Joe Schmidt obviously watched a lot of Top 14 rugby in his time coaching in Clermont and introduced the phrase “man-up-a-thon” to Irish rugby. It’s a great phrase and is immediately descriptive of a style of play that doesn’t warrant much evocation.
After the second round of not-the-Heineken Cup, Dexy’s referred to the style of play with another evocative simile, the “arm wrestle”: Maybe it was due to the nature of the arm wrestles that the Irish sides were involved in. There was tautness and tension, but not much in the way of exciting rugby, much less tries.
The tone of this article continued his low level campaign against the Champions Cup, which I’m sympathetic to. The tournament saw light as the bastard graft of the Heineken Cup with English club owners’ opportunism as presented by Mark McCafferty. It was the by-product of the clubs’ desire to have more cash when their next negotiation with the RFU came to pass. The RFU brought the legal and media nous of Iain Richie and the rugby creditability of Bill Beaumont into play to sooth things over before they hosted RWC 15 and the clubs were left with a credible body arguing on their behalf – a good deal for them.
Gerry’s weariness is justified though. The Mole heard a comment along the lines of “if it’s working then why would you change it” about Leinster’s performance against Castres which can be a difficult rationale to argue with. It brought to mind a perspective from thought guru Edward de Bono As the old cliché goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon.
Teams need to be able to play different styles and conditions. They sometimes need to be able to change during a game and play a much narrower game of greater attrition than how they started. However, the opposite is also true and teams need to be able to play with pace and utilise handling skills when the time comes.
The opposition faced by the provinces brought these contrasts to mind. Against Castres, Leinster could earn a precious away win by going through innumerable phases (although a stat of 98 rucks was mentioned somewhere), many after a single pass had been thrown since the previous phase. Ulster went for a wide game against Toulon in Ravenhill in the hope of outflanking the Mediterranean behemoths and their breakdown prowess. This didn’t work for them and they gave away an intercept try as well as getting turned over at tackle time when men got isolated from their support. Having watched both games, the feeling arrived that Leinster’s approach wouldn’t work against Toulon either. I was unable to watch the Munster game and don’t have Sky but I believe it was pick and jam all evening – fair summary?
Ulster passed the ball a lot but did it in front of Toulon. They found it difficult to get the pass through the tackle, change the point of attack and turn the big Toulon pack around. Leinster played a game that seemed predicated on beliefs that have been redundant for a number of seasons. Going through the phases was all the rage over a decade ago but the laws are weighed in favour of the defending team compared to how they were framed until after the 2007 RWC. Whichever way you look at it, the bulk of tries (85%-89%) are scored after three phases or less.
The Mole wrote a piece at the tail end of last season about the criticism that Matt O’Connor had to endure and the relevant strengths of the Leinster squad. One year further in and missing Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy, it’s more difficult to believe that this isn’t the default for how O’Connor prepares his team. In O’Connor’s defence are the number of players who have made European Rugby debuts under his watch but most of them have come as a consequence of injury rather than careful cultivation. The point of this piece isn’t to bury O’Connor or to praise him, it’s to ask a question about his re-appointment. If Leinster get through their pool, and with 8 points and three runners up positions from five available it looks like they should, then does that qualify as a success? If in addition to that they grind their way to another Pro12 final and get beaten by Glasgow – where would that be played, Murrayfield? – then has he met the criteria required of him?
That’s one set of questions, the next question is who makes the appointment? Surely it’ll be Mick Dawson, the chief executive of Leinster. But who employs Mick Dawson and the other provincial chiefs (Shane Logan, Willie Ruane and Garrett Fitzgerald)…the Mole reckons it’s the IRFU and that their salaries are part of the €2,948,681 paid to YDO and provincial staff in the season 2013/14. If that’s the case then Mick, Shane, Willie and Garrett are going to be having some interesting discussions with David Nucifora.
The IRFU’s introduction of Nucifora contained this description
He will also oversee national team performance, provincial team performance, national age-grade teams and Women’s team performance, sport science and medical services, elite referee development and National Professional Game Board (NPGB) and policy development.
When Nucifora is overseeing provincial team performance will he talk to the Director of Rugby (the track suit) or the Chief Executive (the suit) or both? As acknowledged in Plan Ireland “the present balance is not working as well as it should to deliver the highest possible national performance and that a more integrated approach will only be delivered by having clear integrated leadership of the whole professional game structure at national and provincial level, led by a Performance director (PD) and overseen by a streamlined committee structure which recognises the role of the IRFU Committee but creates an effective structure of professional delegation so that agreed policies and plans can be implemented quickly.”
It is these policies and plans that interest the Mole. Will Nucifora be allowed to dictate to the provincial coaches that they can’t play one out reductive rugby in order to meet lowly aspirations that meet some commercial imperative? It seems unlikely; could it be that the future appointment of head coaches favours those with a proven record of developing younger players and playing a game with an emphasis on ball skills? That sounds more plausible.
The Mole called on Joe Schmidt to give it a lash and to play a game purposefully then consistently. That style must provide the greatest opportunity of outright success rather than the least chance of failure and it is with those aspirations that hearts and minds are won. This time we echo the call but direct it at Nucifora whose influence is less obvious but possibly of greater long term importance than even Joe Schmidt.
What this style looks like may have been seen briefly last season in a place you might not suspect. Craig Clarke was a big signing for Connacht, a player who had captained the Chiefs to a surprise Super Rugby crown then had led them again when they retained the pot. Clarke was only briefly with Connacht and played his last game against Saracens in January 2014 as the concussion he suffered in that game proved to be one too many. Clarke was unavailable for Connacht’s first two games, one of which they won, and got used to playing with Ireland’s out west underdogs. A famous victory against Toulouse (in Toulouse lest we forget) was surrounded by Pro12 defeats along with a victory against the Dragons to go with the opening day win against Zebre. In the first fourteen Pro 12 games Connacht lost a dozen and scored an average of 13 points a game with 1.07 tries per match. In defence they conceded 20.25 points per game and 1.75 tries. Their 14th game was their 3rd victory, an 11-7 win against Edinburgh. That wasn’t the end of it, Connacht then won another three on the bounce and earned try scoring bonus points with it. The run of victories ended with a two point defeat by the Scarlets when Connacht got two bonus points. The remainder of the season proved beyond Connacht’s threadbare squad and they finished with four defeats in high scoring games but they kept scoring tries. The last eight games of the season saw Connacht score an average of 3.25 tries per game and concede 3.75; they scored 23.63 points and conceded 27.75.
And they were great to watch. The Scarlets team that beat them by two points had JJV Davies and Rhys Priestland in the midfield and Connacht just never gave up chasing. Their play was daring and creative while it looked enjoyable to play. I suspected at the time that Craig Clarke had a part to play in the coaching of that style of play and the encouragement to try something different but maybe I don’t give Pat Lam enough credit.
It’s easy to pick holes in the results achieved by Connacht but this wasn’t a team with an international pack steam rolling mid table opposition post Six Nations on their way to running up scores. This was a team missing its three best forwards (Clarke, White, Heenan) who played in a different way to what defences were used to dealing with. In the hands of better players it is easy to imagine more tries scored and fewer conceded. I contended earlier that teams needed to be able to play in more than one way, sometimes in the same match. Irish teams with home grown players and injuries to front line players won’t, on balance, beat Toulon by playing one way. They’ll have to mix it with Toulon and keep the giants guessing. They’ll have to be able to score tries and they’ll have to make the opposition chase the game.
The same can be said for the Irish national team against a choice from South Africa, France, New Zealand, Australia and England if they fall on three consecutive weekends. A pickin’ and jammin’ man-up-a-thon ain’t going to cut it, we need to be more daring. The compromise for Irish teams is that because of the deal struck with McCafferty and his cronies, there is an imperative to finish high in the Pro 12. With top class European rugby no longer guaranteed, although still likely, for the bulk of Ireland’s provinces will they have the courage required to expand their game?