Brian Ashton: Bath time whetted appetite for today's tasty clash in Dublin
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 30 April 2011
As befits my former association with the Bath club, I watched their demolition of Wasps in the St George's Day Special at Twickenham with considerable delight, and I was particularly happy for Steve Meehan, who succeeded me as head coach five years ago and is about to leave for pastures new.
Admittedly, Bath were helped to a surprising degree by the Londoners' poor one-on-one tackling and lethargic approach to defensive organisation, but Steve has always sought to play a game full of pace, enterprise and dynamism – the kind of rugby that asks questions of his own players, as well as their opponents.
It is not the easiest of routes to follow, but when things work as they should, the result can be spectacular, as we saw during the course of last Saturday's rather one-sided contest. The solid forward foundation laid by the Bath pack meant the half-backs, Michael Claassens and Sam Vesty, had the time, space and opportunity to launch a raft of runners in a wide variety of ways that caused Wasps no end of trouble. Matt Banahan, in the unfamiliar starting position of inside centre, revelled in the attacking freedom afforded him, as did Nick Abendanon and Tom Biggs. Steve must have drawn great satisfaction from the sight of players putting his ideas into practice and working so hard to bring them to fruition.
The team's willingness to attack, combined with their clinical execution, was highlighted most strikingly by one of Biggs's scores, which went something like this: Wasps are turned over, David Flatman pops the ball off the ground to Claassens, who promptly moves it wide to Banahan in space, who works the two-on-one perfectly to send Biggs on his way to the line. Three passes, 70 metres covered, one try.
Some of the rugby at Twickenham was so good, it further whetted my appetite for today's Heineken Cup semi-final between Leinster and Toulouse in Dublin – a game between two very superior sides, and one I shall relish watching from the comfort of my armchair. Both are capable of playing in a way that destroys defensive "systems" and disorientates defensive mindsets. Amen to that, I say.
Toulouse have been developing their unique style for more than 30 years now, their enlightened philosophy underpinned by longevity and continuity in the coaching department. When we watch them at their best, playing rugby based around the continuous movement of players and ball alike and switching the point of potential penetration to keep opponents guessing while stuck on the back foot, we know we are looking at a team with tradition and progression in perfect balance.
This is not to say they play the beautiful game at all times, regardless of circumstances. Toulouse can mix it with the best of them when the occasion demands: they are always mentally confrontational, they can do the physical bit if necessary, and they are not afraid to adopt the pragmatic approach. But their opponents are always aware that they have in their armoury an arsenal of weaponry that can be unleashed for 10 or 20 minutes in the middle of the game and blow away even the strongest club outfits.
It is all very well people knowing this about Toulouse but dealing with the reality of it is very different, as Leinster may find this afternoon. The good news from their perspective is that nowadays, they are no shrinking violets in any department of the game. They have found a way of coupling the attacking verve that has always been a part of their make-up with a recently-discovered steeliness of body, mind and spirit. Accusations that they are a soft touch no longer bear examination, either up front or behind. Just ask Leicester.
Equipped with players who can hold their own at the set-piece and the tackle area, such crucial parts of the game at elite level, they also have the bounce of Eoin Reddan at No 9 and the ever-maturing Jonathan Sexton at No 10. Sexton can move his team around the field as and when required, but also has the instinct and skill-set to bring into play the likes of Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll et al – backs as threatening as they are talented. Toulouse will have to watch the outside-half carefully, for he has an impish unpredictability about him.
Of course, the Frenchmen have tasted more success than anyone over the 15 years or so of European rugby and have proved adept at winning the really close-fought games on the biggest stages. But has there ever been a more determined, competitive leader than O'Driscoll? Still ablaze with ambition, his exhortative qualities seem to grow year on year. Only a very brave man would bet against a team of his, playing in the Irish capital. It will be an enthralling occasion, and I think Leinster might just sneak it.
Northampton, having negotiated a tough eight days fairly successfully, will have gulped some fresh air into their lungs in preparation for the massive physical collision with Perpignan tomorrow. I believe the midfield of Stephen Myler, James Downey and Jon Clarke holds the key for them. If they can consistently win the race to the gainline – with the ball and without it – it could turn out to be a famous day for the Midlanders.
Good to see there's still a small space for game's little masters
At the other end of the age-group spectrum, England's Under-16 team beat Wales at my "home" club of Fylde over the Easter weekend. School meals must have improved dramatically since my days in the classroom, judging by the size and physique of these young players. Indeed, it was hard to believe that some of them were still 15.
Fortunately for those of us who are vertically challenged, we were able to watch Simon Sexton, the England scrum-half – a human being constructed on a more recognisable scale. He was agile, quick and bouncy, the very epitome of the classical No 9. What was more, he had a priceless asset: namely, an outstanding service that held up in all areas and all situations. With no visible back-lift, he sent the ball travelling with the speed and trajectory of a bullet, giving his backs plenty of room to manoeuvre.
There was no soft-shoe, sideways shuffle before release; just a selfless discharging of a scrum-half's primary duty. And speaking as a No 9 from way back when, it was terrific to see.
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