Monday 20 November 2017

half full or half empty?

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Q: The scrum is a stress test for everybody: players, referees and, most of all, spectators. Will the painfully slow procedure of engagement continue with more free kicks based on hair trigger movements followed by arbitrary judgements? Or will we simply get full penalties when refs really don't know what happened to cause the scrum to collapse, as it mostly does?

Paddy O'Brien, the IRB's referees' manager, sounds a bit exasperated on this issue. The scrum is one of the fundamentals of the game, and it has long been an ugly mess. He has overseen his refs bring a level of inconsistency to the engagement that is driving people mad.

Introduced in 2007 with safety in mind, and no catastrophic scrum injuries have been recorded at elite international level since then. Given the 'car crash' impact of the hits there were real fears that one was coming down the line. However, nine months ago the IRB slowed that 'crouch, touch, pause, engage' process down even further, to the point where referees are too heavily involved.

In fact, it has given referees a ring road around a bottleneck. With this mechanism they can bypass the pile-up. Fractionally early engagement? Right, that'll be a free kick which will be quickly taken and off we go with the game. A nanosecond off the scheduled time to lock horns? Eh, another free kick please. Now let's move away, nothing to see here folks! You could be forgiven for thinking that it's all a route towards taking the contest out of scrums altogether.

"Look, we're committed to getting the scrums right," O'Brien says. "We're not going to put our hands up and say they're brilliant because they're not. There was buy-in in March of this year from all the coaches that in all competitions we would use a slower sequence so that referees were going to be in charge of the call, not the players.

"There was buy-in but it was very slow starting in Super 14. There were a lot of problems and then after five or six weeks the players said enough is enough and settled down. In the Tri Nations the scrum resets were down by 20 per cent and up north this year some of the scrums have been very good, and in other games they've been bloody awful.

"I think people have pretty selective memories because the scrums were a bloody mess for the last three or four years. Because they are slower now it accentuates the problem and I accept that -- it means there's more attention on it and people are going: 'God not another one of these'. If you look at some teams, they can do it. So it can be done. Referees -- I gave some of them a bit of a reminder after November and they've been told: everyone must do it and it's got to be done across the world. It's going to take time.

"I'm no (scrum) specialist but this is as a result of talking to players and coaches. Go to any club game in Ireland this weekend and tell me how many scrums collapse. I'm not saying it's not a refereeing problem -- of course it is -- but it's got to come down to attitude and it's got to come down to a bit of commitment that if we lose the hit we're still going to scrum.

"I'm meeting with the Six Nations coaches and we're going to invite the scrum coaches to that meeting in January. We need a commitment to get it right and we need that commitment from all parties involved."

Maybe at that meeting the coaches will suggest reducing it to this: crouch, hold (grab opposite prop's shoulder) and engage. Without a yawning gap between the middle and the end.

Q: The Breakdown is now a first cousin of the model that disfigured the Super 12 in its early days with the attacking team getting all the latitude. Is this a case of the southern hemisphere's Grand Plan working out nicely ahead of the World Cup?

Certainly they are better geared up for a more enervating game than we are. The issue is that in policing the tackler so that he releases his victim before trying to steal the ball from him, refs have forgotten about what the attacking team are doing. And they are frequently rendering the breakdown uncontestable by going immediately off their feet to protect the ball. And this is exactly what we were told, in 2008, would be a thing of the past.

"We addressed it at our November meeting and we don't want it coming back in," O'Brien says. "And I agree it was coming back in. We want a contest at the breakdown. I think, to be fair, some of the teams are counter-rucking but other teams choose not to defend rucks and there is room for teams to play whatever style they like. I agree that we totally can't afford to have players sealing the ball off. That's one of the things to come out of November and we'll be asking referees to pick up on it as well."

Q Do we need to look again at how we train our players? Stamina didn't get much airplay in the modern rugby world of bigger, faster, stronger -- so if the ball is going to be in play longer, will players have to adjust?

Firstly, the IRB stats from the 15 games (Tier 1) of the November series say the length of time the ball is in play is exactly the same as the corresponding period last year. This is misleading however.

When you look at the passing and kicking stats, they tell us a bit more. There was a striking difference in the increase of passes (235 up to 293) and rucks (145 up to 171) per game, along with a marked reduction in the amount of kicking (67 down to 41), compared to last year. So whereas last year the ball was technically in play while it was being hoofed back and forth over the heads of players running up and down, now it actually is in play. And that extra activity is manifest in the increase in passes and rucks. Tackles are not recorded, but we think it's safe to infer that the majority of rucks were precipitated by a tackle. So they must have gone up as well.

All of which means players are having to work harder. And this poses questions about how they prepare for this work. When you look at what the Crusaders and the All Blacks are doing, some of it takes you back to the 1980s. Fartlek for example. This repetitive exercise of walk/jog/stride/sprint was standard in coaching rugby players at the end of that decade to increase their stamina and capacity to get through a game.

It was out of fashion by the end of the century when rugby was categorised as a series of short, sharp and power-driven efforts. But you know what? The game has come back again purely and simply because the way the breakdown is being refereed means the attacking team has the ball for longer. So it's in play more. And you need more stamina to compete. And where does this leave little ol' Ireland?

Well, that's an interesting one because if we're off the pace here then the next question is: can we make the ground up before the World Cup?

First, yes, we are off the pace compared to New Zealand and Australia. Maybe it's a weather element but in the northern hemisphere we place greater emphasis on strength and power, on grunt up front. Down south, they run on better surfaces and incorporate more stamina in their training.

In Ireland, we shifted the emphasis last summer when the need became clearer, thanks to the change in refereeing. Had we known sooner what was coming down the track we would have made the change then. Or at least you think we would. It is not crystal clear that across the spectrum, from national to provincial, all are singing the same tune on this issue. And that makes us uneasy, because our clear understanding post-Eddie O'Sullivan was that national and provincial staff were not only on the same page but knew the lyrics off by heart.

That may be an argument for the longer term -- do our provinces want to train and play the same way as our national side? -- but at least in the window at the end of this season more stamina work can be done with the Ireland squad. We would be a lot worse off if we were trying to close the gap on strength and power.

Q: Have we seen anything in the November window that suggests Ireland will be a threat to anyone south of the Equator in the World Cup?

We're fifth in the world rankings, the only one of the top 10 to move up last weekend. And for our size and resources, fifth in the world is pretty good going. Unfortunately, the rankings count for zip when the World Cup kicks off. So the answer to the question is no.

Certainly if Ronan O'Gara had nailed that late conversion against the Springboks then one loss -- against New Zealand, who haven't lost to northern hemisphere opposition in a November Test in five years -- from four wouldn't look at all bad. Even then however in the analysis you would conclude that the basics of our game were ordinary: if the scrum wasn't creaking then the lineout was. And at no stage were the coaching staff happy with our return from defensive restarts, albeit an area of the game which has become far more competitive.

The lineout will be much better if we can ever get Jerry Flannery and Paul O'Connell on the field at the same time. Flannery is currently on a running programme, which is going okay, and plans to get back into rugby training proper tomorrow week. And O'Connell's comeback is on track.

Even if we get the Lions captain back in flying form for the Six Nations, his opportunities to do what he does best -- run the lineout -- will be reduced. The average has dropped from 27 to 22 in 'the new game' if we can call it that, and as players become more adept at it, that number will decrease further.

The message from the Ireland camp is that this new game suits us. Hopefully it does. The Six Nations would need to produce evidence of that though.

Q: Is Declan Kidney doing a good job?

There was a moment in the press conference after the Argentina game last Sunday that stretched credibility. The coach was talking about squad-building when he alighted on the front rowers, a shallow pool in Ireland.

"We need the lads today (Cian Healy and Tony Buckley) playing, along with Tom Court and Mike Ross, playing regularly because front rows -- they just need game time."

Indeed. Ross didn't get a minute with Ireland over the four games. And the upshot of him spending the bulk of the last week with Ireland was that he didn't get a start with Leinster in their Magners League game with the Ospreys, a few hours after the Aviva game. We can wholeheartedly share Kidney's frustration when last season Ross was not seeing action in Leinster, but it's a bit rich to turn around when he is getting a run with his province only to leave him out of every one of the four November match squads with Ireland.

Otherwise, the coach's message is that each element of the game has shown real potential over the last four weeks, and if we can combine them then Ireland will look a lot more dangerous. This is a lot better that not being able to do any of them at any stage, but then this is a group who won a Grand Slam two seasons ago, so our expectations are high.

That Grand Slam has afforded Kidney a layer of protection from the media, one that is still intact despite the slide since beating Wales last March. In fact, he can plough ahead to the World Cup without any credible suggestion that there is anyone better equipped to do the job. He is the man. That should have allowed him to select with a little more adventure last month. Did we need David Wallace starting three of the four games at openside?

Incidentally, there was a development in Saracens last week which didn't do Ireland any harm, post-Kidney. Our understanding is that the plan with Brendan Venter was always for him to go back to South Africa in the medium term, but family reasons made that the short term. And that the plan was always for Mark McCall to take over. So the Bangor man is there now. And their opponents this weekend were Harlequins, where Conor O'Shea is in charge. Next weekend it's Quins against London Irish where Justin Bishop is doing a good job as skills coach along with running their academy. We need to build a squad of coaches as well as players.

Q: The end of the series was sobering for England and humiliating for France. And in Wales Warren Gatland has the look of a coach who has stopped enjoying the job. So why are the bookies making us mid-table for the Six Nations?

France first: they have it within their power to fix what's broken with one visit to the garage. No need to overhaul the engine, rather change the driver and restore a few discarded parts. The most shocking aspect against the Wallabies last weekend was how quickly they went from being professional athletes to junior club players. In our lowest moment in New Plymouth last June, that never happened.

It was hard to credit how, once the game started to slip from them, France gave up to the point of not even bothering to fill a defensive line. They would restart long from conceding a try but not apply any press to go with it; so the men in gold would look up and marvel at how the holes they had run through a minute earlier were still there. Whereupon they would run through them again.

This Six Nations will be shaped by the opener in Cardiff when Wales take on England. With two wins from the last 13 games, Gatland's problems are obvious. That will become eight winless games on the trot if England come out ahead. His line is that Wales are competitive now against the big boys, and if you look at his record then four of the last six losses in those games were by a max of two scores. Still, the win/loss stat set against his security of tenure makes for acute discomfort

You might remember that Eddie O'Sullivan's contract extensions ahead of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups were the cause of much excited comment here, which seems muted now that Gatland has succeeded in pulling off a similar trick to 2015. Remarkable, that.

And not so remarkable that England are not as good as they thought they were when beating Australia. For a fortnight there it was like every broadcast on Sky was illustrated with replays of Chris Ashton's long-range score against the Wallabies.

The worrying thing for Ireland was that a squad as tired and unhappy as the Springboks should be able to summon up a performance that left England looking like they were at the fag-end of an exhausting season. Remember, the likelihood is that we will play the Boks in Wellington in the quarter-final of the World Cup.

Sunday Independent

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