Category Archives: Leinster

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

TOULON

Warwick in Munster colours versus Toulon in 2011. (c) Liam Coughlan.

It’s an oft-repeated mantra in rugby that talent alone won’t get you anywhere. Having had “everything at my feet at one point”, Paul Warwick was perhaps heading towards being living proof of that as he struggled to make an impact at the Queensland Reds a decade ago.

However, the chance of a move to Connacht in 2004 meant a working environment  which brought out the best in the Australian’s natural ability. A schoolboy, U21 and 7s international after converting from league at the age of 16, he admits he “didn’t make the most of my opportunities” at home. Removed from his comfort zone, Warwick has thrived in professional rugby since.

Three impressive seasons in the west of Ireland resulted in what looked like a dream move to Munster in 2007. While the following four years in Limerick involved a Heineken Cup medal and two Celtic League successes, it didn’t go completely to plan for a man who prefers to control his team’s attacking play from outhalf. With Ronan O’Gara the undisputed number one in that position there was definite frustration for Warwick:

“At Munster, I was in Ronan’s shadow and had to play at fullback, so the challenge for me was to get back to running things at outhalf.”

When Stade Francais came calling in 2011 it was time to move again, lured by the prospect of securing the outhalf position at the Parisian club. With cultural and language complications to consider, it wasn’t the easiest decision for Warwick and his family, but they have found it a rewarding experience:

“I’ve really enjoyed the different experience, for myself and the family. I mean we would have regretted it if we hadn’t taken the chance. Maybe we didn’t give it our best shot with the language side of things, but to say you’ve lived and played in Paris is pretty great.”

On the pitch, the change from Pro 12 to Top 14 took adjustment, with the week-to-week demands ramped up in France:

“The Top 14 has a lot more competitive teams. In the Pro 12, there are some games against the likes of the Dragons which maybe aren’t as demanding. The pride involved in home games makes it tough in France. Even when you go to a team like Agen, who were relegated this season, it’s a serious challenge with that pride on the line.”

Luke McAlister

Warwick at fullback for Stade versus Toulouse in the Top 14. (c) Pierre Selim.

So has the move away from Ireland given Warwick the on-pitch footballing control that he desired?

Last season, under Michael Chieka, he faced stiff competition from Felipe Contepomi for the 10 shirt and was moved to fullback in order that both players could be accommodated. This season, under new management fronted by Christophe Laussucq, the emergence of 21-year-old Jules Plisson has limited Warwick’s game time at outhalf. Overall, more frustration:

“I didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve in Paris personally. This season’s been ups and downs really, for me and for the team. Overall, we’re happy with the Amlin, but disappointed with the Top 14. We didn’t achieve the goals we set out at the start of the season.”

Those goals included finishing in the top six of the French championship. 19 points adrift, Stade Francais ended up in 10th. Just two wins away from home was the main reason.

A switch to Aviva Premiership side Worcester Warriors is the next move for 32-year-old Warwick. Worcester may have finished 11th in the Premiership this season, but with Dean Ryan set to take over at the club, Warwick is feeling positive:

‘They haven’t had the best of seasons, but they’re a developing team. With Dean Ryan coming in that’s a big plus, he’s got proven success. I think all the ingredients are there. I’m coming into a club where I don’t really know a whole lot of guys, so it’s just refreshing to be able to start again.”

Another chance to start from scratch, another opportunity to take control at outhalf. Before that, there’s one final task with Stade Francais: the small matter of a European final against heavyweights Leinster.

Paul Warwick in full flight

Warwick in full flight versus the Ospreys during his time with Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

To be in a final at all came as a surprise to Warwick and his teammates. The Australian credits their European run to a recent change in attitude within the squad:

“It’s been unexpected. Our away form has been abysmal to say the least. But we went to Bath and Perpignan and came away with wins. The team is enjoying the footy we’re playing at the moment. There’s obviously lots of changes going on here, with the coaching team and everything, but we’re enjoying our footy. We’ll give it a real go.”

From Warwick’s point of view, it’s hard to pick out one area in which to target Leinster on Friday night. The focus instead will be on Stade’s own performance:

“Leinster have been the best team in Europe for a number of years, they really don’t have too many weaknesses. For us, the main thing is getting over the gain-line on first phase, putting them under pressure and asking questions of their defence. We have to match them at set-piece and then go from there. If we can do that, who knows?”

Warwick had settle for a place on the bench against Bath and Perpignan, and it looks likely that Plisson will be the man entrusted with the outhalf slot on Friday night. If things don’t go their way, Stade will call on Warwick’s flair and creativity. For himself and Stade, there is no fear in facing Leinster:

“Everyone wrote us off for the Bath and Perpignan matches and we went out and got the wins. We’re at a point where our attitude is that we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s see what happens.”

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, Pierre Selim, Ivan O’Riordan.

Centre Experiment a Success for Madigan

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a flat, long pass.

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a long, flat pass.

With many rugby fans and pundits seeing Ian Madigan as a possible Lion, Saturday’s win over Biarritz was his last audition for the part. The Leinster back’s versatility is seen as a big on-tour advantage. Having already played at both outhalf and fullback this season, Saturday saw the 24-year-old step in at inside centre.

So far in his career, Madigan has started 46 games for Leinster. 36 of those have come at outhalf and 9 at fullback. Last Saturday was his first appearance in the 12 jersey. At U20 international level, Madigan actually had more starts at fullback (5) than at outhalf (4). During the Six Nations, he made brief appearances for Ireland at inside centre. It’s clear that outhalf is his best position, and that he can now be considered as good cover for fullback. Last season, the Demented Mole even suggested trying him at scrumhalf. He’s versatile, that much is certain.

So how did the experiment of playing Madigan at 12 go?

He had an uncharacteristically nervy start to the game, knocking on 2 of his first 3 touches. The first knock-on came as Leinster tried to send Madigan boshing into the Biarritz defence direct from lineout possession, clearly not a role he’s built for. Biarritz outhalf Barraque stopped him in this tracks and Madigan spilled the ball forward. Minutes later, another knock-on. This one came under very little pressure and with a 3-on-2 outside him. He was clearly aware of this, planning his next move before he’d even caught the pill. Not a great start.

Madigan’s first defensive involvement will be marked as a missed tackle, but came from a scrappy situation after Leinster over-threw at their own lineout. The screengrabs below show what happened. While it was an unusual situation, it shows the demands of defending in the 12 channel. Coaches everywhere preach the importance of not getting pierced in the middle of the pitch. While the blame here should be shared amongst a few players, Madigan will be annoyed not to have prevented the line-break.

NgwenyaBreak

Click to enlarge. The action starts in the top left after Strauss overthrows at the lineout and Heguy claims the bouncing ball for BO. Moving to the top right, you can see that Sexton has stepped in to tackle Heguy but without preventing the pass to Barraque. Madigan has already drifted a little and the gap is opened. Moving to bottom left, Madigan tries in vain to grab the BO outhalf, but is in a bad position and gets handed off. Finally, bottom right, you can see that Barraque has offloaded to Ngwenya, who goes all the way to the 22, Leinster give away the penalty and 3 points.

From there, Madigan’s performance improved. In the next 5 minutes, he made two tackles on Baby and Traille, going in low on both occasions and halting their progress. It was exactly what Madigan needed, something to get him into the game. His first positive attacking contribution came after 25 minutes, taking a switch off Sexton and popping the ball inside to Nacewa. Madigan’s ease of handling was evident, highlighting the advantages of using him as an Aaron Mauger-style second five-eight.

Two of Biarritz’s first three kick-offs were aimed directly into the zone where Madigan was situated. The intention was to put Damien Traille directly up against Madigan for the high ball. The first time, the French centre got above his opposite number, nearly claiming the ball, before his team gave away a penalty. The clear sign that Biarritz intended to target Madigan was Traille slipping a sneaky little kick to the Leinster 12 as they got off the ground. BOD was clearly not happy!

On the second occasion, Rob Kearney recognised the ploy, sprinting forward and actually knocking Madigan over in order to claim the ball. It’s not a major thing, but worth watching if Madigan is to play at 12 again. At 5’11”, he’s not the tallest and could be targeted in a similar manner.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation. Click photo to enlarge.

The remainder of Madigan’s half involved some effective clean-outs at ruck-time, and one gorgeous pass. With time up on the clock, Leinster quick-tapped a penalty. Sexton move it to Madigan, who looked up to see that Baby had shot out of BO’s defensive line. Most players would have either trucked it up or thrown a looping pass over Baby. But Madigan’s vision allowed him to fire a flat pass in behind Baby, straight to Nacewa on the wing. Leinster were over the gain line, Biarritz were scrambling and the passage ended with Jamie Heaslip scoring.

Madigan’s role as a second-five eight was really interesting to watch. While Gordon D’Arcy is certainly no battering ram, Madigan’s skills are more suited to a play-making role in the centre. All of Leinster’s backline possess good passing skills, but Madigan is the best passer in the country. The above was the most obvious example of the benefits of playing Madigan at 12. His passing and creativity open up even more possibilities for Leinster in wider areas.

Madigan’s second-half got off to a flyer, quite literally. As Biarritz attacked in the Leinster 22, Synaeghel knocked on and Madigan intercepted. He then showed exceptional pace to burst away and came up just 5 metres short, caught by Ngwenya. The American winger was sin-binned and Leinster added 3 points. That sheer pace is something we haven’t seen too much of in Madigan’s game, but it’s just another string to his bow.

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he's onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he’s onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

His next two contributions were defensive. The first was an excellent tackle on a surging Thibault Dubarry. His hit was strong and actually forced a knock-on, which wasn’t noticed by referee Wayne Barnes. The next was another low tackle on Traille, bringing him to the deck.

With Sexton subbed off, Madigan moved to outhalf and taking over place-kicking duties on the 50 minute mark. He began by converting Nacewa’s try with ease. His form off the tee is excellent, and that continued on Saturday, with 3 from 3 in total.

Overall, Madigan’s first outing in the 12 jersey for Leinster was a positive one. While there were signs that he was slightly uncomfortable in the role at first, he grew into the game and managed to show off some of his skills. With Jonny Sexton still only 27, it’s something we may see more of in the future, possibly with the Irish national team. In terms of a Lions audition, Madigan showed glimpses of the skill set he can offer. Would you have him on the Lions squad or with Ireland this summer? Is there a future for Madigan at 12 alongside Sexton for Ireland? Let me know your views!

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Madigan’s stats vs. Biarritz, from ESPNScrum.com:

Kick/pass/run: 0/13/6     Metres run: 102     Clean breaks: 1     Defenders   beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 7/2

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.

Bienvenue Jonny!

Sexton

Sexton will be doing this in a lighter blue next season. (c) Linda Molloy.

While archaic French rugby laws mean that clubs can’t announce signings for next season until April, Jonny Sexton to Racing Métro 92 is one deal that we know is done and dusted. Club president Jacky Lorenzetti has distanced himself from the move a little over-exuberantly perhaps but we know that Sexton will be playing in France next season. So what should he expect?

Racing’s origins stem back to 1890 when a rugby section was added to Le Racing Club de France, originally set up as an athletics club. Their first Bouclier de Brennus came just two years later and the club had an extremely successful early period, winning another two national titles in that era.  A barren spell followed, with just one title coming in 1959, until the late ’80s, when a group of talented players led Racing back to the forefront of the French game.

The self-entitled Le Show Bizz was a gang of five Racing players who decided to combine serious rugby with a renewed sense of fun. Stunts like wearing berets for an entire match, donning pink bow ties on the field and painting their faces black before games were commonplace. Le Show Bizz were a sensation, even going on to release a pop single (so bad it’s worth a watch) and set up the Eden Park clothing brand. On the pitch, they were just as incroyable, winning the club’s most recent French title in 1990. (Check out this fascinating article by Le Rugby for more on Le Show Bizz).

The loss of that generation resulted in a downward spiral for Racing, and they fell out of the spotlight down in Pro D2 until 2006, when billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti decided to return the club to its former glories. Lorenzetti, who made his money in real estate through his Foncia firm, bought a 61% stake in the club and announced that they would be in the Heineken Cup by 2011. After heavy  investment from their new owner, the 08/09 season saw Racing, led by Andrew Mehrtens, finish top of the pile in Pro D2.

Chabal

Before the Sexton signing, Sebastian Chabal was possibly Racing’s biggest transfer coup. (c) Christophe Cussat-Blanc.

With big money spent on the likes of Francois Steyn, Lionel Nallet and the mythical Sebastian Chabal, Racing finished a creditable 6th in their first season back in the Top 14. Even better followed the next season, with a 2nd-place regular season finish, and a last-gasp semi-final defeat to Montpellier. Last season, another positive 6th-place secured more Heineken Cup rugby for the Parisien club.

Which brings us to the current campaign under head coach Gonzalo Quesada. At the outset of the season, Lorenzetti stressed the importance of stability after the club’s rapid rise. He said the club “remains ambitious, but we don’t have defined goals”. Both he and Quesada spoke about instilling a strong spirit and identity within the club. Unfortunately, these seemingly sensible intentions appear to have had the opposite effect. While it’s far from a disastrous campaign, Racing sit 8th in the Top 14 (7 points off the playoff positions) and were knocked out at the pool stages of the H-Cup.

Despite the arrivals of big names like Dimitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Maxime Machenaud, Racing appear to be lacking in any real leadership at the moment. Despite Lorenzetti’s hopes, Racing find themselves at something of a crossroads, still lacking a clear identity. This is expressed in the inconsistency which has seen them beat Toulon away, but lose at home to Mont de Marsan. Lorenzetti has recognised that Racing need to get their momentum back next season, with his recruitment drive the most obvious sign.

The signing of Sexton will give Racing a clear leader on the pitch next year. This season, with Jonathan Wisniewski having missed much of the action through injury, Olly Barkley and Mathieu Belie have shared the number 10 jersey, with neither of them nailing it down. Sexton’s confident leadership skills are exactly what Racing needed to secure. The aforementioned laws on announcing signings ahead of April means that we can’t know for 100% who else Racing have signed, but it looks almost certain that Sexton will have Jamie Roberts playing outside him.

Stade Toulousain - Racing Métro

The 2010/11 season saw Racing reach the Top 14 semi-finals, so far the peak of the club’s achievements under Lorenzetti. (c) Frederic Salein.

In a league where scrum is king, the signings of Northampton props Brian Mujati and Sione Tonga’uiha should give Metro the platform for Sexton to unleash his backs. Springbok second-row Juandre Kruger is another who will be joining next season. In the back-row, Dan Lydiate is rumoured to have agreed a deal. If Lorenzetti has indeed added these world-class players to the existing quality in the likes of Machenaud, Szarzewski, Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Fernandez, Benjamin Fall and Juan Imhoff, then Racing are going to be a seriously strong side next season.

Off the pitch, the president secured the future services of Castres’ current coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers as early as last summer.  Both coaches enjoyed respectable playing careers; Labit, a fullback, played for France A, while Travers, a hooker, won the Heineken Cup with Brive in 1997. Upon retiring, the pair became co-entraineurs at Montauban, then in Pro D2. Within two seasons, Labit and Travers had the Southern club back in the Top 14. Another two season later, the coaching duo had led Montauban to Heineken Cup qualification for the first time in its history.

Castres swooped for the promising coaching team in 2009, and they have steadily improved the side over the last 3 seasons, making the play-offs each year and reaching the semi-final stage last season. The 44-year-olds are highly rated in France, and signing them as a team was a sensible move on Lorenzetti’s part. He will hope the undeniable success of the pair continues in Paris.

A further statement of Racing’s ambitions off the pitch is the planned new stadium in Paris. Les Ciels et Blancs currently play in Stade Yves-du-Manoir, with a capacity of 14,000. It’s a stadium with huge history, but in its current state doesn’t really befit a club of Racing’s ambitions. Construction on the new 40,000 seater stade, named Arena 92, is set to commence soon. Originally planned to be completed in 2014, Lorenzetti has pushed that date back to the end of 2015 due to repeated resident protests, as well as rising costs. When the stadium is eventually built in the Nanterre arrondissement, it will be a stunning home. 

Nearby, in Le Plessis-Robinson, the club recently opened a world-class training facility. It’s a truly cutting edge training base, with comprehensive recovery, analysis and strength/conditioning areas. It looks like the kind of place that would be a joy to work and train in. Check out the video below for the full guided tour from Racing’s manager Pierre Berbizier.

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All in all, it’s an overwhelmingly impressive package and you can see the obvious draw for Sexton, money aside. However, he really is the key to it all. Spending mega bucks and having the best stadium and training facilities count for nothing if you don’t have the right players on the pitch. Sexton will be the focal point for the whole club over the next two seasons, and maybe even beyond. He will be the man the coaches build their side around; a side which Lorenzetti hopes will create a whole new Show-Bizz era. It’s a massively exciting project, and one that will be followed intently all over Ireland.

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Photos courtesy: Linda MolloyChristophe Cussat-BlancFrederic Salein.

Who is Quinn Roux?

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Signing young South Africans seems to be all the rage in Ireland at the moment. The agents over there appear to be increasingly aware of the lucrative market that is Irish rugby. In the last few weeks, Munster have signed CJ Stander, Connacht have nabbed Danie Poolman (profile coming soon) and Leinster have secured second-row Quinn Roux on a one-year deal. There’s still been no official announcement from Leinster, but the deal looks done. Here, I take a look at Roux’s career up to this point and the potential benefits of the move.

As we saw in this week’s profile of CJ Stander, he was picked out as special from a young age. Roux’s progression has been a little different. Born and bred in Pretoria, Roux’s rugby interest began at the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys’ High School). The secondary school is literally across the road from the Blue Bulls’ Loftus Versfeld Stadium. It’s no surprise then that Affies is one of the most prestigious and elite rugby schools in South Africa. The educational institute has produced many professional rugby players including Springboks Pierre Spies, Wynand Olivier and Fourie du Preez.

The fact that Affies normally field more than 10 senior teams every year makes it an achievement just to play 1st XV rugby there. Roux did so in 2008 and impressed enough to be selected for the Northern Transvaal provincial team for that year’s Craven Week. As explained in the Stander piece, Craven Week is one of the most renowned schoolboy competitions in the world. The best young players in the country are chosen to represent their province and it’s often the place where they start to build real buzz. To make a crude comparison, it was like Roux being selected for the Leinster schools team for an interprovincial series.

Loftus Versfeld Stadium

With this stadium across the road from your school, how could you not aspire to be a professional rugby player? (c) legio09.

The best players during Craven Week go on to be selected for the South African Schools. While Stander was chosen as the Schools captain in 2008, Roux missed out on selection. But the 6’5″ lock was determined to forge a professional career for himself and, in 2009, decided on a 1,427km move to the Western Province Rugby Institute in Stellenbosch. Attending the WP Institute is like taking a Masters degree in rugby. Students pay around €12,000 for the privilege of a top-quality rugby education, although some receive scholarships. The Institue’s mission “lies in transforming young boys into rugby-playing men”. It’s a fascinating facility, and their website is worth a look.

The move paid immediate dividends for Roux, as the Western Province Rugby Union signed him up that same year. He battled hard to earn a place on the U19 side, and helped them to the semi-finals of the U19 Currie Cup, where, just days before Roux turned 19, they narrowly lost out to the Cheetahs. Still, the move had proven a success. Roux was now on the first steps of the ladder towards Super Rugby. The Stormers franchise is centred on the Western Province union, although players from the Boland Cavaliers are also eligible. If a player can reach Currie Cup level for WP he has every chance of stepping up for the Stormers. That was now the target for the determined Roux.

Having graduated from the WP Institute, 2010 saw Roux move to the Western Province U21 side. The year of intense physical preparation at the Institute had visibly benefited the lock as he neared his current 120kg weight. He became a key member of the side as Western Province won the U21 Currie Cup. Alongside Roux in that team were the likes of Johann Sadie, JJ Engelbrecht and Danie Poolman. On the same day, Eben Etzebeth helped the WP U19s to victory in the U19 Currie Cup Final. Etzebeth would soon prove to be an imposing road block on Roux’s journey to Super Rugby.

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Still just 20 years of age, Roux graduated into the senior squad at WP for 2011. The second-row’s season got off to a decent start as he made appearances in all 9 of WP’s Vodacom Cup games, 4 of them starts. This tournament is the third tier of competition in South Africa, behind Currie Cup and Super Rugby. While Roux didn’t do enough to earn a Super Rugby spot, he was included in the Currie Cup squad later in the year. He only managed 5 appearances, 1 of them a start, as WP made the semi-finals. Still, it was more clear progress from the physical lock.

2012 began spectacularly well for a confident Roux. His growing presence on the pitch led to the call from the Stormers ahead of 2012’s Super Rugby kick-off.  He then started every game as Western Province won the Vodacom Cup, even scoring a try against the Lions along the way. Having turned 21, Roux was already fully developed and his reputation as an enforcer on the pitch was growing. However, the buzz around Etzebeth, almost exactly a year younger, had been growing even more rapidly. His performances for South Africa U20s at the 2011 Junior World Championship tipped the scales in his favour and he started the Super Rugby season as first-choice.

With Springbok giant Andries Bekker occupying the number 5 jersey and the more experienced De Kock Steenkamp being preferred as second-row cover on the bench, there has been little opportunity for Roux this season. Also, his status as a Vodacom Cup stalwart may not have helped, as that competition overlaps with the first few rounds of Super Rugby. Since the conclusion of the Vodacom cup, Roux has made two appearances off the bench for the Stormers. His Super Rugby debut came in the massive derby game against the Bulls, when he replaced Etzebeth for the last 29 minutes, helping the Stormers to a crucial 19-14 win.

Roux on Super Rugby debut against the Bulls. (c) SuperSport.

Roux’s second appearance came just last weekend, when he played 12 minutes at the end of the Stormers’ 27-17 win over the Lions. With Etzebeth feeling the effects of his first international test series with South Africa, Roux will be hoping that more Super Rugby action is coming his way in the final rounds. His contract with the Stormers comes to an end with the conclusion of the Super Rugby competition. The Stormers are currently top of the South African conference and have every chance of making the final on the 4th of August.

Roux’s decision to join Leinster on a one-year deal has been met with a mixed response in South Africa. With Bekker, Etzebeth, Steenkamp and Rynhardt Elstadt ahead of him in the Stormers depth chart at lock, he has little chance of playing regular Super Rugby. At Leinster, his competition will be Leo Cullen, Devin Toner and Tom Denton. No offence to those players, but it’s relatively weaker competition for the 21-year-old. It’s a one-year deal and the view in SA is that Roux is coming to Ireland to pick up some experience before returning home.

That’s exactly what a one-year deal suggests. For me, it’s a little less clear cut than that. The IRFU have enticed this brute of a second-row over to Ireland. If next season goes well, and Roux proves a success, they’ll be keen re-sign him. If he has enjoyed the year and settled well, Roux will be tempted to stay. Never mind the pecking order at the Stormers, for South Africa the likes of Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe mean Roux is even further from recognition. This is not a guy who has played underage rugby for South Africa. He’s not somebody like CJ Stander, who has always been marked out as a probable Springbok.

While playing Super Rugby is obviously a dream for any young South African player, Roux is not a boyhood Stormers supporter. His loyalty to the franchise may not be set in stone. While South Africa have depth at lock, Ireland aren’t quite at the same level. Whether or not Roux should even be considered as a potential Irish international, when the likes of Ian Nagle, Dave Foley and Mark Flanagan have yet to break into their provincial sides’ XVs, is a debate for another time. This discussion may become redundant if Roux arranges a return to South Africa before he even leaves.

Leinster have got themselves a big, strong, mean, tighthead lock who has shown great determination so far in his career. Despite only being 21, he looks like a potential replacement for Brad Thorn in the enforcer role. If anyone knows more about this guy, please share your knowledge by leaving a comment!

*Roux is on the bench for the Stormers game against the Cheetahs on Saturday at 2.00pm Irish time. I don’t think Sky Sports are showing the game, so First Row are usually good for a link, just check there on Saturday.

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Photos courtesy: legio09, SuperSport.

Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book

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Spain have taken maximum benefit of Barcelona’s incredible success. Lessons? (c) Euro 2012.

Spain confirmed their position as one of football’s greatest ever sides with that stunning 4-0 win over Italy last weekend. Each of the four goals were beautiful creations, coming from the Spanish insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, passing and moving into space. Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is undeniable. The Spanish national team has taken the Barca model and, if not replicated it completely, used its strengths as guiding principles. There is a lesson in that for Irish rugby.

Barcelona have dominated European football since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice, and the World Club Cup twice, amongst other trophies. The entire club operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking football right up from their famous La Masia training facility. The senior squad is largely made up of locally-born Catalans, or at least Barca-educated players who love the club. They’ve built the club from the roots up, and have been hugely successful, winning trophies in style. They have been the greatest side in European club football for the last four years.

Leinster have dominated European rugby since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won three Heineken Cups, and finished runner-up of the PRO12/Celtic League three times, topping the regular season table twice. The province operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking rugby, right up from their underage teams. The senior squad is largely made up of Leinster-born players, or outsiders who have bought into the ethos. While maybe not at Barca’s level of youth development, they have strong background roots in place. They’ve built the province from the ground up, and have been undeniably successful, winning trophies in style. They’ve been the greatest side in European club rugby over the last four years.

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Core players for Leinster, core players for Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

For Spain’s national team coach, building his team on the Barca model has been  a no-brainer. The availability of players like Pique, Busquets, Xavi and  Iniesta meant del Bosque would have been foolish not to allow them to form the spine of his team in their unique style. That’s exactly what he has done. While Spain’s style is a modified version of the Barca system, the influence is clear. The team has been built around the incredible assets of Xavi and Iniesta, with players from other clubs adapting to the demands. The results have been incredible, with Spain deservedly winning the last three major tournaments they’ve played at.

However, in Ireland, building the international team in the incredibly successful Leinster model hasn’t been a no-brainer for Declan Kidney. While the spine of Ireland’s team is Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, they have not been encouraged to play in a similar manner as they do at Leinster. I’m not suggesting for a second that Ireland should just name the Leinster team as their international XV, but rather that the team’s style needs to be built around the strengths of that spine. While Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam, their performances since have been generally weak.

The limited amount of time an international coaching team gets with their players simply adds to the argument. Del Bosque recognised this and allowed his key men to play in the manner in which they train every single day at their club (Barca). Why wouldn’t he have done so? Ireland haven’t done the same thing though. I’m not saying that Kidney should just say, “Go out and play like Leinster lads” but allowing some continuity for his spine players from province into international set-up would only benefit Ireland. One of Kidney’s strengths in times past has been his belief in giving key players the responsibility to dictate play on the pitch. Now he needs to bring that back into action.

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There are similarities between Vicente del Bosque and Declan Kidney. (c) Universidad Europea de Madrid.

Kidney and del Bosque are similar figures, which makes their difference in approach harder to understand. Both men are reserved, dignified and give very little away to the media in interviews. Neither is renowned as a true ‘coach’, in that they don’t do too much hands-on work on the training ground. Their strengths lie in motivating players and creating a harmonious atmosphere within the squad. Del Bosque has been quick to recognise that he has an amazing asset in Barca and their tactical approach, but has Kidney done the same with Leinster?

I’m sure players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht have cast jealous glances as Leinster have gone about their business of winning H-Cups in spectacular style. Similarly, Spanish players like Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba would’ve watched Barca and wanted to experience being part of it. Every single one of them, football and rugby players alike, would have felt that they had the ability to contribute and better such a system. The Spanish players have been given the chance to do so, and their joy has been clear. I think the Irish players from the other three provinces would have similar feelings if Ireland were unleashed with a Leinster-style gameplan.

Spain have extracted the utmost advantage and benefit from the once-in-a-generation resource that is Barcelona FC. Have Ireland done the same with Leinster?

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Photos courtesy: Universidad Europea de MadridMarc Puig i Perez, UEFA Euro 2012.

The Master and the Apprentice

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Brian O’Driscoll celebrates after Leinster’s magnificent Heineken Cup win on Saturday. (c) Ken Bohane.

There’s plenty of coverage in today’s media of Leinster’s incredible win over Ulster in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. There’s really no need for me to cover the game in a general sense, because it’s all been said by now. Instead, I’m going to focus on one of the key individual battles which Leinster won. They came out on top of most of these positional match-ups across the field, although Paddy Wallace, Dan Tuohy, John Afoa and Craig Gilroy all impressed.

Having played in the centre myself, the midfield area usually draws much of my attention. Saturday’s game saw a really interesting battle of the master versus the apprentice at outside centre. Brian O’Driscoll is a legend of the game, a once in a lifetime player. Opposite him was Darren Cave, of whom I’m a big fan and had previously suggested worthy of a place on Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand. Cave’s performance on Saturday was excellent, but O’Driscoll proved far more decisive.

Ulster had a strong start to the game, flying out of the blocks and looking more up for it than Leinster in the first five minutes. Cave made a scything break after just 3 minutes (11.50 mark on the video below) as he dummied to an inside runner, completely bamboozling Leo Cullen. Cave almost got around Rob Kearney for the opening score of the game, but the fullback just held on to him. Cullen recovered well to illegally steal the ball and Leinster got away with their early lack of concentration.

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(c) Ken Bohane.

It was a clear indicator that Ulster’s outside centre was up for this game. In the piece linked above, I wrote that Cave needed some standout displays on the big stage to win over the doubters and the 25-year-old was definitely intent on leaving his mark. He continued to pose a threat to Leinster’s defence for the remainder of the game, with his 11 runs leaving him behind only Ferris and Afoa in Ulster’s carrying stakes. Cave topped the charts for his side in terms of metres gained while in possession, with 41.

Defensively, the main highlight for Cave was his try-saving tackle on Eoin Reddan in the 22nd minute ( starting at 33.20 on the video below) when he came from a long, long way back to grab the scrumhalf after Gilroy had missed his own tackle. Cave has been defensively excellent all season long, with missed tackles a rarity. He reads the game well and more often than not, puts himself in a good position to make his hits. But shackling O’Driscoll was a far greater task than what he had faced previously.

O’Driscoll again proved himself a medical freak to be playing at all. Once again, massive kudos to Leinster’s backroom staff for enabling him to take to the field. The effort was hugely worthwhile, as BOD was a class above almost everyone else on the pitch. There were only two occasions when he got one on one with Cave, but both times he got around his opposite number. O’Driscoll doesn’t possess the same top-end pace as he once did, but his footwork was enough to show Cave that he has a distance to go if he is to challenge for Ireland’s number 13 jersey.

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O’Driscoll’s performance bodes will for Ireland’s prospects in New Zealand. (c) Ken Bohane.

Both times, O’Driscoll shifted his feet, forced Cave to sit back on his heels, then got outside him with a little burst of acceleration. As I said above, Cave’s defensive positioning is a strength and against any other opponent he would have completed the tackles. But O’Driscoll just slipped past him twice. It’s exactly the level that Cave would want to be tested at, and the experience will have been of great benefit to him. (The best example is at 37.36 in the vid below).

O’Driscoll added some world-class touches throughout the game to really stamp his mark. That offload in the build-up to Cian Healy’s try showed exactly how much intelligence and vision Drico possesses. Watch it again from 43.20 in the video and you can see that the Leinster centre knows exactly what he’s going to do  even before the ball is in his hands. Genuinely talented players go through the game with their heads up, scanning the defence and immediately recognising what’s on. It’s yet another example of O’Driscoll’s genius.

Cave appeared to be inspired by the master’s demonstration of skill and even threw in his own little flick pass in the second half, when he ran a switch with Trimble. The flick wasn’t really necessary, but it was encouraging to see that Cave had the confidence to bring it off. And this inspiration is exactly what Cave should be looking to get from the tour to New Zealand now that he has been selected.

He has certainly earned his place on the plane, after what has really been his breakthrough season for Ulster. This is an incredible opportunity for the twice-capped midfielder to take his game to the next level. Training against and learning from O’Driscoll every day will almost certainly show him exactly what he needs to do to push through at international level. Just as playing opposite O’Driscoll on Saturday brought Cave to new heights, touring alongside him is the next step in his learning curve.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.