Wexford

To sweep or not to sweep, that is the question

The two main exponents of the sweeper system played each other in Pairc Ui Caoimh yesterday afternoon. Waterford’s Tadhg De Burca and Shaun Murphy of Wexford are high up on the list of the amount of coverage given to individual players this season. Derek McGrath and Davy Fitzgerald are probably the two most passionate believers in the sweeper system, while several in the media such as Michael Duignan, Henry Shefflin and Diarmuid Lyng have recently taken issue with it. Who’s right?

 

Here’s my take on it. The sweeper as employed by Wexford and Waterford has been a very effective means for dealing with a problem both teams have – they don’t have huge strength in depth, and select their teams from about 20 players. They don’t have the luxury that Kilkenny or Tipperary, or even Cork or Galway have, of being able to find 4 or 5 good players out of under-21 each year. These sides had good crops from a couple of good underage sides, and then little else besides. Good hurlers don’t grow on trees in Wexford and Waterford. So they need to make do with what they have. Both sides have a huge emphasis on fitness, being competitive and being hard to beat. I would imagine, without knowing either manager, that if they are asked where one starts with a county team, their answer would be “the first thing you need, is to be hard to beat”. That, in essence, is where the sweeper comes from. They have underdog teams, and they want to make sure that whatever happens, the scoreline is close and they are hard to beat.

 

I know where Michael Duignan and Diarmuid Lyng and the lads are coming from. I heard it mentioned on the radio last week that the sweeper system ultimately shows a distrust in the players available. And to be fair, I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. It does show a distrust in the ability of the players available, but that’s not an unfair assumption to make. Wexford haven’t been consistently competitive since the 90’s. Davy Fitz’s job once he came in was to make sure that Wexford could compete. No big losses, build confidence by getting wins and build cohesion and belief within the team by developing their own style of play. Once Justin McCarthy left Waterford, the wheels came off down there and Derek McGrath has been forced to develop a new side with only a couple of veterans like Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran. The last thing a whole raft of young players coming in need is big defeats, and just like recent times in Wexford, a system was built to make sure Waterford could consistently be in with a shout in every match they play.

 

The traditionalists are correct too though. I too don’t think a team will consistently compete for All-Irelands playing with a sweeper. The only way a team could compete consistently at All-Ireland level is if they had 5 forwards who could do the job of 6 – funnily enough both Kilkenny and Tipperary have the forwards and numbers of hurlers to do this. (If I was Tipperary I’d bring in a wing-back, move Paidi Maher to sweeper and let Callinan, Maher, two McGraths and Bubbles compete against 6 back up the other end. I’m convinced they’d win the All-Ireland if they did). I think against the very best teams that a team may struggle to get the scores, particularly goals, they need when playing with fewer men up front. It’s a problem to assess accurately though, as the teams who do play with sweepers usually have fewer scoring forwards – Wexford really just have Conor McDonald and Waterford have Shane Bennett and Maurice Shanahan (who doesn’t always start).

 

Wexford showed a couple of limitations yesterday which Waterford exploited. While Shaun Murphy sat in front of his full-back line, Waterford put pressure on the Wexford half-back line instead: Brick Walsh, Kevin Moran and Pauraic Mahony were the guys doing the damage for the first three quarters of the game. Little ball went into Shane Bennett in this period and it was only with Wexford chasing the game and Waterford withdrawing further back that there was space for Maurice Shanahan and Brian O’Halloran to close out the game inside. Derek McGrath in fairness is very tactically astute and nullified Wexford’s spare man at the back by just never hitting the ball there. Waterford too showed a killer instinct and went after specific Wexford players, particularly Willie Devereux with Brick first and Jake Dillon then.

 

One of the major issues with the sweeper is that teams can tend to focus on defence and not so much on attack. Waterford had a great plan that worked. What Wexford were trying to do was less obvious. Personally, I believe one of the best ways to counteract the sweeper is to puck the ball straight down on top of him, just as Tipperary did to Waterford last year. A sweeper is most valuable when covering space and being an outlet option for his teammates. Nullify him by putting the ball long on top of him to be contested. With lads like Jack Guiney, Conor Mc and Podge Doran, Wexford had options for that long ball. The closer the contest is to the sweeper, the less effective he is – a ball contested 15 yards away is what a sweeper wants, not a full forward and full back coming out under a high ball on top of him. Kilkenny too in the past have had success by doing it when Richie Power was full forward, even Waterford themselves have gone this route with Maurice in there.

 

To me, the sweeper system currently being employed isn’t perfect, but then neither are the other systems which pass for being “traditional”. Every team wants to close off space in their half and open it up in the opponents half. Kilkenny have been doing this for years in their own way – we’ve all seen Eoin Larkin and TJ Reid winning ball around their own 45, just watch last year’s replay with Waterford. So too Tipperary in the All-Ireland final last year. Or even go back to when Duignan himself played. The Offaly style was to get to the ball first and keep it moving in; the glorious ground hurling they played opened up space inside for guys. It’s all down to what resources you have, how you can be at your most competitive and how you think you can score more than the team opposite you. Winning 0-6 to 0-5 is as good as winning 3-24 to 4-20. A manager tries to problem solve his way to victory, particularly true when managing an underdog, and sometimes this coming up with things which aren’t aesthetically wonderful.

 

I hope both teams can transition their games next year and beyond to become more attack-minded. As players develop and mature they should be more capable of winning their battles without a numerical advantage. If I was manager of either side, I’d make sure that once the sweeper system was second-nature to the players they hurled different ways in challenge games and meaningless games like the Walsh Cup. Get guys used to competing 1-v-1. Get them used to long ball into the square. Not shooting outside the 45. Use the meaningless games as conditioned training games, but against top opposition. Build the arsenal needed to change tactics in big games. Clare could have done with something like this on Saturday. The sweeper has its place, particularly when you’re an underdog, but you need more too.

 

Davy and Michael cool the beans lads. Ye are both right.

Untitled

Warburton & O’Brien win breakdown battle

The selection of Sam Warburton over Peter O’Mahony was a huge call, and one that Warren Gatland has been proven correct on. Warburton was a menace on Saturday, dovetailing beautifully with Sean O’Brien to unsettle an All Blacks attack which looked excellent in the 1st Test. They went after New Zealand at ruck time and made life much more uncomfortable for Aaron Smith after the armchair ride he had a week previously.

Last week, the breakdown battle in the 1st Test was central to the All Blacks’ win. New Zealand played with quick ball all day and Aaron Smith looked incredible. The pressure exerted on the Lions’ defence because of their unwillingness to contest the breakdown was massive, and playing on the back foot for so much of the game meant it was almost inevitable the All Blacks would create try scoring opportunities. This week the Lions came out of this contest much better. Before starting, it must be stated that the All Blacks played 55 minutes of the game with 14 men, meaning they played with only two men in the back row as Jerome Kaino was withdrawn to allow debutant Ngani Laumape be brought into midfield to replace Sonny-Bill Williams. Playing for so long down a back row couldn’t not have had a big impact on the breakdown.

Warren Gatland confirmed last week that Warburton would come in for Peter O’Mahony and Maro Itoje for George Kruis. Itoje brought huge energy to the Lions team, while Warburton’s ability at the ruck was a key reason for the Lions victory. Moreover, the infusion of Itoje’s energy and combative nature plus Warburton’s leadership and determination to compete at the breakdown rubbed off on the rest of the Lions forwards, who were far more confrontational throughout.

In the 1st Test the Lions rarely committed any players to contest New Zealand rucks. Of New Zealand’s 131 rucks the Lions contested only 18 times, or 14% of the time (contrast this to New Zealand contesting 35% of Lions ball). They stood off and tried to organise their defensive line as quickly as they could. The result was predictable: with no contest at the ruck, New Zealand could play the game with as much quick ball as they wanted. Aaron Smith was like a hummingbird, a blur of energy pinging the ball here and there. Not only that, Smith could use quick ball himself, sniping from the base of the ruck with quick ball. In all he carried 11 times himself. The All Blacks gain lined again and again, their attack played on the front foot all day, and the Lions couldn’t get their defence set and off the line quick enough.

From the start of the 2nd Test, even before the Lions had a numerical advantage, they were showing far more aggression at ruck time. Here’s a great example.

1st contest Warburton and Jones

Here we see Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones in over the ball early in the contest, forcing the All Blacks cleaners to work for the ball. Competing at the breakdown like this was very necessary. It slowed the ball, even for just a second. This second is pure gold dust- it gives the defence an extra second to get set, which plugs any gaps and allows the defence to get off the line quickly.

Perhaps the best example of this was a brilliant piece of play from Liam Williams in the second half. 

Williams Contest 1

 

New Zealand make a line break which is caught by the excellent Maro Itoje. Again at this breakdown we can see Warburton hovering with intent, but it is Liam Williams who gets into a brilliant position to contest the ball on the ground. 

Williams Contest 2

Immediately the All Blacks are poised to attack a very disorganised Lions defence which has had no chance to set. Barrett is screaming for the ball, with Laumape and Read next to him, and Naholo out wide, perfect to attack a broken defence. Lawes and Sexton are the only two Lions set, with Jones and Farrell scrambling to get into the line.

Williams Contest 3

Williams contesting the ruck has slowed it long enough for the Lions defence to get set. It is a brilliant piece of play from him which has almost certainly saved a try. We can see the All Blacks 4 attackers in almost an identical position. But now look at the Lions defence. 8 strong on this side of the ruck, with a perfect line, all ready to get off the line. It forces Barrett into a grubber through which Daly tidies up. Sometimes people don’t notice this kind of work, but Williams entering the ruck and making it a real contest has bought the defence a vital two seconds.

Sam Warburton made a nuisance of himself all game. It was almost funny to hear the commentary punctuated every few seconds with the voice of Jerome Garces shouting “leave it 6!”, which must surely have been music to the Lions’ coaching staffs ears.

Warburton Hovers 1

Here we see Warburton loitering with intent, as he did all game. It was notable that the Lions kept Warburton and Sean O’Brien in the middle of their defence as much as possible, with both putting in huge tackles and hovering with a view to contest. Despite there being 5 All Blacks in the picture, plus a ball carrier, it is Warburton who gets to the breakdown.

Warburton Contest 1

He gets to the ball first and would have won a penalty for the Lions, but that Garces was playing advantage for an earlier infringement. Even still, it is well worth contesting, as the All Blacks have made a habit of scoring from advantage plays.

The Lions attitude had changed and they set out to contest far more often and with more aggression this time around. The statistics bear this difference out. In the 1st Test the Lions contested 14% (18 out of 131) of New Zealand rucks. In the 2nd Test, this improved to a respectable 28% (22 out of 78) of All Black breakdowns contested, double the rate of the 1st Test. The selection of Warburton was crucial to this change.

One other factor the Lions improved upon was their spacing at ruck time. Aaron Smith’s sniping from the ruck was seriously limited because of the ability of the Lions to slow the ball. In this game, he only carried himself once in the game, in contrast to his 7 carries from the first game. The Lions fringe defence set up much tighter than in the 1st Test, closing off gaps for Smith to attack and challenging the All Blacks to move the ball wide in very wet, testing conditions.

Spacing

Here we can see the Lions have made sure the All Blacks will not make any easy yards around the ruck. There are 9 Lions players within 15m of the sideline. And a further 4 players between the 15m line and centrefield. The Lions learned their lesson from the first game and if they couldn’t contest the ruck to slow the ball, made sure they had numbers close in forcing the All Blacks to move the ball.

The breakdown battle is crucial to any match, and even more so when playing New Zealand. This battle was lost in the 1st Test, and won in the 2nd Test. Whoever wins the 3rd Test will have managed to contest more often and disrupt their opponents’ rucks. In Warburton and O’Brien, the Lions have two flankers who can really compete, but in the 3rd Test they’ll face Cane and Kaino for a full 80 mins. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Lions can be as aggressive again. And one thing is for sure, O’Brien and Warburton will be marked men.

Box Kick

Box kick blues

Warren Gatland: “From my point of view, if someone pushes him [Murray] afterwards, that’s fine but diving at his leg? I know other teams have used that in the past and I think Joe [Schmidt] has come out and was pretty critical about that being a tactic other teams have used against Conor. It’s just a safety issue for me. I’d hate to see someone dive at his leg and have him blow a knee and then wreck his rugby career.”

Murray hit
The Jerome Kaino tackle which connected with Conor Murray’s standing left leg.

This article is some analysis of the box kick, what it is, pros and cons, and why all the fuss about Conor Murray at the moment.

What is it? Probably more so than ever before, teams are using the high contested box kick as an attacking tactic. From most positions on the field, teams are electing to forsake constructive attacking play in favour of a high box kick where the ball lands 30m downfield to be contested by, usually, both sides’ wingers. As the ball is launched skywards, wingers (and others) give chase hoping to win possession further upfield, to knock the opposing catcher into touch, or to put the opposition under pressure far downfield.

Why so popular? The rules of the game, as they are refereed currently, make the box kick almost impossible to prevent. A scrumhalf standing at the base of a ruck positions players in front of him in a line where they physically block off any opposing player who attempts to charge down the impending kick. It is near impossible to charge down a box kick currently, with teams blockers drilled to be in the correct position as soon as a box kick is called. The box kick has become more popular than the wipers kick looking for touch, and the Garryowen (up-and-under) where the outhalf launches the high bomb instead.

What’s happening? Currently there is a lot of attention being directed toward Conor Murray, the Irish and B&I Lions scrumhalf. He is the world’s best box-kicker, and his teams make use of his ability to box-kick to contest as often as they can. On Saturday Murray kicked the ball 11 times, passed it 50 times and ran just 3 times, a kick rate of 17%. Contrast this with his opposite number Aaron Smith, who kicked the ball 6 times, passed it 103 times and ran himself 7 times – a kick rate of just 5%.

With blockers in front of him at all times, it is almost impossible for any team to charge down Murray’s kicks. Some teams have begun to try to tackle him from his blind side as he kicks. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. The ball is in his possession until such time as it leaves his boot, and with fewer blockers lined up on the other side of the ruck, perhaps the only way a team can limit the damage his kicks can do is to tackle him or knock him off balance from his blind side. New Zealand weren’t penalised for any late hits or high hits in Saturday’s game. A player can be tackled low at any time they have possession. So far, things make sense. You can’t charge his kick from his kicking side due to blockers, so you try to knock him down from the other side. The problem is this: it’s dangerous to be hit on the blind side, and especially dangerous to hit a player on his standing leg when his whole weight is on that leg. Ankle breaks, achilles tears, knee dislocations, cruciate ligament tears, medial ligament tears, broken legs all can come from a hit on a planted leg. A hit that is low, timed well and on a player in possession of the ball, completely fair within the rules of the game, can badly hurt someone.

(There are suggestions some have gone out to deliberately injure Conor Murray. I really hope that this isn’t the case. Any player going out to deliberately injure another player should be banned for life).

Below I use some images to illustrate the point:

Here Murray lines up for a box kick from just outside the Lions 22

Here Conor Murray lines up for a box kick from just outside the Lions 22

We can clearly see 3 blocking players in front of Murray on the strong side of the ruck, protecting him from any possible charge down.

We can clearly see 3 blocking players in front of Murray on the strong side of the ruck, only one of whom could possibly claim to be part of the ruck, preventing the All Blacks from any charge down or contest.

No protection for Conor Murray on the weak/blind side of the ruck. Brodie Retallick is in a great position to tackle Murray, and is the only option the All Blacks have to make any contest on the ball. If anything, the Lions need to tighten up their rucks to ensure Murray has blockers on both sides, not just the strong side.

No protection for Conor Murray on the weak/blind side of the ruck. Brodie Retallick is in a great position to tackle Murray, and is the only option the All Blacks have to make any contest for the ball. If anything, the Lions need to tighten up their rucks to ensure Murray has blockers on both sides, not just the strong side.

What’s wrong with the box kick?

–          I’m not a fan of the box kick. Using blocking players to prevent a challenge on the ball, first and foremost, is against the spirit of the game. In the maul and in open play, referees very closely watch out for support players encroaching ahead of the ball preventing a contest. They are very quick to penalise any team who uses blockers in any other aspect of the game, and rightly so.

–          The use of the box kick has also led to current decline of the speedster winger, the guys with searing pace who tear up and down the wing terrorising opponents. Teams more often over the last 10 years have chosen wingers who are tall and strong under the high ball in preference to choosing pace. This is sad. Wings are traditionally among the most exciting players on the field, yet the ability to be able to comfortably catch and contest high ball is preferred by many coaches. How many teams have converted centres or full-backs on the wing nowadays?

–          In the same vein many scrumhalves are chosen on the strength of their ability to kick, rather than on the quality of their pass, break, or ability to run the attack. This is also sad, and just like with the wings, means many teams don’t play with the attacking cutting edge they may be capable of.

–          The box kick kills a large amount of imaginative, attacking rugby in two ways. As I’ve mentioned, the selection of players who are chosen on their ability to catch and kick the ball over those who are stronger at passing and running with the ball limits the capability of a team to attack well. There is also a certain level of lethargy or lack of creativity that the box kick brings- why go through 7 or 8 phases, any one of which your team could lose possession in, when you can box kick and contest. It’s a safety net teams now rely on in preference to thinking and working to score.

Solution? It is clear that a scrumhalf is soon going to be seriously injured from a hit on the blind side when box-kicking the ball. It’s not if, but when. World Rugby will be under pressure to change the rules to prevent such injuries. It is my hope that they don’t legislate against these legal tackles, but instead legislate to allow fair contest of the ball from the ruck. Blockers must go and fair charge down of the ball must be encouraged. To do this I would advocate that any player who didn’t join the ruck through the gate and is not currently bound to the ruck (and this means shoulder bound rather than a cursory hand on someone’s shoulder) is offside. Block fair contest of the ball, and it’s a penalty against you. Eliminate the blockers and you allow fair contest. Teams would be more reluctant to kick the ball into the sky and would choose to run or pass it instead. Defences would try to charge down the ball fairly and wouldn’t need to try other more physical ways to stop a scrumhalf. These blind side hits are only a product of the blocker preventing the contest- remove the cause, not the outcome.

 

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Retallick turnover

New Zealand v B&I Lions: The Breakdown

An American tourist was on holiday in Ireland one time, and he happened to find himself sort of lost in someplace in east County Cavan. He was driving around back roads for a good while and eventually saw some old fella leaning against a gate, so he pulled over and said “Howdy sir, would you mind awfully telling me how to get to Dublin city? I’d be much obliged”. So the auld fella took off his cap and scratched his head, and in a fairly slow Cavan drawl says “Well I can, but if I was you I wouldn’t start from here”.

Where do the British&Irish Lions start? Thousands of words have been written, interviews conducted and studies done about what makes the New Zealand rugby team different from everyone else. I’ve even written about them before myself Talent Development – from New Zealand to Kilkenny. On Saturday New Zealand demolished the Lions in the 1st Test. The Lions were outplayed from start to finish. When New Zealand had possession you felt the longer they held onto the ball and more phases they went through, the likelier they were to score. The Lions, well, the more they held the ball and more phases they went through, you felt they’d get turned over at ruck time or simply kick the ball away. This article will examine Saturday’s game and the difference in mindset of both sides in the context of one area, in my opinion they key area in the game of rugby today: the breakdown. Once first phase ball has been secured (and with two top quality teams like these one can assume they’ll win their fair share of lineouts and scrums), the majority of possession in a game will come from the breakdown. If a team goes through 20 phases- you can be fairly sure about 18 of those 20 will start from rucks. The ruck is where you start from.

It was noticeable on Saturday that New Zealand and the Lions had a very different approach to the ruck. The statistics show New Zealand had a much greater number of rucks, 131, winning 127 (96%). The Lions had 76 rucks, winning 72 (winning 94%). Of these 131 rucks, New Zealand created quick ruck ball 39 times, or 30% of the time. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put the Lions under. The Lions themselves managed to generate quick ball 22% of the time from their breakdowns, 17 times out of their 76 rucks. New Zealand frequently committed a player to Lions’ rucks to contest possession. The Lions rarely committed players to contest New Zealand rucks. These two facts framed the entire contest and the stats reflect this. New Zealand competed for the ball on Lions rucks 26 times of the Lions 76 rucks, 35% of the time. The Lions, on the other hand, competed at the breakdown on New Zealand ball 18 times out of New Zealand’s 131 rucks, just 14% of the time.

In possession, the two teams had differing approaches to their own rucks. New Zealand sent two or three players to clear out, these being close to the ball carrier and clearing the ball with huge aggression, speed and power, obviously aided by lack of competition from Lions players. The Lions sent (or had to send) more players to secure their own rucks. One statistic I’d love performance analysts to stop counting as a positive is “rucks hit” – New Zealand players I’m sure have low numbers on rucks hit, as when two New Zealanders go to clear a ruck, they bloody clear it. Their attitude is “why send four to half-arse clearing a ruck when we can make two do the job perfectly”; in contrast northern teams generally say the opposite: “two guys will struggle to clear that ruck unless they do it perfectly, so let’s send four to be sure”.

There are many differences between how northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere teams play the game. Most can’t put their finger on what makes New Zealand so different, so successful. The breakdown is certainly one clear area of difference. The impact of a ruck on attack and defence go hand-in-hand, so I’ll discuss both below. This graphic illustrates why the ruck is of such value.

 

The breakdown

Northern hemisphere teams value numbers in defence and attack over all else. Coaches in the northern hemisphere believe the overlap will come eventually, and finishing the overlap is the key to scoring tries. Conversely, in defence, preventing the opponent from gaining an overlap is the key aim. Northern hemisphere coaches believe that organised phase attack will lead to an overlap, and coaching players to identify overlaps and exploit those overlaps with tries is how you score. Players are conditioned to value creating a 2v1, 3v2 or even a 6v5 as the best scenario they can have. Go along to any training session from under-10 all the way up to adult rugby and watch how many drills or conditioned games are played with the aim of creating/preventing the overlap. The key problem with this? Really good teams rarely give you a situation where attackers outnumber defenders, and even if they do their defensive skills are that good that they can deal with it.

Southern hemisphere teams value quick ball over all else. The attack’s job is to generate quick ball and the defence’s job is to prevent the opponent from generating quick ball. When you watch them play, attacking weak shoulders or defenders who aren’t set is their main aim. And in defence, slowing the ball long enough to allow the defence set up is what they’re after. They believe tries are scored by generating ruck ball so quick the opposing defence is disoriented, defenders make mistakes, and the opposing defensive line cannot be set up quickly enough to effectively shut down the opposition. New Zealand in particular expect the opposition defence to be organised, and very rarely expect there to be an overlap. They go through teams, rather than around them, better than anyone else. They look to create situations where they run at weak shoulders, and situations where the defender can maybe make a tackle, but never a dominant hit (which is where offloads come from). The key to all of this is quick ruck ball. Don’t get me wrong, the New Zealanders can kill you if an overlap develops, but first things first.

The breakdown is where these cultures clash. On Saturday, the Lions stood off rucks, allowing New Zealand win their own ruck ball easily, and ensuring their defensive line couldn’t be outflanked by superior numbers. New Zealand were pretty delighted with this, launching phase after phase of attacks with this super quick ball. On the other side of the ball, New Zealand went after each Lions ruck whenever possible. On occasion, New Zealand managed to win a turnover on the ground or penalty at the breakdown, but the main reason they did this was to prevent the Lions from having quick ball. Contesting the ruck slows the ball down. Slowing the ball down does two key things: makes the Lions commit extra players to the ruck which takes away players from their attack, and most importantly gives the New Zealand defence an extra second or two to set their defence and number up.

Ruck after Dagg&Barrett scramble
Straight from a turnover, the Lions kick ahead where Barrett and Dagg have to scramble. Even with 6 of the Lions pack in the frame and New Zealand on the back foot, the Lions don’t compete.

 

The selection of scrumhalves is a very telling example of the difference in philosophies. The New Zealand team selected Aaron Smith at 9, probably the quickest 9 in world rugby at present. The ruck ball was quick, but his passes were like a machine gun, sprayed here there and everywhere. As soon as he saw a bit of white in a ruck, the ball was gone. It hugely helped the attack gain momentum. On the Lions side, Conor Murray is far more methodical. He is selected for a range of attributes- he is a very good tackler, his box-kicks are the best in the world, he is strong around the ruck, he rarely makes mistakes. His delivery and ability to build tempo in his team’s attack is not the strongest facet of his play.

Changes for Saturday’s 2nd Test? The Lions need to up their speed of attack and to compete at ruck time in defence. So personally, I’d make a couple of changes to the side. There was a noticeable improvement in the Lions tempo when Rhys Webb came in, albeit with the game already decided. Whether the Lions decide to bring Webb in to start on Saturday depends on if they value his energy and tempo over the range of skills Murray has, and that will come down to whether they want to play a quicker game or not. Likewise, unpopular as this will make me sound as an Irishman, I’d bring in Warburton for O’Mahony, and Itoje for Kruis, both changes designed to make the Lions more competitive at ruck time. O’Mahony has been excellent on tour, but the game the Lions need to play would fit Warburton perfectly. He’s a ball poacher and turnover getter, and if they go after New Zealand he can make some huge plays. Itoje has to start. There’s no point bringing on an impact sub with the team already fighting a losing cause. Use his energy from the start.

The Lions can win the remaining two tests. I could speak further on other aspects of the game like the set piece, the kicking game, each team’s defence systems. But all of these all stem from the breakdown battle. The Lions need to focus on winning the ruck contests first and foremost. Win that battle and everything else will follow.

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Meath Kildare

Meath v Kildare analysis

On Sunday I attended the Leinster Senior Football championship semi-final between Kildare and Meath in Tullamore. It was a roasting hot Saturday evening and I headed down with my dad, eager to see what I thought would be an excellent match between two up-and-coming teams. Cian O’Neill had looked to be building a very good Kildare side and achieved promotion to National Football League 1. My dad and I had gone to watch Meath play Louth in their opening fixture in the Leinster championship, and as I had seen Louth a few times previous and know their level, we were very impressed with Meath that day. So we figured this semi-final would be a belter.

As in Parnell Park a couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the ground over 90 minutes before throw-in, with unrestricted seating in the stand it’s the only way to get good seats. For both games we got great seats and we saw everything (including a Kildare player who should have got the line!). As someone who works coaching, analysing and mentally preparing teams, I’m intrigued by all aspects of the game – warmup, manager body language, player body language, how the players communicate, substitutions, everything.

At 6:00pm on the dot out came Kildare to a big cheer from the supporters on the terrace on the far side. Their management had their cones and gear laid out well in advance, all organised and under control. They got into their warmup, doing a few different drills, all stuff they did without supervision. While Kildare were warming up, Meath backroom staff came out to set up their cones and equipment, and at 6:13 Meath came out to a massive pop from the crowd. When they came out all their gear was well organized and ready too. Meath worked away at their warmup, again the players knew what their routine was. I had been at Parnell Park a fortnight previous and recognised the drills they did, for example a wheel-shaped truck-and-trailer foot & hand passing drill that took up most of their half of the field, and a very good defense drill along the end line where they work to repel attackers. Meath, being traditionally old school, spend a lot of time in unstructured play in their warmup too, shooting for points or goals and passing amongst themselves. Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal spent a good period of time practicing his kickouts with the sub goalkeeper. During their warmup, Kildare left the field at around 6:23 and re-emerged at around 6:40. Meath stayed out on the field from 6:13 onwards. Kildare’s warmup was a little more structured than Meath’s.

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A lot has been said and written in the days since Meath were hammered by Kildare, for some reason a lot of this has focused on their warmup. It was a hell of a hot evening in Tullamore. Meath has a new manager this year in Andy McEntee and their warmup has changed considerably, I’m sure, from that of his predecessor. It wasn’t the telling factor in their loss of the game though, nor was it the reason they beat Louth well a few weeks back. Those who are pointing to the warmup as the reason behind the poor Meath performance are either deliberately or unconsciously deflecting attention away from the real reasons behind Meath’s loss. If Meath were tired after that warmup then they aren’t fit enough to stay with a team as well prepared as Kildare.

Here, in my opinion, are the reasons that Meath lost.

  • Meath cleared out their forward line, leaving two men inside, McMahon and Lenihan. These two had been well-used in the game against Louth (where Louth have had no sweeper since Derek Maguire headed to America). Meath played the ball in deep to these two against Louth, and then their pace men, particularly Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, fed off them and caused Louth considerable damage taking the ball at pace heading for goal. Against Kildare, this couldn’t happen. Kildare used a sweeper, Eoin Doyle, in front of them. Meath tried for almost the whole first half to put the ball in and then chase it looking to feed- this fell down as Lenihan and McMahon could barely win a ball between them due to poor quality ball, poor quality runs, and the excellent positioning of the sweeper.
  • Meath have gone with one fielder and one runner at midfield, rather than two fielders. For their kickouts, Ronan Jones made runs to drag his man away from the centre of the field. If his man followed it would leave space for his partner Menton to be kicked the ball. If his man didn’t follow a shorter kickout to Jones could be made. This didn’t really work at all. Kildare put a few men around Menton and with his marker Kevin Feely just as good in the air, Kildare either won clean ball or had numbers on the breaks. Kickouts put Meath under severe pressure throughout the game, with Paddy O’Rourke eventually trying to find Cillian O’Sullivan, by no means a big man or noted fielder with long kickouts. Meath badly needed a second (and third and fourth) kickout option.
  • Meath refused to carry and pass to break the Kildare defence down. Only Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan Menton did this with any real threat for Meath in the game. O’Sullivan worked his balls off throughout, and while his final ball let him down at times, mostly this was due to having no support. To hear the abuse he got from his own fans was shocking. Padraig Harnan and McEntee from wing back tried to support by making overlapping runs. The other Meath forwards were ineffective and seemed to not understand they needed to change their gameplan.
  • I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, and this was the first time I saw a player at county level not really make much effort at all. One Meath forward spent most of the game hovering around the centre-forward position, and made little to no effort to get involved in the play. If his man was passed the ball he’d jog over to him but in the entire match I would say he reached maximum effort only three or four times. Even with his teammates running closeby him, he never looked for a pass but twice. Up until he was substituted with about 15 mins left to play, Meath effectively had only 14 players. Clearly something was mentally or physically wrong with the player and I hope this can be remedied as he has serious talent.
  • Kildare are a more complete team than Meath right now. I couldn’t see any real weaknesses in their team. They look finally to have some quality forwards rather than their tradition of relying on one or two stars to fire the majority of scores. They are very shrewd. Several examples of this: Meath man marked Niall Kelly with Mickey Burke, a sensible option to be fair, but Kelly pulled Burke here, there and everywhere and left the centre-forward position empty for Kildare to run into. Another being the deployment of Doyle as sweeper. Another being the use of Ollie Lyons to provide the overlap in attack. They could think quicker on the line and play and think better on the field than Meath.

Sadly, the media has jumped on the warmup. Lads who weren’t in Tullamore on Saturday night talking about things they didn’t see. Lads who were in Tullamore talking about things they don’t know about. Meath management and analysts will, I hope, see what the real issues were and will remedy them. This is a good Meath team. They are going the right direction. A couple of changes to personnel such as moving Jones to wing forward and bringing in a fielder at midfield, dropping Wallace and Reilly and bringing in O’Coilean. I’d leave Burke in the corner and allow Keogan to hold the centre-back position too. Their problems in this game, as I outlined, are fixable. But lads whingeing about the warmup? Just lazy analysis, plain and simple.

Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Brian Cody (Kilkenny)

Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Kilkenny were good yesterday. That second-half performance was top drawer, played at an intensity Galway just couldn’t handle. Who can live with that pace – we’ll have to wait until September to see if anyone can. Galway didn’t handle it well, and that game was there for the taking for them.

All my life I’ve been watching games with my Dad. Even though nowadays I live in Dublin and he lives back home in Wexford, we still, sort of, watch them together. The match will be on in both our houses. Most days we’ll have a chat before to see who’ll win, a chat at half-time to see what changes each of us would make, and a chat after briefly about what actually happened.

Yesterday, we had a chat at half-time just. It’s always easy to say “I told you so”, but yesterday I was in actually prophetic form. Continue reading

Brawn again

The Sunday Times
Brawn again
Fiona McBennett
June 19 2016

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Bodybuilding is not for the faint of heart, whether you are taking part or watching. When it comes to pursuing the sport competitively, an important mental attribute is a love of deprivation and misery, according to Loughlin Gannon, one of Ireland’s best-known competitors. “It’s a bizarre sport in every sense,” he says. “I’ve come to believe bodybuilders are not normal in any context.”

Gannon, 31, has won countless competitions since he was 16, including Mr Ireland two years ago. The Wexford man now has his sights on Mr World — the ultimate title for a bodybuilder. Preparation for competitions is arduous, with months of “bulking” through weightlifting and frequent meals, followed by weeks of “cutting” via intense cardio training on a strict diet. In the days leading to a competition, even water intake is restricted to help sculpt the perfect stage body. “Pre-contest bodybuilding is not healthy — it’s a massive level of stress,” admits Gannon. “It’s hard to understand why you keep doing it, but something keeps dragging you back. You have to be a bit warped to put yourself through it.”

Muscle man competitions date from 1891 but did not enter popular culture until the 1960s, when future Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger swaggered on to the Mr Universe stage in tiny briefs, flexing his supersized muscles.
For a long time bodybuilding was considered a freakish fringe activity or the choice activity of steroid abusers, but in recent years it has gone mainstream. Social media is saturated with posts of toned abs, macronutrient diet plans and personal bests. Gannon is sceptical, saying the “Instagramification” of his sport diminishes its true spirit. “I hate what the industry has evolved into. I love seeing someone lose a few pounds or reach a goal in the gym, but these things have become grossly diluted among the ‘smoke and mirrors’ type of pictures on social media today. It seems more about ‘likes’ than sticking it out and making real progress.”

However, bodybuilder Rachel Lawlor reckons social media has led to growth in the sport’s female community. “When I did my first competition there were 12 women in my category; last year there were 17. It’s popular now for women to lift weights and be strong,” she says. Dubliner Lawlor, 34, fits her training regime around her job as a PA and says colleagues are used to her training schedule. “They have been really supportive and don’t mind me eating at odd times,” she says. “They bought me a bunch of flowers and a black coffee for my birthday last year, as I was preparing for a competition and couldn’t have cake.”

Not surprisingly, the life of a bodybuilder can seem restrictive to those on the outside, but according to Chris Traynor, a Dublin-based sport psychologist and performance analyst, the sense of discipline and structure it requires is one of the main reasons people are drawn to it.

“It’s empowering for bodybuilders to feel in control of their lifestyle, to have the willpower and discipline to eat and train in line with their plans,” he says. “By setting and completing goals on a daily basis, bodybuilders improve self-efficacy and self-confidence, which in turn increases their motivation to persist in training.”
Competitions take priority for bodybuilding couple Vinny Gough and Fionnula McHale. Gough, 30, was male fitness model world champion at the World Beauty Fitness and Fashion (WBFF) show in Las Vegas last year. McHale, 32, a two-time European powerlifting champion, came first in her category at the International Fitness Championships in London last year. “Second place is never going to be good enough — that’s just the way we are,” says McHale. “When you have that mindset, you’re going to do 100% of what’s required of you, and we do that.”

Lifting weights became a focus for Gough after he was injured in his final year in Castleknock College, ending a promising rugby career. He opened a gym in Dublin, worked as a fitness model, and is now a personal trainer at Fitness First on Baker Street in London. Preparing for last year’s WBFF show was physically and mentally draining.
“I weighed 95kg and had to get down to 83.8kg for the competition, so I had to eat very little and spend two hours on the bike doing cardio every day just to burn off muscle,” he says. “I was lethargic and my mood dropped. But to be on top of your game, everything else in life must take second place.”

McHale, a Galway native who works in London and Dublin in functional medicine, misses the preparation once a show is over. “It’s a bit of an anticlimax after a competition because you’re so used to every hour and every gramme of food and fluid being measured to the extreme,” she says. “You’re checking your weight every day — sometimes twice a day — and it takes time to get used to not doing that any more.”

Professor Carel le Roux, co-director of the metabolic medicine group at the Diabetes Complications Research Centre in University College Dublin, says bodybuilders have some of the best diets of all athletes because they are so conscious of the nutritional content of everything they eat. However he doubts the value of muscle-building shakes and drinks. “Sportspeople often use protein supplements to help with the recovery after exercise, because they often can’t eat enough to give them the protein they require,” he says. “Many bodybuilders take creatine [an amino acid] to enhance recovery so that the muscle-building process is faster. However, the scientific evidence to say that it really makes a difference is weak.”

When it comes to reactions to her lifestyle, McHale gets mainly positive comments. “Most people think it’s great, but some girls on social media will say it’s too masculine or not attractive,” she says. “For me, this is what I enjoy, and there are women who feel it’s inspiring to see me lifting heavier weights than most men. It’s empowering, and I’m not going to change. I love what I do.”

Mistakes in Irish rugby?

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Mistakes in Irish rugby?

Two words I’ve noticed take prominence in the interviews of players and coaches from Leinster, Munster and the Irish national team are “mistakes” and “experience”. In general, there seems to be a belief among the players and coaching staff that games are won by the teams making the fewest “mistakes” and by the teams with the most “experience”. Is this true? Common sense suggests that these guys are correct, but when you scratch the surface and think about it a little more deeply, the logic is flawed.

In any learning environment, mistakes are to be encouraged, not eliminated. Continue reading

NFL Division 4 2016

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NFL Division 4 2016

This Spring I spent my Sundays travelling around Ireland watching mainly Division 4 football. I’m a Performance Analyst and worked for some teams in Division 4, scouting and preparing reports on their upcoming opponents. It was a most enjoyable experience I must say, made most enjoyable by the quality of football played. I would guess I may be the only person in the country who saw each team play, most teams more than once, apart from supporters who loyally followed their own team throughout the league.Continue reading

Winning?

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Winning?

Every team in every competition in every sport wants to win. That’s what they’d say if you asked them. They go out to play their best, play hard, play well and get the result at the end of the game. Show me a player who walks out onto a field, court or gym and doesn’t do their best. Genuinely, show me, because I don’t know any.

Motivation is easy once you’re out there togged out and the whistle goes. It’s natural. You’re already on the battlefield, it’s sink or swim time. Motivation to prepare to your best ability to give you and your team the best chance of winning, well that’s a bit more difficult.Continue reading