Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Harpin Points 30 - Schmidt, Schools, Slapping & more


On Wednesday we widen our focus beyond Leinster & Ireland rugby matches, offering views on broader rugby topics and themes

(SOME) FANS HIT THE SCHMIDT

He came within minutes of beating the All Blacks then wins the Six Nations Championship at hs first TWO attempts.  Then comes RWC2015 quarterfinal exit then two years of English spring ascendancy and before all of that even happens, we're apparently in a crisis and his job is brought into question.

So we then beat the All Blacks twice, as well as a series win in Australia, a world number two ranking in the world, and oh yeah, a Grand Slam in the year when the fixture list is supposedly against us.

Now we lose badly to England at home before beating both Scotland and Italy away, though the victories only come with several moments that are certainly not up to the expected standard; now all of a sudden the hunt for excuses to explain the ‘crisis’ has surfaced again.

In other words, a narrative seems to be forming whereby there's a reasonably sizeable body of opinion in Irish rugby that will take every opportunity to question Schmidt's stewardship, whether or not he has brought us to heights previous assumed unreachable.

Is he perfect and immune to criticism? Absolutely not, and if you think that's my position then you haven't read much of my harping over the years, even when he was at Leinster.

There's no doubting I have concerns about our reliance on a regimental set of fixed plays, not because it can't work rather because there are days when the desired accuracy might fail you, as they did last Sunday.

However, just because the playbook isn't working doesn't mean a match can't be won, and I do believe the boys in green showed signs in Rome that they can get a winning margin over the line even in self-inflicted adversity.

One thing I am starting to believe is that for all the talk about our need for depth in the squad, it does appear that Joe has his sights set on a particular starting XV for the World Cup, something like this…

R Kearney, K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale, J Sexton, C Murray
C Healy, R Best, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, CJ Stander.

…and the closer he gets to having this group on the pitch, the more confident he feels.

Of course there are always those pushing their way in like Tadhg Beirne, but my point is that whatever about Ireland's chance for the rest of this Six Nations campaign, Joe's anxiety levels won't really kick in until we're in the period from the end of March and end of May, during which it's very possible all four provinces could have heavy involvement in domestic or European playoffs, possibly even both.

We really won't know the full extent of the hand Ireland will get to play in Japan until we know for sure what cards will be in the deck and until then, I think we as fans need to appreciate Joe's card-playing skills and leave him to it.



BACK TO SCHOOLS

Every year I try to make a point of getting to at least one Leinster Schools match and on Monday I was lucky enough to be able to make it to Energia Park Donnybrook for the senior quarterfinal between Blackrock and St Michaels.

It is a very different type of rugby occasion than those we'd be used to at the RDS; rather than the majority of the spectators cheering for Leinster, we have separate ends of the Grandstand packed with students from either school, pretty much all of who are wearing their jerseys, cheering every good thing and booing every bad.

Over on the opposite terrace where I was based, there was an ‘element’ of so-called ‘support’ which seemed to be (rather ironically I thought) trying to mimic the antics of the infamous ‘ultras’ throughout European football (curse-filled chants, distracting the kicker and what-not), but when the stewards and Gardaí showed a presence around them, they pretty much managed to tone things down.

On the pitch was a much more pleasant story, though maybe not so much for those cheering Blackrock.  It was an enthralling match from start to finish though it was mostly dominated by an outstanding level of organisation in the Michael's defence, particularly their back row.

They slowly built a 16-3 lead going into the final stages and although the Rock bench was able to flex its muscles towards the end to get within a converted try, it was too late which meant their quest for ‘only’ their 70th cup will have to wait until next year.

Meanwhile as Leinster fans we get to look forward to seeing names like Chris Cosgrove, Mark Hernan, Niall Comerford and even another Sean O’Brien to start toggling out in provincial blue.

RUGBY'S NORTHERN BACKSTOP? 

Going on a tangent from my final point above about the next crop of youth bound for the Leinster academy, I am reminded of something I overheard an Ulster fan saying at the RDS when our northern cousins were playing there back at the beginning of January.

“I'm trying to get used to all these young Leinster players names as I'm sure it won't be long before they're lining out for us at the Kingspan!”

According to the Indo, it's very possible that Jack McGrath is set to join Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, Nick Timoney, Ian Nagle, John Cooney and others who find their way to Ulster after a spell at Leinster.

I didn't take the Ulster fan's comment as meaning he thought that was a bad thing; no doubt he would prefer if there was more local talent available up north, but when the reality is that Leinster are churning out multiple stars at every position, it's only common sense that we should offer some the opportunity to get more game time.

Naturally I can understand the frustration of Leinster fans seeing so many of our players leave, but I really don't see how we can be expected to retain all of them while more and more prospects are breaking through.

As always, I have reservations about making these announcements (assuming there is one in McGrath's case, it seems to be just speculation for now) during the season, especially as we have a big clash with Ulster approaching at the end of March.  But such are the realities of the modern game I suppose.



MERGING AND EMERGING REGIONS? 

Interesting report on the BBC website today about possible major overhaul in Welsh regional rugby.  


Right now all four regions are based in the southern portion of the principality and there have long been calls for some representation for the north - if this pans out as the report suggests, that could happen.


Apparently they want to keep it at just the four clubs so to make way for a new one, two of the current clubs will have to merge; apparently there were rumblings about those being Ospreys an Cardiff Blues though they were quoshed earlier in the year.


No disrespect to those in Newport, but surely the Dragons have to be the ones to make way.  there has been a limited amount of success for them over the year but let's face it, they were always the poor relation results-wise.


Finding the right balance has often been a problem for the WRU as many fans were understandably very loyal to their local clubs which made the creation, and more importantly the marketing, of new professional organisations very difficult.


That process was made easy for us here in Ireland as we have four proud provinces pre-cut to measure when it came time to go pro.


Here's hoping the Welsh can find a format that works, though not too well of course!

SLAP UNHAPPY

Last Friday the Ospreys hosted Munster in arguably the biggest match of the Pro 14 weekend, with the Irish province running out 19-13 winners. 

There was one incident which I found worthy of a Harpin Point; at a critical scrum the Welsh region won a penalty, prompting their flanker Sam Cross to stand up and slap the heads of several of the Munster forwards before he had a chance to un-bind themselves. 

Next came a reaction from Cross’ opposite number Chris Cloete (anyone else think he looks a bit like a young Bono?) and what happened next fell somewhere between handbags and a full on shamozzle. 

The ref Stu Berry did a decent job of separating them, though he needed the TMO in his ear to point out the slapping that kick-started the whole thing. 

I reckon it's high time we put an end to this nonsense. Like in this case, how about if Cross’ action led to a reversal of the penalty altogether? That could very well make players think again before engaging in such blatant provocation. 

And it's not as though Cross even made an effort to disguise what he was doing - had he just slapped one head he could have at least claimed he was aiming for a team-mate to congratulate, but this guys went for the full Munster front row PLUS Cloete! Taking the piss methinks and time for officials to do something IMO. 

I remember the first time I was enraged by this - it was the 2009 Heineken Cup final and Stan Wright had his head patted ironically by Martin Castrogiovanni as he went to the naughty step. There's no need for that in our sport and I don't think it would take much to snuff it out. 



Many thanks for sticking with my latest Harpin Points until the end.  Our focus this weekend is Friday night's visit of the Cheetahs and our preview will appear earlier that day.  Stay tuned!  JLP

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