Monthly Archives: July 2012

Taking a Break

Instead of just letting this blog peter out like so many others, I thought I’d just give a short notification letting people know that it looks like I won’t be able to post very often during the coming season. Life is getting in the way and I won’t be able to dedicate the time to produce articles of a standard that would satisfy me. I have really enjoyed blogging since starting in November and I want to thank everyone who took the time to read the articles.

I’ll try my best to keep up some form of writing if I can, whether on this blog or for other sites. I’ll definitely be getting The Touchline back up and running full-time in the future so keep it in mind! Thanks again to those who have been reading and hope you enjoyed it as much I did! Cheers.

Who is Quinn Roux?


Signing young South Africans seems to be all the rage in Ireland at the moment. The agents over there appear to be increasingly aware of the lucrative market that is Irish rugby. In the last few weeks, Munster have signed CJ Stander, Connacht have nabbed Danie Poolman (profile coming soon) and Leinster have secured second-row Quinn Roux on a one-year deal. There’s still been no official announcement from Leinster, but the deal looks done. Here, I take a look at Roux’s career up to this point and the potential benefits of the move.

As we saw in this week’s profile of CJ Stander, he was picked out as special from a young age. Roux’s progression has been a little different. Born and bred in Pretoria, Roux’s rugby interest began at the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys’ High School). The secondary school is literally across the road from the Blue Bulls’ Loftus Versfeld Stadium. It’s no surprise then that Affies is one of the most prestigious and elite rugby schools in South Africa. The educational institute has produced many professional rugby players including Springboks Pierre Spies, Wynand Olivier and Fourie du Preez.

The fact that Affies normally field more than 10 senior teams every year makes it an achievement just to play 1st XV rugby there. Roux did so in 2008 and impressed enough to be selected for the Northern Transvaal provincial team for that year’s Craven Week. As explained in the Stander piece, Craven Week is one of the most renowned schoolboy competitions in the world. The best young players in the country are chosen to represent their province and it’s often the place where they start to build real buzz. To make a crude comparison, it was like Roux being selected for the Leinster schools team for an interprovincial series.

Loftus Versfeld Stadium

With this stadium across the road from your school, how could you not aspire to be a professional rugby player? (c) legio09.

The best players during Craven Week go on to be selected for the South African Schools. While Stander was chosen as the Schools captain in 2008, Roux missed out on selection. But the 6’5″ lock was determined to forge a professional career for himself and, in 2009, decided on a 1,427km move to the Western Province Rugby Institute in Stellenbosch. Attending the WP Institute is like taking a Masters degree in rugby. Students pay around €12,000 for the privilege of a top-quality rugby education, although some receive scholarships. The Institue’s mission “lies in transforming young boys into rugby-playing men”. It’s a fascinating facility, and their website is worth a look.

The move paid immediate dividends for Roux, as the Western Province Rugby Union signed him up that same year. He battled hard to earn a place on the U19 side, and helped them to the semi-finals of the U19 Currie Cup, where, just days before Roux turned 19, they narrowly lost out to the Cheetahs. Still, the move had proven a success. Roux was now on the first steps of the ladder towards Super Rugby. The Stormers franchise is centred on the Western Province union, although players from the Boland Cavaliers are also eligible. If a player can reach Currie Cup level for WP he has every chance of stepping up for the Stormers. That was now the target for the determined Roux.

Having graduated from the WP Institute, 2010 saw Roux move to the Western Province U21 side. The year of intense physical preparation at the Institute had visibly benefited the lock as he neared his current 120kg weight. He became a key member of the side as Western Province won the U21 Currie Cup. Alongside Roux in that team were the likes of Johann Sadie, JJ Engelbrecht and Danie Poolman. On the same day, Eben Etzebeth helped the WP U19s to victory in the U19 Currie Cup Final. Etzebeth would soon prove to be an imposing road block on Roux’s journey to Super Rugby.


Still just 20 years of age, Roux graduated into the senior squad at WP for 2011. The second-row’s season got off to a decent start as he made appearances in all 9 of WP’s Vodacom Cup games, 4 of them starts. This tournament is the third tier of competition in South Africa, behind Currie Cup and Super Rugby. While Roux didn’t do enough to earn a Super Rugby spot, he was included in the Currie Cup squad later in the year. He only managed 5 appearances, 1 of them a start, as WP made the semi-finals. Still, it was more clear progress from the physical lock.

2012 began spectacularly well for a confident Roux. His growing presence on the pitch led to the call from the Stormers ahead of 2012’s Super Rugby kick-off.  He then started every game as Western Province won the Vodacom Cup, even scoring a try against the Lions along the way. Having turned 21, Roux was already fully developed and his reputation as an enforcer on the pitch was growing. However, the buzz around Etzebeth, almost exactly a year younger, had been growing even more rapidly. His performances for South Africa U20s at the 2011 Junior World Championship tipped the scales in his favour and he started the Super Rugby season as first-choice.

With Springbok giant Andries Bekker occupying the number 5 jersey and the more experienced De Kock Steenkamp being preferred as second-row cover on the bench, there has been little opportunity for Roux this season. Also, his status as a Vodacom Cup stalwart may not have helped, as that competition overlaps with the first few rounds of Super Rugby. Since the conclusion of the Vodacom cup, Roux has made two appearances off the bench for the Stormers. His Super Rugby debut came in the massive derby game against the Bulls, when he replaced Etzebeth for the last 29 minutes, helping the Stormers to a crucial 19-14 win.

Roux on Super Rugby debut against the Bulls. (c) SuperSport.

Roux’s second appearance came just last weekend, when he played 12 minutes at the end of the Stormers’ 27-17 win over the Lions. With Etzebeth feeling the effects of his first international test series with South Africa, Roux will be hoping that more Super Rugby action is coming his way in the final rounds. His contract with the Stormers comes to an end with the conclusion of the Super Rugby competition. The Stormers are currently top of the South African conference and have every chance of making the final on the 4th of August.

Roux’s decision to join Leinster on a one-year deal has been met with a mixed response in South Africa. With Bekker, Etzebeth, Steenkamp and Rynhardt Elstadt ahead of him in the Stormers depth chart at lock, he has little chance of playing regular Super Rugby. At Leinster, his competition will be Leo Cullen, Devin Toner and Tom Denton. No offence to those players, but it’s relatively weaker competition for the 21-year-old. It’s a one-year deal and the view in SA is that Roux is coming to Ireland to pick up some experience before returning home.

That’s exactly what a one-year deal suggests. For me, it’s a little less clear cut than that. The IRFU have enticed this brute of a second-row over to Ireland. If next season goes well, and Roux proves a success, they’ll be keen re-sign him. If he has enjoyed the year and settled well, Roux will be tempted to stay. Never mind the pecking order at the Stormers, for South Africa the likes of Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe mean Roux is even further from recognition. This is not a guy who has played underage rugby for South Africa. He’s not somebody like CJ Stander, who has always been marked out as a probable Springbok.

While playing Super Rugby is obviously a dream for any young South African player, Roux is not a boyhood Stormers supporter. His loyalty to the franchise may not be set in stone. While South Africa have depth at lock, Ireland aren’t quite at the same level. Whether or not Roux should even be considered as a potential Irish international, when the likes of Ian Nagle, Dave Foley and Mark Flanagan have yet to break into their provincial sides’ XVs, is a debate for another time. This discussion may become redundant if Roux arranges a return to South Africa before he even leaves.

Leinster have got themselves a big, strong, mean, tighthead lock who has shown great determination so far in his career. Despite only being 21, he looks like a potential replacement for Brad Thorn in the enforcer role. If anyone knows more about this guy, please share your knowledge by leaving a comment!

*Roux is on the bench for the Stormers game against the Cheetahs on Saturday at 2.00pm Irish time. I don’t think Sky Sports are showing the game, so First Row are usually good for a link, just check there on Saturday.


Photos courtesy: legio09, SuperSport.

Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book


Spain have taken maximum benefit of Barcelona’s incredible success. Lessons? (c) Euro 2012.

Spain confirmed their position as one of football’s greatest ever sides with that stunning 4-0 win over Italy last weekend. Each of the four goals were beautiful creations, coming from the Spanish insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, passing and moving into space. Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is undeniable. The Spanish national team has taken the Barca model and, if not replicated it completely, used its strengths as guiding principles. There is a lesson in that for Irish rugby.

Barcelona have dominated European football since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice, and the World Club Cup twice, amongst other trophies. The entire club operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking football right up from their famous La Masia training facility. The senior squad is largely made up of locally-born Catalans, or at least Barca-educated players who love the club. They’ve built the club from the roots up, and have been hugely successful, winning trophies in style. They have been the greatest side in European club football for the last four years.

Leinster have dominated European rugby since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won three Heineken Cups, and finished runner-up of the PRO12/Celtic League three times, topping the regular season table twice. The province operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking rugby, right up from their underage teams. The senior squad is largely made up of Leinster-born players, or outsiders who have bought into the ethos. While maybe not at Barca’s level of youth development, they have strong background roots in place. They’ve built the province from the ground up, and have been undeniably successful, winning trophies in style. They’ve been the greatest side in European club rugby over the last four years.


Core players for Leinster, core players for Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

For Spain’s national team coach, building his team on the Barca model has been  a no-brainer. The availability of players like Pique, Busquets, Xavi and  Iniesta meant del Bosque would have been foolish not to allow them to form the spine of his team in their unique style. That’s exactly what he has done. While Spain’s style is a modified version of the Barca system, the influence is clear. The team has been built around the incredible assets of Xavi and Iniesta, with players from other clubs adapting to the demands. The results have been incredible, with Spain deservedly winning the last three major tournaments they’ve played at.

However, in Ireland, building the international team in the incredibly successful Leinster model hasn’t been a no-brainer for Declan Kidney. While the spine of Ireland’s team is Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, they have not been encouraged to play in a similar manner as they do at Leinster. I’m not suggesting for a second that Ireland should just name the Leinster team as their international XV, but rather that the team’s style needs to be built around the strengths of that spine. While Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam, their performances since have been generally weak.

The limited amount of time an international coaching team gets with their players simply adds to the argument. Del Bosque recognised this and allowed his key men to play in the manner in which they train every single day at their club (Barca). Why wouldn’t he have done so? Ireland haven’t done the same thing though. I’m not saying that Kidney should just say, “Go out and play like Leinster lads” but allowing some continuity for his spine players from province into international set-up would only benefit Ireland. One of Kidney’s strengths in times past has been his belief in giving key players the responsibility to dictate play on the pitch. Now he needs to bring that back into action.

Vicente del Bosque

There are similarities between Vicente del Bosque and Declan Kidney. (c) Universidad Europea de Madrid.

Kidney and del Bosque are similar figures, which makes their difference in approach harder to understand. Both men are reserved, dignified and give very little away to the media in interviews. Neither is renowned as a true ‘coach’, in that they don’t do too much hands-on work on the training ground. Their strengths lie in motivating players and creating a harmonious atmosphere within the squad. Del Bosque has been quick to recognise that he has an amazing asset in Barca and their tactical approach, but has Kidney done the same with Leinster?

I’m sure players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht have cast jealous glances as Leinster have gone about their business of winning H-Cups in spectacular style. Similarly, Spanish players like Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba would’ve watched Barca and wanted to experience being part of it. Every single one of them, football and rugby players alike, would have felt that they had the ability to contribute and better such a system. The Spanish players have been given the chance to do so, and their joy has been clear. I think the Irish players from the other three provinces would have similar feelings if Ireland were unleashed with a Leinster-style gameplan.

Spain have extracted the utmost advantage and benefit from the once-in-a-generation resource that is Barcelona FC. Have Ireland done the same with Leinster?


Photos courtesy: Universidad Europea de MadridMarc Puig i Perez, UEFA Euro 2012.

Who is CJ Stander?

(c) Blue Bulls.

Munster look to have pulled off quite a coup by securing CJ Stander on a two-year deal. Judging by the reaction of coaches and fans alike in South Africa, there appears to be genuine surprise that the 22-year-old has decided to move abroad. A former South Africa Schools and U2o captain, Stander had been marked out as a likely senior Springbok in the near future. The viewpoint there is that money may have played a part in the back-rower’s decision. So what exactly have Munster got for their presumably big bucks?

Stander’s swift physical development meant he was marked out as a distinct prospect from an early age. At 17, he was already representing the South Western Districts Eagles U18 side at the annual Craven Week. This tournament is one of the most prestigious schoolboy events in world rugby. It’s played out over a week, usually in July (this year’s version starts next weekend), and is quite often the stage on which future Springboks announce themselves. Despite being a year younger than his rivals, Stander’s displays earned him the captaincy of the South African Schools Academy team in 2007 (The Academy side is basically the Schools ‘B’ team, although political factors play a part in some selections).

Another impressive Craven Week the following year saw the No.8 named captain of the 2008 South African Schools team, a side which included current ‘Bok Patrick Lambie. That summer, Stander graduated from school and the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls swept to sign him. The possibility of playing Super Rugby down the line enticed the young back-row away from the SWD Eagles in his hometown of George. Back in 2008, the new Southern Kings franchise was a mere idea, meaning the highest level Stander could have played with the Eagles was Currie Cup. (From 2013, the Eagles will act as a feeder side to the Kings).

Deon Stegmann and CJ Stander take a break.

Stander (left) is a big youngfella! (c) Getty.

The meteoric rise continued in 2009 as Stander was selected in the South Africa U20 squad for the Junior World Championships, despite being a year young for the age-group. He started all 5 games at No.8, scoring 2 tries, as the Baby Boks finished 3rd. He was back in the squad the following year too, this time as captain. Again, Stander started all 5 games in the 8 jersey, scoring once, as the South Africans earned another 3rd place finish.

Stander returned home to play 12 times for the Bulls in the 2010 Currie Cup. This tournament is the South African equivalent of the PRO12 or ITM Cup, one step below Super Rugby. Stander started 5 times, but interestingly only wore the No.8 jersey once, with Gerrit-Jan van Velze preferred there. Instead, Stander mainly appeared at blindside (the number 7 jersey in SA), a move we have seen plenty of this season. The Bulls managed to reach the semi-finals, before losing to the Sharks.

Turning 21 in 2011 meant that Stander’s international age-grade days were over and his focus switched entirely to the Bulls. The year started well as Stander made 11 appearances, including 5 starts at No.8, in the Bulls’ run to the Vodacom Cup final. This tournament is the third-tier of South African rugby, behind Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. It’s often used to accelerate young players’ development, and that’s certainly what it did for Stander. He scored 3 tries, making an impression with his work-rate and ball-carrying ability.

(c) SA Rugby.

Super Rugby didn’t follow that summer, but Stander went on to play a far more important part in that year’s Currie Cup campaign. He nailed down the starting berth at No.8 and played in all 14 of the Bulls’ games, 11 of them in the starting XV. He showed his try-scoring ability by crossing the whitewash 6 times from the base of the scrum. This form marked him out as a definite Super Rugby squad player for 2012. The back-rower’s 2011 season was topped off nicely when he helped the Bulls U21 side to win the ABSA U21 Currie Cup, scoring a try in the final.

This year’s Super Rugby season started with Stander firmly a squad player. With gym-rat Pierre Spies the incumbent at No.8, Springbok Deon Stegmann at 6 and Jacques Potgieter (four year his senior) at 7, Stander had to make do with a bench spot for the first 2 games. However, a hamstring injury to Stegmann catapulted Stander into the starting team for round 3 and he has coped well at openside. He’s been an ever-present for the Bulls since, although he switched across to blindside in the 4 games leading up to the international break. 

His Super Rugby form led to a call-up to the 42-man Springboks training squad in the build-up to the test series against Wales. Another factor towards the call-up may have been the early murmurings that the 22-year-old was in discussions with Munster. By bringing him into the ‘Boks training group, coach Heyneke Meyer may have been trying to convince Stander to stay in South Africa. However, that might be a cynical suggestion on my part, as Stander has done well for the Bulls, scoring 4 tries in his 14 appearances up to now.


I’ve only seen Stander in live action twice this season, against the Reds in round 4 and the Chiefs in round 14. Playing at openside against the Reds and blindside against the Chiefs, Stander played the full 80 minutes in both. He didn’t stand out in either game, but at the same time there was nothing to fault in his performances. The first thing that struck me was that Stander is physically well-developed for a 22-year-old. He’s 6’2″ in height, and while the Bulls’ site lists him as 106kg, he’s almost certainly heavier than that. He’s clearly a strong, powerful player, something which is highlighted by the fact that he consistently went in high in the tackle, never getting bounced off.

Watching both games, I immediately felt that Stander was a No.8 playing out of position. He looked slightly unsure of where he should be running, supporting, clearing out, etc. The occasions when he looked truly comfortable were when he got a little bit of time on the ball in space. He showed a few glimpses of soft hands too, but playing at flanker for the Bulls seems to limit that aspect of his game. Much of Stander’s involvement came around the fringes of rucks, and to be honest he didn’t seem overly keen to be stuck in there. When play broke up, he had a good awareness of where the space was.

Having played most of his underage rugby at No.8, Stander is still learning the two other back-row positions and will only become more effective. A recurring feature of both games I watched was his control at the back of the Bulls’ incredibly effective maul. He seemed intent on getting on the ball at the back, showcasing his No.8 instincts. Indeed, he managed to score a try against the Reds from this very position.  He also scored a replica of that try against the Rebels in round 11 (6.33 in the video above). In my opinion, all the signs are that Stander is a natural No.8.


Stander’s try against the Brumbies in round 9 (2.53 above, definite Steyn knock-on!) showed just how much pace and power the youngster has. From my limited viewing, this is the kind of position Munster will need to use Stander in. Whenever he receives ball in wider channels with a little more time, he looks far more threatening. Playing at 6 and 7, he carried around the fringes more, and while he never went backwards, these carries are for the tight five. His pace would also make him effective off the base of the scrum with the defence 5 metres back.

Stander’s CV and the glimpses I’ve seen in this year’s Super Rugby lead me to believe that he will have an important impact for Munster, most probably at No.8. He’s contracted to the Bulls until the conclusion of the Currie Cup. The final takes place on the 27th of October, and the Bulls will fancy their chances of making the showpiece. It’s quite likely that Munster fans will be paying more attention than usual to the South African tournament as they hope to get a good look at their new signing!

*Has anyone seen Stander playing? If you have, leave a comment below with your thoughts. Do you think he’ll be a good signing? With the possibility of Stander returning to South Africa in two years’ time, should Munster even be making signings like this, possibly stunting the development of Irish players? All opinions and feedback welcome.

Regular Preparation is Key

Leinster and Ulster played 9 Heineken Cup games each this season, but never in blocks of more than 2 games. (c) Ken Bohane.

I saw a very interesting tweet on the page of ex-Munster and Auckland Blues player Mike Storey recently, in which he suggested part of the reason that Ireland failed on the three-test tour to New Zealand was that “Irish players never play 3 tough games in a row”. It struck me as a really valid point and led me to question just how well Ireland’s domestic and European rugby calendar prepares our players for consecutive top-level international action.

Let’s start by looking at the Heineken Cup. I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of whether the flagship European competition is better or worse than the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby. Whatever your opinion on that, let’s agree for now that the two tournaments are of a roughly equivalent playing standard. The Heineken Cup consists of 6 pool games and then a maximum of 3 knock-out games. Obviously, only two teams in the tournament will play 9 games, with the rest playing 6-8.

Now look at the Super Rugby tournament, expanded to 15 teams this year. Each franchise/region/club will play a minimum of 16 games. Those who make the play-offs will play 17-19. That’s basically double the amount of top-level games that Super Rugby players can take part in compared to their Irish peers. I’m aware that teams like the Blues, Lions and Force are poor, but having watched much of this year’s tournament, there’s always the possibility of those sides beating one of the big boys. The Blues for example have a handful of current and ex internationals, and I’m confident they’d beat their ‘equivalents’ in the Heineken Cup (Aironi, London Irish, Treviso).

How many truly top-level games does the PRO12 offer? (c) Ken Bohane.

So where do Irish players make up the rest of their ‘big games’ in a club season? The PRO12 is obviously the next place to look. I don’t want to start tearing apart the competition (I actually enjoy it very much), but the reality is that there are very few ‘big’ games in the PRO12, apart from the play-offs. How often do we see a genuinely crucial PRO12 game in store? It’s a rare thing. A fixture like Munster vs. Ulster should be a massive game every single time it’s played, but the simple fact is that it’s not.

The issue is not even that neither side will regularly select their strongest XV for this type of game, but that there is no genuine pressure attached. Deep down, national rivalry apart, it’s not an important game. If Ulster lose and finish 5th or 6th in the league, it’s no big deal. They’ll still be in the Heineken Cup next season. So even if talented young players are given a chance to play in the PRO12, there is  little pressure on their shoulders. This has advantages, but more pressurised, more important games would bring far more benefits.

That brings us back to the number of top-level games that the Southern Hemisphere players are getting. Obviously New Zealand’s top internationals don’t play every single Super Rugby game. Having a quick glance at the stats, their number of starts will be around 12-15 per season. That’s still more than our Irish internationals, who’ll get 7-9 in the Heineken Cup. So who replaces those All Blacks in the remaining 6-8 games? This is where the next line of international players, their young prospects, are being exposed. So not only are New Zealand’s top players getting more high-quality rugby than their Irish peers, but their young talent is being tested at a far higher level than ours.

A fixture like Munster vs. Ulster should be close to that Heineken Cup quarter-final intensity every single time. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Going back to the original point highlighted by Mike Storey, let’s use two players to give a rough comparison of the regularity of top-class club games.  Rob Kearney and Israel Dagg serve the purpose well, having been put forward as a key individual battle before last month’s test series. Kearney made a total of 16 appearances for Leinster this season. But how many of them were of Heineken Cup standard? Well he played in all 9 of the H-Cup games, and I’d include the PRO12 final against Ospreys and the first PRO12 game against Munster in that bracket as well, for a total of 11 top-quality club games this season.

Dagg has already started 12 Super Rugby games for the Crusaders in 2012. Remember too that Kearney’s season was spread over the latter part of 2011 and the first half of 2012. On the basis that Super Rugby and Heineken Cup are roughly equivalent, Dagg has already played more high-quality games than Kearney, with possibly 3 more to come. Despite the All Blacks’ fullback’s season starting 4 months later than Kearney’s, he’d actually played more of these top-quality games before the June tests. Which brings us right to the crux of the matter.

Not only had Kearney played less top-level club games, but they’d been spread out over a far greater period of time. While Dagg played Super Rugby games on 7 consecutive weekends from the 24th of March to the 6th of May, the most consecutive weekends Kearney played in ‘big’ games was two. The IRFU’s player management policy obviously plays a part in ensuring that Ireland’s top internationals receive adequate rest, but is it also holding our players back? Or is the structure of the Heineken Cup not testing our players regularly enough?

Clearly, there are several reasons behind Ireland’s failure in New Zealand. Whiff of Cordite and the Demented Mole have both written excellent articles on what looks to be the main reason, the coach. This piece is in no way meant as a defence of Declan Kidney. There’s no excuse for losing by 60 points in an international test match, whatever the merits of European club rugby. The intention here is to provoke debate and get your thoughts on whether the Irish provinces need to be playing top-level rugby more regularly. Please feel welcome to leave a comment with your views on the issue.


Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.