Bronze Generation?

David Nucifora will be confirmed today as the new IRFU Performance Director – and not before time - after a few years of instutional stagnation, it has taken the personality of Joe Schmidt to begin the sweeping-out process. Ireland have successfully negotiated the first couple of stages of the professional era by fluke initially, then well, with the help of some excellent players:

  • Early Days (95-99) – the Union were woefully unprepared for the game going open and took some time to come around to the reality that players, once the lackeys of the blazers, were now their employees. The players responded rationally – by going somewhere they would be paid – England. When it reached the stage where the coach wanted the international team to train in England as all the players were there, the Union sparked into life and began to adjust. Signing up players to play at home was that step – Lens is commonly acknowledged as a low point, but Ireland had turned the corner by then and were about to climb the mountain
  • Golden Generation (00-08) – backboned by the Ligindary Munster team, the so-called Golden Generation made silverware de rigeur for Ireland fans, winning Triple Crowns in 2004, 06 & 07. That they never took the final step to a Championship was down to some ill-luck and an annual swoon against an excellent French team. The shambolic RWC07 tournament spelled the end for Dagger, and chunks of the team as well
  • Silver Generation (09+) – sure weren’t we lucky we had a new generation coming through at all? The provincial academies began producing high-quality young players, leading to Irish dominance in Europe and a new batch of international class players, who are now nearing their 30s, such as Fez, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Bob and Tommy Bowe. Deccie’s first season produced a Grand Slam, but an inability to retire older Golden players and assimilate Leinster players unused to his hands-off method spelled doom. Joe Schmidt came in and got the knack right away, winning the championship in his first season.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Ireland’s win this year was the number of players involved who will have no memory of RWC95 in South Africa – whe Ireland were caught in the headlights of a new era and it wasn’t pretty. The likes of McGrath, Moore, Henderson, O’Mahony, Murphy, Jackson and Marshall have only ever known rugby to be professional and well-run – and success comes as an expectation, and with expectations for your working environment. This generation of rugby players have moved Ireland on to a new plane, and the structures that have delivered us from the nadir of 1998 to the trophy-laden current era might need to be tweaked slightly to ensure success going forward.

Here are some things on Nucifora’s desk:

  1. Sure isn’t it great we have any props at all? Definitely, but the four best props in Ireland being in one province is not. Next season you will have a situation were Ireland’s starters and backups are in D4, while Ulster re-built a new front row using raw materials like .. er, Calum Black, Ricky Lutton, Adam Macklin, Ruadhri Murphy and Dave Ryan. This isn’t a sustainable situation, or a desirable one. Better spread of talent among the provinces is needed if we are to make the most of the current crop.  Marty Moore is likely to become first choice sooner rather than later, but Jack McGrath is in a tight spot – too good to be a reseve, not quite good enough (because almost nobody in the world is) to unseat Cian Healy. And this situation can be extrapolated to other positions as well – Ulster are stacked with centres, Leinster also at backrow. How do we divvy these out to the provinces?
  2. But which provinces? This leads us on to… Connacht. The Westerners have occasionally lived a parlous existence in the professional era, and it seems that, once again, the Union again have the province’s future in their eyes – are they going to be fully-resourced, told they can keep Robbie Henshaw, and given the tools to qualify for the ERCC? Or are they going to be denuded of their stars, and turned into a Chiefs old-boys/Ireland young-boys club that gives European experience to talented youngster who are at the back of the queue in their home provinces? It might seem tough, and unwarranted given the success of the last couple of years, but money talks.
  3. What about player management? This has been a strong suit of the IRFU’s and a pull-factor in keeping players in the country, but in the new world where qualification for Europe hinges on Pro12 performance, the league could become more of a hard slog, and the likes of Matt O’Connor and Axel Foley are likelier to want greater access to the players.  It’s not in the IRFU’s interests for any of The Big Three to miss out on the Heineken Cup.  Maintaining the right balance is crucial.  If the Welsh regions can get their act together – they can’t be this bad forever, right? – things could get sticky.
  4. Penny-wise, pound-stupid. Refusing to make Johnny Sexton an initial offer to keep him in Ireland this year may have cost Ireland a win againt BNZ and a Grand Slam. We need to be in a position where we can value the contribution, in monetary terms, home-based players make to Irish rugby – in the ERCC era, this likely means pay increases to keep them here – a broader strategy would help too - the year after losing Sexton, we had 10+ internationals with their contracts ending – is this a good idea?  All that said, the IRFU appeared to do a good job in re-signing a number of high profile players this year in the wake of significant French interest, but this side of the job will only get more difficult, especially if the English clubs get to a similar position in terms of wealth to their French counterparts. Already they should be formulating a plan for bringing their most important player – Sexton – back to Leinster when his contract is up next year.  This process should start before the 2014 November internationals – a significant bugbear of the players, and one that seems pointless.
  5. Coaches. In Ireland, we have a Kiwi coaching the national side, and an Aussie, two Kiwis and one Irishman at the provinces. Acknowledging that there are Irishmen being lined up at the next level, Neil Doak for example, are we happy that Conor O’Shea, Mark McCall, Birch and RADGE are learning their trade abroad? Will they come home, or won’t they? Ideally they would be here, or abroad for a defined time to learn and bring home new methods of coaching.

Nucifora’s role will involve an element of diplomacy – he will need to straddle the occasional* conflicts between the requirements of the provinces and the national team, and if necessary, crack the whip. Matt O’Connor has been more vocal about his straitjacket than is traditional, and Rob Penney, having nothing to be nice about, has taken to lobbing verbal grenades all around the place. If Anscombe finds himself a similarly lame duck next season and is insisting on playing Nick Williams ahead of Roger Wilson, Nucifora might need to have a conversation. The oft-trotted out line that successful provinces make the national coaches job more difficult was merely a smokescreen to excuse underachievement, but there is little doubt that the relationship could be more joined-up.

* may be more often occasional

Stand-In Stand-Off

Peter O’Mahony’s ligindary feats on the wing well documented at this stage, with Triminjus only needing the most obtuse invitation to drop into dinner party conversations that he once played there in an AIL final, but he may have to start looking over his shoulder. When it comes to stand-in feats of extraordinary and unlikely versatility, there is a new sherriff in town. Step forward his Munster colleague Conor Murray in what must be a slow news week in rugby circles.

With JJ Hanrahan injured, Munster have only Ian Keatley available to play 10 in their Heineken Cup semi-final gainst Toulon, and if anything should happen to him, it appears that Murray is the closest thing they have to a backup. His credentials for the role are impeccable. According to The Indo’s Ruaidhri O’Connor he – get ready Triminjus– played there in the AIL for Garryowen (though not in a final, so maybe O’Mahony still wins that Top Trump contest), has been practicing his goal kicking in recent warm-ups, but most significantly of all, he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour. Neil Jenkins! Worked with! Lions Tour! Give the man the 10 jersey and proclaim him the new RADGE!

The alternative being considered by Penney is apparently Johne Murphy, the less said about which the better.

It’s a bit of a peculiar position for Munster to find themselves in, but so long as Ian Keatley can hop on one foot it’s unlikely to amount to anything terribly meaningful. Having three senior fly-halves is a luxury the Irish provinces haven’t had since Jeremy Manning traded his role as third choice at Munster (behind the never-injured ROG and classy utility back Paul Warwick) for Newcastle. It’s worth recalling that in the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, Geordan Murphy was nominally the third-choice 10. Leinster and Ulster were blessed to have the likes of Isa Nacewa and Paddy Wallace (and latterly Stuart Olding) who could perform functionally at 10 if required.

The scrum-half filling in at 10 is more of a French tradition, whereas in Ireland it’s usually the 12 (Wallace, Olding) or the 15 (Murphy, Nacewa, Warwick) who tends to take up the role in emergencies, although Tomas O’Leary once gave a decent 10 minutes against Italy while ROG was in the sin-bin for boldness. Munster’s preference for crash-ball 12s in James Downey and Denis Hurley means that isn’t an option, while Felix Jones doesn’t fit the bill of fly-half at all. Conor Murray, all round footballer that he is, does indeed look the best choice. And did I mention that he once played there in the AIL for Garryowen, and that he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour?

What The Fans Want

So finally, the saga is over. The HEC is gone, and will be replaced by the RCC, with a sop ‘E’ at the start to appease the likes of us who resent giving the moneymen full control of rugger. Qualification will be Mastercard merit-based, with six teams from Le Top Quatorze and the Ooooooooooooooohh Boshiership, seven teams from the Pro12 (including one from each country) then a playoff winner, initially featuring the seventh placed teams in England and France.

More importantly, there is a bigger pot for the clubs in England and France, which is being paid for by … us! Because if you want to watch the ERCC next season, you’ll need a subscription to Sky and BT – excellent news… for them. In the race to pat the backs of the club-owners it seems to have been forgotten that ‘TV money’ doesn’t just fall off a tree, it is paid by TV viewers.

Ultimately, it’s a big win for the English (and to a lesser extent, the French) clubs, who’ve pretty much been given everything they asked for; redistribution of monies, tournament structure and the running of the competition.  Governance is re-vamped, with the commercial side being run by the clubs, and the organisation itself by the unions.  Ultimately, who knows how this carve-up will work?  It’s a big unknown.  The Amlin will become the ERCC2 – the first C stands for Challenge – and will feature the remaining clubs, provinces and regions from the three leagues who don’t qualify.

How about the provinces?  First, the good news, and it’s not all terrible.  For a start, at least there is some European rugby to play, which didn’t always look certain.  And for another, meritocratic qualification from the Pro12 may have been the red herring on which the whole ugly saga was founded, but it is ultimately a positive.  It’s hard to envisage a situation where the Big Three from Ireland won’t qualify, for the next few years at least and it won’t be beyond Connacht to squeeze into the last spot.  If the Welsh regions can get their house in order to be sufficiently competitive, then things might get a little heated around the middle of the table, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Pro12 stands to benefit.

The bad news?  Well, the biggest fear has to be that the tournament is now designed to service the clubs who’ve fought so vehemently, and at times underhandedly, for the changes.  Sure, Munster are needed to provide the showpiece games to draw in the punters (Sky have perfected the Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis tearful Saturday night Thomond Park narrative to such an extent that it has become one of the tournaments signatures), but they’re going to become a bauble that the English use to bump up prime-time telly income.  The English clubs long for the type of power and ability to attract players enjoyed by the Top Quatorze teams, and this at least moves them a step closer.  The IRFU have done a fine job in minimising the flight to France in the wake of a number of high-profile contract renewals this season, but if the English were to join in the bidding wars, it won’t make things any easier. Aside: one wonders, based on the importance of the provinces to the European cup (in terms of rugby and TV – they often occupyprime time), how hard a bargain the IRFU drove.

And, speaking of, the IRFU should have a bit of a re-think on its attitude to both investment in foreign players and its player welfare structures.  Currently, the Pro12 muddles along until the last five or six rounds, before the jostling for places begins in earnest.  Meritocratic qualification would stretch its importance out over the whole season.  If the Pro12 is to be treated as a serious business, with qualification for Europe hinging on it, then the provincial coaches will need access to their better players for more games.  This needn’t be a wholesale revision, rather a slight relaxing of the current rules.  One suggestion would be unlimited access to their full panel for the Christmas interpros, which should be high-profile, attractive matches, but end up being a phony war.  Same goes for NIE players, where the rules are continually being tightened (or so it would appear at least, it’s never all that clear).  If the Irish are to be required to fight on two fronts for the whole season then they will need the squad depth to do so. Unless of course (conspiracy theory alert) there is some dastardly plan to denude Connacht of their good players in return for B&I Cup dirt-trackers of course.

Many of the arguments put forward by the PRL owners UK media are so flimsy as to be paper-thin.  Stephen Jones tells us the club-owners are fine, manly and indeed perfectly upstanding (not to mention really, really good looking) gentlemen, who only have the best interests of their beloved rugby club at heart.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they, because they have a financial stake in them.  What about the broader game, which trickles down to grassroots level?  That’s the concern of the unions, easily painted by a willing media as a bunch of backwards-looking cigar-smoking blazer-wearing foie-gras munchers, but in reality they are the ones with the interests of the game at heart.  Handing over the reigns to the money-men is a dangerous business.

One line being peddled is that the new format will make the competition better and more competitive.  But it won’t, not by itself anyway.  Under the new structure, eight teams qualify from five pools, so now 60% of those finishing runner-up in the pool will qualify, as opposed to 33%.  The great thing about the old format was that you were required to win the pool or be reduced to hoping against hope.  The new format will have one less rubbish Italian team, but qualifying from the pool will be that bit easier and a bit more forgiving.

PRL lackey Kitson in the Grauniad triumphantly called the ERCC “a win for players and fans” – players, sure, if we count success only in pounds and euros; fans, er … no. Clearly Kitson doesn’t pay his own TV subscriptions, or give a hoot about the game for that matter. He even went as far as to call this rugby’s “1992 moment”, and celebrated the fact. Maybe he should talk to the soccer department of his own paper.  1992 was, of course, the year soccer began. Or the first year of the Premier League. Since then, player wages have gone through the roof, ticket prices have gone through the roof, many overreaching clubs have gone bankrupt, fans have become more and more alienated from their clubs, England have many less players to choose from and the best clubs are owned by oligarchs, oil barons, vulture funds and the like.

In the few years prior to 1992, Luton Town, Coventry, Wimbledon and Nottingham Forest won silverware, and Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and Palace were in the shake up for the league title. Since then, its been dominated by the rich, who have got richer. That looks like the future for rugby in Europe, and it’s very worrying, and mighty depressing.

That Empty Feeling

Munster fans are only delighted with themselves, Ulster folk at least have a sense of injustice and great pride to fall back on, but for the RDS faithful, the only feeling is one of emptiness, after their team was deconstructed in Toulon last weekend. Going away to the bigger French teams is never easy, and there’s always a sense that if the home side can get its tails up they can pull away on the scoreboard. It wasn’t wholly dissimilar to the semi-final in Toulouse in Michael Cheika’s final season. Leinster hung on by the skin of their teeth in the first half, but a third-quarter power play took the game away from them. Everyone talks about the French sides blowing tams away from the off, but more often they fool the opposition into thinking they’re in the game before upping the ante.

Where to start? Well, we can begin by paying no attention to the garbled nonsense about which entry the players came in and focus on on-pitch events instead. The scrum and maul were fine, positives even, but the rest were not. Leinster’s attack was feeble, replete with handling errors, a 10 playing miles behind the gainline and toothless running lines. The breakdown was a veritable crime scene, with Armitage and Basteraud perpetrators of one ball theft after another. Leinster were powerless to dislodge them. And then there was the defence. What could explain so many missed first-up-tackles? When watching rugby the brain often goes into a semi-conscious auto-forecasting mode. The eyes see a player running off not-especially-fast ball at another player, and the brain gets ready for another ruck to form. The eyes may even allow themselves to become momentarily distracted. Except the next thing they see is the same player with the ball running in open country. Brain? This is not what you said would happen!

Toulon get routinely derided by the likes of Gerry as a bunch of nouveau riche arrivistes, but the reality is they are a proper club- the players and fans have a real bond, and there is none of the Saracens faux-atmospheric blaring music, only newspapers in the air and loud singing. Wilko has previously warned players seeking only a fat paycheque to look elsewhere (Paris!) and the performances of the likes of Danie Roussouw and Bakkies Botha since they arrived have shown real commitment. The Armitages were seen in the crowd bonding with fans after the game, and anyone who calls Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe a mercenary should be taken out and shot… or worse still made to say it to his face.

And whatever you think about Boudjellal, he isn’t some shadowy Abramovich figure. He is Toulon born-and-bred, a passionate supporter of RCT but a self-made millionaire with a cool business brain – he has increased turnover 6-fold and now reckons the club is self-sustaining, even with the huge wage bills of the squad. He has been the driver behind the success of Toulon, and let’s be clear, no team can win the HEC and get to the Top14 final without being a proper team, not a bunch of individual mercenaries - and when these guys play as one, at home, forget about beating them.

For all that, and if the truth be told, this was the game in which Leinster’s chickens came home to roost. They just haven’t played that well all season. Even their best performance, the all-conquering away win in Northampton, had the gloss taken off it by losing the reverse fixture a week later. Anyone who watched Leinster at home to Ospreys in the last round of the Heineken Cup, away to Munster or at home to Zebre recently will know that this is a side who have spluttered through much of the season.

One person copping a serious amount of flak in the aftermath is Matt O’Connor. In polite society, it’s traditional for a coach in his first year to get something of a free pass, but this was a season-defining match for Leinster. As Alan Quinlan put it in his column in the Irish Times, this was O’Connor’s chance to get the ‘O’Connor era’ up and running. Well he has now, but not in the way he’d have wanted. It’s a tough gig coming in after Joe Schmidt, with some aging stars and a fanbase accustomed to success, but the drop-off in the accuracy of Leinster’s play has been noticeable (while that of Ireland has improved dramatically). It can’t be coincidental. Would any Joe Schmidt side have been so comprehensively dominated at the breakdown like that? No coach can completely gameplan a player as good as Steffon Armitage out of a match, but we’d expect a Schmidt-coached side to have a specific plan to deal with a player of his calibre.

Then there’s Gopperth-gate, and the curious comments from Matt O’Connor since the match, with regard to Ian Madigan. O’Connor has admitted that Gopperth was slightly undercooked going into the game, but then why didn’t he play him against Munster the previous week? Did the IRFU insist on Madigan getting the start? Is this high-octane game not scheduled with exactly that sort of thing in mind? The subsequent criticism of Ian Madigan’s ability to ‘control the front end of the game’ confirm his lack of confidence in a player who performed superbly last season but has yet to really flourish under the current coach. It didn’t paint O’Connor in the best light, showing him to be slightly flummoxed and operating on the back foot. When O’Connor was named as coach, we listed building the team around Madigan and developing the Blackrock man’s game in the same way Schmidt did with Sexton, as one of O’Connor’s principal tasks. It hasn’t worked out that way, not yet at least.

The clamour to declare half the team past it is under way in some quarters, but there isn’t a huge amount of drastic surgery needed. Some players just played badly and there’s not much you can do about that. Toner and D’arcy had off days, but they’ve been among Leinster’s best players this season. Shane Jennings was man-of-the-match the week before, but had a really poor game. Any team would miss Sean O’Brien and he’ll be back next season. Obviously, a 13 will have to be found for next year, and the pain of Eoin O’Malley’s forced retirement has never been more acute. Luke Fitzgerald, surely, should be the first to audition.

All is not yet lost and Leinster find themselves in a good position in the Pro12. Don’t let their placing at the top of the league mask the fact that they haven’t played all that brilliantly, but it does at least give them a good chance of winning the pot, because home advantage for the semi-finals and final, when the intensity ramps up, is invaluable. Winning it is necessary to redeem the season, but with Munster, Ulster and Glasgow for company, Leinster will need to play with a good deal more structure and direction, in order to do so.

Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.

Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

Time to Get a Move On

For all the jolliness around Irish rugby right now, for a handful of players this season has been one frustration after another. And things could be about to get more frustrating for some of them when the teams are announced for the Heineken Cup knockouts this weekend.

Despite knocking Paddy Jackson off the bench for the final round of the Six Nations, this has not been a campaign to remember for Ian Madigan. After two years of huge gains, the departure of Jonny Sexton looked set to hand him the breakthrough he needed, but instead Madigan has found himself struggling to oust the less heralded Jimmy Gopperth. Gopperth is a fine player and has numerous strengths, but if Madigan was playing like he did last season he’d be starting all the big matches. He just hasn’t got going yet. Every time we see him inked into the starting team for a home game we get the feeling his season is about to spark, but so far it hasn’t really happened. He played well enough against Munster, but his kicking game remains loose and his superb gainline passing hasn’t been in as much evidence this year, with O’Connor appearing to play him deeper behind the gainline. For the Toulon game, Jimmy Gopperth is probably slight favourite to get picked.

Another who has only played in fits and starts this season is Kevin McLaughlin. Injury hasn’t helped, but his form since returning has been spotty to say the least. He was a weak-ish link against Munster, and the memory of his explosive 20 minutes against New Zealand has receded somewhat. He wasn’t involved in even the training squads for the Six Nations, and now has to contend with a new sheriff in town at Leinster in Rhys Ruddock. Ruddock is a 6 in the Simon Easterby mould, a good lineout catcher who gets on with the ‘unseen work’ of carrying slow ball and clearing out rucks, and if fit is likely to be selected ahead of McLaughlin. With Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings vying for the No.7 shirt, McLaughlin could find himself outside the 23 altogether.

Meanwhile, up in Ulster, they have their backline all fit (apart from Olding) for the first time in a long time. Bowe and Trimble are undroppable and Marshall plays 12. One has to miss out between Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave, with Jared Payne able to switch between 15 and 13. This weekend, it was Cave who got selected. He’s been one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season and while the clamour to get Payne into the 13 shirt has some, shall we say, external motivators, Ulster are still best served by him playing 15. It means Gilroy loses his starting place. It’s been a difficult year for Gilroy, who, like Madigan, just hasn’t really sparked into life. His exceptional performance against Argentina in 2012 underlined his explosive talent, but he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then. And where has the scoring nous gone?  He scored eight tries in 14 appearances in his first season, but the well has dried up. He managed just one last year and three this, last scoring in mid-December.

Down south, Donnacha Ryan could do with catching a break. He was one of the best players in the country in 2012, but has since then gone from injury to injury. A lacklustre 2013 Six Nations which he appeared to play through an injury scuppered his Lions chances and since then he’s had a pretty stop-start time of it. Now he’s once again doubtful for the game against Toulouse. He’d be a big loss to Munster, because Donncha O’Callaghan is no longer at this level and it’s a sizeable step down to Dave Foley. In the meantime, Devin Toner has cemented his place in the Ireland team, and next year should be a breakthrough for Iain Henderson, with Muller retiring. The heat is on. Schmidt’s singling of Ryan out for his work on the training paddock was a reminder of how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, but he needs an unbroken run of games to build some momentum.

Mild Concern

Ahead of this weekend, we were feeling pretty good about the Irish provinces re the Heineken Cup (RIP). Ulster and Munster had home draws, which is such a huge factor in the competition, and Leinster, while facing a seriously daunting trip to Toulon, had won the Six Nations the week before. So Rob Penney said anyway.

But now, we aren’t feeling so hot. Maybe it’s natural caution now that the quarter-finals are basically on top of us, maybe it’s the freak dust storm that dumped what looked like Rodney Parade on Egg’s car, or maybe it was the performances of the three major provinces on Saturday night. Before the games, we would have said Ulster are very likely to win (vs Globo Gym), Munster will probably win (vs boring bosh merchants Toulouse) and Leinster will be competitive (vs giants Toulon, who surely should walk out to this).  It’s hard to ever be too confident of winning away from home in the knockout matches.

Starting with Ulster (and why not, given I’m from Ulster, wearing an Ulster shirt and having recurring dreams about Fez driving Chris Ashton ten foot under Ravers), there is simply no excuse for losing to Cardiff. Sure, Matthew Rees was back, and, sure, they had a point to prove. But they were placed lower than all sides but Treviso and the Zebras, and are so rubbish, they aren’t going to get into Europe next season. Conceding 22 unanswered points in 30 minutes with virtually your first choice pack is just unforgivable. Now, we don’t doubt Ulster are going to turn up on Saturday – with the new Ravers being launched and with Saracens as your opponents, you will never lack for motivation – but playing so poorly and losing to such a poor team a week out is sloppy at best. Confidence dented.

Next to Munster. Back after the group stages, we thought Munster would be able for Toulouse, but now we aren’t so sure. There isn’t much doubt they will up the ante for the HEC, but nearly three months of strolls in the park for this team seem to have knocked their base intensity levels. With just two of Saturday’s team involved for Ireland (and based on Saturday, none of those left out can have many complaints – Killer incurred Elaine’s ire, Tommy O’Donnell was comprehensively outplayed by Shane Jennings and Simon Zebo, while threatening going forward, wasn’t exactly Donncha O’Callaghan at ruck time or Jonny Wilkinson in defence), the collective couldn’t cope when Leinster pushed on in the third quarter.

Toulouse, playing in the Top14, won’t lack for high-level preparation, and, if their domestic away form is woeful, they had a big away win against Globo Gym in the pool stages. However, the biggest concern is how Munster are going to score tries. For all their technical excellence, they won’t be mauling Louis Picamoles and co all over the Debt Star; BJ Botha will find Gurthro Steenkamp slightly less accomodating than Michael Bent; and a 10-12 of Keatley and Hurley just isn’t going to get anything going (and if it isn’t going to be Hurley at 12, why play him there a week before?). Watching the clunky attempts to get the ball to Zebo and Keith Earls, we wish Munster would just take a punt on JJ Hanrahan – he really can’t do any worse at either position than the incumbents. Munster are crying out for a centre who can pass the ball more than a few metres.  They have lethally dangerous runners out wide, but their best opportunities to run were given too them by Leinster’s kicking game gave rather than the Munster centres.  Perhaps Toulouse won’t be so generous.

As for Leinster, they have the benefit of so many of them being involved with Ireland – the teamwork didn’t look as clunky as it usually does coming out of international windows, and the confidence levels were high. Still, if they kick as poorly as they did to Munster when their opponents will include in their number Drew Mitchell, Felon Armitage and Matt Giteau, they can forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. And if DJ Church isn’t fit, well, forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. Toulon’s squad is just so talented and deep, Leinster’s best hope is to play the kind of heads-up, accurate, opportunistic rugger that Joe Schmidt espouses, then hope the stars align elsewhere (i.e. Toulon players remember they hate each other) – they’ll need to be hyper-accurate. And three of the linchpins of their recent hyper-accuracy are either sitting with their feet up in BNZ, tending the farm in Carlow, or crying themselves to sleep in Paris. Leinster will need to be a whole lot better than they were on Saturday to derail the Toulon Express.

So, to be blunt, we are worried. Very worried.  Worry, worry, worry.

[Please note that Egg Chaser is an Ulsterman, and therefore always worries, no matter how positive the picture.]

Interpro for Show, HEC for the Pro

The pervading narrative in the build-up to the Leinster-Munster game this weekend has been the opportunity for some Munster players on the fringe of the Ireland squad to show their now-garlanded Irish team-mates what is what. But while this makes a nice story, the prospect of Dave Kilcoyne burning up a whilrwind in the Aviva won’t make a whole lot of difference to the outcome of Munster’s upcoming actual big game – the home tie with boring bosh merchants Toulouse.

The reality about the over-played rivalry thing is that Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer haven’t been as good as Jack McGrath and Martin Moore this season, while Simon Zebo admits himself that:

“I’d be the first to say I can be inefficient there and sometimes don’t do too much at the breakdown . . . I’m not a Donncha O’Callaghan or a Paul O’Connell. I don’t hit as many rucks as they do. But when the ball does go wide, I need to be just as efficient as they are in securing ball . . . going forward I’d have no issues and I’d back myself every time. But there are definitely little parts I can iron out so at the back end I can be a better player.”

So while Simon Zebo goes off to think about unlesahing his inner Donncha O’Callaghan (we all have one, right?), Tommy O’Donnell can consider himself unlucky but there isn’t much between himself, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and NWJMB (at blindside) and the selections reflected that.  But that’s really all there is to it.  For all the chat about representation, it comes down to a couple of bench picks that were marginal calls.

The timing of the game in the week before the Heineken Cup knockouts is always something of a double-edged sword. It guarantees that each side will put out most of the frontliners (unlike, say the Christmas interpros), but neither side is particularly keen to delve into the playbook to give much away to the following week’s opponents. It tends to lead to full-blooded encounters, with both sides eager to get a good hit-out, but games which can be short on quality.  “Don’t give them anything lads, but whatever you do, don’t show Toulon any of that passing stuff we’ve been working on.  Just truck it up if you have to”.

If Penney and Axel are doing their jobs, they won’t want Munster to spend too much emotional energy this weekend, but save the majority of the hunger for next Saturday’s brunchtime (© G. Thornley) kickoff. Toulouse are far from the swashbuckling, French-majority team that wowed Europe for the guts of a decade – they are more like Toulon, a bruising behemoth of a side littered with South Africans. While they might be scratching around the lower reaches of the Top Quatorze playoffs on paper, it’s very tight and a top 2 position can’t be ruled out, if a win at Oyannax can be secured in three weeks. Plus Toulouse retain a bit of an institutional grá for the HEC – and they bulldozed down Globo Gym in Lahn during the group stages. They will be dangerous.

Munster are still well set to take Toulouse, who are not to be feared, as Connacht will attest to, particularly with Nigel “41 phases” Owens in possession of the whistle. That said, it will be a high intensity, bosh-friendly encounter, and while Munster’s pack is technically excellent, it is still rather light. If Penney and Axel are serious about targetting Europe, perhaps withdrawing the pack lieutenants on 60 minutes and potentially giving up the Leinster game to go for Europe.

At least Munster are favourites for their tie. For, with a daunting trip to Toulon in prospect, Leinster will be thinking the same thing, and don’t be surprised to see a few “injuries” before Saturday as they give some of the players involved with Ireland some down time ahead of Toulon. If Toulon are tougher opponents, Leinster are more battle-hardened than Munster with most of their panel having played test rugby over the last few weeks.

So sure, it might be fun to feed the Irish rugby media some nice bitter-rivalry style scraps from the table but it’s next week that’s going to determine how successful this year is for Leinster and Munster. And the provinces have that luxury as well – for Toulon and Toulouse, both the Top Quatorze and Europe are relevant, and, in a delicious piece of scheduling, they will be throttling the life out of each other in a boring drop goal contest at the Felix Mayol this weekend.

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