Monthly Archives: April 2013

Lions Selections

South Africa v British & Irish Lions - 2nd Test

There’s nothing quite like it.

Cian Tracey and I have chosen our Lions squads. Below are the choices, as well as some reasoning on the different picks. Let us know what you think, and what you’d change! This is the last day we’ll all be able to speculate and debate, so get involved.

Fullbacks

Murray: Halfpenny, Kearney     Cian: Halfpenny, Kearney

Agreement here in both squads. Cian has Halfpenny down as the starter after his Player of the Tournament-winning 6N campaign, and says he’ll run the outhalf close for place-kicking duties. Kearney’s relatively quiet season means he’s usurped as the starter. Murray would expect the Lions environment to bring the best out of Kearney. Halfpenny is first-choice due to his form and complete game.

Wings

Murray: North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Bowe     Cian: North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Bowe

Again total agreement, making both squads identical in the back three. Cian’s got the two Welsh boys as Test starters, and Zebo down to cover fullback. Bowe’s finishing ability and experience amongst a group of young outside backs gets him the nod. Murray has Zebo down for sheer talent, despite a nervy game against Clermont. Bowe’s Lions experience gets him in. On form, Cuthbert ahead of North, but the latter a more polished player. The only disagreement was on first reserve, Cian going for Visser, Murray for Maitland.

Centres

Murray: BOD, Roberts, Tuilagi, Hogg     Cian: Roberts, BOD, Tuilagi, Davies

Murray has BOD and Roberts down as his Test partnership. Roberts hasn’t has the best season, but past glories are enough beside BOD’s sheer class. Tuilagi is the impact sub. The same three are in Cian’s squad, although he felt that Roberts actually had an excellent 6N. He has Davies in the squad as another bench option. Murray went for Hogg as back-up in the centre and at full-back.

Outhalves

Murray: Sexton, Wilko, Hook     Cian: Sexton, Farrell, Madigan

No need to discuss Sexton. Murray went for Wilko as back-up, with Cian opting for Farrell. Murray feels that Wilko can place-kick and tackle just as well as Farrell, as well as offering more passing ability and a good touring presence. Cian felt that Farrell is being underrated and controls his backline superbly well and is capable of setting a quick attacking platform for those outside him.

Cian went on to question what James Hook offers, bringing us to the third choices. Murray selected the Welshman because he offers different skills to his other two 10s, namely flair, creativity and vision. Cian went for the ‘wildcard’ in Madigan, saying that he could profit from Gatland’s tendency for putting faith in youth.

Scrumhalves

Murray: Phillips, Care, Murray     Cian: Phillips, Youngs, Murray

Both squads have Phillips and Murray in them; Phillips because he can dominate games and Murray for the fact that he has hit form at the right time, offering a ready-made replacement for Phillips. Cian has gone for Youngs as the man to offer a different style, highlighting his speed and control of tempo. Murray picked Danny Care, despite his woeful form, purely as a bench option. Cian worries that Care would be outmuscled by Genia.

Loose heads

Murray: Healy, Vunipola, Jenkins     Cian: Healy, Vunipiola, Jenkins

Resounding agreement here and not too much to discuss. Healy is seen as first-choice Test starter by both. Vunipola is the explosive impact from the bench. For Murray, Jenkins tours as third-choice, but Cian reckons he could have an important role to play.

Hookers

Murray: Hibbard, Youngs, Ford     Cian: Hibbard, Youngs, Best

This was highlighted by both selections as an area lacking in quality candidates. Hibbard is the likely Test hooker for both, with Youngs as back-up. Cian goes for Best based on his experience, while Murray picks Ford for his offloading game and skills around the pitch. No mention was made of Dylan Hartley.

Tight heads

Murray: Jones, Cole, Murray     Cian: Jones, Cole

Cian decided to take an extra back-row at the expense of a third tight head, so there was no real argument here. Murray has gone for Eaun Murray as his third-choice based on the fact that he is slightly more destructive. Jones is number 1 tight head in both squads, with 25-year-old Cole to serve his apprenticeship.

Locks

Murray: POC, Hines, AWJ, Evans, Gray     Cian: POC, AWJ, Gray, Ryan, Evans

The only difference here is Murray choosing Hines, and Cian going for Ryan. Murray feels that Hines can do everything Ryan does and more. Cian reckons that Ryan has had an immense season, and that the return of POC has overshadowed that fact. He’s going for Ryan, saying it’s maybe a case of heart over head!

Flankers

Murray: Tipuric, Warburton, O’Brien, Lydiate, Wood     Cian: Warburton, Lydiate, O’Brien, Wood, Tipuric, Robshaw

Identical selections, except for the fact that Cian picks an extra flanker in Robshaw. He feels that the back-row will be the key to the series. Murray feels that Robshaw is just too one-paced, but Cian thinks he is being written off too easily. He highlights his performance vs. Ireland at the Aviva as an example of what he could bring to the party.

No. 8s

Murray: Faletau, Heaslip     Cian: Faletau, Heaslip

Faletau is down as Test No.8 for both squads. Murray feels the Welsh man has had a serious upturn in form in 2013 after adding some bulk. Heaslip is in for his excellent surge in form recently, nudging ahead of Scotland’s Beattie. Cian also highlights Heaslip’s late surge, saying he’s lucky there isn’t a plethora of specialist No. 8s out there.

Captain

Murray: Paul O’Connell     Cian: Paul O’Connell

There was no real doubt for either of us in selecting O’Connell. For Murray, the captain being on the pitch for the Tests is vital, and he would go with Tipuric to start at 7. Furthermore, he remains unconvinced by Warburton as a captain. Cian agrees, saying that O’Connell is the man, with an honourable mention for O’Driscoll. He feels that Gatland was always going to go with a forward as captain. O’Connell commands respect and has great influence over others. When he says jump, you ask how high.

——————–

Cian is a freelance sports journalist currently writing for The Irish Examiner, Independent, The Sun, Balls.ie & Fantasy Premier League Transfers. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Centre Experiment a Success for Madigan

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a flat, long pass.

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a long, flat pass.

With many rugby fans and pundits seeing Ian Madigan as a possible Lion, Saturday’s win over Biarritz was his last audition for the part. The Leinster back’s versatility is seen as a big on-tour advantage. Having already played at both outhalf and fullback this season, Saturday saw the 24-year-old step in at inside centre.

So far in his career, Madigan has started 46 games for Leinster. 36 of those have come at outhalf and 9 at fullback. Last Saturday was his first appearance in the 12 jersey. At U20 international level, Madigan actually had more starts at fullback (5) than at outhalf (4). During the Six Nations, he made brief appearances for Ireland at inside centre. It’s clear that outhalf is his best position, and that he can now be considered as good cover for fullback. Last season, the Demented Mole even suggested trying him at scrumhalf. He’s versatile, that much is certain.

So how did the experiment of playing Madigan at 12 go?

He had an uncharacteristically nervy start to the game, knocking on 2 of his first 3 touches. The first knock-on came as Leinster tried to send Madigan boshing into the Biarritz defence direct from lineout possession, clearly not a role he’s built for. Biarritz outhalf Barraque stopped him in this tracks and Madigan spilled the ball forward. Minutes later, another knock-on. This one came under very little pressure and with a 3-on-2 outside him. He was clearly aware of this, planning his next move before he’d even caught the pill. Not a great start.

Madigan’s first defensive involvement will be marked as a missed tackle, but came from a scrappy situation after Leinster over-threw at their own lineout. The screengrabs below show what happened. While it was an unusual situation, it shows the demands of defending in the 12 channel. Coaches everywhere preach the importance of not getting pierced in the middle of the pitch. While the blame here should be shared amongst a few players, Madigan will be annoyed not to have prevented the line-break.

NgwenyaBreak

Click to enlarge. The action starts in the top left after Strauss overthrows at the lineout and Heguy claims the bouncing ball for BO. Moving to the top right, you can see that Sexton has stepped in to tackle Heguy but without preventing the pass to Barraque. Madigan has already drifted a little and the gap is opened. Moving to bottom left, Madigan tries in vain to grab the BO outhalf, but is in a bad position and gets handed off. Finally, bottom right, you can see that Barraque has offloaded to Ngwenya, who goes all the way to the 22, Leinster give away the penalty and 3 points.

From there, Madigan’s performance improved. In the next 5 minutes, he made two tackles on Baby and Traille, going in low on both occasions and halting their progress. It was exactly what Madigan needed, something to get him into the game. His first positive attacking contribution came after 25 minutes, taking a switch off Sexton and popping the ball inside to Nacewa. Madigan’s ease of handling was evident, highlighting the advantages of using him as an Aaron Mauger-style second five-eight.

Two of Biarritz’s first three kick-offs were aimed directly into the zone where Madigan was situated. The intention was to put Damien Traille directly up against Madigan for the high ball. The first time, the French centre got above his opposite number, nearly claiming the ball, before his team gave away a penalty. The clear sign that Biarritz intended to target Madigan was Traille slipping a sneaky little kick to the Leinster 12 as they got off the ground. BOD was clearly not happy!

On the second occasion, Rob Kearney recognised the ploy, sprinting forward and actually knocking Madigan over in order to claim the ball. It’s not a major thing, but worth watching if Madigan is to play at 12 again. At 5’11”, he’s not the tallest and could be targeted in a similar manner.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation. Click photo to enlarge.

The remainder of Madigan’s half involved some effective clean-outs at ruck-time, and one gorgeous pass. With time up on the clock, Leinster quick-tapped a penalty. Sexton move it to Madigan, who looked up to see that Baby had shot out of BO’s defensive line. Most players would have either trucked it up or thrown a looping pass over Baby. But Madigan’s vision allowed him to fire a flat pass in behind Baby, straight to Nacewa on the wing. Leinster were over the gain line, Biarritz were scrambling and the passage ended with Jamie Heaslip scoring.

Madigan’s role as a second-five eight was really interesting to watch. While Gordon D’Arcy is certainly no battering ram, Madigan’s skills are more suited to a play-making role in the centre. All of Leinster’s backline possess good passing skills, but Madigan is the best passer in the country. The above was the most obvious example of the benefits of playing Madigan at 12. His passing and creativity open up even more possibilities for Leinster in wider areas.

Madigan’s second-half got off to a flyer, quite literally. As Biarritz attacked in the Leinster 22, Synaeghel knocked on and Madigan intercepted. He then showed exceptional pace to burst away and came up just 5 metres short, caught by Ngwenya. The American winger was sin-binned and Leinster added 3 points. That sheer pace is something we haven’t seen too much of in Madigan’s game, but it’s just another string to his bow.

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he's onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he’s onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

His next two contributions were defensive. The first was an excellent tackle on a surging Thibault Dubarry. His hit was strong and actually forced a knock-on, which wasn’t noticed by referee Wayne Barnes. The next was another low tackle on Traille, bringing him to the deck.

With Sexton subbed off, Madigan moved to outhalf and taking over place-kicking duties on the 50 minute mark. He began by converting Nacewa’s try with ease. His form off the tee is excellent, and that continued on Saturday, with 3 from 3 in total.

Overall, Madigan’s first outing in the 12 jersey for Leinster was a positive one. While there were signs that he was slightly uncomfortable in the role at first, he grew into the game and managed to show off some of his skills. With Jonny Sexton still only 27, it’s something we may see more of in the future, possibly with the Irish national team. In terms of a Lions audition, Madigan showed glimpses of the skill set he can offer. Would you have him on the Lions squad or with Ireland this summer? Is there a future for Madigan at 12 alongside Sexton for Ireland? Let me know your views!

——————–

Madigan’s stats vs. Biarritz, from ESPNScrum.com:

Kick/pass/run: 0/13/6     Metres run: 102     Clean breaks: 1     Defenders   beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 7/2

Areas Where Leinster Can Thrive

—————–

In this brief post, I take a look at three areas in which Leinster may be able to exploit Biarritz tomorrow. The screen grabs are taken from Biarritz’s 32-28 win over Clermont (highlights above) on the 23rd of March in the Top 14. While BO were impressive that day and showed that they pose many dangers to Leinster, there were also a number of potential weaknesses on display.

Didier Faugeron’s side run a fairly standard defence. They flood the breakdown, if a turnover is blatantly on, but generally fan out and fill the line. Their wingers drop back to cover kicks, or step into the line if the opposition spread it wide. There is one potential flaw in the system though, and Leinster should look to benefit from it. Faugeron has given his players the freedom to individually ‘shoot’ up out of the defensive line if they think a ‘ball-and-all’ tackle is on. While this can result in big defensive plays, it can also leave their defensive line vulnerable.

Shooter Barraque Good

Barraque ‘shoots’ out of the defence to great effect. Click to enlarge.

In the example above, you can see a Biarritz player (Barraque) has shot up out of the defensive line on his own. On this occasion, he managed to hit the Clermont attacker (Zirakashvili) as he received the ball. Zirakashvili tried a panicked offload and Biarritz won the ball back. On the flip side, the example below shows Yachvili getting it all wrong. He’s the ‘shooter’ this time but gets caught in no-man’s land, leaving Clermont with a 3-on-2. In this game, Biarritz were very hit-and-miss with the success of their ‘shooters’.

Yachvili Shooter Bad

Yachvili makes the wrong call and exposes Biarritz’s defence. Click photo to enlarge.

Leinster should look to exploit the Biarritz shooters through simple, short pop passes inside or outside to trail runners. In these circumstances, communication from the support players is the key, as the person giving the pass usually won’t even see the shooter coming.

The next area Leinster could look to take advantage of is Biarritz’s kick-chase. While they have something of a reputation as a formidable kick-chase team, this game against Clermont saw a sloppy display in that regard. Two Clermont tries came as a result of poor kick-chasing. The first example is below. Barraque has kicked out from BO’s 22, and Clermont have run the ball back into the BO half. The chase was  lazy, and one phase later Sivivatu breaks through and passes for Skrela to score.

Screen shot 2013-04-26 at 17.12.20

Biarritz’s organisation after kick-chase can be poor. Click for larger image.

If you look at the photo above, you can count 8 Biarritz players on the blindside, including 3 in the back-field. While Sivivatu did well to break the line from this particular situation, Biarritz didn’t seem to be well organised following kick-chases in general. They conceded from a remarkably similar situation later in the game. Again, Barraque kicked out from inside the 22. The chase was unorganized and 3 phases after the kick, Clermont created the 4-on-3 situation below and scored. Check the match highlights at the top of the post to see both tries in action.

James Bad Kick Chase

Another try following a Biarritz kick.

Biarritz winger Takudzwa Ngwenya is a lethal counter-attacker and finisher thanks to his sheer pace, but he should be targeted defensively. He struggles to make the right decision about when to come in off his wing and tackle. The photo below shows a prime example. Clermont have gone wide following a lineout. The Biarritz defensive line is actually in good shape at this exact moment. With Benoit Baby drifting across, all Ngwenya has to worry about is tackling his opposite number. But immediately after this frame, he decides to rush up on the fullback. Regan King throws a simple skip pass and puts Nakaitaci clean down the touchline.

Ngwenya Decisions

Ngwenya about to make the wrong decision.

There was a similar situation later in the match, pictured below. As outhalf Brock James attacks the line, Ngwenya gets tighter and tighter to the man inside him. As you can see, he’s got his body position all wrong, completely facing in towards the action rather than out towards where the ball is being passed. The winger leaves himself in a bad position, Nakaitaci is left with lots of room out wide for Clermont and nearly scores. Leinster should look to use Madigan’s excellent passing game from inside centre to force Ngwenya into making these sort of decisions. He’s not comfortable with doing so.

Ngwenya Defense

Ngwenya gets himself in a bad position again.

Do Clermont Have Any Weaknesses?

Nyanga the Butcher

Unforgivable try-butchering from Yannick Nyanga last weekend during Clermont vs. Toulouse.

Clermont’s formula for success is very simple. They have an abundance of players who are superb individually, but crucially, all of them buy into the Vern Cotter mantra of working extremely hard. The Auvergne-based heavyweights have threats literally everywhere across the field, as well as off the bench. Their attacking game plan is nothing revolutionary, just good players making good decisions at the right time. On form, they can score from almost any situation.

Many of these scores come from moments of individual brilliance in open phase play, which is backed up by their excellent support running. The likes of Fofana, Sivivatu, Nalaga, Chouly and Hines will create chances however you defend against them, and they are excellent finishers. It’s very difficult not to see them scoring tries in Montpellier. That much is obvious, but the big question remains, do Clermont have any weaknesses? I’m going to use Clermont’s most recent match, the 39-17 win over Toulouse last weekend, to look for any potential areas to target.

The loss of captain Rougerie is a blow. While the 32-year-old is perhaps edging past his peak, he is of massive importance to Clermont, not just for his leadership. He’s still a good player, and his defensive game is undervalued. Clermont’s backline like to press up hard in defence, even in the opposition’s half. That places great demands on the 13’s decision making, and Rougerie more often than not gets it right. While King and Stanley are superb attacking replacements, they don’t offer the same security as Rougerie on ‘D’.

Rougerie

The loss of Rougerie could make Clermont weaker defensively.

One way to beat a rush defence is to try get around the outside edge of it. In the screen-grab above, Toulouse have tried something like that. From a Toulouse scrum, Clermont come up fast and McAlister flings a wide, flat pass to Fickou in the 13 channel. The aim is to get Fickou outside Rougerie , but he reads it superbly and forces a knock-on. Munster might get some success in this situation now that Rougerie is missing. Lualala has great feet and neither King nor Stanley possess quite the same level of decision-making as Rougerie. ROG threw some encouragingly excellent passes vs. ‘Quins and more of the same may reap rewards.

Another obvious way to break down a defense which likes to get up quick is through well-placed kicks. Unfortunately for Toulouse, McAlister either didn’t spot opportunities or executed badly. Below, you can see that fullback Lee Byrne (last player out on the left) has stepped up into the defensive line. This was something that was repeated on several occasions. Contrary to what you might expect, Parra also steps into the line and Clermont have nobody covering in behind. The closest thing to a ‘sweeper’ is outhalf Delany, coming from the other side of the scrum. A good chip or grubber by McAlister for Fickou and it was try-time. Instead, the outhalf did a goose-step and gave his centre a forward pass.

Clermont Defense

Clermont like to fill the first-up defensive line, not just close to their own try-line.

The next example (below) is further out, around the halfway line, but the premise is similar. Clermont’s defence is up quickly, without a winger hanging back. McAlister has spotted the opportunity and attempted a cross-field kick for Huget, who can be seen out on the far wing. Unfortunately, McAlister’s kick was poor, too far ahead of Huget, and bounced badly. But again, there’s try written all over the opportunity. Clermont do seem to repeatedly stack the defensive line. Whatever about his weaknesses, ROG still possesses an accurate kicking game, certainly better than McAlister’s, and he will spot these opportunities. Zebo will be ready and waiting.

Clermont Cross Field Kicks

There may be chances for well-placed ROG kicks.

Staying with kicking, Toulouse got a lot of change from their re-starts. Clermont are going to score on Saturday, so Munster will need to be precise in retrieving possession from these situations. McAlister dropped every single one of his kicks just over the 10-metre line, above hooker Benjamin Kayser. Clermont seemed unsure of who should claim the ball in that zone and Toulouse won possession back at least 4 times in this manner. The screen-grab below shows exactly where Toulouse targeted (in this case Nyanga wins the ball). It may not be a case of going after the exact same zone for Munster, but in O’Connell, O’Mahony, Ryan and Zebo they have excellent kick retrievers.

Drop-Offs

Clermont were very poor at receiving restarts.

Munster will certainly need to mix up their attacking game this weekend, and using last weekend’s game as a guide, they should look to attack the fringes around the rucks. Again, Toulouse had some success here. Louis Picamoles’ try (video below) was the most obvious example, but there were other instances where the big Toulouse carriers made yards. Scrumhalf Luke Burgess sniped intermittently and also made decent ground. Conor Murray’s skills look suited to the task. However, Clermont are usually far more watertight in these areas and they will certainly step up a level for the Munster game.

Putting it all together, attacking and targeting Clermont around the fringes and with kicks in behind may not result directly in tries, but it will challenge Clermont’s stifling defence. They’re extremely strong in the middle, where they’ll come up hard and smash ball carriers. If you play into their hands, they’ll turn you over and score tries from that sort of broken-up situation. It’s an obvious thing to state, but Munster need to play with lots of variety, constantly challenging Clermont to react.

While the scoreline and various media reports suggest that Clermont wiped the floor with Toulouse last weekend, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Outhalf McAlister missed two kickable penalties and turned down a few other chances for kicks at goal. Toulouse also butchered a genuine try-scoring chance (photo at the top) when Nyanga selfishly failed to pass to Fickou. Admittedly  Clermont’s 2nd-half display was lazier than usual, having built up a strong lead. That won’t happen again this weekend. They are a phenomenal side, that’s beyond doubt. But they can be beaten. 6 losses in the Top 14 this season show that. The odds are heavily in Clermont’s favour but this match is not a foregone conclusion.

——————–

* Apologies for the poor quality screen-grabs. It would be great if people could let me know if they enjoy this sort of piece, where I try to do more detailed analysis. If so, I could look into a better way of highlighting examples in the future, possibly in videos or more detailed photos of play. Let me know what you think.

Fuss in France

Paul O'Connell

O’Connell has been the centre of attention in French rugby circles. (c) Fearless Fred.

While the furore around the non-citing of Paul O’Connell is dragging on and becoming tiresome at this stage, I felt it would be worthwhile to look at exactly what is being said about the matter in France. There’s an anger at the perceived preferential treatment of O’Connell, and this has morphed into a wider debate on whether French players are being punished for the French authorities’ virtuousness in charging them, as well as questions of a conspiracy theory against the French teams in Europe. The best place to start is with France’s rugby bible, the semi-weekly Midi Olympique.

‘Midol’ hits the press every Monday and Friday, consisting of 30 pages of pure rugby. Last Monday’s edition (22nd April) dedicates its first two pages to a “Dossier” on the O’Connell story. Under the headline “Irish Shenanigans”, Marc Duzan’s lead article adressess the existence of a “conspiracy theory”. The paper’s source “close to the case” suggests that John Feehan (CEO of 6 Nations, Lions and Pro 12) and Philip Browne (Chief Exec. of IRFU) had been involved in pressurising Citing Officer Eddie Walsh. Ronan O’Gara’s kick on Sean Cox is brought up with the reminder that he only served a 1-week suspension. Duzan finishes by saying that the “values of the rugby family” mean this can all only be coincidence, but says “it is right to question this unfortunate collision of occurrences.”

The next article bears the banner “O’Connell is Not an Angel”. Journalist Jerome Prevot paints the Munster captain as the “anti-Cudmore”. Quoting an Irish colleague (who was snitching lads?), implications are made that O’Connell is “immune” to giving away penalties because of his “aura”. Nigel Owens is then linked to several of Munster’s European exploits. The POC vs. Cudmore fight is brought up, saying that POC landed more blows, but that his “cunning” show of innocence towards the linesman before unleashing had spared him. The Jonathan Thomas incident is mentioned next, with O’Connell’s 4-week ban compared to the 10 weeks (note: subsequently reduced) received by Gavin Henson for a similar incident.

——————– 

Across the page, various concerned parties weigh in with quotes. Clermont coach Vern Cotter says that referee Owens will have to be “very vigilant” around O’Connell’s actions on Saturday. Patrick Wolff, vice-president of the LNR, states that it is “unthinkable that O’Connell is not brought before a disciplinary committee to explain or justify.” Marcus Horan assures the French public that POC “is not a violent player.” Finally, and oddly, David Attoub (he of the 70-week gouging ban) is asked for his take on the matter. Unsurprisingly, he steers well clear: “I don’t want to speak about this player, or incident… I don’t want my comments to be misinterpreted.”

Another article questions whether the French are being too “righteous” in banning their own players’ misdemeanors  thus “endangering their own interests”. The piece questions how O’Connell isn’t cited for “a kick to the head of an opponent” while Jerome Fillol gets 14 weeks for spitting on Stringer.  Finishing up the 2-page spread is the reminder that the 3 longest bans in ERC history were imposed on representatives of French clubs: Trevor Brennan (5 years), Richard Nones (2 years) and Attoub (70 weeks).

The feeling of ill-treatment took another turn yesterday with the news that Clermont’s request to register Mike Delany to their H Cup squad had been rejected. The ERC held firm with their assertion that all players must be registered by the 21st of March, but that has not gone down well in Clermont. The club’s manager Marc Lhermet needlessly brought Munster into the equation, questioning how Delany “can’t play in the Heineken Cup this season, but Munster can use Paul O’Connell this weekend.”

Leinster V Clermont

Vern Cotter has said that Brock James will be part of the matchday 23 on Saturday. (c) Martin Dobey.

The reaction from fans on message boards and comment sections on French rugby websites has been equally disbelieving. The perceived preferential treatment of Munster is widespread, with some suggesting that if the tables were turned, and Munster needed an outhalf brought in, the ERC would have no problem granting the request. There’s lots of disgruntlement, but what does it all really mean in terms of the match on Saturday?

Very little. It’s unlikely that the players are very affected by any of this. You could suggest that anything to take Clermont’s focus away from Saturday is positive for Munster. You could argue that this entire episode suits the Munster mentality and simply puts more pressure on Clermont. But realistically, Cotter will be ensuring his players stay focused on their Heineken Cup goal. This squad is hugely motivated and in-form. While the journalists, fans and dirigeants debate, question and complain, the players will be readying themselves for battle on Saturday.

——————–

Photos: Martin Dobey, Fearless Fred.

The Exiled Irish: Les Grenoblois

Grenoble

Grenoble’s Stade Lesdiguières has become home for three Irish professionals. (c) Vijay PhotoWalks.

This time a year ago, The Touchline featured an Exiled Irish piece on four Irish professionals contracted in France. Picking up in that vein, this article looks at the growing Irish community at French Top 14 club Grenoble. The Isère-based outfit currently have two Irish players on their cards, as well as a coach. James Hart and Andrew Farley are at very different stages of their careers, but both are enjoying success at Grenoble. The experiences of Hart should encourage young Irish players who miss out on Academy and provincial contracts that there are other options, while Farley’s example will surely inspire older professionals to try something different.

Meanwhile, the success of Bernard Jackman in his first season at Grenoble will be equally encouraging to young Irish coaches, as well as to other French clubs. With Jackman’s positive impact comes more international acceptance of the quality of Irish coaches. The news that Mike Pendergast will join Jackman as Grenoble’s Skills Coach may be a sign of things to come for Irish backroom staff. With 30 professional clubs spread over the Top 14 and Pro D2, as well as a host of semi-pro teams in Fédérale 1, there is far greater need for good coaches. The more Irish players and coaches we can have playing and working regularly in a professional environment, the better Irish rugby will be.

——————–

James Hart

Hart’s move to Grenoble last summer was one that flew well under the radar. The  21-year-old halfback is Dublin-born and attended Belvedere College. His mother hails from Toulouse, and Hart’s rugby education was kick-started there. At the age of 16, Hart moved to Toulouse for transition year, living with his grandparents. He stayed for 8 months, playing for Stade Toulousain’s Cadet team alongside the likes of Jean-Marc Doussain and Nicolas Bézy. Hart claims that period made him “physically and technically stronger“. He returned to Ireland to play Schools Senior Cup, as well as for Leinster up to U20 level.

Having graduated from school in 2010, and with no Academy offer from Leinster, Hart joined AIL side Clontarf, where he was coached by Bernard Jackman. This relationship resulted in Hart joining Grenoble a year later, in the summer of 2011. His first season at FCG saw the halfback play for the Espoirs side (U23 level), while training with the pro side. This season has seen Hart make big strides. He made his first senior start last December, playing outhalf in FCG’s 20-9 win over London Welsh in the Challenge Cup. Substitue appearances followed in the return match and against Stade Francais in the same competition.

The 83kg Dubliner had to wait a little longer for his first Top 14 chance. Last month, he started at scrumhalf in the 33-16 loss away to Biarritz and then came off the bench against Bayonne just 2 weeks ago. Hart’s goal-kicking skills have seen him convert 3 penalties (one of which earned FCG a losing bonus point in the last minute) and 2 conversions in his 5 appearances so far. Grenoble appear to see the youngster as a scrumhalf, but he has plenty of experience at outhalf. He also played in the centre for Clontarf (as shown in the video above). His impressive progress this season has resulted in him signing a new two-year deal.  Certainly one to watch next season for Irish rugby fans.

Grenoble Profile: James Hart

——————–

Andrew Farley

Farley has been captaining Grenoble since

Farley (first on left) has been captaining Grenoble since 2010. (c) Vijay PhotoWalks

Farley was one of those featured in the original Exiled Irish piece mentioned above. Born in Australia (and capped at U19 and U21 level), the second-row qualified for Ireland on residency grounds after 5 seasons with Connacht. That spell followed short stints in Italy with L’Aquila (under Mike Brewer) and Wales with Swansea. The Brisbane-native was part of the Ireland ‘A’ side who won the Plate at the 2007 Churchill Cup. In 2009, Farley decided to take up an offer from Grenoble, then in Pro D2, and hasn’t looked back since.

His first season at the Isère club saw them finish 6th, before agonisingly missing out on automatic promotion to the Top 14 by just 2 points in the ’10/11 season. Already a key player thanks to his excellent line-out work and leadership, the 112kg lock was installed as captain that season. The following year, FCG stormed to the Pro D2 title, 18 points clear of 2nd-placed Pau. Most promoted sides have serious struggles in the Top 14, but that hasn’t been the case for Grenoble. Their excellent start to the season meant they were realistically safe by Christmas. Last weekend’s stunning last-gasp win over Toulon left them 9th, with just one game to go.

32-year-old Farley has enjoyed 14 starts in the league campaign as well as 5 in the Challenge Cup. His form shows no sign of decline and he recently penned a new deal keeping him in France until the end of the ’13/14 season, with the option of another year. Grenoble are an ambitious club and look set to continue their rise. Adopted Irish man Farley will continue to play a key part.

Grenoble Profile: Andrew Farley     Twitter: @BruceFarls

——————–

Bernard Jackman

Jackman scoring for Leinster (wearing green!) against the Reds in 2008. (c) Paul Walsh.

Jackman scoring for Leinster (wearing green!) against the Reds in 2008. (c) Paul Walsh.

Ex-Ireland, Leinster and Connacht hooker Jackman is coming to the end of his first full season as the club’s Defence Coach. The Tullow-native’s playing career saw him win 9 caps for Ireland, as well as a Heineken Cup with Leinster in 2009. He also enjoyed a spell with Sale, where he won a Challenge Cup. His coaching career began in 2005 at Newbridge Rugby Club. He led Newbridge to Leinster League Division 3 title and a Lalor Cup, before taking over at Coolmine RFC in 2007. Success followed again, culminating with the Dublin 15 side winning Leinster League Division 2 in 2009.

Jackman’s long-time club side Clontarf came calling in 2009, and he joined as Head Coach. With the Leinster hooker still playing at that stage, the ’09/10 season saw them relegated from Division 1A of the then AIB League. However, having retired from playing ahead of the ’10/11 season, Jackman helped the club bounce straight back up. The summer of 2011 saw Jackman resign for “professional developmental reasons” and he went on a two-month consultancy period with Grenoble, then in the Pro D2. Head Coach Fabrice Landreau was evidently impressed and Jackman signed on full-time for the start of the current season.

FCG’s promotion to the Top 14 meant Jackman was stepping into the fire in his new role as Defence and Skills Coach. However, Jackman and the rest of the coaching staff enjoyed a hugely positive start to the season, winning 10 of their first 15 league matches up until the New Year. Since then, the wins have been rare, just 1 in 9 games until last weekend’s win over Toulon. Still, for a promoted team it’s been a fantastic first season back in the top flight. Jackman has made a big impression and recently signed a new 1-year contract with the club, with a new title of Defence and Collisions coach. It’s great to see Irish coaches working in technical roles such as this at a top-level. That knowledge can hopefully help the Irish provinces and national team at some stage. Still only 36, Jackman has a long coaching career ahead of him. His rise looks set to continue.

Grenoble Profile: Bernard Jackman     Twitter: @bernardjackman

——————–

Grenoble’s last game of the season is in two week’s time, May the 4th, away to Toulouse. They’re 9th (joint-8th really) heading into that game, but nothing is decided yet. Depending on the outcome, and results elsewhere, they could finish anywhere from 8th to 11th. Their achievements look all the better when you compare them to the other promoted side, Mont de Marsan. They’ve won just 2 league games all season. Grenoble are a hugely ambitious club, and should push on again next year.

——————–

Photos: Vijay Photwalk, Paul Walsh.