Monday 1 May 2017

Europe green with envy of Irish system

Provinces toast of continent thanks to obsession with improvement, says Brendan Fanning

In a unique season where Ireland had four teams dining at the top table in Europe, yesterday started with confirmation of another new departure: three teams into the knockout stages before they had played their final pool games, and at close of business two of them had occupied first and second in the seedings. As for the fourth, Connacht added to their encouraging form away from home with a win at the Sportsground. When this kind of sequence unfolds then outsiders look at our system as if it was the Silicon Valley of rugby.

It's worth remembering that when English clubs were dominating the Heineken Cup, winning five of the first eight titles after the turn of the century, we were told it was because their players were so battle-hardened from their week-to-week combat in the Premiership. And that Celtic rugby was a choreographed tea party that couldn't produce winners.

Then, when our sides took over, with four of the last six titles, England especially moaned about the advantages afforded those who attended the tea party. Look at all the time off; the absence of relegation; the fast lane into the Heineken Cup every year when English and French clubs are scratching each other's eyes out at the top and bottom of the table.

The tone changed last week, form moaning about Celtic rugby -- well, Irish rugby -- to navel gazing the English game. It was prompted by the poor showing of their teams in the Heineken Cup and will be accelerated by the dismantling of Saints in the second half at Milton Keynes last night.

Two nights previously, Sale were comfortably outplayed at home in the Amlin by Brive. The panel discussion that followed that one made Ireland out to be the happiest, clappiest rugby nation on earth. Clearly they don't watch too closely the way the IRFU does its business. Nevertheless, there is positive stuff going on in all four bases in Ireland, and the first season with all four provinces on board has already washed its face.

Leinster's obsession with improvement has led the class. They are credited as being the most creative force on the circuit just now, and maybe they are. If so, however, it's not in the way you think. Joe Schmidt first applies himself to ways of improving the basics, so you could classify that as creative if unexciting. And some of us admit to getting excited about adjustments in technique that have a real impact on the way a team plays.

Look at the way they clean out at the tackle, for example, often managing to get good, quick ball with only two men on the job. Rewind when a blue shirt takes the ball into contact and see if at the last moment he adjusts his footwork to put the tackler off balance. That facilitates ball retention -- check out the quality of the delivery of ball in the tackle -- and then the last piece in the jigsaw is the quality of the pass.

Well hardly the last, but if you can consistently get real quality into the sequence of carry, present, clean and pass, then the guts of your work in attack is done. What happens next is what sets Leinster apart though -- their ability to play what's in front of them.

This is one of the most abused concepts in rugby, the notion than you can make it up as you go. What is achievable, however, is to bring two plans to every meeting and depending on who turns up, you implement the one that suits.

That's what governed Luke Fitzgerald's try to open the second half against Bath before Christmas, and it was the same for Rob Kearney's first-half score from 50 metres in the RDS yesterday. Both were governed by how the opposition defended. This is what it means to play what's in front of you.

Putting it all together demands high-quality passing to get the ball into the right spot. When Schmidt arrived in Dublin in 2010 he told his new players that he wanted them to be the best passing side in Europe. Passing 'for' a player rather than 'at' him remains one of the least performed skills in rugby. Schmidt will have seen enough sloppiness in their last 20 minutes yesterday to reinforce the message tomorrow.

Leinster are ahead of Munster and Ulster in all the key areas, from depth of squad to quality of play, but Munster's performance under intense pressure was special. It's hard to calculate what this will do for them mentally. Simon Zebo's fantastic finishing was the gloss on a job that had started with stripping the Saints bare. You looked at the Northampton coaches making their way out of the stand at the finish and wondered what on earth they could say to their players.

Physically they had milled Munster at the scrum; and mentally Munster had bullied them everywhere else. The story was best illustrated by two flankers: Munster's Peter O'Mahony and Saints' Calum Clark. One played with an edge that makes him a real asset; the other played so far over the edge as to be a liability.

Like Munster, Brian McLaughlin's side in Clermont had their scrummaging issues but couldn't quite compensate despite their second full-frontal performance in succession. And they were extremely hard done-by in the circumstances leading to the winning try. How Nathan Hines was allowed to remain on the field -- where he played a critical part in the score by replacement Ti'i Paulo -- was a mystery. He managed to illegally impede not one player, but two. At the same time. For a long time.

As Munster discovered back in 2003 when they were being beaten in Toulouse, you need a bench when you're going to the big clubs in France. Clermont had one and Ulster didn't. It will unhinge them again whether they go to Limerick or Dublin in the quarters. In one city they will face a team making a remarkable job of their transition and in the other, a team close to the top of their game. All three are making this a season to remember.

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