Heineken Cup quarter-finals proved the importance of squad sizes

Steffon Armitage of Toulon charges upfield during the Heineken Cup quarter final match against  Leinster at the Felix Mayol Stadium. Armitage’s sheer size caused Leinster all sorts of problems at the breakdown. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Steffon Armitage of Toulon charges upfield during the Heineken Cup quarter final match against Leinster at the Felix Mayol Stadium. Armitage’s sheer size caused Leinster all sorts of problems at the breakdown. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 12:00

Last Saturday I found myself in London Wasps’ training ground with Rosie Foley and 11 tag rugby players drawn from Limerick’s Southside Clasp (Community, Leadership, Arts and Sports Program). It’s an impressive program run by Solas and the Education Training Board, with myself and Rosie involved in the rugby – sin scéal eile.

But suffice to say “Munsters Inc”, led by team captain Audrey Le Gear, did Limerick extremely proud in playing seven matches with an ever dwindling squad.

With a million reasons for failure (such as never playing tag before) our motto for the day was pretty simple; don’t quit, no tengo mas que darte.

The concept, do not quit, can often be an assumed norm in professional fixtures but last week pushed Munsters Inc and our three Irish provinces to that uncomfortable place where all did not go to plan.

I managed the Leinster game live and the Munster game between tag matches but missed Ulster’s, so in knowing the result I went on an extraordinary journey yesterday when watching Ulster perform; no tengo mas que darte.

For me the story of the quarter-finals was squad size, injuries, tightheads, scramble defence, especially Leinster’s in the opening 15 minutes and Ulster throughout and fat men at the breakdown.

Physical advantage
Players like Steffon Armitage, Billy Vunipola and Mathieu Bastareaud have an unbelievable physical advantage in breakdown play.

In Munster, Damien Varley has been extraordinary at this skill. He too is built like Armitage. With a totally different build, Peter O’Mahony’s success at the breakdown, especially at international level, is extraordinary.

How Munster will beat Armitage et al on the deck is a future article!

Along with that stealing on the deck, Leinster, in particular, added stripping of the ball-carrier in contact.

When the tackler hits low the next man focuses on the point of the ball to scoop and rip. This requires awareness of the opportunity, perfect feet and shoulder position before attacking the apex of the ball.

Little Paddy Jackson managed a cracker from loose head behemoth Mako Vunipola by simply targeting the point of the ball in the monster arms.

Squad sizes are of key importance and Toulon are particularly powerful in this matter. How Ulster, with mounting injuries, would love a swathe of international players to step in.

But the value of a big expensive squad goes beyond injury replacement. Take three players from last weekend. Saracens tighthead James Johnston started ahead of Matt Stevens; while Toulon had Danie Rossouw in for the injured Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, and Maxime Mermoz came on for the injured Jonny Wilkinson.

Do the Irish provinces have the ability to tinker with their starting team based on the opposition they’re facing?

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