Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Joe Schmidt Test Era : from box-ticking to box-kicking


First of all I’d like to thank all of those who offered their best wishes during my recent hospital stay.  The only reason I reference it here is that when I first went in to A&E, Ireland were just about to kickoff their final World Cup match against Samoa, and the day after I was discharged, we played the All Blacks in the quarterfinals. Maybe I could have done writeups on those matches later when I was feeling better, but I chose not to - hopefully this piece will work instead.


Over the years I have been accused of being overly-apologetic towards both Leinster and Ireland through periods of poor results.  I accept this criticism mostly because I try to write as a fan rather than a supposedly impartial pundit. That said, I often find myself trying to push back against it because I often firmly believe it’s not so much a case of my goggles being covered blue or green, rather others’ being covered in something with a much more unpleasant colour (not to mention odour) altogether.


There can be no denying that Ireland’s 2019 campaign in Japan, and in turn Joe Schmidt’s tenure, ended in bitter disappointment.  There also can be no denying that the prime directive of anyone taking the reigns of the Irish team would be to take us to the Holy Grail of the World Cup semifinals.  And despite having two cracks at it, Joe was unable to tick that particular box. Plus, it doesn’t help that after humbling us, the All Blacks went on to be humbled by England, who went on to be humbled in the final by South Africa, who were supposedly the quarterfinal opponents we would have preferred.


Yet while the frustration of Irish fans at crashing out so badly was understandable, it was so only to a point, and several comments went well beyond that point.  To give just one of hundreds of examples along the same vein from the ruggersphere, I really got annoyed when I read that somehow “Joe’s legacy is now in tatters”...


Remember, these are views coming from Irish fans, or supporters, or whatever you prefer to call them.  This choice (and it is definitely a choice) to reach for the outermost extremes is clearly a demonstration of some kind of personal bias on the part of the commenters.  Maybe they only watch rugby occasionally and just don’t know enough about the subject. Or maybe they prefer another sport and would take any excuse to have a pop at egg-chasing.  Or maybe they ARE rugby fans but are more interested in attacking Joe because of his previous association with Leinster, much as many did to Declan Kidney back in the day because of his association with Munster (both mindsets are equally real and childish IMO).

What I would like to do with this article is try to redress the balance by pushing beyond the effects of Joe’s most recent results and instead look at all of them during his time in charge.  I’m going to list them in chronological order, offering a few thoughts as I go plus a summary at the very end.

SUMMER TOUR 2013 (same time as 2013 Lions tour to Aus)

Apparently Joe wasn't directly involved in this tour yet it's worth including nonetheless.

NOVEMBER 2013

Obviously the standout match there was against New Zealand, and this is where the abuse from so-called ‘Irish fans’ began.  Never mind that we played scintillating rugby to go 19-0 up against a team we had never beaten before; the fact that the reigning World Champions had the cheek to fight back and pinch a victory at the death was unforgivable.  Yes, of course it was frustrating to lose the lead, especially right at the end, but given this was Joe’s first series at this level, if you couldn't see positives to take forward, you just weren’t looking.

SIX NATIONS 2014 - CHAMPIONS

First Six Nations, first title.  Yet many were churning out the rubbish that ‘it only counts if it’s a Slam’.  There were six nations, we finished first. Of course the defeat in Twickenham was disappointing, but after all the trophies he brought to Leinster, Joe now also had one for Ireland before he was a year in the job. One extra challenge was added to the pile during this series however, namely the need to bring the team beyond the BOD era.

SUMMER TOUR 2014 - ARGENTINA (series win, 2-0)

NOVEMBER 2014 (3 wins out of 3)

All in all an extremely successful 2014.  How could Ireland ever improve on that?

SIX NATIONS 2015 - CHAMPIONS

Back to back titles or yet another Grand Slam failure?  You decide.

WORLD CUP WARMUPS 2015

All of the sceptics were out in force after the two defeats, despite all that had gone before, but overall Ireland were going into the World Cup in a positive frame of mind, with the new centre pairing comprising the seemingly unlikely duo of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, both previously known as full backs.

RWC2015

That Argentina result/performance was like a bolt from the sky blue, though it certainly didn’t help that we went into that match missing so many front line players.  When the post mortems were done on the campaign there seemed to be a consensus that we needed to bring a much deeper squad to Japan in 2019.

SIX NATIONS 2016

Three Six Nations titles in a row would have been quite the achievement (though not enough for some of course) but it does need to be said that the defeat in Paris in particular was disappointing.  Joe needed to knuckle down with his squad to wash the World Cup woes away.

SUMMER TOUR 2016 (incl first test win on RSA soil)

This tour was like a microcosm of the Joe Schmidt era.  Disappointing end, yet we still ticked an historic box along the way with our first ever test win on South African soil.

NOVEMBER 2016 (incl first ever win v All Blacks)

As if the Springbok success wasn’t enough, we now had Chicago, where all the negative energy from that previous encounter was re-polarized into a comprehensive victory that even the most curmudgeonly supporter couldn’t disparage.  The All Blacks did get back at us a couple of weeks later however, thus providing another sting in the tail for our success.

SIX NATIONS 2017

Preventing an English Slam was scant consolation after bad results in Edinburgh and Cardiff, though we weren’t complaining on the day.

SUMMER TOUR 2017 (during Lions tour to NZ)

It seemed like a good idea to bring the non-Lions to Japan to get somewhat acclimatized ahead of 2019, although it was at a different time of year plus some of the tourists never ended up going like Devin Toner and John Cooney.  Still, 3 comfortable wins from 3 wasn’t a bad outcome.

NOVEMBER 2017 (3 wins out of 3)

Some saw this series as a roaring success because of the massive win over the Springboks; others weren’t happy with the narrow win over Fiji.  But neither opinion was to stay relevant for long.

SIX NATIONS 2018 (GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS)

Can you believe there were still a few negative comments after this campaign?  I can. ‘We were lucky in Paris’. I ask you. The bulk of us managed to enjoy it, mind.

SUMMER TOUR 2018 (1st ever SH series win)

‘Ah sure it was only Australia’.  ‘We should have won all three tests’.  ‘When you add up the scores the teams actually finished level’.  Again, all quotes from Irish sources. Well, I saw it as a southern hemisphere series win and another thing that couldn’t be taken away from Joe’s legacy.

NOVEMBER 2018 (4 wins out of 4, incl All Blacks again)

Capping off the best calendar year for Irish rugby ever.

SIX NATIONS 2019

No question this was a disappointment.  Of course criticism was coming from the nay-sayers, but to be fair, it was coming from all Irish fans especially with regard to the performance against England.  When it came to Wales they were at least pumped up chasing a Slam in front of their home crowd.

WORLD CUP WARMUPS 2019

RWC2019
IRELAND-47 SAMOA-5
NEW ZEALAND-46 IRELAND-14

The most recent results are all a bit raw, but you won’t see me defending too many of our performances in 2019.

I have mostly focused on results up to now, mostly because I want to draw attention to the many positive boxes Ireland have ticked with Joe Schmidt in charge.  Back to back titles. Win in South Africa. Victory over New Zealand Grand Slam. Series win in Australia.  Yes, OK, I suppose I can even throw in the #1 world ranking.

Yet when it comes to the negatives, one thing the detractors like to focus on is actual tactics, and two seemed to be at the top of the critical pile - box-kicking and narrow defense, and I would like to make a case for both.

When it comes to the narrow defense, everyone seemed to be an expert when it came to analyzing tries where we were beaten in the widest channel, yet when the commitment of extra bodies close to the breakdown actually led to attacks being snuffed out, which happened often, the critics were suddenly silent.

As for the box-kicking, in 2014 I had the privilege of attending an Irish training session at Carton House and at one stage Joe broke away from the group along with Gordon D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe and Robbie Henshaw to explain the virtues of it. 

Before then I always assumed a box kick was almost like a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in American football in that we’re just putting it up there because we have no other options. Joe made it clear that with the right accuracy this could actually be a powerful weapon and even if the ball couldn’t be caught, with a decent chase the opposition can still be thrown on the back foot resulting in a turnover anyway. 

The most ironic thing about the box-kick debate is that it was a tactic oft used this year by the Springboks, who I seem to recall have been doing pretty well on the trophy front in recent months.

So is there ANYTHING that Joe got wrong?  Of course there is. In my opinion he might have been a bit over zealous in his desire to control the squad.  The extra training sessions outside test windows, the restriction of minutes in the Celtic League, the refusal to consider players who left the four provinces who weren’t named Sexton.  While I appreciate the problems that he was trying to solve with those policies, perhaps the solutions were a bit too extreme.

I also do have tactical concerns despite what I said earlier, although it was in more of a general scope.  The premise always seemed to be that once we play a certain way to a test-level standard of accuracy, we should win.  The problem is that despite professional rugby being in its third decade of existence, it is still very much an evolving product.  Both Laws and coaching philosophies are changing at a rapid pace which means it doesn’t augur well to keep your head down assuming your own way of doing things is going to work no matter what way the opposition plays.

While it was clear that we needed a deeper squad in 2019 than we had in 2015 and there can be no denying that Joe ticked that box, I fear our 2018 success may have alerted the rest of the world to coming up with a formula for beating us, one for which we had no antidote.

But let me make one thing abundantly clear to conclude this article.  Joe Schmidt left Irish rugby in a far better state than it was when he found it.  No amount of disingenuous negative narratives can take away from that fact, and as frustrating as the ridiculous comments may have been over the years, I can only assume that the vast majority of real Irish fans are extremely grateful for all he has done and wish him nothing but the best for the future.  JLP

Front Five - 20.11.19

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.

Wise words from Robbie


"You just have to move on to the next chapter and obviously put it behind you."


Brendan O'Brien - Irish Examiner

Ireland are due to hold their first training camp under the Englishman early next month and that in itself has refocused the attention.


Cian Tracey - Irish Independent

Ulster will be without Jack McGrath, Sam Carter and Rob Lyttle for their Heineken Champions Cup showdown against Clermont


RTÉ Rugby

The contract will take Rennie through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup


Stuff.co.nz

Larkham pointed to the good form of out-halves Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan so far this season


Murray Kinsella - The42.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP

Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Front Five - 19.11.19

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.

ICYMI click here for our
Leinster v Benetton writeup


The tight-head missed out on the win over Benneton on Saturday, and Leinster say he will be further assessed for a "minor back complaint" this week.


Steve Neville - Irish Examiner

"It’s a good lesson. I’ll tell you on Monday if we’ve learned from it."


John O'Sullivan - Irish Times

Along with the Welsh, Scottish, South African and Italian unions, the IRFU are partners in the tournament and all parties are set to benefit from the €140m deal.


Irish Independent

The Kiwi scrum-half...ended up staying at Thomond Park for 15 months.


RugbyPass.com

"...there might be some Saracens players who feel like they've got to play for their club instead of their country, to make sure they don't go down."


Maurice Brosnan - Balls.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP

Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Monday, November 18, 2019

Leinster-33 Benetton-19



It was Friday, September 2, 2016.  Leinster defeated Treviso 20-8 at the RDS; for many that's not a bad way to start a new season, but there was definite disappointment among fans of the boys in blue, mostly due to the fact that we didn't manage a try bonus point.  I wonder how many would have believed we wouldn't defeat this opposition at home again until Saturday, November 16, 2019?  Not I, that's for sure.

I still did my best to find the positives in my match writeup, yet as I was in the process of composing it on the Monday, news came through that rendered the article virtually meaningless...

Leinster Rugby have this morning confirmed the appointment of Stuart Lancaster to the senior coaching team.

The bog-standard simplistic thinking would be that most Irish fans would be unhappy at the appointment of an English anything, but that wasn't the case.  From what I could tell anyway, the move was seen as a positive, and with all the feedback from England's RWC2015 campaign seeming to suggest that Lancaster preferred to get on with his work without a whole lot of media commitments, this arrangement seemed to be a good one for all involved with Leo Cullen willing to assume those duties.

Considering where Leinster was at that time (a bit like Saturday just gone, our previous competitive match back then was also against Connacht though that one didn't go so well for us) I think we can all agree that the Cullen/Lancaster ticket has done extremely well since then.  Bringing in a new generation of players to carry on after the likes of BOD and Jamie, check.  Bringing in a new set of high quality foreign players to carry on after Isa and Brad, check.  Raising standards to a level which meant re-opening the trophy cabinet for new additions, check.

As many have pointed out since full-time on Saturday, it was far from an ideal performance from Leinster.  But still, there were two standout moments for me that illustrated just how high the bar has been raised at the province since those two came together (though of course that is not to diminish the roles of others on the coaching ticket as well).

The first came on the 4 minute mark.  On our opening possession, Garry Ringrose gave a taste of what was to be a nailed-on man of the match performance by breaking a tackle or three to get to halfway and not long later, he was crashing over the line for our opening try.  However, that's not what caught my eye, strange though that may seem.

We got from halfway to the Benetton line courtesy of a penalty awarded for not releasing, which skipper Johnny Sexton duly dispatched to touch in their 22, giving us our first attacking lineout of the day.  Thanks to a combination of the general level of rugby standards at the province, the fact that this was in front of a home crowd, plus the fact that the bookies had us not only favourites for the match yet also for the whole tournament itself, we would have expected to at least create a scoring chance from this situation.  So what was the lineout call?

Would Devin Toner take the easiest option and have it thrown to himself?  Or perhaps James Ryan?  Rhys Ruddock?  All very well tried and tested lineout receivers?  No.  The call was to Caelan Doris, making his first European start.  And who was throwing said dart?  Sean Cronin?  James Tracy?  No.  It was Rónan Kelleher, also making his first European start.   And the throw went perfectly, allowing the platform for Sexton to find Ringrose for the score six phases later.

For me it's that level of confidence in the 'next gen' players that has been a feature of the Cullen era.  As I suggested in my preview, not many would have been surprised had he gone for more experienced options in the 2 and 8 jerseys for our Heineken Champions Cup opener, yet after 6 wins from 6 in the opening round of the Pro 14, it's important to reward good performances from that phase, and to not only do so by starting those players but also to trust them with the first key set-piece of the day speaks volumes for our coaching ticket's eye for talent.

For my second piece of Leinster-centric gushing (surely I have to be allowed since it's a Leinster-centric site)  I'd like to jump ahead to the midway point of the second half.  At this stage we may have had the try bonus point in the bag, yet the four match points were far from certain.  Before I get to the moment itself, however, a few words on our Italian visitors.

Perhaps the folks who were streaming out of the RDS from the 70 minute mark might not have been too surprised at the Leinster victory given it was "only Treviso" but those of us who tend to follow the sport a lot more closely know that particularly under coach Kieran Crowley they have done extremely well.  And while their victory and draw at the RDS in the last couple of seasons might come with asterisks given the stage of the season, their run to the Pro 14 playoffs last season where they ran Munster awfully close at Thomond Park certainly doesn't.

And all of this led to an air of confidence among the squad that has to stem from the coaches.   You're not just here to make up the numbers, lads - if you play the right way in the right areas you have to believe you can actually win.  This showed as early as the 8th minute when they won a penalty from the restart after the Ringrose try and when 99% of visiting teams 5-0 down would have taken the points, they made quite the statement by putting it into the corner, which meant they were under even more pressure to come away with a score than we had been before.

9 phases after the lineout, skipper Dean Budd looked like he was going to ground short of the try line after a pick and go yet before he fell he chose to spin the other way and get the ball down thus proving his own decision to be worthwhile.

And although we were able to crank our game up a gear to put the game's next three tries on the board (I'll harp on them later), when they managed to avail of another short lineout opportunity on the 50 minute mark as hooker Epalahame Faiva defied the efforts of Luke McGrath to stop him, they showed they had no intention of throwing in the towel.

Sure enough having thwarted Leinster's next attack, they pumped it all the way into our 22 - James Lowe was able to retrieve and tidy but it was to be a good ten minutes of play until we were to have possession in the opposition half again.

Despite the concession of two tries at this point, our defence was doing extremely well.  In fact it wasn't so much our tackling accuracy that was the problem rather our tackling discipline.  Needless high tackles around the halfway line kept giving the visitors opportunities in our 22 and as we now know, Benetton can really punish you in those situations.

So when they had yet another attacking dart in our 22, it was important that our defensive cordon remained intact.  And the last thing you'd want to do at a time like that would be to make as many as four substitutions, right?  Not under the Cullen/Lancaster duo it isn't.  The former England coach has assumed the bulk of the defensive duties in his time at the province and it has to be said, an average of just 12 points and under 1 try conceded in 6 Pro 14 matches this season shows it has been working.

Yet still, swapping your entire front row and your strong-tackling out-half before a key defensive set isn't something most teams would tend to do.  And I have to admit, as faithful as I am to the boys in blue, I wasn't crazy about it myself at the time.  While I understand the need for squad management and making subs at pre-determined times, I would have thought the match situation also had to be taken into account.

Well, like I said, these substitutions took place on the 55m mark, and it wasn't until ten minutes later that James Ryan swatted an Italian dart giving us possession in their half and in all that time, they could not cross our line.  The introduction of Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Bent and Ross Byrne took absolutely nothing away from our defensive structure.

Remember - if Benetton had crossed in that sequence they'd pull to within a score and their tails would have been well up.  Yet we were still showing good linespeed (and if you think we were offside that was nothing compared to what our opposition had been doing all afternoon), we were still hitting carriers two tacklers at a time driving them away from the gain line, we were still keeping the wide channels well covered.  Maybe some scores got through but when it really mattered, none could.

In fact if I had any complaints about the bench it would be Ross Byrne's first attacking decision, namely a crossfield kick pass from within his own 22.  As much as I like watching our defense in action, that doesn't mean I'm happy when we just give the ball back to the opposition needlessly!!!

Going back to the area of impressive substitutions, we had more on the 63 minute mark though this was more about the calibre of players being introduced.  I doubt there is a team in the competition who wouldn't be envious of being able to bring on players like Scott Fardy and Robbie Henshaw as late as the fourth quarter, especially when you consider the latter was a late replacement for Joe Tomane, who had also impressed this season.

Sidenote - I couldn't help but note the irony of Robbie being added to the matchday squad seeing how just seven days earlier I whinged on these pages about how often it was his name that was actually removed at the same stage!!!

Anyway, it's about time I stopped all the time travelling and got on with describing the remaining tries.  After Benetton struck quickly following our opening five-pointer, we returned the favour, again winning a penalty at halfway to get into their 22 except this time the score came after a penalty coming from the first lineout.  Then it was relatively simple - lineout > maul, phases, Ringrose try.

It took a Benetton yellow card for repeated offences to get us number 3 (and in fairness, we might have been a tad lucky not to get one for the same reason at some stage, especially since so many of the pings were for seat belt tackles).  After one starting prop went to the naughty step while the other went for an HIA, we went from scrum to penalty advantage to Rónan Kelleher showing once more he has a keen eye for the try line by cleverly stepping his tackler and crashing over.

My halftime wish for an early score after the break to nail down the bonus point was granted when Sexton tried his patented "wraparound" move.  Benetton scrum half Dewaldt Duvenage tried his own wraparound on our skipper yet couldn't hold on and Sexton broke free and surged into their 22.

He had plenty of options in support and chose Josh van der Flier who could have scored himself yet chucked it back to his skipper and as you can see from the lead photo, it meant a lot to him.  I'm more than 90% against having the World Cup at the same time the domestic season kicks off, but in this particular case after Ireland's particularly disappointing campaign, this weekend of four wins from four for the Irish provinces has come at just the right time to help those players move on.

After seeing off the Italian purple patch, James Lowe put us back on the attack in trademark fashion.  Having earlier done an improbable leap to keep a kick to touch in play, on this occasion he took a more straightforward catch and ran towards the chasers, almost daring them to tackle him.  It looked to all intents and purposes that he was going nowhere until an improbable offload in the tackle allowed Max Deegan (an early replacement for the unfortunate Doris who suffered an HIA) to break into the 22 where he was high tackled.

Yet another penalty led to a score from a set piece and 6 phases after the lineout, there was Garry Ringrose yet again, this time taking a miss pass with just the right line to put all would-be tacklers in his wake and putting the victory beyond doubt.

Another sidenote; this time about the Ringrose hat-trick.  While it was indeed amazing news for his brother Jack to also get three tries on the same day, for UCD against Terenure, that fact begs a question : why was there a full round of top division league matches on the same day as three of the four provinces were kicking off European campaigns?  All I hear about is how the club game needs promoting - maybe the fixtures could be spread out more easily for fans of both levels to lend their support.

The scoring at the RDS still wasn't done - full credit to the Italians for playing right to the final whistle and with a bit of luck they might have salvaged a bonus point or two.  Shortly after Sperandino was bundled into touch, the winger was eventually found in space to breach the Leinster defence, only he could only do so in the very corner.  

Why Ian Keatley bothered taking the conversion at all was a puzzle as the clock was ticking into the 80th minute and they still needed another try, but still they did well to soldier on for 8 phases after the restart before Henshaw ripped the ball free in a tackle at halfway to end the contest.

Others to impress on the day were James Ryan and Josh van der Flier who led the tackling charts with 19 and 18 respectively, though as I often say it was the team defensive effort that stood out the most.

So to those who remained in their seats to the final whistle, it was a satisfying end to an overall satisfying 80 minutes.  Was it perfect?  No.  Yet we thumped Wasps 52-3 at the same stage last season and emerged with the same amount of match points.

At least this way we know we have areas on which to improve, and with this coaching staff we know they are well able to make the right adjustments.  Factor in the desire of other next gen players to step up to this level, not to mention the desire of yet more RWC2019 squad members to move on by returning to the fray, and you have a Leinster set up that looks set to continue to be difficult to beat wherever they may go.  JLP




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