With a 4.15pm kick-off on a Sunday afternoon for Racing Metro’s crucial Top 14 derby clash with Stade Francais, I was afforded the opportunity to watch bucket loads of rugby last weekend.
It started with my old coach Tony McGahan’s team the Melbourne Rebels doing a number on the Auckland Blues, and Dan Carter’s Crusaders crushing the Queensland Reds in Christchurch, both in very impressive fashion. Fast forward to that evening, and after seeing Leinster under-perform in the drizzle as they laboured to a 10-0 home victory over Treviso, one would think I wasn’t watching the same sport.
It was interesting to note that the quality provided by Lansdowne and Clontarf in the Ulster Bank League final on Saturday afternoon was at least on a par, if not above, what we witnessed in the RDS the previous evening.
I am hopeful after viewing the final that the IRFU decision-makers realise how important the AIL still is, and how crucial a role it plays in developing rugby players and team leaders. This cannot be underestimated; academies and elite training groups provide fantastic athletes, but also a vast amount of gym monkeys, while the AIL - on Saturday’s evidence - will provide players who are ready to play professional rugby. There is a difference.
Central to Lansdowne’s success was a former team-mate of mine at Munster, Scott Deasy. He left Munster in 2013 to return to amateur rugby, but the sport has an uncanny way of rewarding you when you least expect it. As my mother always reminded me during my playing days, “you get out of it what you put into it”.
It was hugely satisfying for me to watch Scott nail a 40-metre penalty from wide on the right with seven minutes to go, winning the ball game for Lansdowne in the process. What many won’t realise is that Scott had the work done and in the bank from his time in the professional game, and could use all his experience and cool temperament to land that crucial kick.
Scott was one of my go-to men during our time together at Munster. Whether it was 2pm on a Sunday afternoon or 8am on a Wednesday morning, he was always willing to go kicking, keen and looking to improve no matter what the circumstances. It is important for younger readers of this column to appreciate the benefits of kicking with someone else. It allows you to kick under the conditions you want to, and most kicking nowadays involves general movement so is it advisable to work with a ball and keep pace in the session to replicate match conditions. Place-kicking is a separate issue - that can be done alone.
The quality of surface you practice on also has a big bearing on your kicking practice; anyone going along to watch Munster take on the Dragons in Cork tomorrow will see the ‘carpet’ I did most of my kicking on. What pleased me most was one man’s passion to do the best he possibly could, and his never-ending desire to improve his pitch, year after year. It is undoubtedly one of the best surfaces in Europe, and we have groundsman Ian Dunne’s ability to combine hard work with accuracy to thank for that.
After the AIL final, my eyes shifted towards Kingspan Stadium. The Munster boys put in a very impressive showing against Ulster - it was a performance which greatly excited me and fills me with confidence for the future. Anthony Foley and his staff have now created great competition for places, and as a result the general team performance has lifted by 20%.
Having six interchangeable front row forwards, and the timing of their arrival in games, is adding to the opposition’s penalty count and is a crucial weapon as Munster approach the knockout games at the business end of the Pro12 season.
There were numerous positives for Munster. For Jack O’Donoghue to play as well as he did for 76 minutes in that environment, after coming on early on for the injured Tommy O’Donnell, will accelerate his development by at least six months.
Denis Hurley has taken on more of a leadership role in the last 12 months and his performance in the centre on Saturday explains Axel’s thinking. He was very direct and aggressive in his ball-carrying, and his defence was top notch. Ronan O’Mahony also excelled when he was introduced, and looked sharp with ball in hand.
The big winners on the World Cup selection front were Keith Earls and Paddy Jackson. The second Felix Jones put a perfect pass out in front of Keith, it was always going to be a try even though it was a one-on-one situation. He has electric feet, and regularly ridicules fellow backs in training. He took his try very well but I was also impressed with his physicality, decision-making and ball contesting. It pleases me to see Keith producing for the Munster faithful.
Equally as impressive was Jackson. He attacked the line well, but his speed of pass has also improved and his goal-kicking under pressure was superior to what we have seen up to this point. From a kicker’s point of view, the reaction he received from his team-mates was very telling.
Paddy was nonchalant after stroking the ball over, but his team mates engulfed him and made him feel 10 feet tall. He will have appreciated that, but it will also fill him with confidence and hunger to to repeat that scenario as many times as possible. It is a feeling only a kicker gets, but it is some feeling.
The weekend went horribly downhill at about 4.30pm on Sunday. Racing were beaten on all fronts by a 14-man Stade Francais team in a local derby. One can accept most defeats, but the manner in which we lost this game was horrendous and now puts finishing in the top six and making the playoffs in doubt.
It was definitely the most disappointing and frustrating performance of my 22-month period here. It reminded me in no uncertain manner that rugby is a simple game and that if you don’t win your collisions, you won’t have an impact on the game. It’s all about the reaction from the players now, so let’s see what happens next.
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