SAFETY FIRST

The last two rounds of the Heineken cup threw up some interesting refereeing decisions as well as some good rugby. I didn’t see the Saracens penalty try but that’s not the kind of decision I want to talk about today anyways. I’m thinking specifically of Fernandez Lobbe’s yellow card and Jared Payne’s red. Because Lobbe’s card came early in the game and Toulon still managed to score while he was in the bin, it became a relatively small talking point. In contrast Payne’s red card came in the first five minutes all but ensuring that Ulster would not win. Many felt that it was a harsh decision but personally I had little doubt that a red was likely when I saw it happen. The decision was talked about throughout the game and for quite a while afterwards and was quite tedious in its banality. Many of you have probably realised that I became a rugby fan later in life, and I never played at school or club level as it was not available to me. Often that is perceived as a negative, some might say I don’t understand the game, etc. While that was true for a long time with regards the laws of the game (see I said laws not rules??? nailed it), I feel it gives me a different perspective on the issue of safety in the game. The likes of Neil Francis and to a lesser extent Eddie O’Sullivan often bemoan the extinction of rucking, sledging and all around bad behaviour, and believe the game has been neutered. Both Francis and O’Sullivan are now keen NFL fans and have specifically identified the physicality of the game as its key interest to them. That’s all well and good but even in the ‘good old days’ there was a line where physicality stopped and recklessness began, even if that line was further out than it is now.


Rugby is obviously a physically demanding sport, and because of that its important that referees feel able to make the big decisions and even more important that they err on the side of caution. Wayne Barnes’ phrase at the weekend was key – a duty of care. Rugby, like almost all physical sports, is inherently damaging to the players bodies and sometimes minds. Its not a particularly nice thought but its a fact. Just this year our own Brett Wilkinson has had to retire from an injury sustained during a game, and Gavin Duffy has been let go, seemingly unable to return from injury at a high enough standard. There are multiple other examples including Shane Horgan Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, and Denis Leamy to name a few since the last world cup, all quality players who had their careers cut short through injuries. Importantly all of those injuries occurred without any particularly significant act of foul play. Matthew Hampson was paralysed during scrum practice, as was Daniel James, both promising young players. Rugby is a great game, especially for the spectator, but its plenty physical enough and plenty dangerous enough without bringing added danger into it.

 


 

 

For all those reasons I was happy to see Wayne Barnes and Jerome Garces err on the side of caution. Unfortunately it seems that the Celtic League don’t share this position. Connachtclan regulars have probably seen my thread about the Specsavers fair play league. What has struck me over the course of the season is just how badly dangerous play is officiated in the league.

Here are some ‘highlights’ from this season.

 

http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/rugby-union/24111972

Cardiff lock Bradley Davies was cited in September and given a two match ban for an illegal shoulder charge. This incident was not picked up by the ref during the game so I applaud the work of the citing commision in this instance. But what’s does the article say, a three week ban reduced to two for remorse? That doesn’t make sense; a shoulder charge is not something that happens by accident, but as importantly Davies has previous ill discipline and missed most of the six nations before last after a tip tackle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpDkOYaJLV8

In this example Tipuric tip tackles the Edinburgh scrum half. He holds onto the number nine for a second or two before dumping him, making it appear to have been a decision on his part to hurt the half back. The referee decision was only a yellow which can be forgiven if he didn’t see the incident clearly, but this was not followed up by the citing commissioner. In the same video there were several punches thrown by at least one Edinburgh player that could have been worthy of a citation.

Lorenzo Cittadini and Aleki Tutui of Treviso and Edinburgh respectively were cited and banned for three and two weeks each at various points throughout the season, for striking and dangerous tackling. The latter occurred in the game in which Tipuric was not cited.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppo0h4i3GJc

Francisco Chaparro lifts and drives Issac Boss into the ground. He received a straight red and a 10 week ban. Again we should be glad to see the ref making the right decision and a robust sentence being given. But this still rankles; was Nick de Luca’s tackle on Tom Grabham three weeks worse than Chaparro’s (de Luca was given a 13 week ban last year).

http://www.rugbydump.com/2013/02/3028/edinburghs-nick-de-luca-flips-tom-grabham-in-dangerous-tackle

There doesn’t seem to be video available of the incident any more, but if de Luca’s tackle is to be judged worse then I feel it could only be because he didn’t control the player on the way to the ground which is part of the laws, but Chaparro obviously – to me at least – drove Issac Boss into the ground and hit the back on the ground with his own momentum. Its hard to know if there’s a right answer here, but it feels odd nonetheless.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiDD_E960N0

These are the latest citation and ban incidents. Liam Williams was later cited for a dangerous tackle that can be seen here. The first thing to note is that Williams’ tackle on Cuthbert in the air is at least as bad as Payne’s, but if one thing is clear from these examples it is that the extent of the injury decides how harsh the decision is on the pitch. The citation committee upheld that it was a red card incident after the fact. Williams picked up a second yellow later in the game resulting in a red card. He can also be seen playing silly buggers early in the game at a ruck on the Scarlets line with the other Blues winger. All in all he packed a lot of action into a short night, and received a two match ban.

Copeland was red carded for a stamp on Williams and also received a two match ban. This was unexpected as has a terrible disciplinary record and there was no mention of leniency being shown for remorse in the league report. However this decision appears controversial as the citing committee was an all-Irish trio and with Copeland about to become a Munster player an argument can be made that this short ban has preferentially benefited the province.

That is a quick round up of the worst offenders in the league. I had thought about looking at more yellow card incidents like Tipuric’s that should have resulted in harsher penalties, but I think its clear from the proven citing incidents alone that there is very little accountability or standards across the league. This is made worse in my opinion by a changing citing committee panel – its impossible for the league to hand down consistent bans if different people are making the decisions each time.


I’ve already said enough, but to finish I want to offer my suggestions that could help improve the league’s image as well as the level and length of bans. Firstly I feel that there should be an intermediate citation standard, whereby events that are considered dangerous or foul play but are not worth a red card are picked up. These would be recorded and if a player amassed a certain amount in a period (perhaps over the course of the season) they would receive a ban of a certain length. The ban could be a set length or could be calculated according to the incidents. This would encourage players to be more disciplined and remember their duty of care and would also prevent players and clubs from benefiting from bad behaviour on the lower end of the scale. So taking Tipuric above as an example, he might receive a written citation after his yellow card and if another incident occurred within a set time he would receive a ban. This could perhaps also be applied to all yellow card incidents involving dangerous play.

The second thing would be to explicitly link the players record to the length of the ban. At the minute it rarely happens that a player’s ban is lengthened due to their previous ill behaviour. I believe that for every prior incident there should be an additional match ban added to their sentence. It could be that every three or four yellows would equate to a match in this instance, a red or previous citation would also equate to a match. This would be added to each sentence and so if a player was persistently ill disciplined they would receive longer and longer bans with each recurrence. If bans are to continue to be shortened for good behaviour, remorse, apologies and what have you then this priors ban would be added after that. So Davies ban could be reduced to two weeks for remorse, but he would still receive an additional week for his previous tip tackle along with all the other incidents. In this way a player with poor discipline would become marked out as such and eventually become a burden on their team, forcing them to either cop on or be dropped.

Advertisements

Thrills, spills and linesmen!

While Rob Penney arrived at Munster last year to much fanfare, expectation and near-constant put downs, Pat Lam’s first year at Connacht has attracted much less attention. This is hardly surprising as only one of the two provinces was expected to challenge for silverware. I find this interesting because there are numerous similarities between the two antipodean coaches game plans. There were substantial column inches devoted to the ‘second rows hanging out on the wing’ element for much of Penney’s first season, a tactic that was again on display this weekend. We even saw the classic cross field kick to the waiting lock, although it came to nothing, as it normally does.

Similarly we’ve seen Connacht employ the likes of Harris-Wright, Muldoon, Heenan and McKeon in the wider channels, attempting to gain yards and stretch the opposition defense. The crossfield kick has also been frequently employed by Parks, although wisely this has been mainly used when Poolman has been available as a target which improves the possibility of scoring from this tactic.

Penney wins Munster’s annual ‘smile of the year’ competition for the second year running.

In both cases this wide-wide forward gameplan has been quite so-so, for varying reasons. Cross field kicks are a low percentage play at the best of times, and just because a lock is taller than the average winger doesn’t change this. Connacht’s quickest forwards are – perhaps unsurprisingly – also the lightest, which doesn’t lend itself to smashing through defenses. Having finally gotten his fitness and conditioning in order, Rodney Ah You has probably been Connacht’s most consistent carrier in the forwards this year, and has generally been a revelation if we’re being honest after some excruciating early seasons. My first blog post was devoted to our hookers open field deficiencies – no need to retread that ground. When Heenan gains another stone or two of muscle he will be our best forward but for now his lack of heft holds him back as a carrying option. Same goes for McKeon – he’s not the biggest eight, but he’s the same height as Faletau who is over 17 stone and there’s no reason McKeon can’t match Faletau or come close in the next year. Until this happens, or until we sign a bulky, fast six to go with the new hooker-prop, this tactic will continue to provide meagre gains from a disproportionate amount of work. Although many Connacht fans (including myself) have been calling for this back row signing I’m no longer sure it the best option. We have a wealth of experienced and less experienced back rowers right now; if we buy in a six, does Muldoon or Browne deserve to be dropped? Will another six not impede the progress of Masterson or Qualter? These risks need to be weighed against the value a new flanker can offer.

Eoin ‘gunshow’ McKeon

Munster’s reputation has long been based on the strength of their pack. While the discovery of James Cronin has been essential to Munster’s fortunes, it has been Connacht’s scrum, maul and both defensive and offensive lineout which have been most consistent and perhaps most impressive of the four provinces. Much of this was initially put down to the impact and influence of Clarke’s arrival (he had the most lineout takes of anyone in the Heineken cup group stages). However his absence for the past several weeks shows that there’s much more to this pack than the Super XV captain, and multiple Connacht jumpers caused serious problems on Munster’s throw in. In addition the ability to keep reinventing the lineout and maul options has kept this attacking threat fresh and left defenses guessing. Credit to both the coaches and players for managing to reinvent these twin threats almost weekly for the last two months now. Last night was possibly our weakest showing in the offensive lineout in over a month, but it was only a knock on or two away from causing Munster all sorts of problems.

This leads somewhat neatly to the main theme of the derby, which was Mistakes (upper case M definitely needed). Both provinces showed a repeated lack of thought at the restart as well as when defending the scrum. Connacht were guilty of forcing things far too much, resulting in tries from an intercept pass from Henshaw and a knocked on ball by McKeon in Munster’s own 22. The intercept was particularly poor in my opinion as Henshaw passed the ball directly into van den Heever’s hands having waited far too long to release. He’s still a young lad and he’s going to make mistakes, but I hope he keeps this one in the back of his mind and learns when to pass and when to hold on.

I like McKeon a lot and he was so good last season that we sometimes forget this is only his second full season, and a somewhat injury disrupted one at that. However its essential that our eight – well any eight really – is comfortable handling the ball. This goes double for a team that plays a consistently wide forward style. McKeon was particularly unlucky as in almost any other game a knock on in the opposition 22 would not have lead to a try, but this time it did.

[I could have put a picture of Andrew Conway here, but honestly that mohawk just makes him look like a mad max extra reject]

In both of these instances the biggest problem was that the entire Connacht team appeared to be in attack mode as sea_point noted on connachtclan. In attempting to overpower or confuse Munster through force of numbers, Connacht put all their eggs in one basket and when mistakes happened they were punished harshly. I feel that this was an active decision to employ a riskier strategy than we saw used against Dragons and Scarlets and it backfired. Players often seemed unwilling to recycle as to do so might cut an attacking move short. Later, as Munster grew into the game we seemed to play into their choke tackles more often making things even harder for ourselves. Was this again down to panicking, perhaps hoping to stay upright and make an offload? I’m not sure, but it seemed to make things quite simple for Munster.

Our defense has come in for a lot of criticism this season, not without merit. This was at least partly coloured by Lam’s experience with the Blues before he was fired. However if you take out the Heever and Hurley tries, which were the result of attacking mistakes versus defensive errors, there wasn’t a huge amount wrong with the defensive system last night. Yes the Conway try was poor, almost inexcusable really, but I feel if Faloon was not just back from injury that might not have happened. From what I remember he was the first substitution which speaks to his lack of game conditioning right now.

Defense off opposition scrums is certainly something that needs to be examined. Outside of this (quite important) blind spot the drift defense has worked fairly well this season, especially lately when there has been judicious use of cut out runners and one up tacklers. Last night those defensive shooters didn’t always hit their mark opening up far too much space for Munster to attack; this is a risk of the system, whether it is worthwhile or not depends on the outcome. Worst of all often would be tacklers did not even make their man, which is just unacceptable. Muldoon has over 200 caps for Connacht now, does he really need a defense coach to tell him to tackle the opponent before trying to slap the ball out of his hands? To me these were panicked errors rather than systematic failures.

williams

Browne and Marmion gaze lovingly at Duncan Williams – it would have been impolite of Browne to disrupt such a lovely kick

To return to the original theme; when Penney first arrived at Munster he talked about finding yourself in a pit and having to dig your way out to begin seeing real improvements. It has definitely felt like Connacht found themselves in that same pit at times this season. Early on we saw near suicidal attempts to run the ball from our own 22, until a ‘reversion’ of sorts to ‘classic’ Connacht in the Saracens almost-ambush game. Since then its been up and down at times as the team vacillated between these two points, attempting to find the best middle road between the two. Last night was far closer to 2013 early season Connacht than the more mature 2014 Connacht we quickly came to love. For the most part the raw materials are there but Connacht have to learn to not revert to headless chicken plays if they are to make lasting progress in the league. Perhaps I’m in the minority but I don’t think a Defense coach would have made a difference last night, while a more street smart game plan and avoiding the panic button could have. Sometimes we’ve tried to buy these qualities (Parks, Clarke) and perhaps its notable that neither started last night, but this can’t be a long term excuse; Muldoon is now Connacht’s second most experienced player and has to be able to draw on that experience and monitor – and mentor – his troops on the fly. In time Marmion, Henshaw and Kearney will provide leadership but its too much to expect that of them this season.

Hookers – they’re a funny lot

 

[Do you think this title will increase blog traffic?]

I think its fair to say that Connacht have struggled with the position of hooker for the last few years now – at least for the five years that I’ve followed the team. I’m going to skim through the various individuals who plied their trade in that time period, and then offer some unnecessary thoughts about them, what I like to see from a hooker and what Connacht should look for in future signings.

 

In that time period we had the exciting running force of Sean Cronin … before he could throw. He’s now an international standard hooker who can indeed throw very well and is now criticised for not being able to hook properly. Whether he can or not is actually not clear but people like to make assumptions. Certainly Leinster have not hooked much this year but considering their scrum goes to bits when any of their hookers lift a leg its not surprising they have tried to negate this issue. I’m laying at least half the blame for this issue on Rossy actually because although he’s been excellent this year he seems to change body shape when the two hooks.

 

‘I’ll nail it this time….’

 

Adrian Flavin was at the club both before and after Cronin, amassing 159 caps over seven years. I remember him as a solid option in terms of throwing, around the field, in the scrum, and doubling as a Johnny O’Connor look alike, at least from a distance. But by the time I came to Galway he seemed to have already been superseded by Cronin for the most part who has been part of the international set up from 2009 onwards.

 

 

In 2011 Connacht signed South African hooker Ethienne Reynecke for two seasons. Despite initial excitement at the thought of signing a Saffer hooker Reynecke failed to impress. Most Connacht supporters memories of him is probably of a man who undoubtedly gave it his all, but also undoubtedly tended to do very silly things. In addition he will also be remembered for appearing to have eaten all the pies in his second season. Despite his deficiencies his 44 appearances out of a possible 56 pro12 and heineken cup games indicates where Connacht were in the front row in that time.

 

His neck is wider than his head, how could Connacht not have signed him?

 

In the second year of Reynecke’s time here, Connacht signed Heineken cup winner Jason Harris-Wright, from Bristol….wait that doesn’t sound right? Indeed despite being a part of the 2009 Cup winning Leinster team Harris-Wright had found himself in the English Championship wilderness, ostensibly because of the over-exuberance of youth off the field. Harris-Wright became Connacht’s first choice hooker almost immediately, yet at the time of writing he has only 36 caps for the province, indicative of an at times injury disrupted career. When fit he is undoubtedly the first pick at hooker for almost all Connacht players.

 

 

 

Flavin retired in 2013 at the tender age of 33 and Reynecke also moved onto pastures new. I was particularly surprised by Flavin’s departure as 33 does not seem particularly old for a hooker, he was generally used off the bench meaning stamina was not a major issue, and he didn’t seem to have many injuries. In any case as a result Connacht were down to a single hooker, and brought in perennial Munster third-choice Sean Henry. Although a year older than Harris-Wright, Henry is a relative neophyte in terms of top level rugby. He won a British and Irish Cup with Munster A in the 2011-12 season but had only 7 senior appearances to show for his three years down south. Connacht fans were sceptical that we may have inherited some less than appetising left overs, but were then collectively relieved to learn that Henry could in fact, throw, scrummage and move around the field on his own steam. When fit he has been second choice at Connacht and at times has pushed for the starting jersey.

 

Stop smiling Henry you’re supposed to be a tough front rower!

 

However Henry – and indeed Harris-Wright – have not been fit for portions of the season, opening the door for recent graduate of the Connacht academy David Heffernan, who has made 10 appearances from the bench and one start for the province this year. A former backrower (like Harris-Wright) Heffernan was just a tad too short to make the grade in that position and has been moved forward. Although we haven’t seen much of him personally I feel he has impressed around the field and shown calmness under pressure. His throwing has come in for some criticism but as the most visible aspect of a hookers game that is to be expected, and in any case he has yet to have a true horror show.

 

Heffernan teaches Henry the dead eye stare…

 

Besty will tell you that even some of the most experienced hookers can and will get the yips, just as kickers from time to time forget how to find the posts. However kickers at least have the benefits of an established percentage system which most ‘in the know’ fans will often allude to and which tempers hyperbolic criticism to an extent. Hookers should be judged in the same way and it would make criticism much clearer if the figures on throws were more widely used. As an example, being able to say that ‘Hooker A is a 75% thrower, but only 20% go to the back, compared to B who hits 70% but with 35% to the tail’ is a much more informative and transparent means of comparison.

 

There may be some players I’ve missed out and apologies if so but I think these are the main men in the number 2 jersey at Connacht for the last 5 or 6 years. Something stands out when you look at this group of players – with the exception of Cronin they are all varying degrees of average. Now don’t get me wrong they have given their all for Connacht and at times shown some good qualities, but there’s nothing extra about them. We can’t disregard the value of a hooker who can be depended upon to throw well, scrummage well and make their tackles, but if that’s all they can do then they will be a passenger for long portions of the game.

 

The best hookers also excel in at least one other facet of play, effectively taking on the role of an auxiliary flanker or prop, around the field or in Cronin’s case another centre. For the most part these players haven’t really offered that, at least not consistently, and in my opinion Connacht have suffered as a result. That’s why Heffernan is such an exciting prospect as he appears to still have the pace and strength of a back rower while also having learned the specialist skills of a hooker fairly quickly. Harris-Wright was also a back row, as many hookers have been in the past, but just doesn’t seem to get around the field in the same manner as a Heffernan or Cronin type.

 

It doesn’t have to be all fancy dan runs either; Best is great as a seven type player, able to get over the opposition player and ball on the ground and contest the ball. He’s not pacey in the flat out sense but he’ll get to rucks quickly and efficiently and does his work extremely well. There are plenty of other examples of quality hookers who fulfil either the running or jackaling backrow role, such as Schalk Brits, Richard Hibbard, Stephen Moore and of course Bismarck du Plessis, one of the few players who can tackle with such ferocity that even a legal challenge results in a yellow card.

 

Dan Carter, about to have his shoulder rearranged through the power of du Plessis.

 

 

Having a hooker who can fulfill a secondary role whether it be as ball carrier or ball stealer is nearly essential to any teams success these days, and also offers an important back up for when your primary players are injured or just busy elsewhere on the pitch. While Sean O’Brien is out Leinster can look to Cronin for significant carries. Ulster and Ireland use Best over the ball, freeing up their respective sevens to make carries, or simply offering more opportunity to steal the opposition ball because there are now two jackals in the team instead of one. Hibbard might not even know how to spell pass but he sucks in defenders when he carries, setting up Wales with front foot ball and possibly shaking the defensive line loose. Du Plessis in particular is a one man wrecking crew.

 

I’m not trying to say Connacht’s current hookers should be comparable to the best in the world in their position, that would be foolhardy. But the simple fact of the matter is with ball in hand there’s very little to recommend about our current and former hookers.

 

Connacht have at times attempted to emulate Penney ball this season under Lam, minus the media coverage. We’ve seen forwards hanging out on the wings and we’ve seen them asked to make carries repeatedly. For the most part our hookers just aren’t up to it, and when coupled with a relatively lightweight back row that quickly becomes a major problem as you’re left asking your props to make the majority of hard yards. Even if they are capable of doing so, limiting your options so much quickly becomes apparent to the opposition.

In time Heffernan might become that player who can play around the field as well as in the set piece, but in the short term it would behove Connacht to try and find a strong ball carrier for next season. It might seem like a tall order but no one would have believed a Super XV winning captain was likely to sign for Connacht either. Likewise given our injuries at seven this season a Best-type hooker would have been a huge asset. I’m not suggesting it would mean we don’t need a seven on the field but it would certainly have helped. Connacht either through upskilling our present hookers or buying in must try and fill one or both of these hooker roles for next season.