Jonny, Jump on the Jet, we’re off to Cayman

The news that Jonny Sexton’s return to Leinster is being funded by private (i.e. non-Union) money was confirmed this week, and also clarifies how they managed to stave off Toulon’s interest in Jamie Heaslip last January. Leinster’s main sponsor, Bank of Ireland, made Heaslip a “brand ambassador” and gave him a chunk of cash, and Denis O’Brien has bankrolled part of Sexton’s wage packet. Newstalk, owned by O’Brien’s Communicorp, was, completely coincidentally, the platform for an exclusive Sexton interview on why he is coming home.

The professional model up to this point has been founded on increasing commercial, ticket and TV revenue (largely from the national team), with the proceeds invested back in the game – part of which is player contracts. The Union (largely) controlled this process in Ireland, but in France it was the clubs. Rugby has become hugely popular and the players are success stories and icons of the modern age; they also have a job which could end any given day if they are unlucky, and they naturally want to be compensated for that risk. And of course they want to be paid the market rate, which is high for multi-HEC winning, Six Nations champions and Lions tour winners.

So this is the new dawn – we’ve been through the emotional “let’s build it together” of the initial bringing the players home and contracting them centrally, and since then player salaries have increased sharply, to the point where, from the Union’s perspective, they have reached a ceiling, for the very elite players at least. Hence the need for top-ups from private sources. The bumper wages on offer from France (and likely England in the future) cannot be matched by the Union, so in order to keep the players here, big business (and Bank of Ireland) have been contracted to help full the gap. It’s a model that was common in Australian rugby in the early 90s, where players were given cushy well-paid numbers with national team sponsors with the blessing of the ARU, but it’s a big step for Ireland, where the Union has been among the most conservative when it came to embracing professionalism.

The financial reality is that it’s this or doubling ticket prices – and the ticketing fiasco that greeted the launch of Fortress Palindrome, among other factors, would have made the second approach seem less desirable.

We can’t be too precious about it.  In an ideal world, the IRFU would be entirely self-sufficient and this sort of private funding wouldn’t be required, but the goalposts have shifted in the last couple of years, probably for ever.  The Top14, where the clubs are entirely funded by private funds, is awash with cash and the players can earn enormous sums of money.  Irish players have long been coveted by the top French clubs, and while Jonny Sexton has been the only one to take up the offer, numerous other players have gone close.  Without being too presumptuous, it appears that the general line from the players in contract negotiations is ‘<Insert French club> have offered me €X to play for them next season.  Now I don’t expect you to pay me the same, but you have to offer me something not a million miles away from it.’  As the all-important €X becomes higher, so too will the amount the IRFU has to pay.  This is the age in which we now live, the age that drove us to the Rugby Champions Cup and the fallout that went with it.  We have grown used to stadia and the team jerseys being sponsored and Leinster received private funds to build their state-of-the-art training facilities.  The next step it seems is the players themselves.

If the likes of Denis O’Brien and Bank of Ireland are offering to ‘save the day’ by making up the difference between what the IRFU can pay and what the player is demanding, it stands to reason they would find it very difficult to say no.  Imagine the outcry if Sexton had stayed in France, only for the story to emerge that the IRFU flatly turned down the hard-earned readies that would have kept him here.

It’s also important not to get ahead of ourselves too much and remember this has happened only in the case of two elite players, and is only likely ever to be relevant for the select group on the highest salaries.  Envisioning a doomsday scenario where every player has his corporate backer, and Charleveille Cheddar fork out an extra €50,000 to keep David Kilcoyne at Munster, or worse still, that Rory McIlroy offers the €300k to keep Peter O’Mahony in Ireland but only if he moves to Ulster, is not especially relevant.  It’s simply never going to happen outside of a handful of special cases.  Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien and maybe Conor Murray are the only other players we can imagine being offered the sort of pay packet in France that would put them outside of the IRFU’s reach. Although, O’Brien’s history of injuries reportedly put off suitors last year.

But it’s not a completely costless strategy. Modern players are very aware of their brand and how to monetize their image, so they aren’t likely to get too upset by having to sit for two hours at a ridiculous corporate event where they get given advice on team selection by half-cut Hooray Henrys. So that’s fine. But, for a start, it’s inherently advantageous to Leinster – there are simply more people and businesses who are likely to have the kind of funds required (appears to be ~€300k annually) and the need for a “brand ambassador” in Dublin than there are in Belfast, Limerick, Cork and Galway.

What if the sponsors start demanding more of the players than was agreed? After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune etc. What if O’Brien rings up Sexton (or rings up Browne who rings up Sexton) to tell him he needs him to come out for some after-dinner-circuit Q&A two nights before a Six Nations match. O’Brien is an important sponsor for the player, the province and the Union – can they tell him to bugger off? Now, based on his experience with the FAI – where he stumped up for Il Trap’s pay packet – he is unlikely to do this – but it’s hardly an impossiblity for other sponsors in the future. Extreme care needs to be taken.

Also, is there some consideration of who the sponsors are? If this model was put in place in, say, 2006, Anglo Irish Bank could have sponsored Dorce. When they became the most evil bank in the history of evilness, this would not have looked like great business, either economically or reputationally. Ireland is far from a well-governed modern country, and the likelihood is that, like in the 80s and the 90s and the 00s, a big Irish company will go from flavour of the business circles to a scandal-ridden shell. To protect its investment, the IRFU needs to exercise due caution when accepting private funds.

Now, back to the rugby, and over to the stadium announcer (who, sponsorship or not, seems unable to pronounce non-Irish player names):  ‘At No.8 and captain it’s Bank of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. Now everyone, let’s stand up for YOUR Bank of Ireland Leinster team.’

The Big Leap

Ah, you rascally Westies, we couldn’t let you down. Even though only about eight of you get to the dog track to see the granite-hard Connacht-men scrap away in the horizontal rain every other week, it seems at least six of the eight get on to the comment box to badger us into writing more stuff about them. Nice lobbying!

Truth be told, we don’t get to see enough of Connacht. In an ideal world, we’d get to see all four provinces in action every week and have detailed colour-coded depth charts in Excel on all of the teams (careful, now), but we have four ankle-biters between us and that sometimes limits the time we have to watch 30 men chasing an oval-shaped bladder around the dirt. Connacht is the one that usually slips through the net. So please, Connacht fans, you can add a lot to this piece with your own opinions below the line. Make hay!

We had a stream of questions on each of Munster, Leinster and Ulster’s upcoming campaigns, but for Connacht this and every season seems to boil down to one perennial question: can Connacht make the leap and break into the top six of the Pro12? If we can agree that The Big Three, Glasgow and Ospreys will always be in the top half, then there’s a place up for grabs between the likes of Cardiff, the Scarlets, Connacht, Embra and Treviso. Scarlets usually take it but they’re a bonkers team who only turn up when they feel like it and often see tackling as an optional extra.  Can Connacht be the ones to grasp the nettle? Last year they finished 10th, with six wins and 16 defeats. The two seasons before that they were eighth, winning eight games in 2012-13 and seven the previous year. To take it to the next level, they would need to target double figures in the games won column.

The good news is they’re off to a flyer. They beat Dragons in the first week and, improbably, turned over Embra in Murrayfield on Friday night. The same Embra, and by the exact same scoreline, that beat Munster in Thomond Park the previous week. It’s the sort of result few Connacht vintages in the past would have pulled off, but as ever with the man from the West, it’s backing up these notable performances that so often proves beyond them. Can they go three from three? If they do, it would leave them almost a third of the way to their target (set for them by us!) of 10 wins for the season, with 19 games left in which to do it. Their next game is an eminently winnable fixture against… Leinster, whom they almost always beat in the Sportsground. It’s a huge opportunity against a team they usually save their best for. If they do so we can expect some frothy talk about Connacht making ‘the leap’.

The Connacht squad is the usual mishmash of local talent, obscure Southern hemisphere men and cast-offs from the big three. Some of the local talent is pretty good; Robbie Henshaw is pencilled in as a possible successor to Brian O’Driscoll, and the great one is himself a fan. We are still not entirely convinced he’s as good as some say, but he is still young and we will watch with interest. And Kieran Marmion played for Ireland in the summer tour, and is a significant upgrade on the multitude of scrum-halves that have passed through the province in recent years. John Muldoon is the captain fantastic, who epitomises the team’s spirit on the pitch.

Some of the cast-offs aren’t bad either. Willie Faloon is a great footballing openside who is just too small to impose himself against the very best sides, but very capable at Pro12 level. Think Niall Ronan with a Nordie accent.  And Nathan White is one of their best signings and a very reliable tighthead, who could be capped for Ireland when he naturalises.

By far the biggest improvement is the calibre of player Pat Lam has been able to attract from the southern hemisphere. Bundee Aki was targeted by more successful teams, but Pat Lam appears to have convinced him to play on a rain-lashed dog track for a couple of years rather than compete for silverware. And if Mils Muliaina has even a spark of greatness left in him, he will be fantastic to watch. A truly world class player at his best, he is a massive coup for the province.

As usual, the depth chart is Connacht’s weakness, and beyond the more recognisable names are a bunch of largely interchangeable journeymen and inexperienced youngsters who could go either way. And Rodney Ah Here, Irish international tighthead prop. [Idea for TV programme: Rodney Ah Here and Michael Bent take a road trip to Donegal, showcasing the local scenery, and stopping off for liquid refreshments in many local hostelries on the way. Hurls should probably feature, but we haven't figured out how to shoehorn them in yet].

Countdown – T minus 365

After Week One’s crisis, turns out the provinces aren’t do bad after all, going 4-for-4 in the Pro12. Team Milky Bar are gradually leaking the big boys back into the provincial setups, and this week was noticeable for the injection of quality – in the two games we watched anyway (half of us were on the west coast watching Ms Ovale tear it up in the Ras na mBan – no, really). We have criticized the player management system in the past – particularly in 2013 when it seemed like every player Deccie wanted to pick got injured the second he donned provincial colours after what seemed like an age being “managed” – but while it isn’t perfect, there is no denying it has delivered for Ireland, and has enabled the provinces to build depth unimaginable a decade ago.

Breaking the Ireland team into Untouchables, Probables and Possibles can be instructive – here’s a look at how they did this week.

The Untouchables

In Schmidt’s Ireland set up, if DJ Church, Besty, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Bob are fit – they are in. End of story. Jamie Heaslip and Bob made their returns for Leinster this weekend, and it was like seeing a pair of Rolls Royce’s smoothly steam into a boxcar demolition derby – Heaslip was man of the match (well – he was in blue, that’s when he pulls the finger out, right?) and Bob scored a brace of tries. Up north, Besty didn’t have much fun. His very first involvement was to put down a pass for a walk-in try, and the lineout was a disaster, with four throws lost. The Zebras were utterly hopeless, and less errors would have been good.

The Probables

With a fully fit selection, at this point in time you’d expect Joe Schmidt’s wings to be Andy Trimble and Tommy Bowe. Probably. Bowe is the most experiened of all Ireland’s wings, but missed last years campaign due to injury and is effectively battling his way back to the team. Trimble, in turn, was a revelation in 2014 – and coming back into the Ulster team, he was a class apart – strong in defence, and scored a try to boot. In the second row, Devin Toner continued the pattern of the last 5 years and made incremental progress to become an international class lock last year. He’s probably battling NWJMB and Donnacha Ryan for the right to partner Superman at RWC15.  Big Dev has become Really Big Dev, as he looks noticably bulkier this year.  Word is he has gone from a feather-weight 122kg to a rock-solid 127kg.  Alun Wyn Jones made a similar transition from bean-pole to pack enforcer and made the leap from ‘already pretty good’ to world class as a result, captaining the Lions in their final test in Australia.  Can Devin Toner use his new-found bulk to make a similar step forward?

The Possibles

In the summer tour to a wintery Argentina, two of the players who came home with their reputations enhanced were Rhys Ruddock and Robbie Diack. With Fez finally confirming that the dream is over, Peter O’Mahony is battling with Chris Henry for the final slot in Schmidt’s championship backrow, but both the alternatives, Ruddock in particular, are breathing down the two Probables necks. But it was Diack who shone this weekend, looking like the best forward in Ulster’s pack, carrying well and getting through a mountain of work, both seen and unseen. Dan Tuohy also shone in the loose, but in the interests of fairness, needs to take some debit for the dogs dinner of a lineout. Tuohy could be a RWC15 squad member, as he offers something different, but it all depends on how Henderson and Ryan pitch up after spells out through injury.

Speaking of something different, step forward Mr I. Madigan of the Southside – and we aren’t talking about his hair. This time, anyway. Sexton is miles clear of the chasing pack, with Jackson and Madigan locked tight in the battle to back him up.  It looks a classic case of ‘Jackson would start if Sexton was injured, but Madigan offers more as an impact reserve’. In any case it’s likely that both of them will travel t the World Cup, with Madigan’s versatility a bonus.  Recall that Luke Fitzgerald missed out on the last World Cup because Paddy Wallace was needed, in case either ROG or Sexton got injured.

Madigan had a classic Good Ian night, kicking well and scoring a couple of tries – his star is rising again, particularly with Jimmy Gopperth’s difficulties.  But is he a 10 or a 12?  Does it matter?  Being able to play a bit of both will do his prospects no harm.

We’re going to start a RWC15 Player Power Ranking in a couple of weeks and try to quantify some of all this nonsense, but you can bet your bottom dollar all the Irish (and the New Irish like Diack and Jared Payne) are well aware of the ticking clock in Joe Schmidt’s mind which stops in around a year.

Kiss me Quick, Cowboy

It’s a new dawn at Ulster – for the first time since a fresh-faced ruddy-cheeked youngster was studying Law at Oxford and putting the Irish in London Irish, the season starts without Humph at Ravers. After finishing his playing career, he went upstairs and worked with Shane Logan on building Ulster into a proper professional setup – the academy, stadium and on-pitch development stand as testament to the road travelled (not that Humph gets full credit of course, didn’t Rory McIlroy pay for it all anyway?). Now he’s off to Glaws to try and take a talented but flaky looking squad to heights not seen in Kingsholm since the heyday of Lesley Vainikolo.  Last we saw of him he’d appointed Laurie Fisher as head coach and George North was running amok through his team’s defence: “Smithers, I’m beginning to think that Homer Simpson is not the brilliant tactician I thought he was”.

One thing Humph loved in his role as glum-faced box-dwelling long jacket-wearing Ulster capo was a compliant coach to take training while he made the real decisions behind the scene. One of Logan’s first moves with Humph out of the picture was to welcome Anscombe back to work with a shiny P45 and to hell with the consequences. So now Les “Kissy” Kiss is the acting Ulster coach and it ties Ulster right into Joe Schmidt’s setup for the season – for good or ill.

The Ulster players didn’t even bother to play the game and give Anscombe a happy send off, content instead to talk about how great Kissy was and how they were looking forward to working with him. With quasi-forwards coach Johann Muller back home to somewhere – anywhere – warm and sunny, it’s a brand new team in Ravers. Will it be a warm and sunny year? Let’s start to pick holes.

So, Les Kiss then .. didn’t he invent the choke tackle? Kissy originally came into the Ireland setup with Deccie back in 2008 – he started off as defence coach, then became, at one point, defence and attack coach as Deccie’s ticket descended into a dogs dinner. He resumed his specialist defensive duties under Joe Schmidt, and Ireland had an excellent time, conceding just four tries in their victorious Six Nations campaign. Kiss is universally popular with players and is a thoughtful and intelligent coach – he would make a good choice as permanent coach, but the fact remains he isn’t permanent. Joe Schmidt is his boss, and if the choice needs to be made between a selection Schmidt would prefer to see and one that Kiss wants to maximise Ulster’s chances in a particular game, Kiss might be in a bit of a bind.  At best it’s a decent makeshift placeholder.

When will they actually pick a new permanent coach then? We don’t know – the complication comes from the Super Rugby season and the World Cup – if Ulster want Kiss, they’ll need to wait 12 months. If they want an experienced sub-SR level coach from the Southern Hemisphere, they’ll need to wait 12 months. Either way, they might be able to make an appointment this year, but probably not until after Christmas. It’s not ideal, but clearly deemed preferable to another year of Cowboy. Don’t forget – Muller took the forwards in training for a lot of last year, and his input was going to be lost anyway. Ulster have a pretty stable institutional setup by now – they should be able to wear this, and Kissy keeps some continuity for the international brigade – himself, Besty, Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy should be able to share a Mini down to Carton House.

Ok cool – so coaching seems like it might even be a net positive. Speaking of Muller, how have they replaced him? Off the pitch, it will be difficult to replace Muller, but on the pitch, his influence has been in decline in recent years. NWJMB will be earmarked to replace him in the second row with Muller-lite Franco vd Merwe pencilled in to Henderson’s second row-blindside role. At least until Henderson got injured.

A second row injury eh? Sounds familiar.  I know – Ulster have struggled to get their first choice engine room on the pitch in recent years – Dan Tuohy has struggled to stay fit in particular. Their depth in the pack is not great – with Henderson now out, they are one injury away from having to start Lewis Stevenson in the ERCC – not a recipe for success against Bakkies and Ali Williams. If Ulster end the season with Henderson and Tuohy fit and flying, they will be in a good place, but the backups aren’t really there.

Speaking of backups, Ulster bade farewell to both props last year – how are they replacing them? Bang on – John Afoa went home to New Zealand to Glaws with Humph  and Patsy Court managed to get a 3-year contract that Ulster wouldn’t match from Lahn Oirish. They have replaced Afoa with Wiehann Herbst and brough Ruadhri Murphy back from the Brumbies. Perhaps the most important change is Allen Clarke getting the forwards coach job – Clarke is very highly regarded and is credited as a big influence on the Ulster scrum in recent years. Herbst had a good start, admittedly against the Scarlets, but he’ll need to keep it up, for Ulster won’t be going too far if they are relying on Deccie Fitz to stay fit.

Sadly, Fez won’t be around. I know – don’t start the tears. Diack-Henry-Wilson is an acceptable ERCC-level backrow, but (again, depth!) after that you’re looking at Nick Williams. Skittling tiny Wels scrum halves and carrying for 65m against Zebre might all be some harmless Pro12 fun, but he’s not at ERCC level.

Ok – let’s talk about good things – Stuart Olding – what a player. What a player is right – this early in his career, he was right to take a long time to get fit and recover from a serious injury. He sparkled at the tail end of 2012/13 and got into the Ireland team (minus its Lions) for a North America tour – he looked excellent against the Scarlets and a source of some much-needed creativity. Ulster were horrendous in the red zone last year – if they went over three phases in the opposition 22, you could almost guarantee a knock-on or holding on penalty – some clinicality was highly desirable, and Olding could be the guy to provide it. The bigger question is where he will play – PJ has a lock on the 10 jersey so he is competing with Bamm-Bamm, Darren Cave and Jared Payne at centre. An interesting combination Kissy tried in the second half last week was Marshall-Olding – we often wonder if this isn’t the long-term solution for Ulster – Payne’s defence at 13 doesn’t fill us with warmth.

Yeah – the Southern press seem to have him inked at 13 – that is presumably driven by Schmidt. You’d think so alright. The flipside of One More Year is that we have no outside centre with the RWC 12 months away – the Argentina tour wasn’t a massive success in that regard and the shirt is clearly up for grabs. Joe will undoubtedly want Payne to get some game time there, particularly ahead of November, where he likely to see Test action. If Kiss doesn’t see Payne as one of his first choice centres, it might get awkward for him, but then – all the alternatives are Irish-qualified too, so it’s a bit of a lab run anyway.

What’s the target then? Well, Ulster got a stinker of a draw in the ERCC, but they qualified from their pool with an equally stinking draw three seasons ago. They’ve reached four knockout stages in a row, and will be disappointed in they don’t continue that run. The fixtures are ok for Ulster – they will be aiming for 9 match points against the Scarlets in the double header then hope to have their destiny in their own hands for the final pool game at home to the Tigers. Still, anything further than the QFs might be a stretch, unless they get a home draw, which looks very tough. Domestically, they want a pot. Badly. The Pro12 is a legitimate target and the idea of a home final in a white-hot Ravers, preferably against Leinster, will have Ulster fans panting.

Ulster under Cowboy (and Muller) were a tough and obdurate side that were difficult to break down but struggled to score tries in the opposition 22. They also seemed to play by numbers a bit sometimes – it might seem something small, but when was the last time you saw Ulster have a restart strategy – PJ booting it long to the opposition winger then settling for a lineout is Jurassic rugby. The arrival of a new voice, particularly one as imaginative as Kissy, might give Ulster that (hold your nose, here comes Gerry) X-factor they need to beat the best sides in big games. With a bit of luck with injuries in the pack, Ulster have a sniff of silverware this year – how ironic for that to happen in Humph’s first season out.

Matt O’Connor’s Big Season

Earlier this week, we asked a whole pile of questions about Munster’s season. Continuing the theme, we take a look at Leinster today.

Last season was as curious a campaign as the province have ever had. You could count the really good performances on one hand and they flunked out of their biggest game of the season having barely fired a shot, and they even suffered a rare defeat to Munster (!) but they ended up winning the Pro12, which counts for a lot.
What are we to expect this campaign? We don’t really know.

As with Munster, they haven’t started well.  Leinster almost pulled a win out of the bag against Glasgow, but it would have been a richly undeserved one.  Glasgow away is a loseable match, and Leinster have a habit of losing their first game of the season, but as performances go it was straight out of last year’s manual.  Ok, here goes.

Is Matt O’Connor a good head coach? We don’t really know. Following Joe Schmidt was always going to be hard, but O’Connor had a mixed bag as head coach last year. Say what you like about Rob Penney, but at least Munster played to a discernible pattern last year, even if it wasn’t always successful. Under Matt O’Connor, it became difficult to work out what Leinster were trying to do. Defensively, they seemed pretty well organised; was he building a solid defensive platform, and this year will we see him developing a more cohesive style in attack? Or is this simply his preferred way of playing? Most coaches get a 12-month bedding in period and O’Connor has had his. We’re about to find out if he is any good or not.

Who’s going to play 13? Not a clue! Fergus McFadden? Luke Fitzgerald? Zane Kirchner? Gordon D’arcy? Ben Te’o? Some or all of the above? Probably the latter. It seems like Te’o has been earmarked for the role but he doesn’t get here for a while and could have an extended settling-in period. We were initially underwhelmed by his signing, but Leinster have a small backline and some brutishness may not be such a bad option to have.  There’ve been murmurings of Gordon D’arcy trying out for the role, given that he’s more of an outside centre in disguise than a traditional 12, but can he make up for a lack of pace? Fergus McFadden is quick, but does he have the skills? His head down charges are more effective on the wing or at 12. Then there’s Luke Fitzgerald. Who the heck knows what to expect there. Can he finally, finally put his injuries behind him? Does he want to play 13? Is his passing good enough? So many questions! Now, that it’s finally here, Life After BOD looks every bit as hard as we always knew it would be.

Who’s going to play 10? Not sure. Ian Madigan’s fluctuating fortunes became the most discussed topic below the line last year. Some blamed O’Connor for his lack of form, others said he was never any use in the first place; everyone had an opinion. Much like with Simon Zebo, the world’s a happier place when Madigan is on the pitch, and it almost feels like an embracing of one’s limitations when he’s left on the bench. But it’s up to Mad Dog to get himself selected by producing the barnstorming try-scoring, whippy-passing, chip-re-gathering form that almost got him onto the Lions panel – Barnesy was salivating at the prospect, but, alas, Stuart Hogg was better. Improving his loose tactical kicking game would also help. Forget about Jonny Sexton’s return in twelve months; Madigan will be focussed on the here and now. But it’s hard to shake the thought that Gopperth is O’Connor’s preferred 10.

What about 12? Or will Ewan Madeegan find himself press-ganged into a season at 12? Stranger things have happened. Noel Reid suffered what looked like an awful injury in the first minute of the season, which takes away one option. Madigan’s late-season resurgence came at 12 when he came off the bench to perform heroics in both the Pro12 semi-final and final. All the noises from camp are that neither Schmidt nor O’Connor see it as a long-term move for him, but could necessity be the mother of (re-)invention?

Can a new scrum half emerge?  It’s about 100 years since Leinster produced a first rate scrummie.  In the meantime, Eoin Reddan continues to operate at a high level, but Isaac Boss may have crested the hill.  Luke McGrath has plenty of attributes of a good scrum half – all of them in fact, except for a crisp passing game – and seems to be improving.  Can this be a breakthrough year?

Elsewhere things are more settled. There don’t look to be too many issues in the pack, in terms of personnel at least, but it wold be nice to see Leinster’s clearout return to the standards set in the Schmidt era when no ruck was safe from Jamie Heaslip or Nathan Hines smashing players with both accuracy and near-feral appetite for destruction. The lineout will be reasonable, with Cronin’s throwing improved, and the scrum should continue to be solid rather than destructive.  Marty Moore might edge ahead of Mike Ross in the front row, or he might not, and Richardt Strauss will be out to try and get the shirt back off Sean Cronin – but he has a hard task in doing so, because Cronin was outstanding last year. Hopefully, Kevin McLaughlin has had time to recharge the batteries after a season in which he seemed to be playing through injuries. He needs to rediscover his mojo with Rhys Ruddock improving at a steady rate. The annual hand-wringing over the Leinster second-row can be put off for twelve months, as Kane Douglas looks a good signing and Devin Toner has established himself as a test-level rugby player. Mike McCarthy’s presence means there’s even a bit of depth there.

By far the best and most important difference to last year is the return of Sean O’Brien. The Tullow flanker’s combination of explosive ball-carrying and breakdown menace is a game-changer for any coach and should result in every facet of Leinster’s play being that bit better. If the essence of rugby is winning quality ball and breaking the gainline, then Sean O’Brien is that essence distilled into one super-human wrecking ball.

O’Connor and Leinster’s problem is now sky-high expectations – last year they actually did better than the year before, despite losing their most important player to Le Cafe et Le Croissant and their second most important to injury for much of the season. They won the Pro12 in both years, yet won the regular season piece only in 2014 and were far better in the final in 2014 (admittedly with SOB back). In 2013, they went out at the pool stage of the HEC (RIP) but in 2014 they won their pool and lost to the best team in Europe (and eventual champions), arrogant moneybags nouveau riche dilletantes Toulon. Sure, in both years they had limp home defeats in the double header, but in 2013/14 they won the away game with their most complete performance of the season – and don’t forget last year was the year the Saints really proved their metal whereas Clermont are a bunch of chokers.

Despite this improvement in results, there was a quite a bit of grumbling about style of play – which is fine, anything post-Schmidt will be a come-down. But ultimately, this was a pretty successful year for Leinster. And it’s set the bar high for this season – anything less than a third successive Pro12 trophy (does it have a name? Le Bouclier de Brennans?) will be seen as a step back, and given the relatively benign Champions Cup, or whatever it’s called, draw, a home QF should be achievable, which means a semi-final is needed to constitute a successful year. Leinster have now won a trophy for four years in a row, a Tigers-esque run of form. If they finish the year potless, and “only” get to the Champions Cup quarter-finals, and without a more watchable brand of rugby, the knives might be out for O’Connor.

That seems tough, but these are the standards Leinster have set for themselves. As BOD might say to Bakkies Botha – bring it on.

The Passionate Mysteries

This season is but a new dawn for European rugby – the arrogant English (© G. Thornley) and arrogant but stylish Francais (© G. Thornley) have conspired to make the ERCC full of exciting-looking pool games but, without a unified TV deal, no hard fixture list past October or any semblence of organisation. It will assuredly be more difficult for the provinces to maintain the success of the last guts of a decade in Europe, and some of them will no longer be able to do the usual lip-service to the domestic tournament, sponsored by a brand which gets too much free exposure anyway so will get no more from us.

That’s the external environment. In-house, two of the provinces have shaken up their coaching tickets – one with the long-time heir apparent replacing a successful and unfortunate Kiwi, and another where the Cutters-frequenting Kiwi consiglieri Cowboy was summarily shafted after his capo departed for Glaws. The Ulster players didn’t even feign disappointment and the air up in Ravers is pretty chipper, more of which anon.

Normally around this time of year, we run the rule over how we reckon each of the provinces will get on, but this year, it seems we’re asking more questions than offering any answers – we just can’t make our minds up about a whole bunch of stuff. This applies to Munster as much as the rest, and they’re the ones we’re going to start with.  We’ll look at the rest over the next week.  One thing that is certain is that the Chernobyl fallout-coloured change strip is horrendous, and deserves to be Anscombe-d in double quick time. But, we digress.

First of all, this was a bad week for Munster rugby.  It started badly and got worse.  If the screen shots of the leaked email are to be believed, the problem may well be bigger than it first appeared.  Those who argue that ‘they’re big boys, they can either use it as a means of improving themselves, or ship out’ would do well to remind themselves that even at the top of elite sport, individuals react differently to things, and coaches rarely apply a ‘blanket’ philosophy to a whole squad.  One former Manchester United player once said that if Sir Alex was mad, no matter who was to blame it was Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville who always got the worst of his umbrage, because they were the ones best able to take it.

The best – only? – way to try and get these things behind you is to win rugby matches, and so losing to Edinburgh – Edinburgh! – at home – at home! –  is about as unhelpful as things could get.  A bad start for the new regime.  They played really poorly.  It’s early days, it’s only one game, but Munster should be beating Embra at home.

Now, our list of questions and things to ponder:

What will the first-choice backrow look like? One thing we do know is that Peter O’Mahony will be in there, and probably at 6, though he’s injured until mid-October. Who will be there with him? Meet the contenders:

  • CJ Stander Is he a strong and athletic carrier who provides a lineout option or a workshy show pony? In other words, is he Munster’s Tom Croft, or is he Munster’s Tom Croft?  He looked their best player on Friday night but when O’Mahony returns, will they be able to find room for him?
  • Robin Copeland As close to a like-for-like replacement for the admirable James Coughlan as they were likely to get.  Copeland sure liked to carry the ball last year, albeit for a mediocre Cardiff side. Axel, despite the much-vaunted (cover your eyes) “return to traditional Munster values” is likely to look for a bit more continuity from his number 8, particalarly with his electric backline. Copeland will need to be better than last year to slot into the starting XV
  • Tommy O’Donnell One season wonder, or unlucky with injuries? We’ll soon see. Incredibly, when SOB got injured last year, there was but the breath of a competition for the Ireland 7 shirt, one that involved O’Donnell. But by the end of the season, he was nowhere near the Munster team
  • Sean Dougall Fetcher extraordinaire. But then, as Heineke Meyer said, the only fetcher I need is my son to get me a beer. Not many teams play a dedicated groundhog these days, and Dougall has work to do, though he finished the season strongly last season.
  • Shane Buckley young gun attracting a lot of attention, but we don’t know much about him. Can you help?

We suspect TOD/Dougall will be at 7, but we’ve no idea which one, and Stander/Copeland to play with POM, with potential fluidity in positions. Stander certainly looks the more capable player, but Copeland might balance the backrow better, presuming he adds some subtlety to his game. All-in-all, a bunch of good-to-quite-good pros – none of them would likely get in the Leinster team, and this Ulster fan would like to have Stander around but would probably prefer Diack-Henry-Wilson (note: comparison does not include POM). One of the tricks Penney proved decent at was putting out balanced and effective units that were more than the sum of their parts – hopefully Axel does that without the muddle that it seems on paper.

Will we see Donnacha Ryan come back to his best? Ryan has had a pretty miserable 12 months – he hasn’t had much opportunity to shine for Munster and Devin Toner and NWJMB have moved ahead of him in the Irish pecking order. Seeing the Tipp man back and in his 2012 form would be great news, but it’s not guaranteed – niggling injuries can easily and often lead to a depressing perma-injured Jirry-type scenario.  He had a long, steady rise to the top, let’s hope it’s not a long, steady decline.

Is there a standoff for standoff? This time last year, some of the more excitable comments below the line had JJ Hanrahan taking over Keatley’s reins for round 3 of the HEC (actually, go and look if you like). Ask the same question now, and we think we’d get a mote realistic answer – the local hero is still raw, and an exciting young Kiwi, Tyler Bleyendaal is on his way over. Axel seems to view Bleyendaal as his first choice second-five, and he’d be a good one, but he’s (at least) the second best outhalf in the squad. If Keats maintains his form of the end of last season (which, to be fair, few saw as capable of), that’s this debate over, but Bleyendaal is a classy player, and any step-off in form could see him step inside one. JJ remains in third place, and possibly less opportunities than last year beckons the wunderkind.

And centre? Option A: Pub quiz, 2018: “What was the name of the Australian centre who made two Heineken Cup starts for Munster, before joining Treviso and then disappearing?” Option B: Pub quiz, 2018 “What was the name of the new Rua Tipoki, who rocked up unknown at Munster but backboned their best centre partnership in yonks?”. Which is the future for Andrew Smith? And, should he play (not a given), will he be outside a playmaker in Bleyendallor JJ or a Denis Hurley, perhaps, who according to a certain screenshot is ‘the best option at 12′.  Or will Smith play inside centre and someone else altogether at 13? Say, Keith Earls, who might need to get some practise in the 13 shirt for the Milky Bar Kid. Or Johne Murphy – who sometimes gets played there. On purpose!

Speaking of Keet, what is the back three going to look like? The three best outside backs are Earls, Simon Zebo and Gerhard van der Heever, but playing them means shoe-horning Zebo into the full-back shirt. He would do fine there, but is that really the best use of resources? Assuming Earls is playing on the wing, Felix Jones at full-back is a more natural fit, leaving one of the afore-mentioned trio on the bench. Which one? But what if Earls plays centre? We’re still not writing him off as a 13, even though others have long since done so, and he’s probably the best qualified Irishman to play in #thirteen right now – but for (many) others, its a nightmare of slipped tackles, lapsed concentration and passes not made. We still can’t help being aroused by a backline of Murray, Keatley, Bleyendaal, Earls, Zebo, van der Heever, Jones – would this be the most exciting backline ever produced in Thomond?  Mind, the pack would need to ensure possession of 90% or over, because it wouldn’t be too clever on D.

Hold on, expansive back play? The In*o and Thornley keep talking about a return to traditi …. Sorry, we can’t take any more.

There’s plenty o goodwill out there for Axel, and he takes over from a man who did a pretty decent, if ultimately unfulfilled, job, and who has passed through the province relatively unloved.  But it’s a bad old start – about as bad as you’d have thought possible – and it’s hard to predict just what the team will look like, how they’ll play and how they’ll respond as a collective to certain email fiascos.  Answers on a postcard.

Reply All

Almost everyone who works in any sort of office job, or probably lots of other environments, will have a story to tell about someone mistakenly hitting the ‘Reply All’ button, or somehow sending the wrong information to the wrong people.

It’s a source of comedy gold, as anyone who’s heard David O’Doherty’s ‘I Sent the Text Message to the Person the Text was About’, or seen the episode of The Office where Brent launches an investigation into who mocked up a compromising picture of him (‘It degrades women’), will attest.

And so it has come to pass that the latest email blunderbusses are the Munster management team, who mistakenly sent a critical evaluation of the entire squad to… the entire squad.

In all likelihood this one will blow over, and it’s important not to make too big a deal of it. But my word, it’s good a bit of an old giggle. Winning rugby matches and fostering squad harmony in a group of 30 or 40 competitive animals is a hard enough business as it is without digging absurd holes for oneself. The point many have made that the players would be used to candid criticism misses one key element: it’s one thing the coaches telling you to, say, improve your passing, but it’s entirely another having the whole squad know the coaches don’t rate your passing. It’s a case of the ‘blue eyed islanders’ problem. Everyone knows that everyone knows etc. that I can’t pass.

The biggest reveal in the whole thing was just how quaint and simple the report sounded. Colour-coding denoting the pecking order of the players! Comments such as ‘sloppy lifestyle’ and ‘on a gravy train’ [allegedly]! Do such remarks really need to be committed to a written document? It all sounds a bit Football Manager, but without the layers of complexity. Isn’t this the digital age where players are GPS-monitored for every minute they train and play?

Jirry: ‘I see that BJ Botha’s heart rate has been up in Zone 5 for the last eight minutes.  He’s cooked. Might be time to bring on Stephen Archer for the last ten.’

Axel: [consults sheet] It says here his scrummaging is average.  Let’s leave Big BJ out there for a bit.

And since when was pecking order of players set in stone by colour-coding?  Aren’t these the days of horses for courses and fostering competition for places?

Jirry: Ok, so with CJ Stander and Robin Copeland at 6 and 8 I reckon we need Sean Dougall at 7 to balance things up a bit.

Axel: [takes out copy of squad report] Yeah, I’m looking at the sheet here and it has Tommy O’Donnell shaded in lime green and Dougall is yellow, so that means O’Donnell’s our first choice. Dougall on the bench. You got the memo, right?

Jirry: I did, but I still think O’Donnell is a bit too like the other fellas. Dougall would give us a bit more in the ruck, and the other lads can do the carries.

Axel: I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there. Didn’t you get a copy of the memo?

Jirry: Yes, I have the memo, I just think…

Axel: I’m going to go right ahead and send you another copy of that memo.

What’s this ‘guile’ business all about?

The leaves are starting to turn brown and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the annual bot of speculating as to what exactly ‘s midfield for the upcoming season will look like. With James Downey and Casey Laulala being moved on this summer, whatever happens this year it will be something new.

In their places arrive Tyler Bleyendaal, an intriguing Kiwi centre and Andrew Smith, a less celebrated signing who has the look of a classic journeyman, but in reality, a player about whom nobody really knows very much.

An interview with Axel Foley has added some intrigue to the mix. He describes Bleyendaal and Smith as adding a little ‘guile’ in midfield. These days coaches rarely talk about guile or skill, preferring to focus on physicality, and the contact warzone. So that’s a good start.

The real bit of interest is his declaration that he is open to the idea of squeezing both Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan into his team, implying a preference for a ‘second five-eighth’ type player at 12. It has been the long held belief of anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain that Munster have oodles of dangerous runners out wide but lack distributors in midfield to get them moving onto the ball. Rob Penney’s desire to get the ball wide was reasonably well founded, but too often the passing skills weren’t up to it and the ball was just too slow in getting there. Even their better centres in recent times haven’t really had great distribution skills.

Everyone seems to be assuming without really thinking much about it that Foley’s appointment represents a – brace yourselves – ‘return to traditional Munster values’, but we have never really bought that line. This bit of idle chatter encourages us further that he will try to get Munster’s to play a relatively dynamic brand of rugby, hopefully unleashing his fastmen in the wide channels. Matt Giteaus’s brilliance for Toulon and even, erm, Gavin Henson’s fleeting greatness at the tail end of last season reminded us all of the value of the distributing 12. With Stuart ‘I’m Huge’ Olding being primed for a big season for Ulster, the Keatley-Hanrahan-Bleyendaal triumvirate at Munster and – dare we suggest it? – possibly Ian Madigan stepping into the role in Leinster, is the age of the second-five eighth upon us?

Jonny’s Coming Back

Hello everyone. Welcome back! The rugby season is cranking up and the blog will be getting back to its usual schedule after our summer downtime. We’re wonderfully refreshed after the break, thanks for asking.

So… where to begin?

The Indo is reporting that Jonny Sexton is returning to Leinster next season. And while the phrase ‘The Indo is reporting…’ should come with the usual disclaimers, the report appears pretty definitive and a bunch of other news sources have jumped on it. We’d been given a ‘you heard it here first’ last week that the deal was ‘dans le sac’.

It’s impossible to see it as anything other than great news. There has been the odd bout of griping that the IRFU could have saved a packet by leaving him in France where he was doing just fine, but such arguments miss one crucial point. The IRFU is committed to having all the players on home soil, and the model for Irish rugby that has proved reasonably successful since the dawn of professionalism has been to have the best players centrally contracted and playing their rugby for the provincial teams.

The system has its flaws and isn’t perfect, but is founded on the principal that the players’ performance is maximised by managing their gametime and ensuring that the national team’s interests are fed into by the provinces. If you don’t agree with that premise, that’s fine, but be sure to apply the same logic when, say, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson or Robbie Henshaw are negotiating their next contract. Sexton is arguably the single most important player for Ireland’s World Cup and future Six Nations chances, so if an optimally managed Sexton is just 5% better than he would otherwise be, it will be money well spent.  That’s before we even get into the benefits of visibility of our star players, marketing the game to punters and other intangibles.

We’ve said before that negotiating these high-profile contracts is a thankless job; sign the player and you’ve paid him too much money, lose him and you’re too much of a penny-pincher. So it is nice to be able to say the IRFU should be given a pat on the back for a job well done. The problems arose in the first place because they dragged their heels and looked complacent, giving Racing and other suitors all the time they wanted to sweet-talk the player, but this time they’ve wasted no time, locking things down before the domestic season has even started.

Readers will recall Joe Schmidt’s lamentation during the Six Nations preparations that ‘we have lost control of the player’, and no doubt he has impressed upon those writing the paycheques the importance of keeping the players at home where they can best manage them. Sexton is a card-carrying member of the Schmidt fanclub and it’s easy to imagine Schmidt having a hands-on role in the deal.

So, Ireland will stand to benefit. It’s a World Cup year where the players’ game exposure tends to be managed more strictly than ever. Sexton won’t get the benefit of that over the next nine months, because he won’t be here until next season, but presumably his World Cup build-up and pre-season will be managed by the IRFU now. But the biggest winner by far is Leinster. After all, Ireland still have access to the player and their frustrations in terms of Six Nations preparation time pale beside Leinster’s problem; they lost their most important player. Now they will have him back (in a year’s time) and the knock-on effect should make Leinster a more attractive proposition for other players. A Leinster with Sexton at 10 should be competing for silverware on all fronts.

There will be lots of talk of Ian Madigan being ‘the big loser here’ and it being ‘time to think about his next move’ and so on, but the be-quiffed one and everyone else would be as well ignoring it. He has an entire year before Sexton gets here and should be focusing exclusively on playing as well as he can this season; that means making himself first-choice at Leinster (whether at 10 or 12), continuing to get exposure at test level and securing his place in the World Cup squad, for which there will be significant competition. He’s contracted with Leinster until 2016 in any case, so any long, dark nights of the soul are miles down the road and there is plenty he can do to shape his career in the meantime.

Sayonara Anscombe

Well, that was a surprise wasn’t it? Deep in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere rugger silly season, where we had been trying to feign interest in Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey’s move to Glasgae, Ulster only went and sacked Anscombe! Yesterday was Anscombe’s first day back at the office, supervising training for the non-touring Ulstermen – basically Neil McComb and Mike McComish, who we assume were practicing thirty-metre passes – when he got the curly finger and was dispatched summarily. He had known nothing in advance.

Coming hot on the heels of Humph’s departure to Glaws, it seems obvious the events are related. But how?

  • Ulster’s bicameral coaching structure, whereby the DoR, Humph, was responsible for only off-pitch matters with the head coach, Anscombe, taking training and picking the team, was effectively built around Humphreys and his departure meant what felt like a strong and suitable management structure now became pointless. Better to bite the bullet now than have a lame duck for a year
  • A willing pawn no longer had his protector and was chopped at the first available opportunity. Humph’s Machiavellian control structures were no longer needed and have been swept away.

Ulster have moved to combine the roles and recruit a big beast accordingly – Les Kiss comes in on an interim basis with his funky specs and choke tackles and will “assist” Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in coaching and picking the side. Kissy has been Ireland’s defence coach since Deccie came in, building a strong system, and has lots of respect in the game. He also had a rather underwhelming spell as shunting-the-ball-from-side-to-side attack coach for a while – but the less said about that the better. He hasn’t had a head coaching role before and it’s clearly a temporary, if interesting, solution imposed from D4. One wonders if this bears the fingerprints of Nucifora.

Unlike Humph (and McLaughlin), Anscombe will be unlamented by Ulster fans. The view was Humph had replaced one not-great coach with another, and that Anscombe was a yes-man who was out of his depth and who struggled with bench usage in key games, repeatedly falling short. While Ulster progressed in his time, they never added enough to their game to win a trophy, and their strike rate in opposition 22 has become increasingly woeful.  They just kept falling short in the same manner in a number of big games.

Ulster have felt well-run in recent years but the nature of recent changes has been rather slapdash (like indeed the infamous Humph-McLaughlin presser when Humph toe-curlingly insisted he wasn’t firing his coach) – the Ulster players in Argentina heard about Humph’s departure by text from Fez, and Rory Best has described the situation as “concerning”. Peter O’Reilly summed it up better, calling it a “shambles”.

So where to from here? The press have dusted off their over-optimistic requests from days of yore and have pinpointed Dingo Deans and Wayne Smith as Ulster’s preferred men – anyone who has been tracking recent provincial spend, or remembers the underwhelming feeling when Penney and Anscombe were appointed will perhaps expect something more left-field.

The key men in the appointment will not be Logan and Humph like last time, but Nucifora and Schmidt – the process followed and team appointed will be part of a broader Irish rugby-based vision than the narrow provincial focus of before, and late fifties Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coaches might not fit that template. Jeremy Davidson might, or Birch, or Mark McCall, or even Conor O’Shea or Geordan Murphy if they could be tempted home. Despite the promptings from Munsterfans.com, Michael Bradley and Eddie are unlikely to be in the mix.

Ulster’s appointment will be the first in the new ERCC world where Irish provinces will need to compete based on strong sustainable coaching structures and domestic talent – how it proceeds and who drives the bus will be very interesting.

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