Along with many others, no doubt, I revelled in the opening round of the most exciting and challenging club competition in the northern hemisphere – the Heineken Cup – and I confidently expect this weekend’s programme to produce the same level of unpredictability, with a similar number of contests going down to the wire.
Along with many others, no doubt, I revelled in the opening round of the most exciting and challenging club competition in the northern hemisphere – the Heineken Cup – and I confidently expect this weekend's programme to produce the same level of unpredictability, with a similar number of contests going down to the wire. After another exhausting few days for followers of English rugby off the field, the prospect of watching some high-intensity cross-border action, rather than reading and hearing about the post-mortems and recriminations at international level, is deeply attractive.
Last week's match between Munster and Northampton, which set the tone for the tournament, was fascinating in many ways and led to a remarkable denouement that would have forced many a scriptwriter to wonder whether he was over-egging things: 41-plus phases of ball retention with one aim in mind – to set up Ronan O'Gara for a shot at a match-winning drop goal. Through the calm and patient approach of the Munster players an opportunity finally arose and the nerveless Irishman did not disappoint. I suspect there were more than a few Welsh supporters who suddenly had a flood of unpleasant memories from the World Cup semi-final against France, when the same scenario unfolded with the opposite outcome.
If this was dramatic edge-of-the-seat stuff, something similar was going on in south-west France in the Toulouse-Gloucester game, where the West Countrymen went close to pulling off a memorable victory. Both matches highlighted for me the importance of the driving maul as a technical and tactical weapon – and how little it is used in an effective fashion these days.
Sacking the jumper at the line-out is de rigueur these days, but in scoring their first try, Munster showed that a little intelligent variation can overcome this form of defence. After that, both sides attempted to drive but neither succeeded in the same way. In Toulouse, the play was scarcely in evidence at all, even though the Frenchmen in particular are renowned for their ability to drive dynamically from all phases. On this occasion they appeared content to take the tackle and hit the ground early and easily, allowing Gloucester's excellent line-speed to close down the midfield channel for large chunks of the contest.
While the dynamic maul out of the tackle area has not quite gone out of fashion, it has certainly taken second place in the mindset to the ruck. Modern-day tackling techniques and the no-risk option of ball retention are no doubt contributory factors, but the value of staying on the feet – driving and spinning before breaking out with a running No 9 and hard-line support runners around him – must never be underestimated. Very few sides demonstrate the capacity to drive in the middle of phase play: to use the maul as a means of changing the focus of how an attack is shaped, to attract defenders to the tackle area, to vary the tempo of an attack. Too often the drive is used only in slow, straight-line fashion off a line-out, which engages four or five opposition players at best. This means that when the ball is released there are probably nine attackers against 11 or so defenders – not great odds in the pro game. There are far wider possibilities to be explored.
Moving to another area of the game in Limerick, it was instructive to see the counter-attack from kick receipt in operation – particularly from an England perspective, as the Northampton backs Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, back in their club environment, were suddenly highly effective. I know the coach Jim Mallinder is a big fan of the counter-attack, as any former full-back of his stamp should be. He keeps the organisation simple, basing it on a high work-rate, an eyes-up approach and quick, clear communication. The key factor for the deep-lying players? Assess the opposition chase in terms of numbers, direction and spacing before moving the ball – or a colleague – to where the inevitable openings have emerged. To get this right, all 15 players, each of whom have primary and secondary roles to fulfil, must understand their duties. Mix these ingredients together while giving people licence to have a crack and it's a no-risk exercise.
I must say that I enjoyed the performance of another Northampton back, Ryan Lamb: a talented footballer, the outside-half has had an uneven career and never persuaded the powers that be that he has a game to offer on a higher stage. Yet his technique, vision and instinctive understanding of rugby's intricacies allow him to play in the heavy traffic, as and when appropriate, rather than simply kick the ball away. In a team with so many line-breaking runners, he is developing nicely.
Watching Gloucester is always a pleasure these days: the rich mix of young and experienced Cherry and Whites under Bryan Redpath's leadership really do go out and play, and it almost paid off in Toulouse. They don't need to beat themselves up over the fact that the result eluded them, for they held the initiative for long periods and will have noted one or two things to be wary of in the return match after Christmas: notably, that they should not over-kick, either in distance or frequency, to a full-back like Clément Poitrenaud who has made a career out of counter-attacking through the eye of the needle.
In addition, Toulouse reminded us that they are one of the top sides in the world when it comes to attacking down narrow channels. Their ability to hit the ball at pace, make subtle changes to their running lines and off-load before and in the tackle has been a part of their culture for the past 25 years. Allow them to generate momentum in this area at your peril.
Gloucester will fancy their chances against all-comers at Kingsholm and so they should. More often than not they have a "to hell with the consequences" attitude about them. It's an on-the-edge way of operating but it's devastating when successful. Long may they follow this road and stride ever more boldly along it.