Category Archives: Heineken Cup

Munster Will Rue Missed Chances

Asm vs Munster

Missed chances in Montpellier. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Muster getting within a score of Clermont in Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final was always going to be notched down as another ‘heroic’ performance. Based on form over the season, operating budget, home advantage and other reasons, Clermont were clear favourites. While Munster’s display was excellent and should be lauded, the players and management will have serious regrets about the chance that was missed.

The emotion of the Munster players immediately after the final whistle told the story. This wasn’t a case of being well beaten by the better team on the day, but rather of an opportunity missed. Clermont’s mental fragility at this stage of knock-out competitions was evident again, as Munster turned up in a big way. Rob Penney and his squad won’t merely shrug their shoulders and admit to being beaten by the best team in Europe. Instead, they will look to learn as much as possible from this loss.

Joe Schmidt made an interesting observation at his unveiling as Ireland coach, saying, “I am a massive believer that transition is a constant.” While it’s clear that Munster are in the midst of dealing with a changing playing staff, they remain in the business of winning trophies. The loss to Clermont won’t be accepted as something that was inevitable, but rather with a pronouncement of not making the same mistakes next time around.

Asm vs Munster

Clermont took their chances. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

More specifically, while this was an exceptional Munster performance with some top-class individual efforts, there were aspects that let them down. In the video below, the focus is on Munster’s use of possession and their inability to turn it into points on several occasions. Obviously they scored a superb, intelligent try through Denis Hurley and nearly had another after Casey Laulala’s perfectly-weighted grubber, but here the focus is on the opportunities they let slip.

The intention is not to be overly negative about Munster’s showing. They played some great rugby and it was thoroughly encouraging for next season. Paul O’Connell summed it up perfectly after the game:

“Second half we had our opportunities and we didn’t really take them. We got a good try from a great little chip from ROG, but there were plenty of other opportunities when we were in their 22, 10 metres from their line, five metres from their line particularly just before half-time and we didn’t take those opportunities.”

Let’s have a closer look at what O’Connell was talking about:

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I’d appreciate people’s honest, constructive feedback on this type of video post. Is there interest in more of this kind of thing? What could be done better? Let me know. Thanks.

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Photos: Mathilde Bourel is on Flickr, and can also be found on Twitter.

Areas Where Leinster Can Thrive

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In this brief post, I take a look at three areas in which Leinster may be able to exploit Biarritz tomorrow. The screen grabs are taken from Biarritz’s 32-28 win over Clermont (highlights above) on the 23rd of March in the Top 14. While BO were impressive that day and showed that they pose many dangers to Leinster, there were also a number of potential weaknesses on display.

Didier Faugeron’s side run a fairly standard defence. They flood the breakdown, if a turnover is blatantly on, but generally fan out and fill the line. Their wingers drop back to cover kicks, or step into the line if the opposition spread it wide. There is one potential flaw in the system though, and Leinster should look to benefit from it. Faugeron has given his players the freedom to individually ‘shoot’ up out of the defensive line if they think a ‘ball-and-all’ tackle is on. While this can result in big defensive plays, it can also leave their defensive line vulnerable.

Shooter Barraque Good

Barraque ‘shoots’ out of the defence to great effect. Click to enlarge.

In the example above, you can see a Biarritz player (Barraque) has shot up out of the defensive line on his own. On this occasion, he managed to hit the Clermont attacker (Zirakashvili) as he received the ball. Zirakashvili tried a panicked offload and Biarritz won the ball back. On the flip side, the example below shows Yachvili getting it all wrong. He’s the ‘shooter’ this time but gets caught in no-man’s land, leaving Clermont with a 3-on-2. In this game, Biarritz were very hit-and-miss with the success of their ‘shooters’.

Yachvili Shooter Bad

Yachvili makes the wrong call and exposes Biarritz’s defence. Click photo to enlarge.

Leinster should look to exploit the Biarritz shooters through simple, short pop passes inside or outside to trail runners. In these circumstances, communication from the support players is the key, as the person giving the pass usually won’t even see the shooter coming.

The next area Leinster could look to take advantage of is Biarritz’s kick-chase. While they have something of a reputation as a formidable kick-chase team, this game against Clermont saw a sloppy display in that regard. Two Clermont tries came as a result of poor kick-chasing. The first example is below. Barraque has kicked out from BO’s 22, and Clermont have run the ball back into the BO half. The chase was  lazy, and one phase later Sivivatu breaks through and passes for Skrela to score.

Screen shot 2013-04-26 at 17.12.20

Biarritz’s organisation after kick-chase can be poor. Click for larger image.

If you look at the photo above, you can count 8 Biarritz players on the blindside, including 3 in the back-field. While Sivivatu did well to break the line from this particular situation, Biarritz didn’t seem to be well organised following kick-chases in general. They conceded from a remarkably similar situation later in the game. Again, Barraque kicked out from inside the 22. The chase was unorganized and 3 phases after the kick, Clermont created the 4-on-3 situation below and scored. Check the match highlights at the top of the post to see both tries in action.

James Bad Kick Chase

Another try following a Biarritz kick.

Biarritz winger Takudzwa Ngwenya is a lethal counter-attacker and finisher thanks to his sheer pace, but he should be targeted defensively. He struggles to make the right decision about when to come in off his wing and tackle. The photo below shows a prime example. Clermont have gone wide following a lineout. The Biarritz defensive line is actually in good shape at this exact moment. With Benoit Baby drifting across, all Ngwenya has to worry about is tackling his opposite number. But immediately after this frame, he decides to rush up on the fullback. Regan King throws a simple skip pass and puts Nakaitaci clean down the touchline.

Ngwenya Decisions

Ngwenya about to make the wrong decision.

There was a similar situation later in the match, pictured below. As outhalf Brock James attacks the line, Ngwenya gets tighter and tighter to the man inside him. As you can see, he’s got his body position all wrong, completely facing in towards the action rather than out towards where the ball is being passed. The winger leaves himself in a bad position, Nakaitaci is left with lots of room out wide for Clermont and nearly scores. Leinster should look to use Madigan’s excellent passing game from inside centre to force Ngwenya into making these sort of decisions. He’s not comfortable with doing so.

Ngwenya Defense

Ngwenya gets himself in a bad position again.

Do Clermont Have Any Weaknesses?

Nyanga the Butcher

Unforgivable try-butchering from Yannick Nyanga last weekend during Clermont vs. Toulouse.

Clermont’s formula for success is very simple. They have an abundance of players who are superb individually, but crucially, all of them buy into the Vern Cotter mantra of working extremely hard. The Auvergne-based heavyweights have threats literally everywhere across the field, as well as off the bench. Their attacking game plan is nothing revolutionary, just good players making good decisions at the right time. On form, they can score from almost any situation.

Many of these scores come from moments of individual brilliance in open phase play, which is backed up by their excellent support running. The likes of Fofana, Sivivatu, Nalaga, Chouly and Hines will create chances however you defend against them, and they are excellent finishers. It’s very difficult not to see them scoring tries in Montpellier. That much is obvious, but the big question remains, do Clermont have any weaknesses? I’m going to use Clermont’s most recent match, the 39-17 win over Toulouse last weekend, to look for any potential areas to target.

The loss of captain Rougerie is a blow. While the 32-year-old is perhaps edging past his peak, he is of massive importance to Clermont, not just for his leadership. He’s still a good player, and his defensive game is undervalued. Clermont’s backline like to press up hard in defence, even in the opposition’s half. That places great demands on the 13′s decision making, and Rougerie more often than not gets it right. While King and Stanley are superb attacking replacements, they don’t offer the same security as Rougerie on ‘D’.

Rougerie

The loss of Rougerie could make Clermont weaker defensively.

One way to beat a rush defence is to try get around the outside edge of it. In the screen-grab above, Toulouse have tried something like that. From a Toulouse scrum, Clermont come up fast and McAlister flings a wide, flat pass to Fickou in the 13 channel. The aim is to get Fickou outside Rougerie , but he reads it superbly and forces a knock-on. Munster might get some success in this situation now that Rougerie is missing. Lualala has great feet and neither King nor Stanley possess quite the same level of decision-making as Rougerie. ROG threw some encouragingly excellent passes vs. ‘Quins and more of the same may reap rewards.

Another obvious way to break down a defense which likes to get up quick is through well-placed kicks. Unfortunately for Toulouse, McAlister either didn’t spot opportunities or executed badly. Below, you can see that fullback Lee Byrne (last player out on the left) has stepped up into the defensive line. This was something that was repeated on several occasions. Contrary to what you might expect, Parra also steps into the line and Clermont have nobody covering in behind. The closest thing to a ‘sweeper’ is outhalf Delany, coming from the other side of the scrum. A good chip or grubber by McAlister for Fickou and it was try-time. Instead, the outhalf did a goose-step and gave his centre a forward pass.

Clermont Defense

Clermont like to fill the first-up defensive line, not just close to their own try-line.

The next example (below) is further out, around the halfway line, but the premise is similar. Clermont’s defence is up quickly, without a winger hanging back. McAlister has spotted the opportunity and attempted a cross-field kick for Huget, who can be seen out on the far wing. Unfortunately, McAlister’s kick was poor, too far ahead of Huget, and bounced badly. But again, there’s try written all over the opportunity. Clermont do seem to repeatedly stack the defensive line. Whatever about his weaknesses, ROG still possesses an accurate kicking game, certainly better than McAlister’s, and he will spot these opportunities. Zebo will be ready and waiting.

Clermont Cross Field Kicks

There may be chances for well-placed ROG kicks.

Staying with kicking, Toulouse got a lot of change from their re-starts. Clermont are going to score on Saturday, so Munster will need to be precise in retrieving possession from these situations. McAlister dropped every single one of his kicks just over the 10-metre line, above hooker Benjamin Kayser. Clermont seemed unsure of who should claim the ball in that zone and Toulouse won possession back at least 4 times in this manner. The screen-grab below shows exactly where Toulouse targeted (in this case Nyanga wins the ball). It may not be a case of going after the exact same zone for Munster, but in O’Connell, O’Mahony, Ryan and Zebo they have excellent kick retrievers.

Drop-Offs

Clermont were very poor at receiving restarts.

Munster will certainly need to mix up their attacking game this weekend, and using last weekend’s game as a guide, they should look to attack the fringes around the rucks. Again, Toulouse had some success here. Louis Picamoles’ try (video below) was the most obvious example, but there were other instances where the big Toulouse carriers made yards. Scrumhalf Luke Burgess sniped intermittently and also made decent ground. Conor Murray’s skills look suited to the task. However, Clermont are usually far more watertight in these areas and they will certainly step up a level for the Munster game.

Putting it all together, attacking and targeting Clermont around the fringes and with kicks in behind may not result directly in tries, but it will challenge Clermont’s stifling defence. They’re extremely strong in the middle, where they’ll come up hard and smash ball carriers. If you play into their hands, they’ll turn you over and score tries from that sort of broken-up situation. It’s an obvious thing to state, but Munster need to play with lots of variety, constantly challenging Clermont to react.

While the scoreline and various media reports suggest that Clermont wiped the floor with Toulouse last weekend, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Outhalf McAlister missed two kickable penalties and turned down a few other chances for kicks at goal. Toulouse also butchered a genuine try-scoring chance (photo at the top) when Nyanga selfishly failed to pass to Fickou. Admittedly  Clermont’s 2nd-half display was lazier than usual, having built up a strong lead. That won’t happen again this weekend. They are a phenomenal side, that’s beyond doubt. But they can be beaten. 6 losses in the Top 14 this season show that. The odds are heavily in Clermont’s favour but this match is not a foregone conclusion.

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* Apologies for the poor quality screen-grabs. It would be great if people could let me know if they enjoy this sort of piece, where I try to do more detailed analysis. If so, I could look into a better way of highlighting examples in the future, possibly in videos or more detailed photos of play. Let me know what you think.

Fuss in France

Paul O'Connell

O’Connell has been the centre of attention in French rugby circles. (c) Fearless Fred.

While the furore around the non-citing of Paul O’Connell is dragging on and becoming tiresome at this stage, I felt it would be worthwhile to look at exactly what is being said about the matter in France. There’s an anger at the perceived preferential treatment of O’Connell, and this has morphed into a wider debate on whether French players are being punished for the French authorities’ virtuousness in charging them, as well as questions of a conspiracy theory against the French teams in Europe. The best place to start is with France’s rugby bible, the semi-weekly Midi Olympique.

‘Midol’ hits the press every Monday and Friday, consisting of 30 pages of pure rugby. Last Monday’s edition (22nd April) dedicates its first two pages to a “Dossier” on the O’Connell story. Under the headline “Irish Shenanigans”, Marc Duzan’s lead article adressess the existence of a “conspiracy theory”. The paper’s source “close to the case” suggests that John Feehan (CEO of 6 Nations, Lions and Pro 12) and Philip Browne (Chief Exec. of IRFU) had been involved in pressurising Citing Officer Eddie Walsh. Ronan O’Gara’s kick on Sean Cox is brought up with the reminder that he only served a 1-week suspension. Duzan finishes by saying that the “values of the rugby family” mean this can all only be coincidence, but says “it is right to question this unfortunate collision of occurrences.”

The next article bears the banner “O’Connell is Not an Angel”. Journalist Jerome Prevot paints the Munster captain as the “anti-Cudmore”. Quoting an Irish colleague (who was snitching lads?), implications are made that O’Connell is “immune” to giving away penalties because of his “aura”. Nigel Owens is then linked to several of Munster’s European exploits. The POC vs. Cudmore fight is brought up, saying that POC landed more blows, but that his “cunning” show of innocence towards the linesman before unleashing had spared him. The Jonathan Thomas incident is mentioned next, with O’Connell’s 4-week ban compared to the 10 weeks (note: subsequently reduced) received by Gavin Henson for a similar incident.

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Across the page, various concerned parties weigh in with quotes. Clermont coach Vern Cotter says that referee Owens will have to be “very vigilant” around O’Connell’s actions on Saturday. Patrick Wolff, vice-president of the LNR, states that it is “unthinkable that O’Connell is not brought before a disciplinary committee to explain or justify.” Marcus Horan assures the French public that POC “is not a violent player.” Finally, and oddly, David Attoub (he of the 70-week gouging ban) is asked for his take on the matter. Unsurprisingly, he steers well clear: “I don’t want to speak about this player, or incident… I don’t want my comments to be misinterpreted.”

Another article questions whether the French are being too “righteous” in banning their own players’ misdemeanors  thus “endangering their own interests”. The piece questions how O’Connell isn’t cited for “a kick to the head of an opponent” while Jerome Fillol gets 14 weeks for spitting on Stringer.  Finishing up the 2-page spread is the reminder that the 3 longest bans in ERC history were imposed on representatives of French clubs: Trevor Brennan (5 years), Richard Nones (2 years) and Attoub (70 weeks).

The feeling of ill-treatment took another turn yesterday with the news that Clermont’s request to register Mike Delany to their H Cup squad had been rejected. The ERC held firm with their assertion that all players must be registered by the 21st of March, but that has not gone down well in Clermont. The club’s manager Marc Lhermet needlessly brought Munster into the equation, questioning how Delany “can’t play in the Heineken Cup this season, but Munster can use Paul O’Connell this weekend.”

Leinster V Clermont

Vern Cotter has said that Brock James will be part of the matchday 23 on Saturday. (c) Martin Dobey.

The reaction from fans on message boards and comment sections on French rugby websites has been equally disbelieving. The perceived preferential treatment of Munster is widespread, with some suggesting that if the tables were turned, and Munster needed an outhalf brought in, the ERC would have no problem granting the request. There’s lots of disgruntlement, but what does it all really mean in terms of the match on Saturday?

Very little. It’s unlikely that the players are very affected by any of this. You could suggest that anything to take Clermont’s focus away from Saturday is positive for Munster. You could argue that this entire episode suits the Munster mentality and simply puts more pressure on Clermont. But realistically, Cotter will be ensuring his players stay focused on their Heineken Cup goal. This squad is hugely motivated and in-form. While the journalists, fans and dirigeants debate, question and complain, the players will be readying themselves for battle on Saturday.

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Photos: Martin Dobey, Fearless Fred.

Regular Preparation is Key

Leinster and Ulster played 9 Heineken Cup games each this season, but never in blocks of more than 2 games. (c) Ken Bohane.

I saw a very interesting tweet on the page of ex-Munster and Auckland Blues player Mike Storey recently, in which he suggested part of the reason that Ireland failed on the three-test tour to New Zealand was that “Irish players never play 3 tough games in a row”. It struck me as a really valid point and led me to question just how well Ireland’s domestic and European rugby calendar prepares our players for consecutive top-level international action.

Let’s start by looking at the Heineken Cup. I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of whether the flagship European competition is better or worse than the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby. Whatever your opinion on that, let’s agree for now that the two tournaments are of a roughly equivalent playing standard. The Heineken Cup consists of 6 pool games and then a maximum of 3 knock-out games. Obviously, only two teams in the tournament will play 9 games, with the rest playing 6-8.

Now look at the Super Rugby tournament, expanded to 15 teams this year. Each franchise/region/club will play a minimum of 16 games. Those who make the play-offs will play 17-19. That’s basically double the amount of top-level games that Super Rugby players can take part in compared to their Irish peers. I’m aware that teams like the Blues, Lions and Force are poor, but having watched much of this year’s tournament, there’s always the possibility of those sides beating one of the big boys. The Blues for example have a handful of current and ex internationals, and I’m confident they’d beat their ‘equivalents’ in the Heineken Cup (Aironi, London Irish, Treviso).

How many truly top-level games does the PRO12 offer? (c) Ken Bohane.

So where do Irish players make up the rest of their ‘big games’ in a club season? The PRO12 is obviously the next place to look. I don’t want to start tearing apart the competition (I actually enjoy it very much), but the reality is that there are very few ‘big’ games in the PRO12, apart from the play-offs. How often do we see a genuinely crucial PRO12 game in store? It’s a rare thing. A fixture like Munster vs. Ulster should be a massive game every single time it’s played, but the simple fact is that it’s not.

The issue is not even that neither side will regularly select their strongest XV for this type of game, but that there is no genuine pressure attached. Deep down, national rivalry apart, it’s not an important game. If Ulster lose and finish 5th or 6th in the league, it’s no big deal. They’ll still be in the Heineken Cup next season. So even if talented young players are given a chance to play in the PRO12, there is  little pressure on their shoulders. This has advantages, but more pressurised, more important games would bring far more benefits.

That brings us back to the number of top-level games that the Southern Hemisphere players are getting. Obviously New Zealand’s top internationals don’t play every single Super Rugby game. Having a quick glance at the stats, their number of starts will be around 12-15 per season. That’s still more than our Irish internationals, who’ll get 7-9 in the Heineken Cup. So who replaces those All Blacks in the remaining 6-8 games? This is where the next line of international players, their young prospects, are being exposed. So not only are New Zealand’s top players getting more high-quality rugby than their Irish peers, but their young talent is being tested at a far higher level than ours.

A fixture like Munster vs. Ulster should be close to that Heineken Cup quarter-final intensity every single time. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Going back to the original point highlighted by Mike Storey, let’s use two players to give a rough comparison of the regularity of top-class club games.  Rob Kearney and Israel Dagg serve the purpose well, having been put forward as a key individual battle before last month’s test series. Kearney made a total of 16 appearances for Leinster this season. But how many of them were of Heineken Cup standard? Well he played in all 9 of the H-Cup games, and I’d include the PRO12 final against Ospreys and the first PRO12 game against Munster in that bracket as well, for a total of 11 top-quality club games this season.

Dagg has already started 12 Super Rugby games for the Crusaders in 2012. Remember too that Kearney’s season was spread over the latter part of 2011 and the first half of 2012. On the basis that Super Rugby and Heineken Cup are roughly equivalent, Dagg has already played more high-quality games than Kearney, with possibly 3 more to come. Despite the All Blacks’ fullback’s season starting 4 months later than Kearney’s, he’d actually played more of these top-quality games before the June tests. Which brings us right to the crux of the matter.

Not only had Kearney played less top-level club games, but they’d been spread out over a far greater period of time. While Dagg played Super Rugby games on 7 consecutive weekends from the 24th of March to the 6th of May, the most consecutive weekends Kearney played in ‘big’ games was two. The IRFU’s player management policy obviously plays a part in ensuring that Ireland’s top internationals receive adequate rest, but is it also holding our players back? Or is the structure of the Heineken Cup not testing our players regularly enough?

Clearly, there are several reasons behind Ireland’s failure in New Zealand. Whiff of Cordite and the Demented Mole have both written excellent articles on what looks to be the main reason, the coach. This piece is in no way meant as a defence of Declan Kidney. There’s no excuse for losing by 60 points in an international test match, whatever the merits of European club rugby. The intention here is to provoke debate and get your thoughts on whether the Irish provinces need to be playing top-level rugby more regularly. Please feel welcome to leave a comment with your views on the issue.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.