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.

6 responses to “Regular Preparation is Key

  1. Patrick Logan

    Murray, another well argued and cogent piece. Additionally, we need to look at the quality of our players’ individual skills. Our off-loading is miles of that of the All Blacks and some way behind the Welsh. We need to get big units running at the opposition and off-loading SBW/George North style. Regrettably, we have precious few backs of their heft so they need to be the runners receiving the off-load from the likes of Fez, SOB, Heaslip and Ryan. Fez and Ryan are not far off, but SOB and Heaslip rarely off-load out of the tackle. I think that if Wales had employed the Lydiate ankle-tackling style against NZ, the ABs would simply have off-loaded to supporting runners rather than go to ground and be turned over.

    • Thanks! A very good point from yourself. Our offloading game is certainly behind that of NZ. As you say, the likes of Fez and Ryan can get the ball away from time to time, and I think SOB can too, in the right circumstances. That’s the key for me, creating the situations where an offload is actually on. I’ve said it so many times, but Ireland need to get SOB and Ferris on the ball in the right areas – further away from the rucks and with quick ball – more of a one-on-one, or at least some soft shoulders to run into! Part of the reason Wales and NZ offload more regularly is that they give their offloaders that kind of ball. Obviously SBW is an exception, the single greatest offloader in the game, love watching him. Definitely something we need to add more of to our game!

  2. Trevor Murphy

    A couple of things are obvious from our performance in NZ. 1st is that it is time for a new head coach. Being a Munster man that is very difficult to say as Deccie has done a lot for us and generally is seen as being a “walk on water” calibre person. But he should be getting more out of this crop of players. On their day Irish rugby player could play on any team. Our problem is these days are far too seldom seen. 2nd I have long said that we (Munster) need to be developing the young player much more during the season. Where does that leave our front line players… Maybe it’s time for the RaboPro12 to run in parallel with an expanded Heineken? In short: Direction from National Coach to all provinces on how Ireland will play the game, development of young players and a new competition structure… That’s not too much to ask is it? Fingers are well and truly crossed that some of the mandarins in charge see the need for change! Definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…

    • I’m pretty certain that Kidney will see out his contract before we get a new Head Coach. As you say, he’s a Munster legend and has won a Grand Slam with Ireland, but you can’t keep living off past glories. Completely agree that he should be getting more from this group of players, there’s definite world class talent in the squad. An expanded Heineken Cup could be a good idea if it was done right. The PRO12 could then run as something similar to the ITM Cup in NZ or the Currie Cup in South Africa. I definitely think it’s something worth thinking about and discussing.

      Direction from the international team down is what happens in New Zealand alright. They have total control over their franchises, who plays, how they play, etc. In fairness the IRFU does have some control over those things, but it doesn’t seem that Kidney and his team work very closely with the likes of Schmidt, Elwood and the other provincial coaches in terms of how he wants the game played. Matt Williams wrote a really interesting piece on this topic, can’t find it right now but if I do I’ll send it on to you!

  3. Good points, Murray. I’ve been coming around to the idea that the NH as a whole needs to change the structure of its season such that there is the maximum chance of success in and also minimum disruption caused by World Cups. The current situation, where WC preparation eats into the off-season and part of the regular domestic season is not good for either domestic or international teams. There are already two international windows in the NH season and one of these (suitably extended) should be used to stage the World Cup.

    To achieve this, the NH could look at moving the 6N to the start of April so that it leads in to the June international series, forming a roughly continuous block of fixtures. If the WC is in June, as could be the case for the NH, Argentina and SA, then the 6N could provide warm-up games and competition without affecting the normal course of the season.

    To move the 6N, there are a couple of possible solutions. 1) Start the current season a few weeks earlier and finish all the domestic matches by the start of April. 2) change the NH season altogether, running it from February-November, with Feb-Mar for domestic leagues, Apr-June for 6N and SH tests plus five or six domestic fixtures, and July-Oct for domestic and European Cups; this leaves the possibility of foregoing the June international window to finish the domestic season early and then having the WC in October.

    If the timing of the 6N is considered sacrosanct, then it could act as the season-opener, with the first SH international window moved to April instead of June, and then have the bulk of the domestic and European club season from May-October.

    • Intelligent stuff as always Henry. Agree that NH season needs to look at setting up for RWCs more effectively. It would be a huge task to change the entire timing of the season, but your suggestions do make sense. We definitely have to do something to beat the SH sides more consistently!

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