Crisis, what crisis? Part Two – Ulster’s Woes

What does Director of Rugby even mean?

 

It has seemed in the past few years that David Humphreys has been leading the Ulster revival, signing high profile players and pushing a vision of Ulster, which presumably was intended to finish with Ulster etched on some trophies. The latter part hasn’t happened and although he leaves Ulster much better off than when he started the timing sucks. You have to wonder why he was drawn by the Premiership siren call – the simplest explanation would be that he believes he can do the same job at Gloucester but with a better chance of success. The challenge of building a team from lower regions of the table to top contenders is appealing, and no doubt he feels he’s learned from his time at Ulster and can fix any previous mistakes.

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Who’s bringing the horse to France??? Part One – Leinster

Interregnum

Despite back to back league titles and seven trophies in seven years (does this include the B&I?), Leinster are looming towards that dirty word of modern rugby – Transition. Few teams have been capable of acknowledging this dark entity before it arrives, and even fewer have been successful in transferring over from one generation to another without prolonged pain.

There has been much talk regarding Matt O’Connor’s claims that he needs to buy 4-6 players, specifically the principle that he has to buy them. I think a lot of Leinster fans feel like they are still pumping out international grade players from the academy and while there is still quality there its not going to produce a team a year. Rather, a team can consider itself extremely lucky to see two players per academy year become significant contributors at heineken cup level.

With that in mind it quickly becomes apparent – as I will outline below – that Leinster are in fact in the market for at a minimum 4 players and perhaps as many as 10 in the short to medium term. Here I’ll go row to row so to speak in order to assess what Leinster need in each case.

Front Row.

The brightest hopes in Leinster’s squad. They’ve internationals in all three positions and even though Bent hasn’t turned out to be the tighthead saviour he’s a useful squad player who can fill in until the younger lads come through. Sometimes it seems like academy recruits come in cycles, producing a glut of players in one position – think Ulster backs or Leinster backrow in recent years – and now Leinster are shifting that way in the front row with the likes of Moore, Furlong, the Byrne twins and Dooley all considered extremely promising up and comers.

Its easy to say that the team begins in the front row but the recent Rabo final between Leinster and Glasgow served as a reminder. The excellence of the Leinster front row and subs had Glasgow’s otherwise extremely good team on the back foot the entire game in both the scrum and the loose.

At the same time its worth remembering that Mike Ross is already 34. While its thought that he hasn’t a lot of rugby under his belt he has accumulated over 200 professional/international caps. He obviously had a great season with Ireland and a renaissance of sorts that will see him through to the world cup but its hard to predict beyond 2015 how things will pan out.

Requirements – Zero right now, potentially one tighthead in two years.

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Second Row.

Immediately alarm bells are ringing. Captain Cullen has finally retired, Quinn Roux has not worked out, Tom Denton is a solidly unspectacular squad player. At times there seems to be a curse over Leinster’s second row, and they’ve had immense difficulties filling holes in this position consistently. We all thought they had signed an extremely useful player in McCarthy but they barely got the benefit of him this year through injuries. Toner is finally being taken seriously outside of Leinster by Ireland fans but after those two things are bleak.

I really liked what I saw of Ben Marshall but he played 22 minutes under MOC this year. He’s the same age as Douglas who already has 13 caps for Australia. Even if the ozzies are light in that position at the minute that’s a huge disparity – its sink or swim time for Marshall.

Kane Douglas has been signed but its one player for two at the minute and you figure Leinster need to sign at least one more second row, but from where? There are doubts over a player who is willing to leave his country to play abroad the year before the world cup, thus making him ineligible. Unless there is a secret deal between himself and the ARU given the location of the world cup in close proximity to Leinster, you have to wonder if they just aren’t that bothered to see him leave.

Gavin Thornbury is in year three of the academy and has the required height but not the bulk, and has yet to feature for the senior team, next year could be his breakout season. Tagh Beirne is in the same position but is even lighter. There’s any amount of players at six so its second row or nothing for these two I think. Leinster are probably willing to hang on to both of them for at least another year if they can show consistent development.

Requirements – One more this year, but potentially up to three more in the next two to three years.

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Back Row.

Phew. After the shock of second row, things are looking up again. Heaslip, despite everyone’s best attempt at the commentators curse, is apparently uninjureable. SOB is world class and Rhys Ruddock came into his own this year. Jordi Murphy is starting at eight against Argentina this weekend (even though he seems too small for that position against top opposition) and there’s Jennings and MacLaughlin on the flanks. Leinster can even field a third choice backrow after that which would challenge most rabo teams, and they’ve a glut of backrowers in the academy … they’re stacked right now basically. Jennings turns 33 this summer but as second choice to SOB he can be managed and should be capable of at least two more years if he remains injury free.

Requirements – nothing really, but the search for a top quality back up eight goes on.

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Half backs.

Replacing Sexton was an exercise in futility and neither Gopperth nor Madigan are capable of it as it stands. However both are more than decent options in their own right, but neither will put the fear into a Heineken semi final team. Leinster fans will be praying that Sexton gets extremely homesick next year and returns to the RDS.

Scrumhalf is a little more complicated as both Boss and Reddan are beginning to slow down but the challengers behind them aren’t pushing the old lads in any way. Cooney and McGrath appeared in 5 and 8 games respectively although the former edged the latter in minutes played. Neither inspires confidence as it stands and MOC would love to bring in an international quality scrum half.

Requirements – One Johnny Sexton, and as many scrumhalves as they have in the store.

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Centre.

You may not have heard but some guy retired this week, he played 13. With the recent retirement of Eoin O’Malley in the same position and Luke Fitz not looking the may west, Leinster are gagging for a quality 13. Instead the likely replacements for the irreplaceable one are either McFadden, Macken or D’Arcy. The latter of course will not be around forever either, meaning a new 12 is also needed. The Reid/Macken combo has not inspired confidence thus far. People seem to forget (or not know) that Reid is now 24 and is a failed 10 attempting to play inside centre. He’s impressed at the lower rungs in this position but is too scatty against any quality opposition. Macken did at least play in 17 games this year and looks decent but at 23 and with BOD retired he will have to show a level far beyond decent next year if he intends to stay on. I have a lot of time for McFadden but its generally agreed 13 is not his best position. I think he could adapt but its not without its risks.

Despite all this uncertainty Leinster allowed Connacht to outbid them for Bundee Aki while there have been rumours linking them to Payne and Henshaw, both fairly laughable suggestions. Meanwhile when Hogg was dropped by Glasgow he was immediately linked with Ulster for some reason, despite being a very live 13 option. The reality is no one knows what’s going on in midfield next year and its going to get pretty messy.

Requirements – Minimum of two, maximum of four.

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Back three.

Leinster’s big name signing last year was Zane Kirchner which was underwhelming to many. After seeing him put the Springboks under pressure with a poor clearance kick against NZ last quad-nations, which led to NZ regaining the lead, I’ve had questions about his judgment under pressure. Unfortunately those questions haven’t been answered because it seemed like he was barely picked. That’s been the narrative anyways, and I even heard the lads on Second Captains repeat a version of it this week. But he actually played just over 1200 minutes, compared to R Kearney’s 1300 and D Kearney’s 1400. The perception was that he hasn’t been given enough time, but perhaps he just hasn’t given people reason to remember his appearances?

R Kearney regained his early glory while his brother had a great season and Fanning somehow found himself playing a lot of rugby. I guess the lanky ginger lad was just more obvious on the team sheet and gained a lot of attention often for the wrong reasons. After that you have a mixture of McFadden (super), Fitzgerald (injured), and Tuqiri (uhhh….).

To be blunt, Lote is gone, Fitz is barely making 10 games a season and McFadden may be needed elsewhere. Meanwhile Dave Kearney did his acl and will miss at least the rest of 2014. Last year it looked like there was no reason to sign Kirchner, this year it seems like Leinster would benefit from signing him twice more.

Darren Hudson has already been promoted to the first team and next year could be his time to shine. But even then you wouldn’t rule out signing at least one more wing especially if McFadden becomes exclusively a centre. Of course, there’s any amount of backs in the Leinster academy and big centres to boot, but are they ready to go now? It may be ‘a season too early’ for many of them.

Requirements – Minimum one, but up to three is not improbable.

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Conclusions

That’s my summation of the current state of Leinster rugby. Of course there’s no point buying players for the sake of it (or is there?) but quickly adding my minimum requirements together you get six. I hadn’t actually planned that but it seems MOC and I agree on that figure. However looking at the maximums I feel a reasonable argument can be made that even allowing for no losses in front or back row, Leinster need as many 10 or even 12 players over the next two seasons, or again six each year. When a coach is under fire for wanting to make your team better – you know your team is in transition. When six players are needed just to stand still and your coach is still criticized – then you’re in a Penney-style PIT of transition.

Lam Out! Year one in review, part deux.

Kick Kick Kick….

One of the first things that became immediately apparent even in Lam’s preseason training and games was a new emphasis on ball handling skills and running rugby. While this was working in the warm up games it was pretty exciting, but there was a tendency to force passes even within our own 22 which didn’t seem all that smart. Even now its hard to justify the situation per se, but I believe that it was a conscious decision by Lam to shock the players into moving away from a style where kicks were used for relief.

Against Saracens this previous gameplan seemed to be reversed as Parks booted the ball behind each winger. Ashton stated that this caught Saracens off guard and it was thought that the previous several games had basically been sacrificed to surprise Saracens. Again I don’t believe this was the case – it was poor preparation on Saracens part that allowed them to get caught out. Any team facing an opposition with Parks at 10 should expect a strong kicking game, six weeks of running rugby doesn’t negate 15 years prior. Continue reading