Thursday, September 25, 2014

Telling the Lions from the Sheep

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Aviva English Premiership, French Top 14 overview and do Leinster Rugby currently have what it takes to compete at the highest levels??

Well I had a plan to write a regular piece and overview of what’s happening in both the French Top 14 and the English Premiership, focusing on the leaders (the wider European Cup threats), a weekly look at a key player (so we can see who to watch out for) and how they would affect Leinster Rugby (let’s face it, that’s what we are really interested in)

(Well that’s what it was MEANT to be about but instead…………)

I’M 50, GRUMPY, GOING THROUGH THE “MAN-O-PAUSE AND ANGRY THAT A GAME OF SPORT JUST CAN’T BE SIMPLE, ON AN EQUAL PLAYING FIELD!!!! (Plus do Leinster Rugby currently have what it takes to compete at the highest levels??)

Sooooooooooooo, there are things that as a grumpy 50 year old with dodgy legs, wheezy chest, a note from matron, sheer frustration at no longer playing, dislike of the Leinster “European” shirt and the new Ireland shirt with THAT “3” logo on it (It’s a shirt big fella….let it go, let it go, have some red wine and chocolate!) AND it would appear going through the “Man-o-Pause!!” are still bothering me so I’ll use this week to get them out my system very briefly and then we can move on. I’ll raise some thoughts, cover where we are then leave you with some thoughts. 

For example, the inquest still out on Matt O’Connor (MOC). Should we be calling him “Peter?”………the English have just announced that the salary cap & “marquee” players will be upped next year (Giving them more advantage??)…………..the French have changed their losing bonus point system (From 7 pts down to 5pts)……….The European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) responsible for both European competitions are still in disarray, not fully sorted commercially, structurally et al………..Arguments of the mish-mash of scheduling over games, Domestic, Europe, Tests Tours, RWC continue (What are the IRB meant to be doing???)…… Rules over being eligible for swapping international status (Rory Kockott who plays for Castres was born in South Africa but qualified for France in July after completing three years' residency now has to play four 7s games for France to be eligible??)………Power hungry club chairmen / owners who really will “Buy” success at any level……………… Why do we have to have 9 key rugby stakeholders in Europe (6 Unions – Ireland: IRFU, France: FFR, Italy: FIR, England: RFU, Scotland: Scottish Rugby, Wales: WRU plus 3 other “Commercial” (oops sorry) club organisations – England: Premiership Rugby, France: Ligue Nationale de Rugby and Wales: Regional Rugby Wales)………etc etc etc (And relax big fella…….more red wine and chocolate needed I fear). 

Answers to these and other perennial Qs which show the lack of jointry or regulation to aid an equal playing field on postcards please!

TO DATE:
Well it’s Week 3 in the Aviva English Premiership and the Guinness Pro 12 and Week 6 in the French Top 14. Certainly there have been some awesome games in all 3 leagues to date. Teams in England putting 50 pts on the board, Saracens showing what money and development can do, the sheer difference in class (currently) between the established premiership clubs and the new kids on the block (London welsh - out of breath, out of condition and out of depth), the development of teams over recent years potentially coming to fruition in Bath and Exeter Chiefs with the likes of Wasps and Gloucester Rugby whilst down in 9th & 10th respectively, showing some excellent signs of their true capability. Abroad we see the rise again of Clermont Auvergne, back at the top of Top 14 currently, Toulon having lost 2 from 6 which shows they’re human (rich but none the less, human?), Montpellier are very strong and sadly the spiralling crisis that is Toulouse or Stade Toulousain to be precise, the record holding 4 times European Cup Champions and twice runners up have now lost 4 in a row and languish in equal 9th place but actually 3rd from bottom.

Likewise, Castres, in Leinsters group have won only 2 from 6 and are 12th (or equal 3rd from bottom with 5 others?). In the newly sponsored Guinness Pro 12, Leinster languish in 7th (more to follow), Ospreys, Glasgow Warriors and the surprise package Connacht are all unbeaten to date. The 2 Italian sides, Zebre and Treviso continue to hold up the base for now and Les Kiss has done a sterling job steadying the Ulster team in his temp capacity and they show much flair. Will they have the mind-set to overcome the big days this season, well only time will tell?

INITIAL THOUGHTS SO FAR (And how it affects Leinster or where their play differs):

Given that the French Top 14 is 3 weeks ahead, it hasn’t really made much of a difference to my thoughts. Bath, Saints, Sarries and Exeter are all showing very clearly why they’re the top 4 currently. They all play with strength, speed, determination, belief and attacking capability. The French leaders are I’m afraid to say the same. The void between those who have made a roaring start to their seasons and those who haven’t (regardless of what excuses you use) is wide. That said, we have seen this before and nothings over till it’s over.

What I have noticed is that the top sides really do play the ball well at the breakdown (like Leinster used to do), are strong defensively (again…….) they have strength in numbers and the ball comes out to players who are running in, “On the hoof” as it where (unlike Leinster whose players are flat, singular and oft times without, it appears direction, an adaptive plan and are pretty leaderless). Static playing or being unable to adapt makes you weak and vulnerable defensively and slow to mount meaningful attacks. A fine example of how to play came from Bath Rugby last Saturday when they trounced Leicester Tigers (you know, where MOC came from?). They produced two awesome 80 – 90 metre tries which you MUST watch on the Aviva Premiership highlights on ITV Player to fully get the WOW, THAT’S BRILL!!! 

Likewise Saracens made the choice to conduct a line out and rolling maul against the Irish Exiles to win the game in the last minute rather than simply taking the penalty and 3 pts to draw and Gloucester Rugby near perfect line out and rolling maul against Exeter saw each component player bind in inch perfect and at speed. (Just like…………yeah, you know who). 

I have seen the same from Montpellier, Clermont, Toulon where Steffon Armitage is sooooo wasted from an England national perspective. Just sheer world class. Hope he doesn’t end up playing for Les Bleus??? Anyhow, the pace, speed, turn and adaptability of many of the top team’s players will simply rip through the Leinster defence. The Marmion try for Connacht whilst sublime was proof. All flat footed and it took Cian Healy, a prop to make the chase???

Now, it may be easy for Leinster fans to say, “Ok Big Fella, but we ALWAYS have the 3S’ (Slow September Start) at Laighin, it’s part of our culture!” but I’ll leave you with a few thoughts which I’m sure are and will continue to be debated, derided and debunked across the rugby sphere;
  1. Apart from Northampton Saints away last season and a couple of other games when we had the full squad of top players and where the Leinster spirit came through, we WERE lucky to win the Pro 12 title. Yes even ugly or lucky games count but you could see the downturn in play and playing style.
  2. It was the youth, the “A” team, Academy plus a handful of non-international playing senior squad members who won all their games during the 6 Nations period and helped overturn a 10pt deficit to Munster and go on and win the title. 
  3. We need to stop the Pass, Pass, Inside (hope for a clear metered run), or Breakdown and give to a pretty static player who generically doesn’t have support with them. 
  4. Attack, Attack, Attack…..but run open, run wild, be free, throw it around, use the flair. It’s NOT Rugby League?? We have some outstanding talent that’s being stifled. Consequently, players are losing belief. (Sheep, Lions….I’ll get to that shortly). When we do attack, believe it’s going to come off. At best, you’ll score tires galore (something we woefully lacked at times last season and to date this….) and at worst, you MAY falter defensively and leave yourself slightly open to a snap / quick counter. I know what I’d rather have. 
  5. Stop with Reddans box kicks. They’re not working currently for me. Sort out young Macken; he’s a bit out of depth at the mo and as for Darragh Fanning. Please don’t tell me he’s developing….HE’S 28!! Finally on player assassinations lol, can we remind our metre gathering, steam rolling, try scoring No 2 that he is there firstly and primarily to a). Throw the darts straight so they get to a Leinster Lock or other (Leinster) player 100% of the time and b). To hook the ball in the scrum!! I know that’s what we were taught back in the day and modern day hookers are having to re-adapt to both shoving AND hooking, but come on Sean Cronin. Do the basics first.
  6. Currently we are nowhere near the likes of Sarries, Bath, Exeter, Saints, Toulon, Monpellier, Clermont or indeed I suspect any of the top 6 or so teams in the other two leagues. Perhaps we are lulling them into a false sense of security? If so, we are also doing that to ourselves. We (currently) do not have the standard (overall as a team) to compete, with intent in the forthcoming EPCR Champions Cup. Expecting the two London clubs to do us a favour by stealing points of each other is NOT a way a European Champion winning team get there!  HOWEVER…..…..
  7. On 21 May 2011, in front of 72,456 people at the Millennium Stadium Cardiff, Leinster Rugby went into the annals of history with a second half display that perhaps sums up how Leinster will always be and we should therefore accept it and live with it. We were 22 – 6 down against Northampton Saints who had put away 3 tries. (At that stage, I was in my “Man-Cave” and had put away a bottle and a half of shiraz and a large bar of dark chocolate!) In what was described as a “Rousing” speech during the half-time team talk by Jonny Sexton, Leinster came out and demolished Saints. Sexto scoring 2 tries, 3 conversions and 4 penalties…..a grand total of 22 points and went on to rightly get MOTM. Big Nathan Hines also scored a try and Leinster won 33 - 22. History, albeit stutteringly, was made.
  8. The point of this is what Big Fella?…………well when Leinster are on fire, they’re REALLY on fire. When we are not, we’re REALLY not…………..though we get by through some lucky (at times), ugly (at times) and dogged determination (at times) games and perhaps THAT is the mark of true champions. It worked for Man Utd on many occasions during Sir Alex Fergusons illustrious reign, but then Sir Alex was a true LION.  Whilst being part of the Leinster extended “Family”, I don’t have enough fingernails to bite, nor shiraz to drink or dark chocolate to scoff. 
  9. Perhaps MOC just isn’t the inspirational type of coach and leader that Joe Schmidt was?? A thoroughly technical and professional coach he may be. There are many throughout history in sport, politics, industry et al who are destined to be great at what they do, but they’re always and should always be in supporting roles. The “Peter Syndrome or Principle” whose basic premise is that 'everyone is promoted to their own level of incompetence' springs to mind. They are the “Nearly” men. Those who almost got there. Perhaps we should look at MOCs Leicester Tigers tenure and actual successes to see? Perhaps MOC is our “Peter”. I hope I’m proved wrong. 
  10. Perhaps it’s the players ON the park who need to accept more ownership of responsibility for what happens and find a true leader who can rally when in good and bad times throughout a game. Jamie Heaslip is outstanding and I believe a natural leader, but he’s so focused and is always around everything that’s going on in the pack, breakdown etc, that perhaps it detracts from his game to add the on-pitch captaincy as well?? Whilst a great club captain, I feel you must have the skipper playing in the backs. Someone who has the capability but also has the time, vision, adaptability during the game to develop the game is it evolves, both good and bad. We lack that currently. You see, it’s the difference between a LION and a SHEEP.  It is said that an Army of SHEEP led by a single LION will always always always defeat an Army of LIONS led by a single SHEEP. We have many many LIONS in Leinster Rugby currently but maybe, just maybe we are led by a SHEEP. Time will tell whether MOC is a LION or a SHEEP. Either way, we need to find a LION on the park to get us back playing as we should (notwithstanding the 2011 HC analogy above). Another Jonny Sexton perhaps?
  11. In the meantime MOC, at least when being interviewed after a defeat, such as against Connacht last week, please act like you ARE a LION. I suggest you look at the interview with Leicester Tigers DoR, Richard Cockerill after their 45 – 0 defeat by Bath. His demeanour, his complete acceptance on behalf of the team, whose fault, whose responsibility it was, not the mealy mouthed “Ah well you know, these things happen” type of excuse MOC gave.

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)
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