Saturday, August 29, 2015

The only way is up for Leo’s Leinster

by Kevin O’Brien

KOB column

It’s a huge year for rugby with the impending World Cup filling all our minds. Excitement is building nicely to what promises to be a memorable competition. Here’s hoping Joe Schmidt can continue to work his magic. However in the midst of all the World Cup (WC) hype there is the small matter of the kick off of the Pro 12 and other domestic leagues. I for one can’t wait for the league to kick start and I have to say it’s good to be looking at the new season in a positive light from a Leinster perspective, especially after the struggles of last year and the resulting upheaval.

I’ll be honest from the start and say I was very vocal in my dislike of the O’Connor era. I was one of those ‘spoilt’ Leinster fans, a ‘key board warrior’ who dared voice my opinion on the style (or lack thereof) rugby Leinster played under MOC.  Suffice to say I very happy when he & Leinster had their conscious uncoupling. Initially I was excited at thoughts of one of the exotic coaches from down under, whom were linked with the position of Head Coach taking over.  Indeed there were some very exciting names linked like Robbie Deans, Tony Brown etc. But as the closed season stretched into the new season it became apparent that such an appointment wasn’t going to happen. So whether by design or accident we have Leo Cullen as our new Head Coach. He will be ably backed by the very welcome return of Kurt McQuilkin, by John Fogarty and initially anyhow Girvan Dempsey. It probably wasn’t the coaching ticket fans or the Leinster hierarchy had in mind in the immediate aftermath of O’Connor’s sacking but here we are.

Maybe it is blind faith or wishful thinking but I just think we are in for a positive, all be it very difficult season. Cullen’s lack of coaching experience is a worry and as we know a significant number of the senior squad will be missing for large chunks of the season. So it’s going to be an incredibly difficult start forLeo and his team. However I have a good feeling for this new set up and the future for Leinster rugby.

Whilst I don’t particularly like the way the mainstream media harp on about the new management knowing the ‘Leinster Way’ all of the coaches understand what is expected by the very demanding & vocal fan base given their long association with the province. They will have their ideas about how the team will play but will also be cognisant of the team’s history & style of play. I’m not naive enough to think that we will suddenly start to throw the ball around like the glob trotters and will start scoring tries for fun. But I do think to think that under the new coaching team and with the return of Sexton we will see a return to a more attacking style of play as opposed to the sterile, dour and unexciting play of last season. Certainly I take encouragement from what I’ve heard and read from Cullen in this regard.

Alongside Cullen the hiring of McQuilkin was a very astute appointment. He was highly involved as defence coach when Leinster were transformed from a team of ‘Lady Boys’ to European Champions under  Michael Cheika who was then another rookie coach . So he knows exactly what is required to turn around the fortunes of the team. Then there is the return of not one but two prodigal sons with Sexton & Isa back in Blue. This should add an extra dimension to the team’s attacking ability which was sadly lacking last year. It will also greatly improve the on field leadership. Isa, who by all accounts looked extremely sharp last week against Ulster, will be very important for us when the Irish players are away which will be often this season.

I’m also encouraged that it seems the progression of the younger players appears to be a priority for the management team. Certainly Cullen has indicated that these players are very important to how he sees Leinster developing under his tenure and he has had the players heavily involved with the senior squad in pre season. One of the reasons for this is out of necessity due to Ireland call ups but I genuinely feel this management team will be better disposed to developing and nurturing the talents of the likes of Ringrose, Ross Byrne, Leavy, Kelleher the Byrne brothers and the other very talented players on the fringes and in the academy structure. They will be the next generation of Leinster and hopefully Ireland players and they need to be brought along carefully. I’m very far from an expert on these matters but from what I’ve seen of these guys to date the talent is there for future success and it’s up to the management team (and the players themselves) to ensure these guys come through. I feel that they will get a better chance under the new regime to prove themselves. For me bar the odd exception MOC was reluctant for whatever reason to trust in his younger players. Girvan Dempsey has had a very important role in the careers of these players to date and it’s good to see that he is involved albeit on a short term basis in the new management set up. His presence can help ease the transition from academy / B&I player to senior squad member.

The new management team will also be very used to the mechanisms of how the players are managed under IRFU protocols so this issue, whilst highly frustrating especially in a WC year, should cause less friction with the IRFU overlords. Even if there are problems it’s hard to see Cullen openly moaning to the press the way his predecessor did. I’m pretty sure all conversations in this regard would be kept in house and  I would imagine Cullen would also have a better working relationship with Schmidt albeit the dynamic will now be different.

Another factor that gives me cause for optimism is the depth of the squad. Yes there will  be 15 or so players away with Ireland but even taking this into account the squad remains strong with a good mix of youth and experience. We will still be able to field the likes of Isa, McCarthy, McLaughlin, Ryan, Luke McGrath, Conan, McFadden, Darcy, Te’o, Reid & one or 2 more who might be left out by Ireland. Add to this list the previously mentioned very hungry younger players who now have a management team in place who I think has faith in them and I feel we will be very competitive in the early stages of the league. I’ve always enjoyed the 6 nations period when Ireland players have been away to see if any of the young / fringe players can make a name for themselves and the world cup period offers a real chance for guys to put their hands up and put pressure on the Irish contingent when they return. I’m looking forward to seeing just who can take their opportunity..

It is widely acknowledged that Cullen was a great on field leader. However if the trials and tribulations of Martin Johnson in his time as England coach are anything to go by a great on field leader does not necessarily make for a great coach. At least as Head Coach he will be able to do things his way, put his structures in place and gather his own team around him. He will now be fully responsible for the way the team play strategy is employed etc as opposed to helping deliver another coach’s vision. It’s a steep learning curve having only given up playing 18 months ago. Will he be up to the task? I guess we will know soon enough. But as unscientific as it might sound my gut feeling is that he will be a success. The man has a track record of succeeding in his playing career and whilst this is a far more difficult task he is undertaking it is one I feel he is well capable of. There might be difficult time’s en-route but ultimately I think, and hope we will be judging Leo Cullen’s time in charge as a success.

Make no mistake about it the season ahead is daunting given the generally  inexperienced coaching set up, the amount of players away with Ireland during both the WC and Six Nations. The Pro 12 last season was probably the most competitive yet and hopefully will continue to improve. The group we are in the European Cup with is incredibly difficult. It will be a baptism of fire for Leo’s Lions (sorry) but I for one am very much looking forward to the new season in a very positive frame of mind & with renewed optimism. Come on you boys in Blue.

Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.


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When Warm-ups Attack

The games haven’t always been friendly to us, writes Ciaran Duffy
Ciaran Duffy logo

Today is the last world cup warm-up before Joe Schmidt announces his 31-man squad.  Warm-ups are unusual games in the rugby calendar.  Aside from competitions such as the World cup and Six Nations, usually Ireland’s other games are Autumn internationals and summer tours.  And these are by no means ‘friendlies’.  When the Southern Hemisphere big guns come to town it’s a chance to impress and claim a scalp.  Even the less glamorous games against the likes of Georgia or Samoa are a chance to get the squad together after being with their provinces, as well as a chance for some fringe players to break into the team. 

With warm-ups, there is just less importance on the results, it’s purely about the performance.  Sure the score line does affect the world rankings, but whether Ireland are 1, 2 or 3 places behind New Zealand in the rankings is hardly a priority right now.  It’s about finding out works and what doesn’t, before it’s too late.  It’s about trying new combinations before mistakes become more costly.  It’s all about seeing which players on the periphery of the squad gel at this late stage. 

Joes rotated well in the warm ups so far.  36 players used in the two games so far with 6 more set to make their first appearance today.  42 players for a 31-man squad shows a very open competition for places.  Add into this Cian Healy, who could still travel even if he’s not fit until one of the later pool games, and possibly even others who featured in pre-season games for their provinces, who may not make the squad, but will push those in contention to perform well.  In terms of trying new combinations, we’ve seen Cave and Earls, we’ve seen D’Arcy and Payne, and I think everyone interested in rugby in Ireland is excited to see Henshaw and Fitzgerald.  The preparations been good so far and nobody got carried away with the victory over a third string Welsh side, because it’s all about the performance, the performance that will win or lose a place on the plain. 

Unfortunately, there’s another way to lose a place, injury.  We saw one in the first game, with Tommy O’Donnell being ruled out of the tournament.  O’Donnell was a terrific impact sub and surely would have been in contention, he’s a big loss.  Just as David Wallace was a big loss before the 2011 campaign.  He was in the squad until twisting his knee after taking a tackle from Manu Tuilagi.  In a second, that was a key player for Ireland out of the tournament.  Felix Jones had been ruled out after an ankle injury in the previous game against France, his place had not been confirmed, but he was likely to be there.  This is how warm-ups can change the dynamic of a team.  If Ireland lose a key player like Sexton, Heaslip or O’Connell, there will be a void in the squad.  Even losing a fringe player who may have been back up has a negative impact; it takes away the squad depth and reduces the competitiveness for their position.  Warm-ups are necessary to give player game time and there is no way around injuries in a full contact sport, but there is still a danger of having the squad selection simplified through injuries. 

On top of this, sometimes the warm-ups are just plain ugly.  There is nothing about Irelands 2007 world cup campaign that we should remember too fondly.  After narrowly missing out on the Six Nations crown, this was billed as “Irelands best chance to win a world cup”.  Now it does have to be considered in the previous competitions, Ireland didn’t really have any chance at all, but that being said, we had a strong team and although we were in a tough group, qualification was in reach.  But then, between the Italy game on the last day of the Six Nations, and the opening pool game against Namibia, slowly the air was let out of the tires. 

First Ireland lost two tests against Argentina, in May and June.  And then, two months later, Ireland lost their first warm-up to Scotland.  But the worst part of this run was the Italy game.  Despite it being Irelands only win on this run, it was the most troubling display.  Italy were ahead at half time, and until very late in the game.  It took a Ronan O’Gara try, well past the clock going red, to secure a narrow victory.  There are two important things to note; the first is the try should have been awarded, as O’Gara hadn’t grounded the ball.  The second is, minus Horgan, Wallace and O’Driscoll, this was the expected starting line up.  Those are three key players, but this was an Italian side Ireland had beaten by 27 points months earlier.  This indicated there was a lack of fluidity between the first team and those also in the squad, there was a very definite starting line up.  It’s important that the second string fire, it boosts the performance of the first team as well as making them better replacements when they are needed.  A clinical attitude where under performers are dropped is what makes for a squad of champions.   

The performances here did take their toll on the world cup.  It was clear during the Namibia game the team wasn’t quite warmed up, allowing them to achieve their best result against a top tier side.  And then there was Georgia.  If Namibia was cause for concern, the Georgia game was cause to start packing the bags.  Not getting the bonus point was bad enough, but after nearly losing the game, things looked desperate.  Two losses to France and Argentina, and Ireland had crashed out of the group stage for the first time. 

Injuries can’t be avoided in rugby, they happen.  But the performances are controllable.  If Ireland win playing badly because the Welsh played worse that is a meaningless win, and we should not get ahead of ourselves about it.  It’s all about the performance of Ireland.  They need to hit the ground running in the group stages, even the first fixtures are against the weaker opposition, and ensure two try-scoring bonus points, with a high point differential to put France and Italy under pressure (having a better points difference than teams has been a good omen for us recently).  It’s not a 15-man team plus subs that are sent to the world cup, it’s a 31-man squad, all of whom should expect to play a part, and push to play a part.  There’s a squad depth here that Ireland have not had before, reminiscent of the one Leinster had when they were the best team in Europe.  With that squad depth comes the need for everyone to raise their game.  Warm-ups can either provide momentum and chances, or they can derail a campaign before it has had a chance to begin.  Winning the world cup starts with warming up the right way, not necessarily by maintaining a 100% record, but by putting in 100% from the beginning. 

(Side note: I can’t put into words how difficult it was to write this article without resorting to phrases like “The heat is on” or “Getting fired up”.  We need a support group for avoiding lazy Idioms.  If anyone needs me I’ll be sitting by a radiator)

CiarĂ¡n Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.


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Front Five - 29.08.15

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.
Later today on HoR…
We have two guest posts for you
so the Leinster v Moseley writeup will appear tomorrow
Go to our Facebook page after #IRLvWAL
to leave your thoughts…we’ll publish the best ones


Zebo may have convinced Schmidt that his positives outweigh the negatives.


My Ireland squad to battle for World Cup

Gerry Thornley - Irish Times

First-half tries from Mick McGrath, Dan Leavy and returning crowd favourite Isa Nacewa (who converted all three) eased Leinster into a 21-0 half-time lead.

Bowe, Trimble and McFadden stake their final claim for World Cup spot

Cian Tracey - Irish Independent
[Click here for our liveblog from Donnybrook last night]

Of all the starters this weekend, Cuthbert is probably the one man who still needs to nail down his World Cup squad spot.

Ireland v Wales preview: The phoney war is over, now it's time for Warren Gatland's men to stand-up

Simon Thomas - WalesOnline
[Click here for our own #IRLvWAL preview]

Anyone who has seen the battles going on in European rugby will be very aware that excluding the existing clubs in the decision-making leads to conflict.

Expat Dad SG

At odds of 11/20, the bet stands to return $71,500 in profit if it comes in.

A New Zealand punter has wagered an enormous sum on this year’s Rugby World Cup

Neil Treacy -

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby
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