THERE were mixed emotions among the players and management following our 21-10 defeat of Montpellier at the weekend, in pool four of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
We were delighted with the victory and the fact that it was the first time that the club had completed home and away wins over French opposition in Europe’s premier competition.
It was also pleasing to see the character and belief on display from the players to secure victory in the second half, having trailed 10-7 at the break.
However, there was also a sense of frustration in that we had a number of opportunities in both the first and the second half to win the game by a more decisive manner and to secure a four-try bonus point.
A key element of having a successful attack is being able to create tryscoring opportunities, and securing as much possession in the opposition third of the field. We certainly achieved the second part on Sunday, as we had 20 separate attacks from within the Montpellier 22, which is by some distance the highest number we’ve ever produced for this particular statistic.
Unfortunately, a more important stat is the ratio of converting such attacks into points, and we fell short of what was required, as we were unable to seize the opportunities that we had created.
Part of that was down to a stout Montpellier defence, especially in the lineout where, led by Ben Mowen, they were excellent in reading our movements and competing for the ball. But it was also due to some inaccuracy on our part, which we have been working hard to fix this week.
As the last European Rugby Champions Cup game of the weekend unfolded on Sunday night, there was another emotion added to the mix – excitement. There has been a buzz around the place in that our game against Bath on Sunday could be a winner-takes-all knockout tie.
Bath produced a fantastic performance to win in Toulouse, which has left the pool wide open, with Toulouse on 16 points, Bath on 15 and ourselves on 14. Obviously the pool winners will go directly through to the quarter-finals and there could be an opportunity for the team which finishes second to progress as one of the three best runners-up.
The qualification picture will be a lot clearer by kick-off time on Sunday but we knew all along that we would need two wins from our final two games and nothing has changed in that regard.
Given the way that Bath have been playing in the last few weeks, this will be a tough challenge, so we will probably have to produce our best rugby of the season to beat them.
On a sadder note, last week saw the retirement of Ross Rennie, who was an excellent player for both Edinburgh and Scotland and, in recent times, Bristol, too. It is always difficult to see a player forced to stop playing earlier than planned due to injury – especially for Ross, as his career had been affected by injury over a number of seasons now. It is just such a pity we weren’t able to see the best of Ross for a longer period.
When he was fit, he was becoming one of the best opensides in the game and, through his style of play, was redefining the role of openside flanker. He was a very attacking No 7 who was able to link with ball carriers through intelligent support lines. He also had an excellent ability to offload out of the tackle himself.
Another facet of his play was his defence, where he was superb in timing what you might call a “rip tackle” whereby, as the second man into the tackle, he targeted the ball and ripped it out rather than wait for the ball carrier to go to the ground. This tended to produce as many turnovers as the traditional method of competing at the ruck once the ball carrier goes to ground, and it is something Scott Williams at the Scarlets also does very well.
In what may turn out to be an irregular theme in this column, I thought I’d give my thoughts on what are the essential attributes of each position in a rugby team. So what are the qualities an openside flanker needs in the modern game? First of all there has to be a real physicality and mobility in the role.
The openside is generally the most dynamic of the forwards and tends to be the most aggressive player in the team, as he is charged with providing quick ball in attack. Being the first man to the tackle contest on more occasions than any other player, he must remove any threats and ensure that the ball is able to be moved away quickly from the ruck area.
The modern openside must also play a key part in slowing down the speed of ball for the opposition attack through being dominant and accurate in the tackle but also getting back to his feet quickly to contest for ball. The goal is to win back this ball for his team, but the next best situation is getting more defenders to remove him from the tackle contest, and delay the speed of ball as this allows his team to be in a better position to defend the next phase. To achieve all of that a No 7 has to be very fit, really flexible but, most importantly, very tough.
Opensides tend to be the barometer of how a team is playing in terms of the necessary aggression levels, so they need a strong competitive streak and a real desire in training and on the pitch to constantly push themselves to be the best they can be. There is a crucial learning aspect to how they prepare to play, and they must study the opposition and their traits, so they get to the tackle contest ahead of their opposite number, while also working closely with their own team’s stand-off to know the plays and where they should be heading in support.
An openside forms part of the three back-row players and, between them, these three players will have the most carries, tackles and ruck clears of any unit in the team.
In recent years, the evolution of the back-row players has meant that there hasn’t been too much of a distinction between back-rowers and centres and there are similar traits in the back row to what is needed at centre, such as ball-carrying, tackling and clearing contact – for example.
So it is of little surprise that someone like Richie Vernon has been able to excel in the back row and then at centre for us in the last couple of seasons, before moving back into the back row pretty seamlessly for last week’s game.
Our opposition this weekend, Bath, have a similar hybrid player in Sam Burgess, who has recently been recruited from Rugby League and has played at centre and in the back row for his club over the last few weeks.
It will be interesting to see, should he line up against us on Sunday, what role he is used in, as he possesses some tremendous defensive and attacking qualities which will make him a brilliant backrower or, possibly, an even better centre.
Given the superb performance of the Bath backline at the weekend it will be even more interesting to see if he comes straight back into the team from injury and take his place ahead of some of the players who performed so well in Toulouse.
Either way, we know that we will face an excellent side packed full of international players who are full of confidence right now and it should be a quality match for the neutral.