on the pitch for that time if that’s what they are going after. Once again there is some very ott criticism about, for some very mild things. I don’t like that because much of it is very obviously purely partisan. A lot of people had their minds made up about kidney before he got the job, simply because he was seen as o’gara’s man and he had brought success to munster. They do not wish to view it any differently, no matter what.

    • I don’t know if people had made their mind made up about Kidney because of his Munster connections and I was surprised to see a few comments recently suggesting as much. The guy won the Grand Slam at his first attempt, so obviously he bought himself a shed-load of credit after that, and he was already seen as the next in line to the throne after Eddie’s reign ground to halt.

      Any tumult against Kidney is down to his inscrutable tactical stance (or even lack of one?), his conservatism in selection and the continued appearance of underperformance over the last couple of years post-Grand Slam. It now seems as much that it was the apogee of Eddie’s work (the 2007 came so close after all) rather than a masterstroke achieved by Deccie’s voodoo magick. Don’t think it has much to do with his Munster connections – though I may stand to be corrected.

      I’d also argue that the template being laid out for the French game is far from clear! I often think a lot of Kidney decisions are justified after the fact by incredibly round-the-houses logic. Like “Donnacha Ryan will inject pace and aggression when they are beginning to tire at 60 minutes” – when he’s simply been outperforming O’Callaghan on a week-in, week-out basis in red and green jerseys this season. Why not play with that aggression from the start?

      • Fair or not, a coach (like a general) is only as good as his last campaign. Great, Kidders won a long overdue grandslam in 09. What the fuck have we accomplished since then? An away win against the Ozzies (in neutral territory). An IRB ranking of 8th.

        That’s dick all, with the greatest of respect. Thanks for the memories of 09 and jog on please & thank you.

      • I would stand over that, Ian. It is definately out and about in what I’ve seen, read and heard. As for on here, I think it is brilliant. Mole, you run a hell of a site. I love the frank exchanges and having a bit of a laugh…whether being in agreement or not. At the same time I have difficulty not challenging something if I think it, or the later comments from contributors are unfair.

        On selection, it is hard not to have sympathy with Ryan and Reddan. If this game were in Dublin it’d probably be different. Also if we cut through the swell for O’Callaghan to be dropped and look at his performances this season, has he been playing that badly when introduced? If you don’t view O’Connell as a sure-fire international 4 (i’m not sure, but he was brilliant at 5 last week) then it probably makes sense to start with O’Callaghan and become a bit more mobile if you can get away with it, than start with Ryan (or Tuhoy) and not really have anywhere else to go if the scrum is in diffs. By the same token, I reckon there isn’t a huge need for DOC for the Scotland game.

        This isn’t like the end of O’Sullivan’s reign were similar teams were picked, but there was no pick up in performance. Last week was a performance and a good buiIding block. I can see sense in what Kidney is doing, though I don’t necessarily agree with it all. He ain’t the easiset guy to second guess-hence the round the houses logic perhaps, but I’m of the opinion he is deserving of someone putting their head above the parapit to defend.

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