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.

Five Years of Hurt

That was a tough series for Ireland wasn’t it? And we won it – the first and second test wins in Argentina. Argentina is a tough-ass place to go in June – long journey, different seasons, no-one, no-one, speaks English, plied with Malbec, tough local backrow forwards smelling blood looking to make a name. And all after a seriously intense season – we’ll remember this year for the Championship win in Joe Schmidt’s first season, but when Paul O’Connell comments on the intensity of the Schmidt regime from day one, you can be sure, its physically and mentally demanding. Its ten months since Schmidt first got his hands on these players, and in this, the final action of the season, he has made sure he has got his pound of flesh, with no let-off in the demands – as high as ever.

And rightly so – in the weekend England assured us that they will be RWC contenders (with Chris Ashton’s WINNING try! What? They lost? So why did he do that stupid dive? … never mind .. prick), South Africa showed us the standards we will need to attain, and we don’t have long to get there – no wonder the Milky Bar Kid is in a rush. Fatigue can wait, there are trophies to win – and its not the Guillermo Brown Cup he cares about.

So short-term, results-wise, the tour was a success and Joe Schmidt got more time with the squad. What about the longer term planning for RWC15? Well, we learned four things from this tour:

  1. In the month Fez retired, Rhys Ruddock showed his credentials as an international backrow – with SOB already awaiting re-integration to a high-functioning unit, this is a “good problem” for Schmidt. With injury rates as they are, having Ruddock (and Diack and Murphy) around is useful
  2. Brian O’Driscoll and Dorce’s partnership will be very tough to replace – more of this later
  3. There is room for Zimon Zeebs in a Joe Schmidt technocrat rugby team – we finally got a glimpse of his game-breaking in the second test. Andy Trimble and Little Bob are a little samey if you want to beat the best, Zebo can offer the *groans* X-factor that we might need. Although, we scored plenty of tries in the Six Nations - we aren’t fully bought into the idea that we need flair for flairs sake, but Zebo is a great player and its great to see him involved
  4. Rodney Ah Here. Ah here

Now, to the centres. We said ahead of the tour the biggest to-do was to start the post-BOD process. After a decade of Dorce-and-BOD plenty, we might be realizing how tough its going to be to replace not just the greatest player in our history, but his reliable sidekick as well – any player wearing 13 is already going to be damned by “well, he isn’t Brian” comment, but then any breakdown in communication with their centre partner will be magnified into a “well, where is Dorce” situation.

Darren Cave played well in the first test, but had a bit of a shocker in Tucuman – the Irish midfield was pourous looking all game, and then not having the pace to finish off the try felt terminal for his international ambitions – even for us used to the one-paced Dorce/BOD combo, Cave looked like he was running in clay. Outside him, Ferg was gamey but doesn’t really have the distributive skills for an international 13. Bamm-Bamm was withdrawn early in the first test with (another) possible concussion, and hasn’t quite got a Plan B into his game yet. So we are 0 from 3 when it comes to new centres – and, as we said before the tour, the point of the tour was really to start this process, so its basically been a bit of a fail in that regard, and the games before RWC15 are slipping by.

The next to audition cohort is likely to go be Kiwi attacking talent with dodgy defence Jared Payne, pure-bred rosey cheeked bosh merchant Robbie Henshaw, and creative youngster Stuart Olding, who will all likely get a callup in November, and hopefully gametimes - its getting very late for experimentation, but desperate times etc.

Its very easy to say we need to get behind BOD (and soon to be Dorce’s) successors, but we need to know who they are first – we sucked deeply on the addictive weed that was BOD to get our Championship win, but we are liable to pay now, and time before RWC15 is short. In 2012, we exhorted folk to stand behind Keith Earls, be aware he was likely to make a few defensive clangers, but give him time to grow in the 13 jersey – we did, and he did, but then he was clearly the best option. Now its not as clear.

If we were betting folk, and we wouldn’t ever do something that is so abonimable to God, we think Joe might decide on a Dorce/Keith Earls centre partnership for the RWC and play it in the Six Nations – they are known international quantities and dovetailed well in 2012, and they are the lowest risk to meet a short-term need. If there is a player to play their way into that base scenario, its probably Payne – Olding is likely to be backup fodder until he breaks into the Ulster starting XV, and Henshaw is very raw. Which makes the whole “future” debate essentially about RWC19 – for RWC15, we just need to get something in place, and quickly.

Cnetre-wise, all we can say after Argentina is that Ferg is an emergency option (at best), Cave probably doesn’t have it and Marshall needs to put his health first. Mind you, no-0ne said this was going to be easy.

End of an Era

No, not the Fez era (that’s coming soon) or the end of the pooh-pooh-ing of concussion (also coming soon), but the Humph era at Ulster. Its been 22 years since Humph was not at Ulster (presumably discounting his time at Oxford and Lahn Oirish) and its reasonable to say no man currently in Irish rugby is as readily identified with his province – Eric Elwood would have been, Axel might if he stays around Munster and Leo Cullen is Leinster’s contender.

Humphreys retired from playing in 2008 and immediately moved upstairs to an operational role, progressing to DoR in 2009 – he was responsible for both the bringing in and the letting go of Brian McLaughlin, the influx of gilded Saffers and the hiring of Mark Anscombe. In terms of on-pitch results, the progression (admittedly from a very low base) has been steady and clear:

  • 2008/09: HEC: 3rd in pool behind Quins, Stade (2 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2009/10: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Stade (4 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2010/11: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Biarritz (5 wins including first in England), QF defeat away to Northampton. Magners: 3rd (out of 12), SF defeat away to Leinster
  • 2011/12: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Clermont ahead of Leicester (4 wins), QF win away to Munster, SF win vs Embra, F defeat to Leinster. Pro12: 6th
  • 2012/13: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Northampton, Castres (5 wins including first in France), QF defeat away to Globo Gym. Pro12: 1st, SF home win vs Scarlets, F defeat to Leinster in RDS
  • 2013/14: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Leicester, Montpellier (6 wins), QF defeat at home to Sarries. Pro12: 4th, SF defeat away to Leinster

So in Europe, first wins on English and French soil, four successive knockout appearances, two pool wins, first home knockout game, and first final – lots of successes. Domestically, going from also-rans to consistent contenders – not as spectacular a progression, but progress all the same. Still, no cigar – Ulster’s aching for silverware has yet to be sated, and that, ultimately, will be seen as a failure – though not all Humph’s, but the buck does stop somewhere, and since he gets lots of the credit for the upturn, he needs to take some responsibility for not getting to where he wanted to be.

Its clear as well that the current stage of Ulster’s progress is ending – big names like John Afoa and Johann Muller have moved on, and they have not been replaced in a like-for-like fashion. Ulster have built around them,bedded in an outstanding generation of youngsters (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy, Olding) and blended them well with developing players who have been around for all of Humph’s tenure (Henry, Cave, Besty, Court, Tuohy), returning Ulstermen (Bowe, Wilson) and some high-class project players.

The next stage will involve the passing on of the baton from foreigners to Ulstermen (and lets not get all Farmer Farrelly on this – Ulster’s home-grown players are at least as influential and have been for a while) while staying competitive. Its not going to be easy, particularly given the state of the front five and the size of the chequebooks being waved around in France. If Humph had ideas of leaving at some point, now might be a good time relative to on-pitch matters.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of the future of the head coach – the Sword of Damocles (© Gerry) appears to be hanging over Anscombe’s head. Ulster currently run a bicameral coaching system with Humph as DoR and Anscombe taking training – would this structure be a disincentive to a big name head coach (if indeed, such an animal would be tempted by Ulster in the first place)? Perhaps Humph’s role would have been diminshed in the near future anyway.

Off-field, Ulster have developed into a commercial juggernaut. Ravenhill is no more, and is instead the Kingspan Stadium (at least they have sold the naming rights to a long-standing supporter of the team), with some extra pounds in the coffers and an increased capacity by 50%, with new, modern facilities. Happily, the atmosphere has not suffered – many observers (even by English ones used to the razor-sharp atmosphere at Allianz Park and Irish ones used to the tears at Thomond) rated the atmosphere for the Saracens game as the best of the season just past. Season ticket sales have ballooned, and their marketing has improved from helping fans to “save time” (actually) to becoming a partner in the Ulster/Kingspan experience – its up to the standard of Leinster and Munster – finally.

Again, Humph presided over these changes, if less directly for the off-field matters – and Ulster are now where they want to be. Seems he received an offer that turned his head from Glaws and he decided he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and the time was right to move on. He certainly wasn’t pushed – that is for sure. As it stands, Ulster and Irish rugby owes a great debt of gratitude to one of its great sons, and we can only hope he’ll be back – he’d certainly make a good fist of David Nucifora’s role, if it turns into what its envisioned to.

Ulster are in an immeasurably better place than when he went upstairs – the new era starts now and the bedrock is firm. As George Harrison said, sunrise doesn’t last all morning. Best of luck, Humph.

EEERRCCCCC Draw 2014/15

If you were confused by the seeding vagaries of the draw for the EERRRRCCCCCC, you weren’t the only ones – we are Maths nerds by profession and all we could understand was that our brains were frying. Luckily, in stepped Murray Kinsella to explain it all in short, easy-to-understand words for us – thanks Murray!

When the ultra-complex draw happened, it produced tougher pools than the legacy tournament, which, as well as having 4 more teams, wasn’t as “elite”. While we had major issues with the money/power grab from the crowing money men of the Boshiership, the case for cutting teams from the HEC structure was pretty strong – and it has turned out that way, looking at the draw, with Pools 1 and 3 (with Munster and Ulster) utterly mouth-watering and the rest largely hard to call.

One pool contains three of last years semi-finalists and two collectively have six of the quarter-finalists – although this says as much about the difficulty of losing a good ranking under the HEC system than it does about the EEEEEEERCCC one. Here’s the full listing:

  1. Globo Gym, Munster, ASM Mental Stength, Sale Sharks
  2. Leinster, Castres, Quins, Wasps
  3. Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets
  4. Glasgow, Montpellier, Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath, Boring Bosh Merchants Toulouse
  5. Northampton, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Treviso

Starting, as ever, with hardy traditionalists Munster, while its a tough draw, their fans are secretly quite pleased – nothing gets the pishun stirring as much as a visit of the arrogant Englishman (© Gerry) or a flaky bunch of Frenchmen. Munster will be confident of 3 home wins, and will target Sale for their away win. Given the fact that 3 out of 5 runners-up will qualify, and looking at how competitive the pools are, 4 wins and 3 bonus points (19 points) might be enough to qualify, and they’ll be aiming for that. Initially anyway.

In pool 2, Leinster have got a bit of a bye – Castres are familiar foes and rarely put 100% effort into Europe. Quins have experience but are a bit short on top quality and Wasps have neither to be frank. Leinster will be thinking of a home quarter-final – for all their attacking struggles this year, their pack and defence retains its excellent rating.

Ulster have paid the price for merely finishing fourth, drawing Toulon and Leicester. While they have made a habit of beating the Tigers in recent times, Leicester surely won’t have as many injuries and Ulster have yet to adequately replace their departing props. Toulon will be really tough, but any team with European pretensions (as Ulster have) should be beating the Scarlets twice. So, then, a simliar target to Munster – 19 points and second place. Third time to edge out the Tigers in four years?

Elsewhere, Northampton and RM92 will be happy with their draw and be confident of reaching the knockouts, and if Glasgae can re-produce their Pro12 form they might be in with a sniff, and that’s a mighty open pool. So much can depend on the timing of the fixtures and how the teams are going at the time, but we feel Leinster will definitely qualify, Munster are slight odds-against, and Ulster third favourites in their pool. Either way, the games look spectacular – worth subscribing to BT Sport though? :-)

Future Now

So in the longer term, the day of Ireland’s first test win on Argentinian soil will probably be remembered less than Humph leaving Ulster for Gloucester (!) – we’ll get back to that later this week. The game, if it was memorable for anything, will be remembered as 1 CE, the first of the post-BOD era. Given we’re already on RWC15 countdown, its damn important we get someone comfortable in the jersey pronto.

First up was Darren Cave. How did he do? Fine actually – the defensive system looked good, he did the simple things well (except that Rivelino-style banana kick), he brought those around him into play, he threatened the line and he didn’t look out of place in the shirt. There is no point judging him by O’Driscoll standards, or even by Manu or Smuddy standards, as some seem so keen to do - he’s clearly not at that level. What he is is competent and solid – and that’s what he showed. Cave himself doesn’t seem to expect to last beyond this tour in the shirt, but, right now, he’s the best option there – Henshaw is injured and has little experience, Luke Roysh has that worrying perma-injury thing going on that often precedes retirement, the Kildare Lewis Moody hasn’t started a game of note at 13 in years and Jared Payne is both still Kiwi and a rare starter at 13. Keith Earls is the likeliest possible challenger, if he starts there for Munster next year. Time, perhaps, to start dialing down our expectations, begin appreciating what Cave can do, rather that point out who he isn’t.

One of the other winners was Robbie Diack, who, one awful piece of butchery aside, had a good day at the office, and certainly outshone Jordi Murphy – that is significant, as, the 2007 Blindside Army aside, Ireland have taken 5 backrow forwards to the last few tournaments. You would think Heaslip, POM, SOB and Chris Henry are inked in, which leaves 1, and 2 at most, places left. Murphy and Diack are battling it out with Rhys Ruddock for those slots (save for a bolter) – and, given Murphy might struggle for starts in big games next season, Diack might have stolen a march on him.

Aside from that – Simon Zebo looked eager but occasionally naive, Iain Henderson to the manor born, Mike Ross flogged and Johnny Sexton imperious – what’s new. While its great to see Zebo back, other wingers were more prominent - Andy Trimble looked (unsurprisingly) better versed in what Schmidt wingers do, and Miguel Montero simply looked monstrous - Zebo has more work to do to get himself in the RWC15 frame. Hendy was so awesome that Big Dev, possibly Ireland’s find of the season, might find himself back on the bench – his soft hands to set Jack McGrath piling into some Puma forwards at high velocity were gorgeous. The future has arrived.

The jury is split between whether we’ll see wholesale changes or a similar lineup, but assuredly the Milky Bar Kid won’t be impressed with the error count – too many missed tackles and a bit passive at times – end of season mental fatigue maybe. Ho hum, and maybe we’re just trying to read a little too much into these games at the fag end of a wondrous season.

To The Winner Go The Spoils

Leinster are Pro12 champions for 2013-14. In a fittingly absorbing finale, they produced one of their best performances of the season to defeat Glasgow, and eventually gloss the scoreline. It’s their seventh trophy in seven years, and continues a remarkable run of success. This year’s vintage may have paled beside Joe Schmidt’s 2011-12 worldbeaters, but they are the only province to finish with silverware. Winning is a great habit, and Leinster finished top of the league and then saw off two gallant challengers in the knockout stages. What more could you ask for?

At various points in the season, Ulster and Munster were hailed as heroes, teams whose moment had arrived; Leinster for the most part had to deal with brickbats, from their own disgruntled fans as much as anyone else. But for all that, it’s Leinster who finish the season as champions. You can guarantee that everyone associated with Munster and Ulster would trade all the press acclaim for the Pro12 trophy. Who will really remember Leinster’s struggle to put away Zebre and Edinburgh in the RDS when you can gorge your brain on the happy send-off for Leo Cullen and BOD instead?

They say in golf that there’s no room for a picture on the scorecard, and the phrase seems apt here. Leinster huffed and puffed through much of the season, and at times it looked like nothing so uncomplicated as a dropping of standards. Where was the ferocious and accurate clear-out work that provided Schmidt’s blue army with a steady supply of quick ball? It appeared to be missing in action. But look a little less emotionally at the picture and things are not so straightforward. It’s Munster fans who are often accused of being spoiled, but perhaps Leinster’s are now the ‘bold child’ that needs to keep itself in check. To demand both silverware and a certain panache speaks to a little too much self-entitlement, no?

We warned last season when Jonny Sexton went to Paris that replacing him would be no picnic and that it wouldn’t be as simple as throwing Maddog in and expecting everything to take up where it left off. Throw in a new coach, an ageing centre partnership, limited access to Luke Fitzgerald and an injured Sean O’Brien and it’s a lot of issues to absorb in a season. Amid the hallooing, there have been many positives, not least the development of Marty Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, while Sean Cronin turned in his best ever season.  Plus, they’ve won the league.  It gives Matt O’Connor room to breathe, and a solid platform off which to improve performances and mount a more serious challenge in Europe next season.

As for the game itself, well, once again the Pro12 final turned in a terrific match. The league gets its share of stick, but every single final going back to the Leinster-Ospreys game in 2010 has been hugely memorable. For Leinster it was a case of licking Glasgow’s plate clean before starting their own meal. Glasgow threw the kitchen sink at them but the defining moment was the sensational turnover-and-run-it-from-inside-your-own-tryline break which turned the game irrevocably. That was thrillingly old-school Leinster; not Schmidt’s Leinster, but the Leinster of Felipe Contepomi, Denis Hickie and, erm, Cameron Jowitt.

Glasgow and Gregor Townsend may live to rue the decision not to start their gamebreaking Fijians.  Away wins in the RDS, especially in big games, are hen’s-teeth rare, and Glasgow needed to bet the house on their unpredictable, put lethally explosive Fijian 8-9 axis. To do otherwise appeared to err on the side of conservative. Instead we were watching Chris Cusiter try to play the hits from his 2003 back catalogue. There seems to be a thesis that certain players are best unleashed off the bench where they can bring the most ‘impact’. It’s not entirely without logic, but surely the best players should be given the most minutes on the pitch in which to influence the game?

But what really killed Glasgow were Leinster’s first half tries – under Joe Schmidt they specialised in ruthlessly scoring tries when the opponent was on top, and we saw glimpses of that. Zane Kirchner has been peripheral all year, but with decent service and ruthless accuracy back in-scope, he looked lethal. Leinster went in at half-time 14-12 up despite being dominated – difference was they sniped tries with no field position yet Glasgow had loads of visits to Leinster’s 22, but it all went a bit Ulster and they couldn’t score. The catalyst for all this ruthlessness was, whisper it, BOD’s injury and the introduction of Ian Madigan at centre. He’s too small to have a career there, but his sumptuous passing and vision was to the fore on Saturday. The irony of it all, after the season that Leinster and Madigan have had.

And finally, what can be said about Leo Cullen and His BODness that hasn’t already been said? It was an anti-climactic, if weirdly fitting – it was always likely to end with him trudging from the field with an injury, given how he has played all his career – send off for The Great One, and in truth his limbs will probably thank him for not having to go through another 72 minutes of pounding. His body has been creaking badly more or less since the 2011 World Cup, but his genius and commitment never wavered. At the risk of getting all Robo-BOD, future generations will indeed ask if we actually saw BOD play in the flesh. Yes indeed, we’ll say. And Paul O’Connell too? Yes, absolutely. Sometimes even both at the same time. Wow! How come Ireland only won one grand slam in all those years? Err, time for bed now son.

Stuart Hogg to Ulster?

The news that Stuart Hogg will play no part in the biggest game in the Glasgae’s franchise’s (ugh) history is surprising, to say the least – he’s one of the few bona fide world class players in Scotland, and should be a key man for the team.  Dress this weekend’s match up any way you like, but Leinster, for all their attacking lumpen-ness, have an excellent pack and a brilliant defensive system – and they keep winning. If Glasgae are to win, they’ll need everything going, yet they have elected to pick Peter Murchie at 15. Amid the fog and intrigue, one thing is obvious – Stuart Hogg has burned every bridge going at Glasgow.

When asked about it, Bob Kearney said:

“I don’t know him too well, great player, seems like a good lad, but there is something going on there behind the scenes. There is a reason for it and I suppose you lads will find out sooner or later.”

Cryptic, and not exactly satisfactory. Tell us more, Bob!  All kinds of rumours are flying around and that doesn’t help – it would be easy to play a dead bat, but he chose not to – what does it all mean? And not knowing him too well? They toured together for the Lions and play the same position (caveated by Hogg’s outhalf cameos in Oz) – you’d think they would know each other well enough – is there distancing there?  Are we trying to read too much into things?  What the hell is going on?!

Ulster are now being linked with a move for Hogg, and, on the field anyway, it would be a reasonable fit for them. The culture shock will be non-existent; Glasgow, Belfast, it’s the same thing, right? And sure, Ulster are stacked outside, but you can never have too many world-class players, and he would be just the type of player that might help them unlock organised defensive systems – their key weakness. Their red zone strike rate was woeful in key games this year, and Hogg might have made the difference versus Globo Gym and Leinster. There’s no substitute for all out gas and Hogg has that matched with no little skill.  He’s a potentially explosive addition.

Hogg’s arrival might put the noses of Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave out of joint a little, but maybe that can be filed under ‘good problems to have’ rather than something to be overly concerned about.  In the era of 20% injury rates, chances are they won’t miss out on too much top grade rugby in any case.  Although it may be worth asking if wee Hoggy can scrum down at tighthead, because that’s where Ulster’s biggest worries are liekly to occur next season.

Question really is this: given Humph’s experience of Ulster’s player factional implosion after 2006, does he want to bring in a guy, who at 21 has managed to alienate his coaching staff so much they would rather not pick him than maximise their chances of winning in the Oar Dee Esh? And for the IRFU, do they really want to pay to train one of their direct opponents’ best players? There’s no real precedent for this sort of signing, unless you count Simon Danielli, which of course we don’t.  Something we aren’t clear on is whether Hogg an NIQ or not – by definition, yes, but he’s more like a Kolpak player in cricket, and Ulster might reasonably think it shouldn’t impact their ability to sign “real” NIQs i.e. those from the Southern Hemisphere.  Even if he does count, because of his calibre, it’s hardly a waste of an NIQ spot.

Hogg is a gem of a player who Ulster would be very fortunate to fall into their hands, but that isn’t the really pertinent question, which relates to his availability and omission from the Warriors side.  Presumably The Humph is on the case.

Second Five-Eighth

In the Amlin Challenge Final between Northampton and Bath, as the game was running away from Bath they introduced a familiar face from the bench. No, not Peter Stringer; the other one. Gavin Henson. We were all set to have a good old chuckle as Big Gav took the field, but within a couple of minutes something interesting happened; Big Gav gave two gorgeous passes to put runners outside him into space. It was like a momentary glimpse into a parallel universe where Henson was a dedicated professional who had fulfilled his potential.  A tiny kernel of natural tlent remains!

In the past, we’ve often wondered what the point of clubs like Bath signing players like Gavin Henson is; when a player has failed to learn his lessons over and over again, does the time not come when you simply draw a line through his name? But this served as a reminder that some cases, no matter how lost they appear, can be worth a punt [at the time of writing Danny Cipriani has been recalled by England, and show me someone who isn’t absolutely fascinated as to what will happen next].

Big Gav never had the dedication to his trade to make the most of his ability, and it’s a real pity. Henson was never as good as the likes of Stephen Jones claimed he was, but he wasn’t rubbish either.  Yes, he had flaws, and yes he was a real pain, but his distribution, running and kicking game could all be terrific. In the modern era of bosh-‘em-up rugby ‘second five-eighth’-type inside centres who can pass the ball like a 10 are a precious commodity. As if to underline the point, Matt Giteau gave a scrumptious performance as a distributing 12 in the Heineken Cup final the following day. What a sight it is to behold, and what options it gives a team in attack when the 12 can move the ball so effortlessly!

Ireland’s own ‘playmaking 12’ departs the scene this summer, to little fanfare. Underpowered for the modern game and not benefitting from a ‘good face’, Paddy Wallace was fell just short of being a real test player, but for Ulster he was a classy and highly watchable fulcrum in the backline. In the 44-14 defeat to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final he was sublime. Fortunately, he passes on the torch. Stuart Olding has been injured all season, but will hopefully be back next year. He has a job on his hands displacing Luke Marshall (who isn’t a bad distributor either, but is more of a hard-running player in the Gordon D’arcy mould), but is exactly the sort of player Ulster have been lacking this season: think of all those sieges on the Leinster line in the semi-final that came to nothing because they just couldn’t unlock the door. One would have to suspect he’s on Schmidt’s radar too. Given a lack of real pace and huge players, Schmidt made Leinster the best team in Europe based on super-accurate passing of the ball along the gainline. Olding would be a key asset to replicate that at test level.

So there we have it; Stuart Olding, the new Gavin Henson.

The Spirit of the Golden Belltower

Allez Toulon, the third ever back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. If they were deeply fortunate to win the pot last year, helped in no end by a calamitous collapse from specialist chokers Clermont, this time around they did it in style, dispatching Saracens by 23 points to 6. In the end they were strolling, and went close to adding another try on, which would have made it 30-6, which we all know to be a scoreline that signifies a COMPLETE ROUT!

What was most notable was the extraordinary bond the players have with one another, and their fans. Matt Giteau (who just oozes class, by the way) took to Twitter to tell the world he’d won the Cup with his ‘best mates’. Johnny Wilkinson spoke in his usual extraordinarily humble way, hitting every right note as he always does. Heck, he was already thinking about the Top 14 final!

In the game of rugby, the belief has long been held that success is hard to buy, and cannot simply be imported wholesale. In a game in which physicality and espirit de corps are such dominant factors, a team which is suitably motivated to put the hurting on its opponents can overcome limitations such as y’know, skill, or a decent lineout and utilise its physical advantage to win rugby matches.

Having a proud fanbase and a rich tapestry of history is something which rugby teams utilise to drive this fervour and passion, none more so than the Irish provinces. In short, the jersey matters. We all know the backdrop at this stage, and though each of the provinces has their own unique history and identity, in all of them there is a sense that to play for the jersey and for the fans is important and attaches a certain standard below which one dare not fall. For most of the players, they’re playing for their local team, and many of them spent their youths on the terraces as supporters. As Denis Hickie put it ‘I’m a Leinster lad. That’s my team. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ The communities are relatively small and close knit and the players place a huge premium on playing for their province, often literally in the case of signing contracts when greater riches are on offer elsewhere.

We do occasionally need to remind ourselves that the Irish provinces are not unique (Exhibit A: the periodic “Irish can teach French culture and passion” stories from Gerry), and in England and France there exist many great clubs with their own strong senses of identity and rich, glorious histories; Toulouse, Castres, Clermont Auverge, Biarritz, Perpignan, Leicester, Northampton, Bath and so on.

Toulon is a rugby-mad town but the team has been bought in. None of the South African, Argentinian or Australian superstars they have on the books have an innate attachment to Toulon, and presumably none of them are all that au fait with the history of the trench warfare that is French rugby. None of them would say ‘I’m a Toulon lad. That’s my team. I make no apologies for it.’ It only serves to make their accomplishments all the more impressive. You can buy success in rugby it seems, but only if you buy the right people. And this is the crux of it. Toulon have recruited sensationally well. There are leaders, standard-bearers and born winners across the team.

While Racing got the chequebook out for the likes of Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Toulon have no problem bringing in guys who appear miles over the hill, or whose share price has come off a high; Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw and Castrogiovanni anyone? Matt Giteau was unceremoniously dumped by Australia but it now seems incredible that his talents could be overlooked by anoyone. Juan Smith had been forced to retire, but gets re-threaded at Toulon and plugs right into the team ethos. It works, because the likes of Castro, Shawsy and Wilkinson are grizzled pros who know how to get the job done, and have the respect of every other player with whom they come into contact. Wilkinson, as we know, demands of himself the highest of high standards – his mental torture and intensity is such that he barely looks like he enjoys a second of what he does.

Sure, they’re all world class players, so they have an innate advantage, but at the same time they’re all extremely well paid, playing for a team far from home in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean coast. It would be easy for them to simply phone it in; but they don’t. Where does the hunger come from? Key individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are instrumental in ensuring everyone is aware that this is not a club where you can simply pick up a cheque.

The maintenance of this spirit is going to be an exceedingly difficult thing to maintain, especially after the post-RWC15 global player churn – Wilkinson is likely to stick around the club to provide a guiding hand, and it’s hard to see key men like Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau or Bastaread leaving any time soon. What price the corp of 2007 Springboks nearing the end of the road – Bakkies, Smith and Roussouw - get swapped en masse for a chunk of 2015 BNZ-ers who finally feel that they have earned a French payday. What chance Ruchie, Kieran Read, DC and Ma’a Nonu – players who are about as far from the Beaver-in-Bath dialling-it-in Southern Hemisphere player as can be imagined – rocking up in two years as the next generation of Toulonnais?

Bloody Foreigners

These bloody foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs. Especially in rugger. Wasn’t so long ago Ireland had a foreigner as captain (Dion O Cuinneagain) and the NIQs were coming in to teach us how to be good rugger players and explain that recovery from injury didn’t involve going on the lash – who knew?!  John Langford, Shaun Payne, Pippo Contepomi, Rocky Elsom, Johan Muller, etc have all passed through and left deep wells of knowledge.

But now we have largely succeeded in making the provincial playing pools more Irish - NIQs are now limited in scope and number, and the days of big name signings are gone (except in Connacht). Getting the balance right is never esay - the national side won a Six Nations this year, but the provinces are finding it increasingly tough against the French moneybags, possibly soon to be joined by English moneybags.  It’s a constantly shifting target and not easy to hit.

And we are still a little touchy about foreign players - when Joe Schmidt announced his squad this week, he had to defend the selection of Robbie Diack, who has qualified as a project player up at Ulster – here’s what he had to say:

“That’s a question for people over and above me. Players are either available or they are not. I think if Bundee Aki plays well and qualifies in three years, time he will be available to whoever is coaching the Irish team at that time to be selected. If they change the rules he may not be. As it stands at the moment I think there are some very good indigenous players and the vast majority of the squad is made up of those players.”

Now, there is an element of self-interest in some of those questions, as it was in the context of not selecting the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Irish-born, who had been picked during the Six Nations. When it comes to, say, Jared Payne, in November, given we don’t have a plethora of obvious 13 candidates, one doubts this barrier will be thrown up.

This is especially interesting this week – and this is the point we were trying to get to – as Munster formally anounced their coaching ticket for next season. And, intriguingly, it’s an all-Irish one. In spite of the IRFU’s desire to limit the influence of for’dners, Ireland just can’t shake its fondness for Southern hemisphere coaches.  Not long ago there were four Kiwi head coaches across four provinces; the only thing that changed since then is that one went on to manage Ireland and was replaced by… an Australian.  As we know, Munster have chosen not to extend Rob Penney’s contract in spite of two successive HEC semi-finals and the successful transition from the bestest tactical outhalf ivir like to .. Ian Keatley.  The Belvo boy appeared to have inherited a poisoned chalice in taking the torch from RADGE, but all the time knowing that a local boy was waiting to take it off him.  But he has played to levels unforeseen by many commentators (ourselves included).

What Penney has achieved is to instill an adventurous and sometimes coherent style of play from a province perceived as being more comfortable with boot-and-bullock HEAVE type stuff. The aforementioned Keatley, Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy, Conor Murray’s journey to the best scrummie in Europe, the pack’s technical excellence all happened under Penney. Divvying up the credits is never an easy business, but between the players themselves, Axel Foley and Rob Penney, it’s largely been two years of gains.  Rog’s retirement was weathered surprisingly well, Paul O’Connell remains a totem and Stakhanov briefly re-invented himself as a winger. Epic-ish Heineken Cup wins against Globo Gym, Harlequins and Toulouse after four years of limping out of Europe get chalked up in the credit column and the eventual defeats were suitably close to go into the ‘heroic’ column.

And yet – he has never really fit in. Some of the team of the noughties (let’s call them Liginds) have persistently sniped at him for imposing a gameplan that the province are uncomfortable with – to be fair, for vast tracts of Penney’s reign, Munster have looked toothless and often gormless – but they have delivered when it matters, and have improved in every facet of the game since he took over. Very few rugby teams look good every week, in what is an increasingly fragmented rugby season.  Joe Schmidt’s Leinster came closest to consistency in the Pro12, but they were the first team since Leicester to win back to back European Cups, a rare breed indeed.  It’s hard to say that his reign has been anything but a success.

As Matt O’Connor is probably learning, it’s always easiest to blame the out-of-towner, and even Gerry Thornley’s assessment on Second Captains when asked if there was ‘any shame’ in how Munster lost the Pro12 semi-final seemed a little pointed, and alot OTT.  Yes there was, he said, given the manner of how it happened because they ran out of play twice.  Really?  ‘Shame’ in losing by a point away to a team that has become adept at peaking at this time of the season, because they ran into touch twice in the last 10 minutes?  Jamie Heaslip ran out of play twice when Wales beat Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, but you probably didn’t hear as much about it.

This is the backdrop for the appointment of the current coaching team – who have done nothing wrong here, let’s remember. From the outside, it always looked like the province wanted someone to come in, retire a few big beasts, bring through a few youngsters then hand the keys over to Axel – and that’s what has happened. They probably didn’t expect Penney to do as good a job, which will be Axels’ problem as he tries to live up to those standards. Or not, as he should get a decent honeymoon period.

So – to the Irish coaching ticket (all-Munster in fact) - it harks back to Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster with Niall O’Donovan and co – a salt of the earth old-skool club coaching ticket. Jirry has been brought in as scrum coach, Micko as “technical advisor”, Brian Walsh as attack coach and Ian Costello as defence coach. A nice balance between Cork and Limerick, with nary an outsider in sight.  Lunch is sorted, fellas, it’s hang sangwidges and tins of lilt out of the back of Axel’s car, and we can all have a chat about the rubbish road from Cork to Limerick!

Where are they coming from?

  • Axel: currently Rob Penney’s number two, has spent time in the national setup under Deccie and the Milky Bar Kid. Generally gets credit for the packs technical skills, and is generally felt to have done a good job with Ireland too.  Although Penney was also a forward, so the real driver will become clear next year
  • Jirry: coming from joe.ie Arsenal, where he was on the conditioning side. With due respect, Arsenal’s conditioning at key moments of this season wasn’t spectacular – but that can’t be all his fault. This feels like a key personality to get on board, even if it might take time to bed into a coaching role. He has been uncomplementary about Munster’s younger players in the past and appeared to take a dig at Mick Galwey on his way out the gate from his playing days.  Jerry seems like an interesting, forthright individual, but in the same way that Foley is always heralded for his rugby brain, Fla never seemed to be a great rugby strategist; more of an instinctive wild man in fact!
  • Micko: er, he’s, er, played for the Baa-Baa’s. And has apparently “shown promise” in the coaching sphere
  • Brian Walsh: involved in the Academy, but most experience is with Cork Con in the AIL, where he won the league a couple of times
  • Ian Costello: former A team coach and Academy man, sports science/UL background

One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition. We must also say, it’s great to see a progression path for younger Irish coaches.  And while it’s more inward-looking than outward, it’s not that out of step with the way Leinster have gone about appointing coaches.  Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika all arrived as young and unproven, acclaimed for their role as second-in-command but untried as head honchos (at a big team at least).

It’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve for all of the ticket. So how will it pan out? Our guess is it’s unlikely to end with Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing.  And while that’s the case, it is probably wide of the mark to anticipate that the ball won’t go beyond the No.9 either.  While it’s tempting to see Foley as the ultimate old-skool Munsterman, warming-up by keeping the heat on in the car and shovelling in the recovery pints after training, his being “steeped in the Munster culture” has to be weighed against his oft-cited smarts as a player, which are presumed to inform a technically astute coaching brain that will be more than capable of imposing a modern and highly effective gameplan on the province.  So perhaps the ‘return to traditional Munster values’ (TM – the Cork Con meeja) won’t be on the menu just yet.  This is where the real fascination lies.  Everyone has had their suspicions that Foley and Penney have never been entirely ont he same page, and theirs has been an uneasy allicnce.  The direction in which Foley points Munster should give us a nice retrospective angle on whether or not that was the case.

Foley inherits a squad which looks pretty good, and is on an upward curve.  The emergence of Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander in the late season adds real depth to his pack and he will hope to have Donnacha Ryan and Mike Sherry for more of next season than he did this, and a rejuvenated Tommy O’Donnell would be a big help.  Robin Copeland arrives from Cardiff and James Coughlan ain’t done yet.  The likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Archer will be a year older and presumably better.  He has no real issues at half-back or in the back three – unless the outstanding Conor Murray ever gets injured that is, but he’s not the only coach who’s goosed in that eventuality.  If the two largely unknown quantities at centre turn out to be halfway decent, he will have every opportunity to keep Munster competitive.

He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.

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