DONAL LENIHAN: Why pushing and pulling for a living is no more

NOW THAT the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy cups have found new homes in Munster, the focus of attention within the province switches to those serial achievers that represent Munster rugby.

If the oval ball represents your sport of choice then the next twelve months should be fascinating. The war starts in earnest next Saturday evening when the first competitive rugby clash of significance returns to the traditional home of the sport in this country.

The palatial surroundings of the new Aviva stadium is light years away from that of its previous incarnation on a patch of grass that for some will always be Lansdowne Road. Leinster v Munster has taken on a life of its own since that incredible Heineken Cup semi-final back in 2006. Things would never be the same again after what happened that day. For the established stars on both sides this contest will set in motion a period of intense and unrelenting activity that will reach a crescendo in New Zealand next autumn.

By this day next year, Ireland will have already faced Australia in the key Pool C encounter at Eden Park in Auckland that will dictate whether or not Declan Kidney’s men will dare to venture where no Irish side has gone before – a World Cup semi-final.

While many of the front liners have been eased back into competitive action over the last few weekends, the game they have returned to is different to what they signed off with on their last Magners League assignment.

Once again the southern hemisphere influence has been brought to bear on law interpretation and has had a major impact on the manner in which teams now attempt to play.

New Zealand have built even further on the possession game they unveiled for the first time against Ireland in New Plymouth last June when recording that record 66-28 win in which they refused to kick away possession. As one prominent member of that Irish side said to me recently: “So that is what they meant when they said the adjustment in the tackle law will change the dynamic of the game”.

Anyone casually tuning into the Tri Nations series over the summer could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a new form of rugby. The situation around the tackle, which caused so much confusion when introduced mid stream during the Six Nations championship last season, has now been fully implemented and has handed the initiative back to the attacking team. Just to remind you, the key difference now is that the tackler must release the tackled player immediately and ensure that there is daylight between both before the tackler can contest for possession – I will go into this in greater detail in our Heineken Cup preview special to published with the Irish Examiner on Friday week.

This makes it very difficult to generate the type of turnover in the tackle that Brian O’Driscoll made an art form of for so long. The side in possession have all the advantages and turnovers at the breakdown will be at a premium. New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, and outstanding young Wallaby flanker David Pocock, demonstrated throughout the summer campaign that it is still possible to fight for possession in the contact area but only the very best practitioners will succeed.

In general terms, the IRB is seeking to preserve the core principal that the player on his feet has far more rights than the player on the ground. The game’s governing body is also determined to free up more space on the field in order to counter the effect of the Rugby League style defensive patterns that have stifled attacking play in recent years.

This came to a head at the 2007 World Cup when the endless sight of aerial ping pong became not only a bore but the norm. To eliminate this and encourage the team fielding a kick to counter attack as opposed to kicking it back from whence it came, referees are now under instruction to enforce a retreat of players in front of the kicker and not close the space available to the receiver. They must be put on side by chasers coming from behind the kicker. This was always in law but never vigorously implemented. It is now.

The net effect of these subtle changes has resulted in the ball being in play for longer periods throughout the Tri Nations series and the rewards for keeping possession are there for all to see. The game is played with far greater intensity and requires a wider range of skills for front five forwards. Everyone must be able to take and give a pass under pressure. Players also need to make decisions on their feet in reading what is required at the breakdown. i.e. whether to commit and clean out or stay out and defend. The days of pushing and shoving for a living are long gone.

BASED ON the early rounds of the Magners League, it is taking time for our players to adapt but time is running out with the November test window and the 2011 World Cup looming. From that perspective Kurtley Beale’s outstanding penalty kick at the death against South Africa to secure an astonishing test win for Australia by 39-41 in Bloemfontein at the start of the month will have caused as much pain and anguish to Declan Kidney as it did to beleaguered Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers.

Australia have made great strides under their New Zealand coach Robbie Deans but a series of injuries to key forwards and a failure to hold on to big leads in key games has many in Australia screaming for the Kiwi’s head. That would have been a mistake. While the Wallabies once again blew a lead in going down to the All Blacks in the final game of the series in Sydney by 22-23, watch the Aussies time to perfection their run to a RWC tournament. The simple fact is that being exposed to the short term pain of playing against New Zealand and South Africa six times over a three month period will inevitably deliver a long term gain. The worry is that Ireland will be one of the teams on the receiving end of that evolutionary process.

For Kidney’s squad to make a serious impact in New Zealand next year they need to beat the Wallabies in that pool game on September 17th next year. Failure to do so puts them on a collision course with South Africa in the quarter final. Beat the Aussies and Wales beckon. The Irish management will have to assess the implications of the new law interpretation and come up with an approach that best fits the qualities and skill set in this current Irish squad.

So how will all of this impact on the latest instalment of the love in between Munster and Leinster next Saturday night?

On current form Munster would appear to have the edge but these games take on a life of their own. The Leinster players will be well aware that a victory over their greatest rivals next weekend will erase a lot of the ills that have befallen them of late. They were very poor in Murrayfield last Friday night but the context is completely different this week. That challenge is exactly what Leinster need in an effort to kick start their season on the eve of the Heineken Cup.

However, not even the hurling maestros of Kilkenny or the football Kingdom could deliver five in a row.


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