09 September 2013

1st Round travails already telling tales…

Losing the first game of the season brings a little more pressure than losing most other regular season games. Every team wants a good start, something to build upon. After the first week of the season half the teams are just where they want to be and the other half are suddenly feeling very uneasy.

Munster, Connacht, Leinster, Ospreys, Glasgow and Dragons players will all pitch up to training this week with a pep in their step. While the losing teams brace themselves for a tough week in the trenches.

The mood in those losing camps will be tense, as another defeat next weekend and suddenly the team could be looking down the barrel of a losing streak and all the angst associated with that. It’s a long enough season without putting yourself behind the eight ball before the end of September.

That tension will be felt more in Ulster than anywhere else. A 15-8 loss was definitely not in the script for a team that has aspirations to making the play-offs at the end of the season. For sure the first game of the season can be unpredictable and Ulster, like some other teams in the tournament, were without some of their international contingent. But a trip to Rodney Parade is not one of the venues that usually scares a player off his pre-match meal.

The most frustrating aspect of the loss for Ulster will be that they didn’t play too badly. They looked the better team throughout and at times you thought they were going to kick on and win comfortably, with even the possibility of a bonus point tagged on. When Roger Wilson, on the 16th minute, rumbled in for a try off the back of a maul you thought here we go. But it is hard believe that Ulster would not register another score for the remaining 64 minutes.

They had phases of play when they looked like they were going to rip the Dragons apart. But a combination of frustrating handling errors and bad decisions undid all the good work. They seemed to ignore the one tactic that was proving a banker for them and that was the rolling maul. Even apart from Roger Wilson’s try, the Dragons couldn’t contain the maul any time Ulster employed it.

But with good weather for running rugby, Ulster seemed intent on going through their expansive pattern regardless. It might have been better to grind the Dragons down earlier in the game and leave the expansive pattern until later when the Dragon were beaten up.

The Dragons played some attractive rugby but it never had enough edge to it to hurt Ulster and they never really threatened the Ulster line. But they didn’t need to as Ulster’s regular concessions of kickable penalties meant an on form Tovey tagged four on to his 7th minute drop-goal and that was enough to do for Ulster.

In the final couple of minutes Ulster were penalised twice when they were driving the Dragons scrum backwards. The Dragons front five looked like they were on roller blades on both occasions. It is an extraordinary rarity to see a team collapse a scrum going forward, when you have every incentive to drive the opposition off the ball. But twice in two minutes and it was worth checking if there was a blue moon rising over Rodney Parade.

But Ulster should never have been in that position at that point in the game. The losing bonus point will be of little consolation to a team that expected to be heading home for next weeks game against Glasgow with at least four points in the bank. There will be extra pressure at Ravenhill next Friday night.

Speaking of pressure Connacht got the winning start they wanted against Zebra. No doubt there was some extra pressure around this game. In the west, since the appointment of Pat Lam, some excellent off-season signings and the young players stepping out of the academy, expectations are higher than ever.

Playing Zebra at home in the first game of the season was a must win. If Connacht are going to improve on last season’s league position, they would expect to beat Zebra both home and away. So last Saturday evening brought extra pressure above and beyond that of a normal season opener.

But the result was never really in doubt once Connacht went into the half-time with a 17-3 lead. They were already on track for bonus point after 30 minutes with two tries in the bag from Nathan White and Matt Healy. The half-time team talk would have been “more of the same”.

But they lost their way somewhat in the second half and the Connacht faithful would have even been uneasy in their seats when Orquera kicked Zebra to 17-9 in the 60th minute. But Dan Parks responded immediately with a penalty to ease tensions. Although it wasn’t until the 75th minute when Fionn Carr scored the final try for Connacht and put the game to bed.

It is a case of “job done” last weekend for Connacht and a little pressure off. But quietly there will be a little frustration with the result. Having been in such a commanding lead at half-time and not scoring in the 3rd quarter Connacht know they probably left a bonus point behind.

On the other hand Munster made light of being shorn of their international stars with a five-try demolition of Edinburgh. For the most part, and particularly in the 1st half, Edinburgh were woeful. But that was no surprise as their coach, Alan Solomons, only just arrived a few weeks ago. It was only to be expected they would struggle to look cohesive as they are probably still trying to decipher exactly how the coach wants them to play.

Munster have not changed their attacking pattern very much. They are still attacking through those controversial outside channels like last year. But the balance to their attack is much better and the players seem to know when to attack up the guts and when to move the ball wide. That balance is crucial to the success of the much discussed “wide/wide” pattern Munster struggled with last season.

Casey Laulala in particular chose his moments well as to pass or run himself. When Munster hit that balance to their attack they had Edinburgh in all sorts of trouble.

Edinburgh did score two tries in the 2nd half. But I believe it had more to do with Munster losing concentration and deciding to focus on attacking with the ball rather than defending without it.

The introduction of JJ Hanrahan for the final quarter coupled with his contribution of a try and conversion will only fuel the fly-half debate again. Ian Keatley had a solid game, although the same could not be said about his kicking. His striking of the ball, particularly off the ground, could not be described as sweet. For the past 12 years, with ROG at the helm, Munster have taken their goal kicking as a given. The bar has been set very high, but Ian Keatley will have to iron out that aspect of his game very quickly.

The performance of the weekend goes to Leinster. Away from home to Llanelli and short over half their team they gave the Scarlets a good old shellacking. Llanelli, who were missing a few players, are expected to perform well this season and probably challenge Ospreys as the top team in Wales. At home they can without doubt be a tough nut to crack. So all credit to Matt O’Connor for knocking things into such good shape so quickly.

It was a typical Leinster performance. After 60 minutes Leinster were leading by 20-19. They then went on to score 22 unanswered points to bury Llanelli. We have come to expect once Leinster get their foot on your throat they rarely take it of again.

It also proves what we all believe that Leinster have great strength in depth and Jimmy Gopperth is a very good signing.

Even to a greater extent than in Munster, Gopperth’s man of the match performance will intensify the debate as to who will take the #10 shirt for the big games this season in Leinster. That decision will have a huge bearing on Ian Madigan’s career path.

Madigan has been the heir apparent since Jonathan Sexton announced his departure to France. In fact if Sexton had not joined the Wild Geese it would have made sense for Madigan to do so. If Gopperth takes over from Sexton this season Madigan will be left treading water again for another year.

It is something the IRFU and Joe Schmidt will be watching very closely, as Madigan is capable of challenging Jonathan Sexton for the Irish fly-half shirt.

Sometimes decisions taken off the field are more interesting than what is happening on the field.