On the road, it's tackles and defence that wins matches


ANALYSIS:Clermont is the major city of the Massif Central – the French region is shaped like a giant handmade lump of dark chocolate, that has fallen from the gods’ dessert plate and dropped randomly, slap bang into the middle of France.

When you travel overland to Clermont, you are forced to negotiate the steep escarpments of the Massif Central, which act as a natural fortification, protecting the people who live on the high plateau above.

The terrain was born in volcanic fire. As you traverse the twisted and beautiful land, the evidence of the staggering power that shaped it surrounds you on all sides. Stumps of extinct volcanos stand like the broken columns on a ravaged Greek temple. Only in your imagination can you see their full majesty, yet you fail to conceive the eons of years that have passed since they were in their prime. The landscape is not made of gentle rolling hills, it is a lumpy, tectonic battle field.

As I have often told you, dear readers, I am a poor man’s Francophile. When I was coaching in the Heineken Cup, I looked forward to the annual competition draw. I was excited to see which French city my team would visit.

Would it be Biarritz, Paris, Toulouse or perhaps Perpignan? When I was in one of these wonderful cities, early every morning, as the players slept, I would go for a long walk to take in the architecture, the morning produce markets, the ambiance and to find a good restaurant to take the coaching staff to dinner that night.

On my first visit to Clermont my morning walk was brief. Despite the ruggedly beautiful country surrounding the city, there was not much to see. No Bourbon Royal family grandeur, no Napoleonic Empire expansionary vision. I would go so far as to say, the place is a bit of a “kip”.

Kerry Packer was once forced to attend a Senate inquiry in Canberra. The committee chairman asked him to state his full name and the capacity in which he appeared. He famously replied, “Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer . . . Reluctantly.”

Whenever I am forced to return to Clermont, I am in the identical, reluctant state of Mr Packer. The aspect of Clermont that I do deeply admire is that their rugby team has made Stade Marcel Michelin, which like the escarpment surrounding Clermont is a fortress.

I am also grateful to Clermont for teaching me one of my greatest lessons in coaching. Ten years ago a Leinster team I coached defeated Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin, in the first leg of the “back to back” rounds.

We scored some great tries that day but that did not win us the game. We won on the back of a staggering defensive performance from the wonderful players I was privileged to coach a decade ago. I leant that away from home, your offense scores the points, but your defence wins you games.

I have told you this before, but it is worth restating, that to win in Clermont, that Leinster team made over 225 tackles. That number is staggering. I have never seen a number like it before or since. It remains the best “D” performance I have every witnessed from an Irish team. I take no credit for it. Those men who performed that day were truly heroic.

Here lies the simple key “coachable moment”. When on the road, away form home, get your “D” correct and the rest, as they say, is “a jam sandwich”.

Compared to attack, “D” is easy to coach. It takes much less skill to defend than to attack. But, and it’s a big BUT, it takes buckets of courage, staggering physical commitment and sheer bloody-minded toughness to defend Clermont for a win at Stade Marcel Michelin.

Here is the next coachable moment. To make the play-offs, it is essential to get a big win away from home.

An example of the “D On the Road,” theory is Ulster. They made 129 tackles in their excellent away victory while Northampton made only 46 tackles. Ulster now have one foot in the play-offs.

Saracens made 84 tackles in Limerick, compared to Munster’s 64, but Saracens missed 17. Once you miss more than ten tackles in a match, you mostly lose.

Conversely, Biarritz at the Sportsground, made a measly 69 tackles, compared to Connacht’s 93. The Basques were in culture shock, having to wipe the dog poo from their boots, after crossing the greyhound track, but the men form the west simply wanted it more than their famous French counterparts and richly deserve the win.

Yesterday’s engrossing battle at Stade Marcel Michelin did not change the coaching mantra. Leinster were brave in defeat, tactically smart and, as always under Joe Schmidt, totally committed. While the number of tackles yesterday was not a key factor, the game was handed to Clermont in the soft, kickable penalties Leinster gave away in the tackle contest.

Once again on the road, within the tackle and its aftermath, lies victory or defeat. Teams that implement the theory will make the play-offs, those that dont will have early holidays. Perhaps to visit France.

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