Monday 11 December 2017

The great number 8 debate: James Coughlan v Steffon Armitage

Coughlan desperate to stop 'quality' Armitage as back-row face-off looks destined to set the tone for mouth-watering Marseille showdown

James Coughlan has become a crucial cog in the Munster machine
James Coughlan has become a crucial cog in the Munster machine
The ball-carrying ability of Steffon Armitage is likely to be crucial for Toulon
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Battles will rage all over the Stade Velodrome pitch on Sunday evening, but few will have the shuddering impact of a collision between the No 8s on show.

Amid the collection of stellar internationals peppering both line-ups in Marseille, James Coughlan and Steffon Armitage hold just five caps between them, all of them won by the England back-row between 2009 and 2010.

Yet, while there are bigger reputations on display, it will be the meeting of these very different players that could set the tone for whether Munster are in for as difficult an evening as many are predicting.

Rob Penney has spent the last three weeks plotting for this match and, one imagines, a large part of that time has been concentrated on the Trinidad-born, former London Irish flanker who Bernard Laporte has liberated with a move to the centre of the back-row.

He was simply devastating against Leinster earlier this month, negating the influence of both Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings in a powerful performance that combined his trademark steals with ball-carrying that caused the three-time champions no end of problems.

While Armitage tops the ERC statistics for turnovers won, Coughlan's role is a very different one. The groundwork is largely left to the likes of Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell, with the Corkman charged with getting his team over the gain line and setting the opposition's defence on the back foot.

One imagines that this week his remit might expand to targeting his opposite number with ball in hand, if only to negate his ability to arrive first to the breakdown, while the skipper's absence might require him to hit more rucks to ensure possession remains in red hands.

Primarily though, he will be used to break tackles and get the defensive line going backwards which would, they hope, take Armitage out of the game.

"He's showing what a quality player he is," the Dolphin man said of Armitage. "He is with one of the best clubs in Europe, the defending champions, and they're pushing on in the Top 14 as well.

"He's a standout player and we need to not give him the opportunity because if he does get over the ball – and (Mathieu) Bastareaud is the same – if they get over the ball the battle can be over at that stage.

"You have to try and win it (ball) before it is a battle and get with the ball carrier as quickly as possible. It wouldn't be just them though, you could go through their back-row and others, they've got quality everywhere."

Coughlan received a nomination for IRUPA's 'Unsung Hero' award this week in recognition of his season, but he is not under-appreciated by his own fans who acknowledge how important a cog the man known as 'Chucken' is in their machine.

A late arrival on the professional scene after years of good work in the All-Ireland League, his close-in carries and ability to fight his way over the gain line are crucial to Munster getting the front-foot ball they need and, when you're facing up to Danie Rossouw, Xavier Chiocci, Craig Burden and Juan Smith, that is a priceless commodity.

Without the ball, it will be a team effort in stopping the Toulon ball-carriers with Armitage and Bastareaud just two potent weapons in an advanced nuclear arsenal.

"We've seen evidence that if you go high you're going to get damaged, if you go low they're going to push you off or get an offload," Penney said of the challenge that awaits individual defenders this weekend.

"There's certainly a lot of things around the defence that are critical to preventing them from getting their game going and it's not just one thing, there's a multitude of strategies that we're going to need to employ.


"They're not all the same for each individual either, that just makes things more challenging as well. At the end of the day, if I'm going to make a tackle I've got to make sure I make it.

"If the stats sheet reads we've missed 10 to 12pc of our tackles, then we're not going to be anywhere near it."

At the Stade Felix Mayol, Leinster missed 26 tackles, 22pc of their total attempts. Although they hung in there until half-time thanks to some brilliant last-ditch tackling by Rob Kearney, they were ultimately overwhelmed as a result.

While they actually won the turnover count, they conceded 14 penalties with a substantial contribution to that total coming from Armitage and Bastareaud getting to the Leinster ball-carrier first and forcing Wayne Barnes into a decision.

"The thing in rugby is that you must win the collisions. Toulon won the collisions, and as a result they won the game," Coughlan said of the quarter-final.

"You know Leinster are a better team than they played against Toulon that day and they would be disappointed with the way they performed.

"So you have to look at it, pick out the bits you think you can attack. We know they will bring a massive physical presence, they will be massive at the breakdown and the collision areas and we basically have to try to get as much front-foot ball as we can so that they're retreating.

"Looking at the Leinster game, that was the one big thing – they were able to get a lot of front-foot ball. They've got quality everywhere."

That quality is drawn from the four corners of the world. While the majority of Munster's men are from the province, the contrast with Toulon's 'Galacticos' is striking.

However expensively assembled they are, the European champions should not be dismissed as a crew of mercenaries. They have disproved that with a series of committed displays.

"You have to be on your toes every minute of every day here at Toulon: 15 people get signed, 15 leave the club," Armitage said of the unique challenge of playing for Mourad Boudjellal's collection of megastars.

"You don't know who will be coming through that door next. Richie McCaw? Very possible. It is what drives me. I've got to be right on top of my game.

"How could you not be (a better player), listening and learning from the likes of Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha or Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe?"

It is quite a challenge for Munster, but as Coughlan so aptly put it: "We've never backed down from a fight and I'm sure Sunday will be exactly the same, we won't be backing down.

"We're confident though that if we're at 100pc we're as good as any team left in the competition."

Despite meeting Stuart Lancaster this week, it appears Armitage's absence from the international game will go on, while Coughlan's club form has never been enough to get him a cap that, at 33, is looking all the more unlikely.

This is their stage and both men sound ready. How they fare against each other could go a long way towards settling the debate.

James Coughlan

Age: 33

Height: 6ft 3ins

Weight: 17st 2lbs

Ireland caps: 0

Heineken Cup appearances (tries): 35 (4)

This season in Europe

Played: 7 (2 tries)

Carries: 60

Metres carried: 231

Tackles (missed): 52 (7)

Defenders beaten: 8

Line-outs won: 7

Steffon Armitage

Age: 28

Height 5ft 9ins

Weight: 16st 5lbs

England caps: 5

Heineken Cup appearances (tries): 34 (4)

This season in Europe

Played: 7

Carries: 51

Metres carried: 161

Tackles (missed): 54 (3)

Defenders beaten: 16

Turnovers: 17

Irish Independent

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