I was going write something about Eddie O’Sullivan being overlooked for the Connacht post but Brendan Fanning did it this morning already. If Pat Lam is selected as Connacht coach then Ireland’s provinces will have four Kiwis at the helm. For a union so staunchly opposed to imported players, even if they have started families here, the IRFU’s approach to foreign coaches seems very inconsistent.
Two of those Kiwi coaches are having very different experiences in Ireland this season. Rob Penney arrived with multiple domestic successes but failed to lead the Baby Blacks to another world title in the summer of 2012. He joined forces with Axel Foley, himself overlooked for the top role with his native province, and brought Simon Mannix along with him.
Mark Anscombe struggled to match that success while at Auckland, where he was Pat Lam’s predecessor, but has been around the block as a coach, and coached his vintage of Baby Blacks to victory in 2011. Anscombe strikes the Mole as a ‘bottom up’ type of coach and an older style Kiwi, reminiscent of many of the men who led AIL clubs in the early and mid-90s. Indeed, Anscombe coached at Old Wesley during the 90s. Ulster’s early season training was rumoured to have concentrated heavily on fitness and they compete hungrily at every breakdown. Their body positions, particularly in mauls, suggested hours of physical preparation and contact drills. By contrast, Penney is a ‘top down’ coach who is determined to create a particular style of play in his squad even if it is at odds with what has gone before. He talks a lot about understanding the game and decision making.
Anscombe has different material to work with than Penney. Johan Muller, Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa all have RWC winner’s medals. To put that in perspective, only players from 2003 onwards are likely to be playing this season and of that English squad that won, very few are still active (Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw are the only ones that spring to mind). From that select pool of 60-something players, Ulster have three. It’s quite a back bone of experience and ability.
Ulster’s age profile is very good and it’s interesting to see the performance of two ‘older heads’ in particular this season. Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble face stiff competition from Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy for starting spots and this competition has benefitted Ulster with the older men playing out of their comfort zone in order to keep their place. The Mole has long been a Wallace fan and is delighted that an extended run in the same position has brought out the best from one of the most talented footballers of his generation.
The necessity of when to play young players and provide them with experience is a subject that’s fascinated me this season. There is no doubt that the Heineken Cup is the highest level of the club game in the Northern Hemisphere. It makes sense, therefore, to pick your best team as it is a priority, particularly with no relegation from the Rabo Pro 12. For the national team the priority is the Six Nations. The summer tour and November series provide an opportunity for the coaching staff to blood young talent. Should Gilroy and Marshall have started for Ireland during November? Absolutely. Should they start ahead of Trimble and Wallace for Ulster? I’d start Wallace ahead of Marshall in every big game on the evidence of the season so far while Tommy Bowe’s injury makes Anscombe’s decision about his wingers much easier.
The performance of players that would not have been considered central at the start of the season has been a feature of Ulster’s play and none more so than Nick Williams whose recruitment was met with an air of disbelief in many quarters. The big man has been reborn at Ravenhill and is a different player to the one that spent most of his Munster career playing for Dolphin when he was fit.
Anscombe’s team is playing with confidence, that elusive ingredient that makes all the difference. Their style of play is physical with Ruan Pienaar pulling the strings and Paddy Wallace adding creativity in the midfield. Anscombe seems to have been charged with the role of on-pitch coaching with Jonny Bell and Neil Doak as his assistants. Recruitment and other managerial issues that eat into pitch time are handled by the King of Ravers, qualified solicitor Davy Humphreys. As an aside, see if you can find Humphreys’ job listed on the Ulster website. I couldn’t, the role was created specifically for him and he runs the show.
In contrast, Munster looked bereft of confidence against Cardiff. Rob Penney is constantly positive while his coaching partner Foley famously noted “bitterness and pride” as his primary incentives in a storied Munster career. The body language in the booth did not look good as Munster shovelled the ball from touchline to touchline without looking like they had a belief in what they were doing or how it would be ultimately effective. The Cardiff Blues, with Josh Navidi again outshining Sam Warburton in the back row, shrugged off the insipidity that has marked much of their season and saw Wexford man Robin Copeland get the game winning try. For the second time in a row Munster lost at Musgrave Park and the lack of atmosphere in Cork contrasted with the fervent arena of Ravenhill. Rhys Patchell seems to have added some confidence to the Blues and Warren Gatland must be watching his development with interest.
We wrote about the challenges that faced the yet to be appointed Munster coach in April last year and noted that managing Ronan O’Gara’s exit from the stage would be one of them. Ol’ Red Cheeks is looking at contract negotiations after Round 6 of the Heineken Cup which seems to indicate that his Irish deal will not be renewed and the matter is in Munster’s hands. With Paul O’Connell absent, Munster have been denied a significant leadership presence, particularly when compared to the wealth of experience in the Ulster squad. An unhappy O’Gara now shoulders the burden of place kicking, seniority, contract negotiations and being asked to play a game he’s not suited for and doesn’t believe in. All yours Radge.
Where that leaves the respective seasons remains to be played out but Ulster’s situation is far more positive and a Heineken Cup final in Dublin offers them their best chance of victory to date. They are playing with an intensity that Munster lack at the moment. Penney referred to “errors” as the reason for the defeat against Cardiff. You can quantify errors so it’s a reasonable response but Munster fans’ must be growing impatient with reason and wishing that their team would run through the routine once more from the top, with feeling.
The structure of the Rabo Pro12 payoffs means that a top two place is almost essential to success as it is extremely difficult to win consecutive games against the form league teams away from home. Ulster have all but booked one of those spots with a cluster of teams gunning for second place. Leinster look the most likely to nail it down and Ulster’s biggest worries remain the battle on two fronts and where best to employ Ruan Pienaar. They’re a good sort of problems to have.
P.S. Ulster have introduced my favourite chant of the season. One man asks the crowd to give him a ‘U’, then an ‘L’, then an ‘S’….until give me an ‘R’, give me an ‘R’, give me an ‘R’, give me an ‘R’ – ULSTERRRRRR! Brilliant. Note: Thanks to those who pointed out that this isn’t new. Still my favourite chant of the season.