Tag Archives: Heineken Cup

Top 14 Preview: Clermont

25924The History

Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne was launched in 1911 by Marcel Michelin, son of André, who founded the Michelin tyre company. The club was intended to provide entertainment for the many workers employed by the organisation. Their story since has been littered with near-misses. ASM did enjoy success in the Challenge Yves du Manoir and Challenge Cup, but they finished runners-up in the French championship ten times before finally winning in 2010.

In the Heineken Cup, Clermont have lost a final, semi-final and a quarter-final in recent years. The common perception is that ASM lack the mental edge to win big games, but their 2010 success has been quickly forgotten. In that same time frame, Toulon have lost four finals and won one trophy, but not once has their winning mentality been questioned. Of course it is the manner of Clermont’s defeats which see them labelled as ‘bottlers’ too, but they will continue to challenge for titles.

The Setting

The city of Clermont-Ferrand sits in the Auvergne region of central France, with a population of 141,000. While it is an industrial area, the city has a growing student population of 30,000 and Clermont’s supporters are amongst the friendliest in the world. The Stade Marcel-Michelin is ASM’s home, with space for 18,030 people. With the stands almost leaning over the pitch, the atmosphere is never anything less than fervent. ASM hold a French record of 60 consecutive victories at home, they simply don’t do losses at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Last Season

ASM v LR

Two superb wins over Leinster have been forgotten amidst Clermont’s end-of-season failure. (c) Andy Patterson.

The campaign promised so much as Clermont played scintillating rugby throughout the season. Top try-scorers by 12 in the Top 14, Vern Cotter’s side topped the regular season table. In the Heineken Cup their 31 tries were unmatched, and they looked like champions-to-be. Everything came unstuck on the home straight though, with the loss to Toulon in the H Cup final followed by a pitiful effort against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final. Flanker Julien Bonnaire summed it up in simple terms: “Let’s call a cat a cat. Last season was a failure. Now we must redeem ourselves.”

Ambitions

ASM approach this season in a strange state following Cotter’s frank criticism of the players and the club’s recruitment policy in the aftermath of the failed season. The New Zealander has agreed to join Scotland at the end of this season, and the impression was that he was attempting to get himself released early by speaking out. However, bridges have apparently been rebuilt and Clermont are focused on winning a trophy. They have the squad to compete on two fronts, but the truly burning desire is Heineken Cup success.

While they have shown a strong tendency to lose high-pressure play-off games, writing Clermont off before the season has even started would be foolish.

The Coach

Bouclier de B.

Cotter is hoping for more days like this one in 2010. (c) Ville de Clermont-Ferrand.

Cotter is a former number eight who played for Counties Manukau as well as four French clubs. His coaching career took in Bay of Plenty and the Crusaders (as forwards coach where he won Super Rugby titles in ’05 and ’06) before Clermont made him head coach for the ’06/07 season. ASM lost the next three Top 14 finals before finally earning a Bouclier de Brennus in 2010. Cotter is as hard-nosed as you would expect from a Kiwi back-row but also encourages his players to offload and attack from their own half.

Cotter’s challenge this season is to ensure that Clermont are better equipped for knock-out games. The sheer quality in their squad means they will feature in the latter stages of both competitions. Pre season at ASM has focused on decision making, demanding that the players work through their options in various match specific scenarios. Cotter told Midi Olympique that ASM “need be capable of better adapting to the context, and if we must, making our plans simpler and more pragmatic.”

Transfer Activity

Clermont were the quietest Top 14 club in terms of transfers this summer, with just three new faces. Having originally agreed a deal to join in June, Mike Delany was drafted in late last season on a medical joker basis and greatly impressed in three starts. Unfortunately, the one-time All Black outhalf has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the opening three months of the season. That meant Clermont had to search for another outhalf, with the experienced Gavin Hume the result.

The 33-year-old South African spent the last nine seasons with USAP, winning a Top 14 title in 2009. Hume has been sharp for ASM in pre season and offers solid back-up to Brock James. The only other addition is scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe (25) from Castres, who will compete with Ludovic Radosavljevic for a place on the bench behind Morgan Parra. Familiar names leaving Clermont include David Skrela, who drops into the Pro D2 with Colomiers, and Anthony Floch, who joins Montpellier in search of game time.

Key Players

Wesley Fofana is amongst the best centres in world rugby and probably Clermont’s greatest asset. The 25-year-old runs perceptive lines and aided by sizzling pace and a violent fend, the French international is a nightmare for opposition defences. his ability to pick out weak defenders in the defensive line is unrivaled.  While Fofana’s passing game still has some way to go, he is an attacking threat from any situation. Alongside him is captain Aurélien Rougerie, a one-club man and a passionate leader.

Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga provide a guaranteed supply of tries. Sivivatu was exceptional last season, roaming into midfield and often taking the ball as first receiver. The former All Black has the footwork and power to beat tackles every time he touches the ball. Nalaga is more of a direct proposition, but he is near to unstoppable from close range. In between them, Clermont have the luxury of choosing between Lee Byrne’s kicking game and experience or Jean-Marcellin Buttin’s languid, creative brilliance.

James

Brock James has been the focus of much of the criticism aimed at ASM. (c) Frank Nieto.

Morgan Parra is the archetypal French scrumhalf, directing his forwards, place-kicking and strutting around when he is in control. After ending the season in very poor form, the 24-year-old decided not to tour with France this summer and will benefit from a full pre season schedule. Joining him in the halfback charnière is Brock James, the much maligned Australian. His famous incidences of big-game failure make him an obvious target, but at his best James is a superb outhalf.

Julien Bonnaire remains crucial at the age of 34 through his lineout excellence, work-rate and leadership. Alongside him, number eight Damian Chouly is a strong ball carrier but needs to become more prominent in the high-stake games.

Irish Connection

In a giant tight five featuring French internationals Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the key man is Scottish international Nathan Hines. He was certainly among the best locks in Europe last season and would have added greatly to the Lions tour. At 36, the body has started to feel the knocks that little bit more, but Hines never gives anything less than total commitment. Smashing rucks, winning lineouts and shoving at scrum time are the norm for any lock, but what sets Hines apart is his superb handling and passing ability.

Possible Starting XV

15. Byrne/Buttin, 14. Sivivatu, 13. Rougerie, 12. Fofana, 11. Nalaga, 10. James, 9. Parra, 8. Chouly, 7. Vosloo/Lapandry, 6. Bonnaire, 5. Hines, 4. Cudmore, 3. Zirakashvili, 2. Kayser 1. Domingo

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Photos: Andy Patterson, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Frank Nieto.

Top 14 Preview: Biarritz

UntitledThe History

Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque dates back to 1902, when the Biarritz Stade athletics club first created a rugby section. In 1909, Biarritz Sporting Club was born in the town, before the two outfits merged in 1913. BO’s first French title came in 1935, when a team captained by Henri Haget beat USAP 3-0. Legendary outhalf Haget helped Biarritz to another championship win over Perpignan in 1939, but BO failed to claim another trophy for the next 60 years.

The club enjoyed a competitive spell in the late ’80s powered by fullback Serge Blanco and lock Jean Condom, but it was not until the 2000s that BO were back amongst the silverware. In 2002, when Dimitri Yachvili first broke through, the club were crowned champions of France. Bankrolled by Serge Kampf, Biarritz recruited the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille in ’04, with further French titles secured in ’05 and ’06.

Biarritz suffered Heineken Cup final losses in both 2006 and 2010, but were true giants of French rugby for the decade. The club’s most recent trophy came in 2012, then they beat Toulon in the Challenge Cup final. Unfortunately for the Basques, times are changing.

The Setting

BO

BO’s fans have an excellent and well-deserved reputation as amongst the best in the league. © bernardphoto.

Biarritz is located in the Pays Basque, on the Atlantic coast of southwestern France, just 17 kilometres from the Spanish border. Eight kilometres away is Bayonne; the rivalry between the towns is fierce. Parc des Sports Aguiléra is BO’s home ground, with a capacity of 15,000. For some big games, Biarritz relocate to the 32,000-seater Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian, Spain. Club president Serge Blanco hopes plans to modernise and enlarge the Aguiléra to 18,000 seats will be confirmed before the end of the year.

Last Season

Biarritz made a superb start to last season, winning their first four league matches before a shocking turn in form saw them lose six in a row. After defeat to Connacht in December, Blanco sacked coaching duo Serge Milhas and Jack Isaac. BO’s Sporting Director, ex-France No. 8 Laurent Rodriguez, assumed the position of forwards coach, with Didier Faugeron drafted in as backs coach. Under the new coaching team, Biarritz’s performances improved and they finished the season in ninth.

The Heineken Cup was a disappointment for BO, with just three wins in a group containing Zebre and Connacht. After dropping into the Challenge Cup and briefly flourishing against Gloucester, Biarritz’s thrashing at the hands of Leinster showed how far they have fallen. This season will be the first time since ’99/00 that Biarritz haven’t been in the Heineken Cup. The simple truth is that BO can no longer compete financially with the likes of Clermont, Toulouse and Racing.

Ambitions

BO

BO are aiming for the top six and H Cup qualification. © bernardphoto.

Despite that, Blanco remains optimistic for the club he loves so dearly. He told Midi Olympique that “our ambition once again will be to finish in the top six and go as far as possible in the Challenge Cup. I think we’re going to surprise people in a lot of areas. I’m ready to go to war with this group.” Fighting talk indeed, but it would be a shock to see Biarritz back it up on the pitch over the course of the season. There is a real sense of a wounded Goliath about BO, but of course any flailing strike presents real danger for the opposition.

The Coach

Rodriguez is still in charge of the forwards at Biarritz, but it is backs coach Faugeron who dictates their approach. The former winger had coaching spells with Brive, Agen, Stade Francais and Bayonne before arriving at BO. While les Biarrots’ style of play over the last number of years has been highly structured around Yachvili’s kicking skills, Faugeron has been working to expand their attacking game plan since December.

In his own words: “A player must be ready to come out of the given structure. There are never good or bad places to attack from. I ask the players to be constantly on the alert and reading the game. You can’t create mismatches unless you react in real time.” The fruits of that philosophy were a more expansive attacking game from Biarritz in the second half of the season, and it may finally be time for BO to leave behind the template that brought them so much glory.

Transfer Activity

Pietersen

Joe Pietersen joins from the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

Biarritz’s attempts to find an outhalf have landed them Dan Waenga. The 27-year-old Kiwi made his Super Rugby debut off the bench for the Chiefs this season after years of ITM Cup experience with Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty. Waenga replaces Jean-Pascal Barraque, who moved to Toulouse this summer. Yachvili will continue to run the team from scrumhalf, but Waenga’s success in adapting to the Top 14 will be important.

Italian international lock Josh Furno joins from Narbonne and is a player of real potential. The 23-year-old Melbourne-native has played in the back row and possess excellent lineout skills. Tongan international Ueleni Fono (31) joins from relegated Agen. His power can be utilised anywhere across the back row. Loosehead prop Alexandre Menini (29) is likely to push hard for a spot in the starting XV. Having spent his entire career in the Pro D2, his first Top 14 campaign with a poor Mont de Marsan team last season was impressive.

The most exciting signing is perhaps Joe Pietersen from the Stormers in South Africa. The 29-year-old has seven years of Super Rugby experience and is a sharp attacking presence from fullback. Pietersen spent a season with BO’s neighbours Bayonne in ’10/11, where he scored seven tries in 17 games. A wildcard addition is Samoan sevens star Paul Perez (26). He has seven international caps in the fifteen-a-side game, as well as ITM and Currie Cup exposure.

Key Players

Biarritz Olympique - Conversion - Dimitri Yachvili

Yachvili is still in charge at BO. (c) Peter Dean.

Yachvili is still the man in Biarritz. At 32, he remains the key for les Biarrots. If he can avoid injuries and find his best form, Faugeron’s side will flourish. Yachvili is the side’s playmaker from scrumhalf, and he is given free reign to play the game as he sees fit. It’s hard to stress just how important the French international is to Biarritz. If he plays well, BO do too.

Harinordoquy has been plagued with injuries for the past two seasons, but remains an important cog. His career has been magnificent, but the 33-year-old is not finished yet. Harinordoquy recently stated his ambition to be involved in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will have benefited from an extended rest this summer. His skills and genius remain but, like Yachvili, the question is whether his body can keep going.

In the centre, Damien Traille is still going at the ripe old age of 34. His experience and defensive leadership are likely to be deployed at 12. Outside him at 13, Benoît Baby had one of the best seasons of his career having finally settled in one position and remaining injury-free. The French international’s attacking threat was one of the main positives of the campaign. On the wing, American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya’s searing pace is always a threat.

Up front, Raphaël Lakafia (24) is a powerful presence in the back-row, while fellow French cap Arnaud Héguy will need to take control at hooker following the retirement of Biarritz hero Benoît August. The loss of flanker Wenceslas Lauret (24) to Racing Metro will also be felt.

Irish Connection

Tououse V Biarritz

Balshaw (passing) has become an important part of the set-up at Biarritz in recent years. (c) Martin Dobey.

There are no Irishmen at Biarritz, but Iain Balshaw has played against Ireland and the provincial sides on numerous occasions. The 34-year-old will miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery, but is expected back in mid-September. Fellow English international Magnus Lund is in his sixth season with les Biarrots. Capped 10 times, he is likely to be used at blindside.

That duo are joined by a compatriot in the shape of Addison Lockley (21). The England U20 lock has signed for the club’s academy after impressing for Moseley in the Championship. Tighthead prop Ben Broster is another name that may be familiar. The 31-year-old was capped twice for Wales. Physical wing Aled Brew (9 Wales caps) scored just one try in 30 appearances in his first season at Biarritz and his place comes under threat from the exciting Teddy Thomas.

Possible Starting XV

15. Joe Pietersen 14. Takudzwa Ngwenya 13. Benoît Baby 12. Damien Traille 11. Teddy Thomas/Aled Brew 10. Dan Waenga 9. Dimitri Yachvilli 8. Imanol Harinordoquy 7. Raphaël Lakafia 6. Magnus Lund/Benoît Guyot 5. Josh Furno 4. Pelu Taele 3. Ben Broster/Francisco Gomez-Kodela 2. Arnuad Héguy 1. Fabien Barcella/Alexandre Menini

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Photos: Paul Barnard, Peter Dean, Martin Dobey, bernardphoto.

Munster Will Rue Missed Chances

Asm vs Munster

Missed chances in Montpellier. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Muster getting within a score of Clermont in Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final was always going to be notched down as another ‘heroic’ performance. Based on form over the season, operating budget, home advantage and other reasons, Clermont were clear favourites. While Munster’s display was excellent and should be lauded, the players and management will have serious regrets about the chance that was missed.

The emotion of the Munster players immediately after the final whistle told the story. This wasn’t a case of being well beaten by the better team on the day, but rather of an opportunity missed. Clermont’s mental fragility at this stage of knock-out competitions was evident again, as Munster turned up in a big way. Rob Penney and his squad won’t merely shrug their shoulders and admit to being beaten by the best team in Europe. Instead, they will look to learn as much as possible from this loss.

Joe Schmidt made an interesting observation at his unveiling as Ireland coach, saying, “I am a massive believer that transition is a constant.” While it’s clear that Munster are in the midst of dealing with a changing playing staff, they remain in the business of winning trophies. The loss to Clermont won’t be accepted as something that was inevitable, but rather with a pronouncement of not making the same mistakes next time around.

Asm vs Munster

Clermont took their chances. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

More specifically, while this was an exceptional Munster performance with some top-class individual efforts, there were aspects that let them down. In the video below, the focus is on Munster’s use of possession and their inability to turn it into points on several occasions. Obviously they scored a superb, intelligent try through Denis Hurley and nearly had another after Casey Laulala’s perfectly-weighted grubber, but here the focus is on the opportunities they let slip.

The intention is not to be overly negative about Munster’s showing. They played some great rugby and it was thoroughly encouraging for next season. Paul O’Connell summed it up perfectly after the game:

“Second half we had our opportunities and we didn’t really take them. We got a good try from a great little chip from ROG, but there were plenty of other opportunities when we were in their 22, 10 metres from their line, five metres from their line particularly just before half-time and we didn’t take those opportunities.”

Let’s have a closer look at what O’Connell was talking about:

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I’d appreciate people’s honest, constructive feedback on this type of video post. Is there interest in more of this kind of thing? What could be done better? Let me know. Thanks.

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Photos: Mathilde Bourel is on Flickr, and can also be found on Twitter.

Areas Where Leinster Can Thrive

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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.

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* 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.

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.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

Pressure is on Ulster

South African Waltzing Matilda

Stefan Terblanche attacks during Ulster's 22-16 win over Munster in the quarter-finals. (c) Sean Mulligan.

This is completely new territory for Ulster. Their first Heineken Cup semi-final since 1999, when they famously went on to win the tournament. More importantly, Ulster are the clear favourites for tomorrow. It’s a position that they haven’t had to deal with in any of their big games this season so far. How Ulster cope with that tag could have a telling effect on the outcome of the clash with Edinburgh.

Let’s take a closer look at Ulster’s three most important wins this season. All the way back in November, Brian McLaughlin’s side opened their H-Cup campaign with a hard-fought 16-11 win over Clermont in Ravenhill. A loss there would obviously have had disastrous effects. Coming into that game, all the pre-match talk had been about Clermont’s power and pace – Rougerie, Byrne, Bonnaire and Parra. It’s worth remembering that Ulster were viewed slightly differently as a team back then.

While, the pressure was most certainly not off Ulster, no one would have been greatly surprised to see Ulster lose. Despite Clermont winning the set-piece battle and edging the possession/territory stakes, Ulster pulled off a confidence-boosting victory. Their now trademark aggressive defence was led manfully by Stephen Ferris and Ian Humphreys’ try came from an incisive counter-attack following a Clermont knock-on in the Ulster half.

Heineken Cup Q Final April 2012 141

Ulster's defence has been a strength. In this photo, Stephen Ferris is typically bursting up ahead of the defensive line. (c) Alan06.

The next key result was the 41-7 mauling of Leicester, again at Ravenhill. This was another match where Ulster weren’t viewed as definite favourites. The Tigers were still pushing hard for a quarter-final spot at that stage. Once again, Ulster were second-best at the set piece, and were narrowly shaded in terms of territory and possession, yet they still managed to tear the Tigers apart.  As with the Clermont game, Ulster’s defence shut down a Leicester side who are easily the top try-scorers in the Premiership. We’ll come back to Ulster’s attacking performance that day.

So, to the quarter-final win in Thomond Park. It’s fair to say that Munster were the narrow favourites for the majority of fans and bookies. The home side had a whooping 72% possession and 79% territory, but Ulster again came out on top. While Munster’s attacking play was very limited, it’s hard to emphasize Ulster’s phenomenal defensive effort enough. Their try, from inside their own half, was a mixture of Craig Gilroy’s ability with ball in hand and Munster’s unacceptably poor tackling.

The major point is that Ulster’s three biggest wins of the season came in matches where they were slight underdogs and didn’t expect to dominate possession (nor did they). Against Edinburgh tomorrow, both of these aspects will be reversed. Encouragingly, Ulster have strong leaders in the likes of Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and John Afoa. Still, it will be intriguing to see how McLaughlin and his charges handle the expectation. This won’t be a game where the opposition will have long spells of possession and Ulster can simply batter them with their aggressive defence.

Ulster's lineout copy

Muller and his pack will expect to provide quality possession to Pienaar at 9. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

We go back to that glorious win over Leicester for the attacking template that Ulster should look to use. The first try that day was sheer excellence. It was kick-started inside Ulster’s half as two passes put Wannenburg in space out wide on the right. The South African’s offload was followed by Trimble’s before the move was slightly halted. Following a few patient phases, Ferris’ burst put Ulster back on the front foot and Trimble finished in the corner.

That’s Ulster at their best. One or two direct boshes in tight (Trimble, Tuohy, Muller etc. run at Laidlaw!) followed swiftly by long passes into a wide channel. As pointed on Whiff of Cordite, Ulster’s 9-10-12 axis are all lovely passers of the ball, and that doesn’t change with the selection of Paddy Jackson at 10. As the lads highlight, that Gilroy try vs. Munster is another fine example. Trimble up the middle, then two long passes (Humphreys, that’s an absolute beauty!) to the wide channel. While the 21-year-old isn’t going to finish like that every time, it still allows Ulster to play to their strengths.

Ulster’s pack looks slightly stronger than Edinburgh’s, although with John Afoa missing, Edinburgh will expect to get on top in the scrum. Even without Chris Henry, Ulster’s forwards should be able to provide Pienaar and Jackson with a steady share of quality possession. If Ulster can manage the added pressure of favouritism, retain their disruptive defensive style and unleash their most effective attacking patterns then they’re a banker to get to the Heineken Cup final. Once there, they will return to the role of underdogs against Clermont or Leinster. As we’ve seen before, that’s a position which suits them.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Sean Mulligan, Alan06.