Conservatism to the fore in early Champions Cup exchanges

More intensity to Munster’s strangulation of Saracens than Leinster’s increasingly conservative tactics against Castres

Ian Madigan kicks the penalty that put Leinster into a winning lead in  their European Champions Cup match against Castres in France at weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ian Madigan kicks the penalty that put Leinster into a winning lead in their European Champions Cup match against Castres in France at weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The European Champions Cup hasn’t exactly set the pulses racing just yet, has it? Maybe it was due to the nature of the arm wrestles that the Irish sides were involved in. There was tautness and tension, but not much in the way of exciting rugby, much less tries.

Maybe it’s also an inevitable consequence or reducing the contestants from 24 to 20. Some of the flotsam has been discarded and there’s a higher proportion of arm wrestles. In actual fact, the stats suggest not much has changed.

There have only been five attacking bonus points in the opening two rounds, or 20 games, as against the seven at the same stage (or 24 games) last year. The tally of nine losing bonus points is the same, while the number of tries (73 in 20 games) is only a fraction less than the average last season when the opening 24 games yielded 90 tries.

In other words, the taut, tight affairs of last Friday night in Thomond Park and Sunday in the Stade Pierre-Antoine are not unusual. Even so, those 160 minutes of rugby produced just two tries, and both were from lineout drives.

Leinster are probably wondering (and not for the first time) why they are being criticised more for their conservative approach than Munster are for theirs. And perhaps more credit could be given to the Castres defence, which in two games has made 237 tackles in the fallout from conceding 50 points and nine tries to Bordeaux. Furthermore, Wasps have made more tackles (309) than any other team in the tournament, although this perhaps also tells us much about Leinster’s samey running game.

Strangulation

There was also more intensity to Munster’s strangulation of Saracens than Leinster’s increasingly conservative tactics against Castres. A win of any hue in France is never to be sniffed at, and Leinster have been ravaged by injuries. (With Eoin Reddan on the bench, only two of the victorious starting XV for the 2012 final lined up for Sunday’s kick-off.)

Matt O’Connor’s decision to rotate his scrumhalves was entirely understandable, for injuries beget more injuries because coaches have less scope to rotate. But while Reddan has been in fantastic form – and no less than any other replacement, a scrumhalf should make an impact – Isaac Boss looked rusty. He wasn’t as probing around the fringes as normal and tended to run laterally; the ripple effect contributed to Jimmy Gopperth doing the same.

Out of contract at the end of the season, Gopperth has appeared understandably unsure of himself, as he must be of his future, ever since the announcement that Johnny Sexton was coming home. Inside the last five minutes, Gopperth executed a trademark Leinster loop, but rather than then move the ball on, the outhalf put his head down and went into contact.

Whether lacking confidence or playing to instructions, this was typical of an increasing aversion to taking anything that resembled a risk, and it was rewarded two phases later with the high tackle on Jamie Heaslip that enabled Ian Madigan to kick Leinster in front.

Until such time as Reddan and Ian Madigan are reunited at half-back – the same half-back combination for the 40-7 win away to Northampton last season – Leinster are probably not going to rediscover that kind of tempo.

In truth, Leinster fans were spoiled during the glory years and allowance has to be made for the huge player turnover; but nevertheless, as with most capital city clubs, they are associated with flair. Right now though, it’s hard to see Gopperth having the inclination or the licence to run turnover ball ala Felipe Contepomi away to Toulouse in the 2006 quarter-finals for a length-of-the-pitch try.

Lack of ambition

Similarly, Leinster won their opening two games last year against the Ospreys and Castres by 19-9 and 19-7 with a try in each game. Yet ultimately it’s hard to envisage such a lack of ambition working against a heavyweight such as Toulon – witness last season’s quarter-final.

Whether Munster’s game plan of last Friday would be sufficient to take them all the way either is a moot point. But noting how Saracens have scored 66 per cent of their tries from unstructured play – ie kicks or turnovers generated by their blitz defence – Munster risked even fewer passes across the backline; and like Leinster, they played in the right areas of the pitch, often through a bombardment of garryowens and hounding the Saracens’ back three.

All told, Munster kicked the ball out of hand 36 times, with Conor Murray responsible for 15 of them and Ian Keatley 18, and most of them were up-and-unders. As a tactical coup, it felt like something of benchmark night for Anthony Foley and his indigenous coaching ticket.

Neil Doak was not so fortunate to take the helm at Ulster for an opening brace of games against a wounded Leicester and a Toulon side smarting from their defeat to Toulouse and labouring to beat the Scarlets. Most teams would struggle to live with Toulon when their minds are on it.

Even so, the Pro12 teams have eight wins and six defeats from their 14 games, which gives them a 57 per cent winning ratio. This is akin to the Top 14, which has seven wins and five defeats (a 58 per cent win ratio) whereas the Premiership clubs have managed just five wins as against nine defeats (a 36 per cent win ratio).

So let’s hear it for the Pro12. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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