Monday 23 April 2018

Poker-face approach ensures Irish hold all the aces

Leinster and Connacht's mental dominance rooted in displays of quiet, steely resolve

19 November 2013; Ireland's Ian Madigan arrives before squad training ahead of their Guinness Series International match against New Zealand on Sunday. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
19 November 2013; Ireland's Ian Madigan arrives before squad training ahead of their Guinness Series International match against New Zealand on Sunday. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ronan O'Gara is tackled by Felipe Contepomi BRENDAN MORAN/SPORTSFILE

Trevor Hogan

As the Munster/Leinster rivalry was reaching its peak a few seasons back, Michael Cheika called the Leinster squad together for a team meeting.

There had been a number of incidents in the previous fixtures between the sides; a noticeable increase in off-the-ball digs, slagging and mini battles breaking out. These clashes weren't just reserved for the Munster games -- they had also been happening, particularly, in matches against Connacht.

The scraps often resulted in Leinster losing momentum and focus at crucial periods. Cheika wanted a change of approach in dealing with these moments and aimed to use future provocations to our advantage.

From now on, he said, any efforts to verbally insult or physically distract us were to be met with a cold silence, or as he described it, well before Lady Gaga, a "poker face."

And it was this kind of discipline that helped give the Irish provinces' the edge last weekend.

In a sport that demands high levels of aggression, it can be hard to see the benefits of the impassive approach when physically challenged.

Undoubtedly, there are times when the stony silent reaction is not enough, notably when blatant fouls are committed against a team-mate. However, the poker face is useful in the heated atmosphere of games where players have an in-depth knowledge of each other, such as inter-provincial derbies, or in games like the back-to-back European Cup fixtures.

In these consecutive games, when you are playing in such a short window, any slight weakness in the opening match can be used against you the following week. In particular, Leinster and Connacht's reaction to various situations was armed with this awareness last weekend.

Throughout their game in Franklin's Gardens, the Leinster side displayed a quiet and steely resolve. Despite Jamie Heaslip receiving a late barge after scoring his try from Dylan Hartley, he simply shrugged it off and jogged back to the halfway line. Both Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan conveyed little emotion in any of the four tries they scored.

Similarly, in the south of France, Connacht's Gavin Duffy spoke about the need to contain their celebrations straight after the win, knowing they had to face Toulouse again in six days' time.

There was no need to give the defeated French any further ammunition with a prolonged lap of honour. A late hit, with five minutes to go, from Yoann Maestri on Robbie Henshaw, didn't even register with the surrounding Connacht players, solely focused on the loose ball and the next play.

Even still, despite the poker-face attitude, the nature of the performances from all the Irish sides, and particularly, Connacht and Leinster, was such that they are inevitably going to provoke a strong response from their respective opposition this weekend.

Tactically, Toulouse will have learned a lot from their defeat. Early on they underestimated the intensity of the Connacht defence and now, having seen the aggression and line-speed the Westerners brought, they will possibly look to kick more, either for territory or with little chips for their centres, Florian Fritz and Yann David to chase.

Conversely, though, this will give the exciting and dangerous Connacht back three of Henshaw, Carr and Healy, the chance to counter, and show their pace and ambition.

Despite, Connacht's generally dominant first-up tackles, there were also a number of crucial occasions when they had to rely on some brilliant 'scramble' and cover defence, particularly from the outstanding Kieran Marmion.

INJECTED

This 'scramble' is a great indicator of a team's hunger and work-rate, but it cannot always be relied upon to keep out the opposition. Hosea Gear, in particular, managed to break the line and this week Toulouse will be aware of the importance of taking whatever opportunities they get.

However, at home in Galway, Connacht will still have an advantage, as their high-tempo game -- attacking with width especially off turnover ball -- will have been injected with a huge surge of self-belief.

For Leinster, the threat from Northampton is not so much tactical as mental. The English side's character and spirit has been severely wounded and players such as Lawes, Hartley, Manoa and North are too good not to respond.

Coach Jim Mallinder spoke about being "embarrassed," as did Tom Wood, who added that he was "ashamed," while also giving the shocking admission that he could not wait for the final whistle.

Even if they get their mindset right, though, the problem for Northampton is that the accuracy and ruthlessness of Leinster's attack, is such, that few, if any team in Europe could live with them.

O'Gara/Contepomi could be rugby's Keane/Vieira

The brilliant Keane-Vieira documentary shown last Tuesday night gave a unique insight into one of sport's great rivalries. Roy Keane, in particular, dominated the programme with classic lines, like the one about Dennis Bergkamp.

"He doesn't fly," he said, referring to the Dutch striker's fear of air travel. "What does that say about him? He can't even play in pre-season tours."

The concept and format of the programme naturally lends itself to potentially being used for other sports.

So what about the chances of a rugby equivalent? In an Irish context, there could be a few candidates, with the main ones coming from Munster and Leinster.

Maybe we could see an "O'Gara-Contepomi" face off across a bare desk in a Cork warehouse?

Ronan O'Gara is one of the few personalities who could match the level of directness and honesty provided by Keane, while Felipe Contepomi has arguably had the biggest impact on the Irish game of any foreign player. Their relationship defined the Munster-Leinster rivalry of the 2000s.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the ITV4 documentary was the interaction of Keane and Patrick Vieira as they picked the combined greatest Arsenal and Manchester United XIs. Keane again, providing the memorable lines: "(Robert) Pires has done very well getting in there."

Who knows -- a documentary culminating in an argument between O'Gara and Contepomi as they choose between John Hayes and Stan Wright for a slot on the best combined Leinster/Munster XV could provide television gold.

Irish Independent

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