Best clubs are never in transition; continuity's the name of the game
Imanol Harinordoquy, captain and talisman is back (on the bench) for Biarritz; Dylan Hartley is back for Northhampton Saints; Saracens have their all-conquering All Black slayers back in harness and Clermont have any amount of brilliance and brutality waiting in France. What a weekend awaits us and I have a sneaking suspicion the big two will struggle, with Connacht and Ulster best placed to beat the bookies.
As we transition back to our provinces for the must-win fortnight of European middle matches which shape entire seasons I wonder what exactly transition entails; it’s a word Declan Kidney leans on as he “rebuilds”. To it I add: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Behind closed doors this is not the language of our four provinces. Real consistent winners such as the Kilkenny hurlers and Heineken Cup champions push this concept much further: if it’s not broken, you’re not looking hard enough!
Both Munster and Leinster will have to look very hard this week to keep up their unbelievable standards. But of course this is not a weekly event as coaches will be planning months/years in advance. If not they will be stuck in transition. Between them they have now five European cups and are hungry for many more. Does this attitude exist at our international level?
Why claim transition? For instance, Rob Penney inherited a Munster team genuinely shorn of class players and is forced to negotiate the choppy waters of the coming fortnight while rebuilding.
I wonder if due to his “blow-in” status will the rugby public be far less forgiving of him than of Irish legends? Thankfully the cut-throat European Cup tends to be far less tolerant of failure; educated supporters at “club” level demand success through ticket sales – and transition is simply not a valid excuse. Leinster can fill the Aviva; can Ireland?
Never in transition
With transition in mind, Clermont Auvergne (and Toulouse) have been at the forefront of European rugby and continually come back each season. Is it money or is it planning? Why are they never in transition as they refresh with new (like-minded) players each season?
Leinster, with less financial resources are replicating this. Tony McGahan, on departing, left a Munster team in need of a total rebuild. Eric Elwood (with Nigel Carolan) has been brilliant in unearthing real talent on limited resources. Ulster’s much greater resources have sourced players at home and abroad.
Why are teams allowed into a transitional period? All the best guidelines base successful continuity on a spectrum of ages spread through the squad. The transition excuse is an admittance of poor planning, limited risk taking and lack of confidence in players.
Tomorrow Munster take on Saracens, with the home team rebuilding quickly under huge pressure, with the expectant home crowd demanding the best. England beating New Zealand should give Irish rugby huge hope because, bulk aside, Irish players are still more talented than English. Owen Farrell, England and Saracens outhalf/centre, has many virtues to admire but none are beyond our capabilities. England, like Saracens, play a very regimented game.
Their main ambition is to get out of their own half immediately, ideally through the boot, where Peter Stringer when on loan did more kicking in one match than in his entire career. In essence they ask the opposition for answers and tomorrow Munster will have to have a game plan to return these kicks through a counter-attack.
Saracens are a very confrontational team, with a huge defence, and they come alive in the opposition half, where right wing David Strettle is very lively, popping up when least expected. Team Saracens’ front five (selection dependent) are a tough, brutish bunch, and strong scrummagers, be it starters or bench frontrow.
I like their combination of worker and athlete in the secondrow, where I especially like Mouritz Botha (watch him). The much maligned Steve Borthwick is very impressive in defending attacking opposition lineout close to his line. Watch as he circles in around the back of the ball-catcher to start momentum towards touch but also snuffing out any rolling maul.
The key transitional development for Saracens is that Charlie Hodgson at 10, like Ronan O’Gara, uses control.
With so much to keep an eye on in Clermont I’m most interested in their scrum. Amazingly, both Ireland’s tightheads line out for Leinster, with an average of 40 minutes playing time available for them. Third-placed Clermont are miles behind in points scored to the two above them but have a mean defence. For all their stars they are least comfortable in general backline attack. They have amazing strike runners but look a little laboured in transferring the ball laterally. In defence, they leave too much space between last man (fatty) and outhalf. Leinster blindside wingers can ask questions.
Toulouse destroyed Clermont in the opening scrums last weekend but then Clermont figured it out, and Toulouse legend William Servat was popped out of the scrum with both arms disengaged. Leinster hooker be warned: clearly Clermont have a policy to depower, as they did through the obvious Servat strength.
Unlike Saracens, Clermont will attack from inside their 22. As nice as it appears, often their back-line running is lateral and aimless. Centre Regan King does hunt for weak shoulders. Leinster to close the door wide in the centre. Outhalf David Skrela can be very passive. There are massive challenges all round for our provinces, and two wins from four would be an achievement. And for the losing supporters transition will hardly be accepted.