The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

Back to Black

Munster’s late, and largely irrelevant, bonus point wrapped up what was a pretty horrific set of double headers from the Irish provinces in the ERCC. Munster lost 8-2 in match points, gave up their first home loss to a French opponent and were thoroughly outclassed by (the admittedly brilliant) Clermont Auvergne. With a bit more concentration yesterday, Clermont could have won the double header 9-1, and that would not have been an outcome which any Irish fan could have seriously queried. The late bonus point does at least have them feeling a bit better about themselves, and they will need to be feeling good to win in Globo Gym. Leinster broke even, 5-5, but are behind Quins on the tie-breaker (match points this year) and in the table. Ulster won their double header 5-4, but, since their faint hopes required 9 points, the fact they lost one of the games is the relevant point.  When future generations are asked if they know their Clive Ross from their Bronson Ross, they’ll look quizically at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’.

By our reckoning, the last time two of the three major Irish provinces lost their double headers was 15 years ago, the year after Ulster won what was then the European Cup – Leinster won and lost to Stade but were behind on both tie-breakers (bonus points hadn’t been invented yet), Ulster lost twice to Llanelli (not the Scarlets – they are completely different, obviously) and Munster saved Irish bacon by beating Colomiers twice. The Liginds were European newbies at that stage, and the ensuing tear-soaked journey to the final went quite a way to kindling the love affair with Europe.

We find it hard to envisage an Irish side making this year’s final though – they simply look too far off the French teams, and a home quarter-final is odds-against in both cases. In fact, for all the crowing from Bruce Craig et al about increased competitiveness, and following the pattern of recent seasons, most of the quarter-final places have been more or less decided – with Munster/Saracens the only serious question mark, unless Glasgow can secure a rare win on English turf.

Pool 1: Clermont are home and hosed – two more wins takes them to 22 points, and another point is a possiblity. The runners-up slot will be decided at Allianz Park in the next round, when Munster bring real fans to drown out the PA system. Saracens put a bonus point on Clermont in Round 1, have only lost to the Saints at home this year, and beat a Munster side superior to this current edition two seasons ago – it’s a big stretch to call this for Munster right now, and we can’t get there. We reckon Saracens to finish second on 17 points. If Munster do make it, they’ll likely have 18/19 points.

Pool 2: Quins have a home game against Wasps and visit patsies Castres in the last round – 8 points is virtually a given, with 9 a possibility – that takes them to 21/22. Leinster should just about be able for Castres, but might struggle with Wasps’ gargantuan pack – they’ll need to lose that one 5-0 in match points to go out, which is pretty unlikely, but we wouldn’t fancy them to win if that game was today. Leinster to finish second with 19 points.

Pool 3: Toulon will win both games, and probably score four tries against Ulster – that brings them to 22. A likely home win each for Leicester and Ulster won’t be enough to get them into the mix for the quarters, but Leicester to finish second on 14 for what it’s worth.

Pool 4: Toulouse are the only team to date with a 100% record, and look likely to finish the pool stages that way, with games against the Sam Burgess XV and Montpellier, who have thrown in the towel in hapless and hilarious fashion. Glasgow have a home game to feed off Montpellier’s rotting corpse, after which they go to Bath, where a win will be needed to be in the qualification mix. It’s an intriguing match-up, with Bath most likely out of the qualification picture by then, but it’s a big ask for Glasgae to win in the Rec. So we think Glasgae will finish second on 16.

Pool 5: Racing Metro will go to the Saints in the last round, and if Northampton don’t beat Ospreys away in round 5, a losing bonus point will suffice to top the pool on 20, with Saints losing the tie-breaker and finishing second on 20. Spare a thought for the Hairsprays, who could finish 3rd on 17 points, which might be enough to qualify from other pools (helped by Treviso).  If Northampton can beat the Ospreys, and beat Racing Metro, they’ll top the group.  Either way, both look good to progress.

That would leave us with:

  1. Toulouse 24
  2. Clermont 22/23
  3. Toulon 22
  4. Quins 21/22
  5. Racing Metro 20
  6. Saints 20
  7. Leinster 19
  8. Saracens 17/18

A win for Glasgow in Bath would push them up to 19 and would create an every-point-counts finale between themselves, Leinster and the winner of Saracens and Munster.

If there is a silver lining to be had, it’s provided by Connacht, who sent a fully reserve team to France and won.  Okay, it was only Bayonne, where the ham comes from, and it was only the Challenged Cup, but still.  They’ll hit the interpros with more feelgood than any of the other provinces.  They look the best coached of the four at the moment, by a mile.  Their next opponent: Leinster.  Great.

Double Judas

Irish rugby players who go abroad to earn their living generally fall into 2 buckets:

  1. Top class internationals who left at their peak
  2. Those who were not in line for a central contract and were dispensable to their provinces

The former basket consists of Jonny Sexton – Sexton was pissed off at the union’s slow pace of negotiations two years ago, felt insulted at their initial offer and flounced off to (nouveau riche) Racing. Since then, the Union have upped their game, and have kept the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland despite strong French interest – and Sexton himself is returning next season. The Sexton move was a game-changer that left no-one happy and has brought about earlier contractual negotiations, longer contracts and private investment with a goal to keeping the international squad based at home. In 2008, Tommy Bowe left Ulster for the Hairsprays, but at that stage his international career had stalled and Ulster were an utter shambles that he wanted out of.

In the second category, there exists various former internationals who were offered a better contract abroad (Tom Court, Tomas O’Leary), journeyman pros (James Downey, Gareth Steenson) and younger players looking for a new start after their careers stalled at home (Chris Farrell, Adam Macklin, James McKinney, Conor Gilsenan, iHumph). In all these cases, they are players who were not mapped internationally and were expendable to the domestic game.

The potential transfer of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to the Saints, as reported by Gerry yesterday, falls into neither of these buckets. Hanrahan is a former underage (schools and under-20) star who is generally seen as the future in the province – he is clearly behind Sexton, Madigan, Jackson and Keatley right now at international level, but has bags of potential and certainly appears to have the skills to grow into a key player for Munster, and maybe Ireland. But it seems he doesn’t see it that way – he seems to feel he is trapped on the bench and not getting adequate opportunities. As Gerry pointed out, last year he started 11 games at outhalf and came off the bench in every HEC game – this year he has started twice and was left kicking his heels while Munster came a cropper in Thomond last week.

Hanrahan is not only playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley, which we can understand at least even if we don’t always agree with it, but being out of the team at the expense of Denis Hurley is quite another matter – Hurley is a good honest pro, but apart from bashing up the middle, doesn’t offer a huge amount in an attacking sense. Hanrahan has been rooted to the bench, but isn’t even getting used as an impact sub, unlike under Penney last year.  It’s been one of the season’s curiosities because, to our eyes at least, Hanrahan has played well when he’s been let on the pitch.

Also since last year, Munster have signed Tyler Bleyendaal, an almost exact replica in positional terms of Hanrahan, Andrew Smith, another bosh it up the middle centre and Pat Howard, a medical joker who got straight into the team. The new head coach, Axel, has talked a good game about moving the ball through the backline and playing creative centres, but has reverted to reductive boshing in the big games – Hanrahan hasn’t got a look in. Being rooted to the bench while Munster trundled the ball backwards against Clermont for 80 minutes must have been galling – he might not have made any difference, but the sight of Plan B being the same as Plan A (bosh it up the middle) must have made him wonder. You sense that Hanrahan just doesn’t fit into Axel’s plans right now.   Much has been made of Hanrahan starting the season with an injury, which restricted his gametime in the early part, but it’s December now.  He played back-to-back games at 15 against Ulster and the Dragons – last we saw of him he was putting in a classy grubber kick for a try against Dragons – but still they wouldn’t let him on against Clermont.

And now Northampton have come sniffing with an offer (apparently £150k) that would dwarf anything Munster could offer, given general debt levels and the fact that he is seen as a reserve – it’s decent wedge for an essentially unproven player. Hanrahan is clearly a young man in a hurry – he is six months younger than his underage team-mate Paddy Jackson, who has been Ulster starter for two and a half years and has nine Ireland caps, and you wonder does Hanrahan compare himself to Wee PJ. Its a slightly different scenario for a number of reasons – PJ was outhalf for the under-20s when both were in the team – and Jackson also captained the side. PJ was coming from a different place, and Ulster coaches couldn’t wait to start him – he debut-ed just a month after turning 19, almost four years ago. Also, the Ulster jersey fell into PJs lap following some rubbishy performances from iHumph in Munster and Connacht in 2012, after which iHumph left the building, leaving Jackson unopposed as starter. This was both a blessing (allowed him to grow into the jersey without serious competition) and a curse (he effectively immediately became the number three outhalf in Ireland and was parachuted into the national team in non-ideal circumstances with non-ideal results).

Axel responded to Gerry’s story and talked about preparation and injury recovery, which is correct and laudable, but then topped it off by saying “we were considering introducing him at inside centre but Denis Hurley made a couple of breaks”. Talk about depressing – if Hanrahan does leave, you have a smoking gun right there – reductive and conservative rugby in the biggest games where a couple of minor breaks (that we must have missed – even ESPN had Hurley carrying just 5 times for 10 metres) as part of an ineffective gameplan trumps the potential to open the game up and run around Clermont instead of at them. After email-gate was classified as careless, letting the Golden Boy leave for want of opportunities would be a bit of an indictment on Axel’s squad management.

If Hanrahan does move, not only is it a disaster for Munster, where Hanrahan looked the most natural backline talent since Anto Horgan Keith Earls, but for Ireland, where the model of keeping young players at home and husbanding them through province (Pro12 then HEC/ERCC) to national training squad to national team is being challenged. Our top youngsters taking off to Northampton is not part of the plan. On the bright side, the Saints would not be paying him £150k a year to sit on the bench and give Stephen Myler hugs – he will be getting paid to play for one of the top teams in a league where he will be directly facing some excellent players – game managers like Nuck Evans and “Faz”, creative talents as George Ford, Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani, and also potentially Jimmy Gopperth, who recently killed Bambi.

If he does leave, the best case is that Hanrahan wins the Saints starting jersey and is playing in a team potentially better than any Irish province, and who will be challenging for domestic and European silverware. Joe Schmidt cannot ignore him, he gets called up for Ireland and levers that into a bumper central contract and comes home as Munster starter in 2/3 years. Or, he does a Geordan Murphy and settles down and spends his career in England – his form demands selection and he picks up 50+ caps over a long career. Going further down the outcome chain, he does what a previous Munster prodigy did and spends his career in the Premiership without ever nailing down a place in the Ireland squad – the Jeremy Staunton path. Worst case, he can’t get shirt, sets his career back two years and limps home with his tail between the legs having stalled in his development – this is probably unlikely, he’s clearly talented and ambitious.

This career path is a little bit of an unknown, and carries risks for Irish rugby’s professional development model, but that’s not Hanrahan’s concern – he feels like he has more to offer and isn’t getting the chances at Munster. Nothing’s done yet, and he could yet sign on for Munster.  This could all have a happy ending, but even then, it has shone a spotlight on a curious unwillingness to embrace talent over the mundane.

Play Badly, Lose Ugly

Whenever John Giles is asked the age-old question about the sign of a good team being that they can play badly and win, he usually has the same response: ‘Well, Eoin, there’s nothing wrong with playing well’.

So it goes with Leinster, who made a lot of brouhaha about their ability to ‘win ugly’ last weekend. Winning ugly is fine in so far as it goes – no team can play at their best for 40 weeks in a row, and it’s better to peak in May than in December. But winning ugly should be no sort of aspiration; at some point the team has to aim to perform. Better to play well and win handsomely, surely? That needn’t mean flinging the ball around in the name of Leinstertainment, it just means playing with a high degree of accuracy and intensity. More often than not ‘winning ugly’ is a euphemism for playing badly, but thankfully the opposition were that bit more useless than we were.

It’s one thing to win ugly in a hard European away game, it’s another to repeatedly win ugly at home to the lesser teams in the Pro12. If you win ugly at home to Zebre, chances are you played badly. Leinster’s problem is that they play badly a lot. In fact, it’s hard to recall a game this season in which they haven’t played badly. That’s translated into winning ugly a lot, because most of their opponents have been fairly poor. But any time they’ve come up against even remotely decent opposition, they’ve lost. They lost to Connacht, they lost at home to Munster and last week they lost to Harlequins. They lost those matches because they played badly in them.

Last Sunday’s defeat to Harlequins was another error-strewn performance to add to the catalogue. To be fair, Leinster tried to play a bit more rugby than they did against Ospreys the previous week, with Gopperth taking the ball to the gainline and causing problems with his running game, which is generally pretty good. But their handling was poor for a side graced with so many internationals and once they found themselves in wide channels they were hopeless. It was as if the touchline was alien territory: ‘Do we run straight over this thing, or throw the ball over it, or do we just throw it one of their chaps?’

By contrast, Harlquins’ skill levels were superior. In Nick Easter and Luke Wallace they had two forwards capable of creating space by passing the ball in tight traffic, and creating a link between forwards and backs. Nick Easter must be ageless, because I thought he was ancient five or six years ago, but he’s still as good as ever; a fantastic player with great hands and a tack-sharp rugby brain

Leinster have picked up bad habits in the last 18 months, and the thing about bad habits is they’re hard to break. It’s rarely a question of simply saying ‘Right, this is a proper game against a real team, so let’s sharpen up the passing today because we’re going to move it wide.’ Good teams forge the right habits week after week and stay true to the team’s identity no matter the personnel on the pitch.

This Leinster team’s identity is becoming one of a team which plays pretty ugly. That’s fine when you’re winning ugly, but once you start losing ugly, it becomes a problem. Another ugly, or bad, performance this weekend, and Leinster could be out of Europe. Leinster need a win, but they need a performance to get it.

The Passion of St Tibulus

This summer, when Axel Foley started his reign as Munster coach, there was a lot of talk about (brace yourself) a “return to traditional Munster values”. To be fair none of it came from Axel himself, but a meeja who had never really bought into the Rob Penney thing defaulted to assuming it would happen.  Those traditional Munster values, as we understand them, are something like an emphasis on the set piece, attacking by forwards around the fringes, and a gameplan strong on half backs kicking for territory.  But if pulled pork was among the most annoying phrases of 2014, ‘a return to traditional Munster values’ should be at least in the top five.  It’s become a sort of off the shelf commodity.  Get your return to traditional Munster values for just €29.99 at Argos.  Simply plug into the wall, and you automatically have a winning rugby team.

In recent weeks, Foley’s gameplan has been pretty effective, with wins in Sale (including an extra bonus traditional value of a late drop goal) and the Palindrome by a relative cricket score, and a satisfying slap-down of Globo Gym in Thomond. They have played a fairly narrow game, with CJ Stander carrying and big centres used to try and bash holes.  Foley’s one creative midfield outlet, JJ Hanrahan, has gone largely unused, when he’s a full deck to choose from at least.

There is, however, one traditional value not mentioned above, and it was best articulated by Axel himself – “we’re better when we are bitter”. Too right – a large portion of the Munster mytholgy is built on proving someone wrong – playing a big English or French team, taking a “they don’t rate us” mentality on to the field – and showing them who is boss. There are many classics of the genre, but our favourite was in Leicester in 2006 when Rog announced the week before the game that he could not accept the English players were any better than Irish ones (at a time when this was a controversial line), won with a last minute penalty into the rain from the halfway line. The perfect riposte – the arrogant English Tigers didn’t rate Munster, and they were shown up in their own house.  Munster still love the underdog tag.

In the build-up to this game last week, the talk was about how the Munster tight five would be dominant and Clermont would naturaly wilt in the cauldron that was Thomond on a Saturday night. No-one was under-rating Munster, and Clermont were painted as a powehouse, but ultimately a mentally frail team who always give you a chance no matter how good they are.  Everyone felt Munster would win.

If there was one team playing like they had a point to prove, one team that felt disregarded, it was Clermont. And they played like a Deccie-era Munster team facing the arrogant English. Munster looked a bit shell-shocked by the intensity Clermont were bringing, by the magnitude of the hits, by the un-Brock James like fortitude of Camille Lopez and by the refusal to bow down before the waves of passion from the stands. Lopez missed three early kicks but all were difficult and noe were especially badly struck.  Any supsicion that he had been Thomond-ed fell apart once he nailed a drop goal from the 10m line.

Clermont had the Munster scrum in trouble – how BJ Botha lasted 80 minutes is beyond us. The lineout malfunctioned – Duncan Casey’s hot arm is cooling at just the wrong time – and one-out rumbles were stopped on, or behind, the gainline every time. Of the forwards, only Tommy O’Donnell carried effectively (and he was superb, carrying for 44m, compared to 47m for the rest of the pack) and the general, Conor Murray, was under pressure and mis-firing, for once. Has Paul O’Connell ever been shunted backwards so often in a match?  CJ Stander had been Munster’s best forward in the early season, but he had a poor match; had Robin Copeland been available he might have been called ashore.

The most disappointing thing was the absence of a Plan B – in the last 10, Munster went through 20 phases in the Clermont half when Clermont took them behind the gainline every time they attacked the fringes of the ruck.  If you were one of those punters looking for a return to traditional Munster values – you had your wish granted.  Suggestions that Hanrahan would have made a difference in this match are miles off; he wouldn’t have seen the ball.

It felt like Munster simply did not rate Clermont and couldn’t get their heads around the fact that they were still unable to bash through the middle; that Clermont would eventually ‘give them a chance’ if they kept doing the same thing. The expected choke never happened, but this isn’t the time of year for it anyway – since the last time they played Munster in the pool stages, Clermont have qualified for five quarter finals in succession, topping the pool four times. In recent years, they have cruised through the pool stages and a succession of tough draws, including Leinster twice, Ulster, Leicester twice and the Ospreys – the tailspins are saved for the spring.  In fact Clermont deserve a huge amount of praise for the manner in which they won it.  Very few teams contest opposition lineouts in their own 22 these days, the vast majority prefering to set the maul defence, but Clermont were brave enough to put a man in the air and only went and stole the ball.  Chouly said they knew O’Connell would call it on himself.

Simply put – Munster weren’t braced for this kind of contest, and have likely paid with their participation in the tournament. Peter O’Mahony said straight after the game that Munster owed their fans a big performance in the return leg – problem is, the Marcel Michelin isn’t a very hospitable place for a last stand – however well Munster come out, they are unlikely to get the win they need. Going to Saracens and winning offers a better chance, but still less than probable.  Saracens are still in the competition and will need the result just as badly as Munster.  Munster needed the bitter attitude going in on Saturday, but somehow misplaced their indignation.

Now some caution needs to be thrown to the wind.  Foley talked about using both Keatley and Hanrahan together in the team earlier this season, but he has stuck with Hurley as a hole-punching inside centre.  Hanrahan’s scarcity of gametime in the important matches has been one of the season’s curiosities, because it’s not as if he hasn’t played well when he’s been on.  Foley needs to embrace the possibilites he offers, because they will not beat Clermont by trucking it up for another 80 minutes. But at least they’ll be underdogs and largely written off this time.  That always helps.

Extreme Passion

BT Sport featuring montage of Chris Ashton swan diving in Premiership games: The inaugural ERC is back, and with form-lines only stretching back two games, it’s extremely hard to predict how teams will adapt to this brand new competition

Sky featuring footage of HEC finals ending with a close-up of RADGE: The storied European Rugby competition is back for the first leg of another classic head-to-head double featuring some of the most decorated players in rugby history.

It’s back, indeed. And, rather befitting the BT Sport version of events, the Irish aren’t smugly looking down at our English and French cousins and preaching about culture and passion, but are looking over their shoulder in worrisome fashion at what might be bad news down the track.  Wahtever the format, division of incomes, or broadcasters, the December double headers reliably bring European rugby to a crescendo.

In the blue corner, it’s a more Irish version of London Irish – the current iteration of Leinster are booting the ball really far down the pitch in an aimless fashion, making mistake after mistake and causing dissention among the frappuccino and rosemary focaccia scoffing denizens of D4 roysh. The gimme of a pool draw they got has now been flipped on its head – how embarrassing would it be rosyh, if we didn’t even get a home quarter final.

Eight points in this double header (for it’s rather fanciful to expect four tries after the eye-bleeding display against Hairsprays B’s the other night) would likely suffice for that goal. However, it speaks volumes for current confidence levels that winning twice over the ninth-best team in England is not considered a formality, but only a possibility based on current performance levels. If Leinster get over the hurdle that is the Stoop, that home quarter-final is a probability, but the stylish whack-job you could expect in the Schmidt days is unlikely.  Leinster will be looking to revive the spirit of the Stoop when they improbably won 6-5 back in April 2009 in what history will record as perhaps their most important ever match, and another scrap in a similar vein, if not quite so bloody – wink, wink – seems likely.  Quins have dropped off a level or two since they won the Premiership but they are better than their ninth position in the league suggests.  They’ve won precisely one game fewer than Saracens in the league, and beat Wasps away from home in this pool.  Danny Care must surely be hungry after a difficult November, and this is the very platform for him to make his point.  A win is not beyond Leinster, but on current form they may have to make do with a bonus point and look for revenge next week.

Up north, praying fervently in the white corner, it’s the proud, upstanding God-fearing Ulstermen, featuring predictability and cloth-eared stupidity from Nick Williams. What a pity this is virtually a dead rubber.  Ulster lost in “Tomond” last week with an error-strewn and direction-less performance – the pack looks devoid of all discipline, the backrow samey and badly missing Chris Henry, and the backline unable to create anything. The return of Dan Tuohy and Ruan Pienaar will help, but even to beat this ocassionally impressive Scarlets side will need an upswing in performance. They will need 19 points from their next 4 games to even think about sneaking into the knock-outs, and will target 10 points from this double header. Based on current form, that’s pretty unlikely. We bet on a Pienaar-inspired improvement, but only 8 match ponts garnered.

Finally, the big ‘un.  In the brave and faithful corner, we have the extreme passion of Munster, who face the toughest assignment of all – a double header with mental strength’s Clermont Auvergne, the first leg being at “Tomond”. Donncha O’Callaghan is suspended and we’re reliably informed he was this close to unseating Billy Holland from the bench.  A cruel, cruel blow.  But despite that, Munster, against all pre-season expectations, are the best of the Irish provinces right now, with technical excellence from their forwards supplemented by a rich vein of form from Conor Murray, currently Europe’s best scrummie, and Ian Keatley, in the form of his career, some poor execution against Ulster aside. Certain email indiscretions are receding from memory, and Ivan Dineen and Johne Murphy don’t feature much these days anyway.

Clermont might have broken their Ireland hoodoo in the Palindrome against Leinster two years ago, but this is still aside that struggles away from its citadel – losing in Toulon is no disgrace, but losing in Bayonne, Oyannax and Bordeaux – well, it isn’t great.  It’s hard to have too much confidence in them when they go on the road.

Still, this is an imposing and excellent squad – we expect a fight as opposed to the supine lie-down performed by Toulouse last year. The scrum will give Munster plenty of problems, where BJ Botha is a diminished presence and neither Kilcoyne nor Casey are scrummaging powerhouses. A midfield of Lopez and Fofana is likely to pose many more questions than iHumph and McCloskey, but this sort of European game is new territory for Lopez, and his credentials will be tested. And, speaking of iHumph, now that the silence for the kicker policy has been officially abandoned, psyching out of the opposition kicker a la Owen Farrell, is less likely than in previous years. We expect two home wins, but Clermont to get a bonus point in Limerick and perhaps to squeeze out on top in match points. In a tight three-way dogfight, every point counts.  Using a baseline of nineteen points as we outlined earlier this season, Saracens’ bonus point win over Clermont looked to have them on +1, but their failure to take anything from Thomond Park brought them back to scratch.  Five points is the pass-mark for Munster over these two games, and limiting Clermont to no more than five is just as important.  It’s the match-up of this, and next, week, a potential European classic.

Matt O’Connor’s Tactical Rigidity

The heat is being turned up on Matt O’Connor as Leinster continually struggle for form. Last year, they won a richly entertaining final against Glasgow to secure silverware for the fourth season running – a fine achievement, but it covered over a whole lot of pretty mediocre rugby over the course of the season. Aside from the Glasgow game and the Saints away game, Leinster didn’t do a whole lot, and were pretty fortunate in the semi-final to get past Ulster. As for the HEC exit, that was as supine as anything from the bad old days.

As we mentioned in Monday’s post, we took the view that O’Connor was bedding down his systems and that a more cohesive and, indeed, watchable brand of rugby would follow this season.

So far, though, the signs of progress have been minimal. To give O’Connor his dues, he has had to deal with a horrendous injury list and his team won their first two rounds of the Heineken Cup, including a hard-fought tussle away to Castres. But there was something so depressingly reductive about Saturday’s game against Ospreys that it felt like a tipping point. What if last season wasn’t a stepping stone and was in fact as good as it gets? How exactly does Matt O’Connor want the team to play?

To these eyes, it seems like he wants to play a lot of one-out stuff and kick the ball a huge amount. Which is fine, if it’s done well. Ireland have just been lauded for a campaign in which they passed little and kicked a lot. But rather than kicking to reclaim contestable balls, like Ireland, Leinster seem to deliberately kick the ball to the back field and chase up in defensive alignment, in the hope of forcing the opposition into errors in their own half. If Graham Taylor were a rugby coach, that’s probably how he’d set up his team too (aside: does this make Jimmy Gopperth the Carlton Palmer of Leinster)?

Playing a simple gameplan is no bad thing in itself, but playing it so badly, and when it seems so unsuited to the players available to him, is another. It appears that he is rigidly attached to a particular playing style regardless of what resources are available to him.

It’s the exact opposite to how a certain J Schmidt operates. Schmidt is a master of pragmatism, of identifying what resources he has available to him and maximising them accordingly. When he arrived at Leinster, his first statement was that he wanted to make them ‘the best passing team in the Northern hemisphere’. He recognised that he had internationals across the backline, a rugby genius at 10 and crucially, time to hone the players’ passing skills on the training paddock.  When Luke Fitzgerald ran the length of the pitch against Bath, the initial space had been created by nothing more complicated than fast, accurate passing across the backline.

With Ireland, Schmidt has identified a lack of training time as his chief obstacle, so the chances of turning Ireland into a similar passing team are remote.  Instead, he has handed the team a simple gameplan that they can execute to a high degree of accuracy. It speaks of a coach who is flexible enough to tailor his gameplan to what he has at his disposal. The one binding ingredient is accuracy of execution.

Even Heineke “the only fetcher I need is my son to get me a beer” Meyer has shown some tactical flexibilty of late. The high priest of Bulls-style bosh-it-up-the-middle had the Springboks playing heads-up pass-first rugby in this year’s Rugby Championship. The primary reason for this particular Pauline converstion is the existence of hot youngsters Willie “nice pass mate” le Roux and Handre Pollard – not much point in playing a pair of gap-spotting gainline merchants if you are going to be asking them to Morne the ball into orbit.

O’Connor, on l’autre hand, seems determined to bring his rugby-loigue-style bish-bash-and-boot game to Leinster regardless of whether or not those players that have to implement it are Jamie Heaslip, Ian Madigan, Noel Reid and Gordon D’arcy. Talk of turning Leinster into Leicester appears off the mark – Leicester were never this turgid.  Against Munster in the Palindrome earlier this season, at one stage Munster were down to 13 men but Leinster persisted in kicking the ball long. It showed an astonishing tactical rigidity.

The natives are getting restless. Leinster fans are a demanding bunch. Truth be told, they’ve become a little spoiled over the last five years, at times conveniently forgetting how Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright helped grind out 9-6 wins away from home in 2008. They expect not only to win silverware, but also to see the team play with a certain panache. The province has a long tradition of dashing three-quarters and exciting, running rugby. To go against that is one thing – Cheika did, after all, so it’s not anathema – but to go against it and fail miserably would be entirely another. It’s fine playing Puma captain Pippo Contepomi over a raw young Jonny Sexton, but it’s different playing an out-of-sorts Kiwi journeyman Jimmy Gopperth over improving Ireland international Ian Mad-dog. We’re not joining the ‘MOC out’ brigade yet, but the bedding-in period is over.

Grim Oop North. And out East.

Ulster and Leinster face mounting problems as the season enters its next phase.

Leinster simply can’t get a thing going right now and have to face down Harlequins in the biggest two weeks of the season to date. They enter this critical double header with no form whatsoever to speak of. The injury list is much improved from where it was in October, with a number of players recently returning to the fray, but that will count for little if they continue to play with such a high error count and reductive gameplan as they have shown this season, up to and including Saturday’s tedious 18-12 defeat of a depleted Ospreys team.

At the risk of going all cause-celebre, the only hope-against-hope of seeing Leinster put some attacking rugby together is if they can reunite Reddan and Ian Madigan at halfback, but Madigan’s participation is in doubt after he failed to emerge after half-time on Saturday. Not, of course, that O’Connor would be of a mind to start him in any case. If he was planning to, surely this would have been the game in which to give them a rare run together? Matt O’Connor seems wedded to Jimmy Gopperth at 10, even though Gopperth’s form is pretty awful at the moment.

The selection of Gopperth had its critics last year, but to be fair to O’Connor, Gopperth was the man in form while Madigan looked to be forcing things, so it made a degree of sense, even if it wasn’t popular. This year, though, it’s baffling, because Gopperth just isn’t playing well. He looks short on confidence and has failed to launch anything resembling a cohesive backline all season. Madigan, meanwhile, is more like his old self, and comes off a positive November series for Ireland. Alas, it has come to the stage where it feels as if he simply doesn’t have the trust of his coach. On Against the Head last Monday, Matt O’Connor took the opportunity to be a bit sniffy about Madigan’s chances as a test centre. ‘He’s been playing there for us’, he remarked before asking ‘Is he a test centre?’, leaving the question open but implying that he didn’t think so. Curious behaviour from his head coach. In Munster, Axel Foley is only too keen to talk up the test credentials of his players.

Meanwhile, it’s grim oop north. Ulster almost snatched a victory in Thomond Park, but it would have been fortuitous to the point of bizarre had they done so. They’re more or less out of Europe, and should be refocusing on capturing long-overdue silverware by way of the Pro12. As such, the next couple of weeks aren’t that important, but it’s hard to see how they can compete for anything right now, such is the calibre of their pack. With Henry, Henderson and Tuohy all injured, they’re without most of their best forwards right now. Tuohy is likely to return for Saturday, and will provide some relief, as will Ruan Pienaar, but the reliance on rookie centre Stuart McCloskey as the teams primary carrier is far from ideal.

The team is lacking both aggression and effective carriers in the pack, as their go-to-men for the hard yards are failing them. Roger Wilson has never quite looked the player who was so consistent in Northampton’s surge to the 2011 Heineken Cup final and unfortunately Nick Williams is a busted flush. Williams was hugely effective at Pro12 level in his first season at Ulster, but his performances have receded badly since then. It all leaves Robbie Diack looking like their best loose forward, by a country mile. It’s a far cry from the Ferris-Henry-Wannenbosh unit that was so effective in 2012. Modern teams can win without scrum or lineout dominance (Exhibit A: Ireland), but if they lose the backrow battle, they are in trouble – it’s hard to see how Ulster can construct a coherent unit from their current fit options. On Tuohy’s return, to get their best players on the pitch, could they press-gang Franco van der Merwe (not exactly pulling trees up at the moment) into the blindside and put Diack at 8? But then who plays openside? Neither Reidy or Ross look the business, and Roger Wilson at 7 offends all sorts of principles about the role of an openside. Chances are they’ll persevere with Williams and Wilson and put Diack at 7.  As we moaned at the beginning of the season, patchy recruitment in recent years is starting to bite.

Tough times, but if they can keep ticking over until after the Six Nations, they might have enough left in the tank, and some of their important players back, for a big push for the pot. They’re still at the right end of the Pro12 so there’s no immediate concern. Not so for Leinster however. We gave Matt O’Connor a bit of a free pass last season, working on the assumption that he was bedding down his systems and that greater fluidity in attack would follow. But if anything they’ve gone backwards this season. The next two weeks will reveal a lot.

T minus 400 – Part Two

Yesterday we had the forwards, today the backs. With 17 forwards picked we’re most likely looking at 14 backs; that’ll be three dedicated 9s, two out-halves, and two full-backs, leaving room for just seven three-quarters. It’s all a bit of a squeeze, favouring players who can switch a bit between roles. Last time around, Luke Fitzgerald was left at home in favour of Fergus McFadden and Paddy Wallace. Neither was as talended as Luke, but between them they could cover all the jerseys from 10 to 15 so it was them that went to Fergburger with the Farmer.

Scrum Half

First, the easy part. This unit is as close to nailed down as anything can be 10 months out from the tournament: Peter Stringer, Duncan Williams and Ian Porter. Williams to start the matches with Stringer on to freshen things up against tiring defences.

On the plane: Murray, Reddan and Marmion. Also in the picture: at a stretch, Isaac Boss

Fly Half:

Jonny Sexton is a sure thing, and behind him the pecking order has undergone a bit of a reshuffle. Paddy Jackson has been short of form and is now injured for six weeks. It leaves him with a lot of ground to make up on Ian Madigan. Madge had a fine series and is increasingly confident at test level. But can he get enough time at 10 at Leinster to cement his gains? Then there’s Ian Keatley, consistently solid for Munster, but maybe just a rung off the top in terms of pure talent – Keatley has the advantage of playing with Conor Murray, whereas to this point, PJ has been outside Paul Marshall. Once Ruan Pienaar makes his return, there is every chance Jackson reverts to his springtime form, and is back to challenging Madigan. But at the moment it’s Madigan’s to lose.

On the plane: Sexton. Likely to join him: Ian Madigan. Also in the running: Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley.

Centres

Ok, now it gets tricky. Based on the most recent squad, the likely centres are D’arcy, Olding, Payne and Henshaw. The only certainty appears to be that Robbie Henshaw is going; he played 12, he played 13, he showed he has the goods; he’s in. After that, it gets a bit cloudy and will remain so until at least after the Six Nations. Jared Payne’s injury meant he missed the chance to nail down the 13 shirt, but he looks a likely bet to be a regular from here on in. Intrigue abounds at inside centre; Gordon D’arcy had two poor games and may just have slipped down the pecking order, but if anyone can hang on in there and squeeze into the squad it’s D’arcy. Then there’s Stuart Olding. The Ulster centre oozes talent, and was a bit unlucky that a lack of gametime at Ulster meant we didn’t see more of him this series, but his star is on the rise and it seems only a matter of time before he starts a high-profile test at 12. His ability to cover 10 if we’re in a jam also means he can effectively fill the 2011-Paddy Wallace role. There we have it, Stuart Olding, the new Paddy Wallace. Let the hype roll on. McCloskey is a possible bolter whose progress will be closely monitored, while Noel Reid and Mr. Face Doesn’t Fit appear further down the depth chart.

On the plane: Henshaw. Likely to join him: Darcy, Payne, Olding. Also in the picture: McCloskey, Cave, Reid

Wings

Four centres would leave room for just three wings. It’s a heck of a tight squeeze. Tommy Bowe will surely travel and Andrew Trimble, assuming he gets back from injury and starts playing well, has a huge amount of credit from the Six Nations. He’s a Schmidt darling. Then it’s a bunfight between the incumbent, Simon Zebo and a cadre of players at a similar sort of level; Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy. Really, who knows.  Things tend to be abit more fluid in the wide positions, with form generally dictating more than in other positions.  Kearney made a try-scoring return with Leinster this weekend (that’s right, he scored a try!) while McFadden’s versatility counts for something.  Two players who could completely change the dynamic if they get fit are Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, but at this stage we’re saying it so often we’re like a broken record. We almost can’t remember a time when either Earls or Fitz was consistently fit. All we can do is hope for the best, but Schmidt is unlikely to take any risks; if it’s a choice between a fully-fit Dave Kearney and a bit-injured Keith Earls, he’ll go with the man who’s ready to play.

On the plane: Bowe. Likely to travel: Trimble, Zebo. Also in the picture: D. Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy. Potential game-changers if they can stop being injured for once: Earls, Fitzgerald

Full Back

Rob Kearney is a no-brainer. On the face of it, Felix Jones is more or less a sure thing to go as his deputy, but it may not be as cut and dried as that. Jones is a fine player who had a great game against Georgia, but the fact that Henshaw, Payne and even Zebo and Olding can all fill in at full-back may leave him with more of a fight to get on the plane than you might think. It’s not inconceivable that Joe could give the last place to a fourth wing given the options he has at full-back. But for now, Jones is probably likely to squeeze in; he must be desperate to do so after missing out so unfortunately last time.

On the plane: R. Kearney. Likely to travel: Jones

The question marks at centre could very well drive the composition of the rest of the backline – with Henshaw and Payne likely travellers and Olding likely to go if progress continues, it comes down to a yes/no on Dorce. Based on the Autumn series, Darcy offers neither a line breaking threat, nor a passing threat, and his size is increasingly a misnomer in the age of the giants. But he’s been written off before and has doggedly stuck around. If D’arcy hangs in there, we are potentially picking one from Dave Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy, Earls, Fitz and Jones. However, if the coach feels that D’arcy simply can’t do the job at this level any more, he could bring an extra wing with centre experience – McFadden or Earls for example – and Jones as a specialist fullback to allow the first three centres to concentrate on being centres. D’arcy is the pivot around which the potential RWC dreams of a range of players appear to hang.

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