Category Archives: Munster

Who Is Gerhard Van Den Heever?

Van den Heever

Gerhard Van den Heever. (c) Stomers Rugby.

Born in Bloemfontein, van den Heever traveled the 425 kilometres to Pretoria for his schooling at the famous Affies high school. With an alumni including Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies and Leinster’s Quinn Roux, Affies offers one of the best rugby educations in South Africa.

Van den Heevers’s rugby potential was spotted by the Blue Bulls and he represented them at the U16 Grant Khomo week in 2005. The following two years saw Van den Heever making the natural progression to the Academy Week (U18 secondary National competition) in 2006 and finally the 2007 Craven Week, which represents the peak of South African schools rugby. The Bloemfontein flyer didn’t make the international schools team, but his future with the Bulls was secure.

Van den Heever finished out 2007 out by playing for the Bulls in the ABSA U19 competition. 2008 was spent playing Varsity Cup rugby for the University of Pretoria (‘Tuks’), earning him selection for the inaugural World University Championship Rugby Sevens in Spain. He furthered his reputation at the Bulls with another outstanding campaign in the ABSA U19 competition.

2009 was an important developmental year in Van den Heever’s career. In February, he made his first Vodacom Cup appearance for the Bulls, starting on the wing. Two weeks later, a broken hand for Bryan Habana catapulted Van den Heever into the Bulls’ Super Rugby team for their derby with the Stormers. Still only 19, the pacy winger acquitted himself well and went on to make two more starts before Habana returned. Van den Heever scored his first senior try for the Bulls in a 36-12 loss to the Highlanders.

Habana’s recovery meant the youngster dropped out of the match day squad, but his star had been marked. In June, he traveled to the Junior World Championship with a CJ Stander-captained South Africa, scoring three tries in four games as the Baby ‘Boks finished third. Van den Heever was an unstoppable boulder of form at this stage and returned home to be a star of the 2009 Currie Cup, scoring 11 tries in 13 starts on the wing.

(c) SA Rugby.

The Bulls won the Currie Cup that season, but Van den Heever was unlucky to be benched for the knock-out stages as the big names of Habana and Francois Hougaard were drafted in. Instead, Van den Heever dropped back to the Bulls U21 side for their Currie Cup final against Western Province. The 6ft 3ins wide man scored two tries with practically his only touches of the game to round off an incredible year.

Habana’s move to the Stormers at the start of 2010 meant that there was finally a spot in the Bulls’ Super 14 team for the wonderkid. Van den Heever began the season as he intended to go on, scoring a try in a 51-34 win over the Cheetahs. From then on he was undroppable, starting all but two of the Bulls’ 15 games en route to winning the competition. Van den Heever’s eight tries (including this spectacular effort) left him just one behind top scorers Joe Rokocoko and Drew Mitchell.

The 21-year-old’s excellent form continued in the Currie Cup, with 15 starts and 5 tries as the Bulls relinquished their title in a semi-final loss to Natal. Overall, it was an incredible season for the young winger and, amidst the hype, Van den Heever was being talked about as a possible Springbok. Another good season in 2011 would possibly have led to an international call-up.

But after the peak of 2009 and 2010 has come something of an extended trough for Van den Heever. His nickname at the Bulls was ‘Shadow’ due to his extreme pace but ironically his form has gradually become a shadow of that 2010 season.

In 2011, he made 14 appearances but only scored three tries as the Bulls failed to make the play-offs in the re-structured Super Rugby. It was far from a vintage season for Frans Ludeke’s side and despite starting with a bang, Van den Heever’s form suffered. In that season’s Currie Cup the Bulls struggled again, missing out on the playoffs. Van den Heever made seven starts but managed just one try. The Bulls style of play in 2011 meant Van den Heever saw less of the ball, and his form dropped away.

Van den Heever in action for the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

After a year in which he and the Bulls hadn’t sparked, Van den Heever decided to make a move to the Stormers in Cape Town on a two-year deal. A strange transfer, considering that Habana and Gio Aplon were already established there as first choice wingers. Van den Heever had to be content with warming the bench for much of the 2012 season. He played 15 times (7 starts) and scored a solitary try in round 16. In the Currie Cup, he started all 12 games as Western Province won the competition, but dotted down just twice.

That brings us to the 2013 season, where Van den Heever made 11 appearances (3 starts) as the Stormers missed out on the Super Rugby playoffs. He began the season on the bench again, but an injury to Habana saw him start twice in March before suffering an injury himself. After recovering, Van den Heever was back riding pine. He scored one try in the 2013 Super Rugby season.

I watched Van den Heever in the games he started against the Brumbies in round six, and the Crusaders in round seven. The first thing that struck me was the size of the 24-year-old. At 6ft 3ins and around 100kg, he is in the George North-mould of large wingers. At that size, he’s obviously strong and he often beat the first defender when in possession. He has quick feet for a tall guy and that means he doesn’t run directly into defenders too often.

Van den Heever looked to be solid under the high ball. He has a good leap and with his height advantage he can win attacking kicks and re-starts. Against the Crusaders, the Stormers looked for Van den Heever from the re-starts and he won possession back twice. However, those were the occasions when the winger was in the right place. His reactions and anticipation can be slow. Great players are always in the right place, but Van den Heever wasn’t consistently well positioned.

He was forced to kick twice over the course of the two games and looked uncomfortable doing so. That looks like an area where Munster will need to do some work. Also, his technique at the breakdown is likely to be addressed. Van den Heever looked happy to just add his weight to the ruck, rather than clearing past the ball or counter-rucking. Obviously this is not a winger’s priority, but it’s a necessity for every player.

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Off the bench against the Blues in 2012. (c) Paul Barnard.

Van den Heever’s greatest asset is his searing pace. He is one of the quickest wingers South Africa has produced, and a quick search on Youtube will tell you all you need to know. That speed combined with his footwork make him a threat whenever he gets the ball, but I felt that he could have been far more involved. Pacy players are the ones you look to for a spark, but Van den Heever didn’t provide that in either game.

The 24-year-old scored against the Brumbies from an intercept, but apart from that only touched the ball when it was kicked to him or spread wide to his wing. He never came off the touchline looking for work. Having spoken to a few journalists in South Africa, this would be their main concern about Van den Heever. The perception is that he can be one-dimensional and unwilling to get himself involved at crucial times in games.

Defensively, Van den Heever is a good one-on-one tackler. He didn’t miss a tackle in either of the games I watched, but neither did he make a dominant tackle. If he’s going to replace Doug Howlett with conviction, he will need to use that huge frame of his to make an impact on defence. Again, the feeling is that Van den Heever is happy to just do enough to get by. He didn’t go looking for a big defensive play, or to use his power to smash attackers.

With his pace, size, strength, ability in the air, and still being just 24, Van den Heever can definitely offer Munster something they don’t have in the back three. He is not the finished article but the move to Ireland could be just the motivation he needs to start showing that incredible form of 2010 again. His size and speed make him an exciting prospect and it will be fascinating to watch his progress at Munster.

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Photos: Paul Barnard.

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.

Mafi Makes Impression on Top 14

Lifeimi Mafi copy

Mafi had some massive games for Munster, but many supporters found him inconsistent. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Amongst Munster fans, he was a divisive figure. Capable of moments of magic, but prone to lapses in concentration. 144 appearances over six seasons would have made many players heroes in Thomond Park, but Lifeimi Mafi never quite managed to achieve that status. When Munster announced the signings of James Downey and Casey Lualala, it was time to move on.

Relocated in Perpignan, Mafi’s first season in the Top 14 has been a success. He looks a better player in his new surroundings and has rapidly won over USAP’s fans.

36 appearances and six tries in all competitions make this the most prolific season of Mafi’s career in terms of playing time and scoring. At Munster, the ex-New Zealand underage international was seen purely as an inside centre, much to the disagreement of some. At Perpignan, his game time has been split between the 12 and 13 jerseys. The USAPistes Supporters Club say most fans prefer to see Mafi in the wider channel:

“Lots of us prefer him at 13, outside Sione Piukala. But David Marty is the undisputed starting 13 in the eyes of the coaches.”

These sentiments are backed up by Mafi’s displays when chosen at outside centre. Himself and Piukala managed to tear Clermont’s defence apart earlier in the season when partnered together (video below). Both of Mafi’s Top 14 tries came when he was fielded at 13.

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Regardless, the Tonga-born centre’s overall form has impressed. His skill set stands out for Perpignan, in particular the one-handed offloads which we saw glimpses of at Munster. At USAP, Mafi is completing 3 or 4 offloads per game. Watching him buzz around the pitch in that inimitable running style of his, the 30-year-old seems far more at ease than he did at Munster. This is being expressed in the confidence of his passes and offloads. (Check out this incredible pass!)

Equally, Mafi’s success rate could say something about the support play offered at Munster, an aspect that frustrated Lualala up until the closing stages of the season. Whatever the reason, Mafi’s increased creativity helped Perpignan to sixth place in the try-scoring standings for this Top 14 season. The USAPistes rate him as one of their most effective attacking elements:

“Mafi is a very good attacker. He’s lively and clever. He knows how to make ground when he has the ball.”

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Defensively, Mafi’s time at Munster was pockmarked by a few dangerous tackles and several instances of rushing out of the line to the team’s detriment. He could hit hard, but there was always a sense of not knowing what he was going to do. At Perpignan he has calmed in this regard. He still puts a hit on when he has the chance, but it’s far less common to see him shooting up headlessly.

For USAPistes, defence is “not necessarily the strong point” in Mafi’s game. The highlight reels going around France at the time of his move featured his most spectacular hits, and it was something that was expected from him at Perpignan. French fans appreciate a crunching tackle nearly as much as a skillful try. Mafi’s defensive game is more subtle now.

Signed to replace France and Toulon centre Maxime Mermoz, Mafi has had an excellent first year at USAP. He’s contracted until the end of next season and so far there’s nothing to suggest the club will be bringing in new centres this summer. The move to France has been a successful one, with Mafi showing facets to his game that never really flourished at Munster.

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Photos: Ivan O’Riordan.

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.

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.