Wednesday 19 June 2019

Irish duo no longer playing catch-up in the big league

Ireland's ability to adapt and get up to speed - after a barren season Leinster and Munster were back in the semi-finals in 2017 - has been good for the country. Stock picture
Ireland's ability to adapt and get up to speed - after a barren season Leinster and Munster were back in the semi-finals in 2017 - has been good for the country. Stock picture
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Serious business this, as the Champions Cup slogan declares. Or the Heineken Champions Cup to give it its new name. You'll remember that at the height of the European turf war the Mark McCafferty Club Clan were telling us about the suite of sponsors who would be pitching their tents around the stellar new competition under EPCR. Turns out it's the old warhorse, Heineken, who kicked it all off back in 1995, who are running this race.

Not quite the same perhaps as the Brexiteers and their big red bus with the bold, brass lie about the windfall set to land for Britain's NHS, but when people are trying to sell you something they sometimes skip over the fine detail.

So here we are, year five of the Champions Cup, and what have we learned? Mostly that good husbandry is still worth something in a money-mad world. That may sound like something from the treasurer's report at the IRFU AGM, but Leinster are a good example that growing your own still has a value in a commercial world.

The first running of the new tournament coincided neatly with Toulon's unique hat-trick of titles, emphasising the point that big business would be conducted only by big clubs. Ireland's ability to adapt and get up to speed - after a barren season Leinster and Munster were back in the semi-finals in 2017 - has been good for the country. And, as we saw from the poor attendances in the Irish-free knockouts of 2016, good for the tournament.

The scale of the recovery sees Leinster chasing what would be a unique fifth title. If they pull it off, they will have added that fifth trophy with six players across all five campaigns: Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Fergus McFadden, Seán O'Brien and Devin Toner. Moreover, three from that 2009 squad - Leo Cullen, Felipe Contepomi and John Fogarty - are all involved with coaching above the line, while Trevor Hogan is on the development side as provincial talent coach. That's how successful clubs, regardless of their financial clout, are made.

Still, they are not as strong as last season given that Isa Nacewa has not been replaced with like for like - or even close to it - while Joey Carbery has not been replaced at all. Leinster will get out of their pool but will need a clear run on injury around 10 to feel good about their chances of breaking new ground.

Munster by comparison have recruited well, but need to back it up. It's too much to expect Ulster to come through a six-match programme against three clubs rated above them - including Racing who, along with Montpellier, will lead the French charge - but it's not excessive to shorten Munster's odds on qualifying. Their opener in Sandy Park next Saturday will either mobilise the Brave and the Faithful or put them into downbeat mode. It's a while since they have had such a big game so early in the campaign.

The star quality of that campaign you'd expect will be in keeping with what we're getting across the board in pro rugby now: highlights packages stuffed with tries. In the last 10 years the shift at club level has been mirrored in the international game. So where the Magners League, as it was then, was giving us an average of fewer than four tries per game in the opening block of fixtures, it is now up to 6.4. Similarly, England's Premiership has jumped from 4.1 to 6.4, and the Six Nations has gone from 3.3 to 5.2.

While those numbers jumped and dipped for a good few years, the peak over the last two seasons is a clear reflection of how the game is being coached and refereed. Which of course is influenced in the first place by the lawmakers.

Forcing tacklers to come back through the gate before challenging for the ball on the ground has put a lot of poachers off the exercise altogether. So coaches tell them to steer clear of getting their hands dirty, certainly in between the 15-metre lines. In which case the attacking team is racking up phase on phase without having changed dramatically their clean-out technique.

This has been given extra momentum by the extraordinary latitude now afforded scrumhalves, or those who find themselves filling in there. We've arrived at a situation where said player can park safely, with his hands on the ball that has clearly emerged from the ruck, and no opposing player will touch him.

This weekend the Guinness Pro14 referees were sent footage from recent games by their manager Greg Garner, pointing out instances that should have been reffed differently. One featured a clip from the Munster versus Ulster game last weekend where Niall Scannell - on his feet - challenged for the ball on the ground, in the process coming into contact with Ulster scrumhalf Dave Shanahan. Referee Daniel Jones let it go. The review corrected him, saying he should have penalised Scannell because a ruck had been formed (it was fleeting at best) and he had "played the scrumhalf." At the risk of diminishing the clear and present danger posed to anyone playing this game, that bit of bubble wrapping is for the birds.

There is no reason to think we won't have more of the same as Europe rolls into view this week. The tries are great, and unfolding stories of Leinster and Munster will be compelling, but we need to get some perspective on how we get there.

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