Tony Ward: True exponents of total rugby
Published 20/12/2011 | 05:00
For those of a different generation, Leinster's all-singing, all-dancing performance at Lansdowne Road on Saturday would have drawn comparison with one of the all-time great teams in a different code.
Dutch club Ajax transformed football in the 1970s with a vibrant new system. It became known as 'Total Football' and rendered shirt numbers virtually redundant. Prior to that it was the time-honoured 'WM' supplanted by Alf Ramsey's wingless wonders and the 4-4-2 from '66. That golden generation of Dutch footballers paved the way for what Pep Guardiola is producing at world club champions Barcelona today.
Johan Cruyff and Ajax were the trailblazers to what Lionel Messi and Barca are about today. It is what makes football, when played at its free-flowing best, so easy on the eye and when delivered consistently, a la Barca, truly the beautiful game. When at their offloading, deep-running best, Toulouse alone have consistently produced that thrill-a-minute spectacle in the oval-ball equivalent.
Many's the time over the years I have left matches involving the French exponents of beautiful rugby exhilarated by what I had just seen. Nine times out of 10 it was an Irish side on the receiving end, but, however humbling the dent to national pride, the overall impression was that of a rugby masterclass.
I recall one match in particular, a semi-final between Munster and Toulouse, and, although a mere point separated the sides at the death, the gulf in class was scary. What added to the hurt was the more subs they sprang from the bench, the better they got.
Never in my wildest dreams did I believe we could hit a stage in our rugby development where an Irish squad (and I emphasise the 'Irish') could have the rest of the watching world drawing breath and saying 'wow'.
Well, for Ajax and Toulouse (still the one to beat in this competition) in times past, read Leinster now. They are in style and substance to the Heineken Cup what the Catalan giants are to the Champions League.
The professional in Joe Schmidt will make this the last thing he wants to hear or see in print right now. And yet there is an inner satisfaction that comes with the knowledge of achieving many of the goals he would have set out when taking up the coaching reins.
He is, of course, a realist and only if and when the cup is in the cabinet will it be time to assess the aesthetics. If it is true what coaches say about learning more in defeat, then, on the evidence of Saturday's Aviva tour de force, the only way for Leinster from here is down.
Needless to say I disagree, for what Leinster showed against Bath was an irresistible cocktail of on-field intelligence and decision-making mixed with accuracy, desire and no little skill.
Leinster, for all the talent in this current and still developing squad, do the simple things well. Again to draw a parallel with football; when Liverpool were in their pomp in the 70s and 80s, what kept them ahead of the posse was their simplicity in passing to feet, retention of possession and at all times offering options to the ball carrier.
Witness Jonny Sexton's supporting part to Luke Fitzgerald in the creation of his own try. Jono Gibbes has ensured the forward transition from the Cheika years to the Schmidt era now, but what the new mentor has added is simplicity and accuracy in passing at pace.
Sexton is one of the main beneficiaries and, with a consistent supply of ball through a domineering pack and high-tempo scrum-half in Eoin Reddan (back to his vibrant best), it is all systems go. What Schmidt has also re-instilled is the basic tenet of never admiring your pass. Watch the reaction of each and every Leinster player (forwards included) when the pass is accurately delivered -- the next step is instinctive support. Total Rugby, like Total Football, exploits space with shirt numbers irrelevant.
Conor O'Shea and Harlequins' win in Toulouse was the standout result from the fourth round of games but, by a distance, the five-star performance of the weekend was the Leinster super show against Bath. It does not guarantee outright success, but in terms of confidence and squad development -- no Gordon D'Arcy or Brian O'Driscoll in the starting XV -- what a statement of intent.
In individual terms, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Reddan, Sexton, Fergus McFadden, Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney were immense. I am delighted for Fitzgerald because for sure the best is yet to come.
His confidence is back, he is keeping a much lower (off-field) profile and, most of all, he is controlling that sometimes over-exuberant energy. His natural instinct is again driving his play and he is letting his rugby do the talking.
When you have a group that can win with six penalties one week, followed by seven tries against the same opposition six days on, you are witnessing something special.
At the two-thirds mark all three previous Irish winners top their pools with Ulster, in amassing a second successive maximum return, giving themselves a real fighting chance. Leicester in Ravenhill next up will be some sell-out occasion. At Aironi, they were in cruise control at the break with the front row outstanding and both wingers -- Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy -- prominent throughout.
The arrival of Paul Marshall soon after the hour reinvigorated the troops with the all-important bonus-point try secured through Gilroy (with Marshall the catalyst) just five minutes later.
For Connacht, it was a case of defeat number 10, but one they didn't deserve. This was as good an away Irish performance -- short only the result -- as we have witnessed in the premier competition thus far this season. Gavin Duffy (once again), Eoin Griffin, Niall O'Connor, George Naoupu, John Muldoon and the returning Johnny O'Connor all having standout games.
As for Munster? A poor quality match and an indifferent performance, but that all-important win makes it four from four and, crucially, they have control of the pool.
Ulster promising, Leinster flying and Munster just beavering away ... now where have we seen this script before?