Subscriber Only

Matt Williams: Ronan O’Gara the lucky general as global club rugby enters Jurassic period

Auckland and Leinster are the teams to beat and All Blacks and Ireland will be playing like them

Super Rugby, the URC, the English Premiership and the French Top 14 have all entered their post season playoffs, as global club rugby hits its peak weekends.

In terms of how far rugby’s global calendar has evolved towards its potential peak, our current program could be regarded as being in the Jurassic period. Primitive, cold blooded, far too big and scary, while still waiting for a brain to develop.

Speaking of overly long, the French Top 14, which started on September 4th last year, lumbers along, to the beat of its own drum. Last weekend every game in the last round of the Top 14 regular season kicked off at the crazy time of 9.05pm on Sunday night. The programming is designed so that no team gets an advantage of “doing the math” after another competitor is defeated.

With a Texan death match wrestling contest to avoid relegation being waged at the bottom, nine teams scrapped for six playoff spots at the top — and with my pyjamas on it made for compulsive viewing. The final pieces of the puzzle only fell into place after the 84th minute of play between Lyon and La Rochelle. By this time we knew that the prize for the winner of the match was a playoff against Toulouse and for the losing team, it was a summer holiday.

As Napoleon famously said to his staff when deciding which of his officers he would promote to General, “Don’t tell me if he is smart, just tell me if he is lucky.” Under Napoleon’s parameters, La Rochelle’s coach would now be General Ronan O’Gara.

La Rochelle were three points up as the clock turned red, with Lyon centimetres from a match winning try. In a cluster of indescribable stuff ups, Lyon proceeded to drop the ball over the La Rochelle try line, not once, not twice but three times after the clock had ticked off 80 minutes.

On the first two occasions, La Rochelle were deemed to have been offside so they were penalised, which empowered Lyon to continue their attack, only to once again drop the ball over the try line in the process of scoring a try. After the third dropped ball I imagine the referee whispered to himself, “you blokes are a joke,” and much to O’Gara’s joy, blew the full-time whistle.

In Ireland, those who suggested that Leinster were finished, have more than egg on their face. It is more like a giant American omelette. With runny cheese and all.

Against Glasgow the men in blue were mesmerising. Here we should remember that Glasgow had gone toe to toe with La Rochelle earlier in the season, going down in close match 30-38. Glasgow were torn apart by an incredible Leinster performance. It took an unimaginable mountain of courage and internal grit to come back from the heartbreak of Marseille in only seven days.

Ulster’s reward for playing at a tempo that Munster simply could not live with is to now face the reality of European rugby getting into bed with South Africa.

If Ulster win, after travelling to Cape Town, their next reward will be to “high tail it” back home to Belfast. None of that travel is easy or conducive to high performance in elite sport.

From picking your bag up at your home in Ireland to getting to your hotel room in South Africa is an 18 hour voyage at best. In a high contact sport, like rugby, the first 24 hours after a match are crucial for recovery to perform the next week.

Instead of ice baths, massage tables and sleeping in the comfort of your own bed, teams commuting between the RSA and Europe have buses, aeroplanes and snoring roommates. This all means that Ulster’s performance for the coming match has been deeply hindered.

With a glass of Chardonnay in their hand and two inches of carpet under their feet, rugby’s money men make these massive decisions that are so shallowly considered. It is always the players, coaches and fans who pay the price.

In an ironic twist of fate, it is now the New Zealanders and Australians, who enjoy the comforts of far shorter travel to away matches.

In the beautiful south, the Brumbies have displayed that, after a disastrous few decades in Australian Rugby, the arduous process of regeneration, has commenced. The Brumbies defeated the Hurricanes in the quarter finals, which was their fourth victory over a New Zealand team this season. Giant strides forward are being taken in Oz.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is not a name familiar to many in Irish rugby. That will change over the next few months

Of all the club performances across the world this season, the most eye catching however is the long overdue revival of the Auckland Blues.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is not a name familiar to many in Irish rugby. That will change over the next few months. Roger is a former New Zealand rugby league international, who played for the New Zealand Warriors in the Australian NRL. This year he switched codes and signed for the Auckland Blues. His attacking play at inside centre has been nothing short of sensational.

While his acceleration is astonishingly quick, it has been his ability to power his shoulders beyond the defender and then offload, seemingly at will, that has revolutionised Auckland’s play.

Once Tuivasa-Sheck’s shoulders are behind the defensive line and he offloads, the Blues support does not need ruck speed because they simply don’t have rucks. Auckland’s support and interlinking passing has been of an exceptionally high calibre.

What all the leading clubs from both hemispheres have in common is that they are attempting to play high tempo, attacking rugby. That is a huge positive for the spectators, the TV audience and the game.

The leading clubs in both hemispheres are implementing attacking game plans based on skills, played at a very high pace. This forces their opponent’s defensive systems to make pressured decisions which leads to defensive errors.

When Ireland run out at Eden Park on July 2nd, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck should be wearing the black number 12 jersey and New Zealand will be playing a very similar style to the Auckland Blues. Attacking with high tempo and offloading.

Ireland will be playing like Leinster. Highly organised, with multiple options asking questions of the New Zealand defence that they hope will be unanswered.

Today Leinster and Auckland are the teams to beat in their respective club competitions and should win their semi-finals.

When the national teams of Ireland and New Zealand meet in Eden Park, in early July, the match plans we will see today from their leading provincial teams will provide an insight into what we can expect in that match. A match Ireland can win.

Another fascinating weekend of club rugby awaits.