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)


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?

All three of the stand-ins above made major tactical impacts on their team’s style.

Certainly, Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan have alternated to great effect but are there other examples? The big teams can actually mix their starting lineups to impact their style of play, where the best example is found with Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson.

Most valuable players
Tightheads are consistently the most valuable players on the field. Mike Ross on his own against Munster’s frontrow two weeks ago is evidence of their value. John Afoa has been magnificent and all the semi-finalist tightheads, James Johnston, Carl Hayman, David Zirakashvili and BJ Botha, could demand their price in two weeks.

As for those semi-finals I’m not sure Toulon can bring last Sunday’s level back to the Stade Vélodrome and firmly believe Munster have a chance.

That said, Toulon not only have all the pieces described above, they have the ability to pull any card from the deck because their players are that powerful, that fast, that technically astute and are all comfortable with a variety of styles, at full pace.

What of Saracens at home? I’m not convinced about Farrell but do fancy Hodgson’s ability to maximise his resources. I was disappointed how they managed their extra man.

Certainly Chris Ashton’s tries exposed Ulster’s missing man. They did, however, struggle to expose Ulster with ball in hand along the backline.

Brad Barritt has many values but strained to enhance ball quality. They have a superb line out, solid scrum and a powerful breakdown (when concentrated) and they love to kick.

A big call for Mark McCall is who’ll fill the 10 jersey. Hodgson can expose every square inch where a only a pressing defence, such as Trimble’s massive hit on Ashton from a wrap around by Hodgson can stop it dead.

Finally, Jackson, on 3:49, put up a mighty garryowen from his 22, landing on 3:54 five metres inside Saracens’ half, which meant Ulster had to cover over 33 metres in five seconds. Assuming Girvan Dempsey-type positioning Alex Goode had but a fraction of that distance to cover; so advantage was all Goode’s.

There’s no way Jared Payne intended damage but the game has a duty of care.

Interestingly, six minues later (9:15), Goode’s replacement Chris Wyles kicked from his 10-metre line 27 metres. The ball was in flight four seconds when Jackson fielded.

This time Duncan Taylor checked his run to afford Jackson the catch and then a tackle – lesson learned?

Giving their all, Ulster had nothing more to give.

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