Brucie Bonus

When you are scrapping for your life ™ in a Pool of Death ™ every point, nay try, can be crucial ©. Yes, amazingly, this particular piece of trite hyperbole is true and undeniable. Both Munster and Ulster are in prickly pools, and the bonus point distribution is very likely to be a key factor in who tops the pool, and whether the runners-up can join them in the next phase.

In both cases, the baseline scenario for the three contenders (Munster, Saracens and Clermont; Ulster, Toulon and Leicester) is:

  • Nine points from the group bunnies (Sale and the Scarlets)
  • Eight points from two home wins against the two good teams
  • Two points from two away defeats against same

coming to a total baseline of 19 points. Axel and Doak will be thinking that if they get 20, they should qualify, but if they end up with 18, they could finish third in the pool. And, of course, if you lose to the bunnies away or any of your home games, you are goosed.  Denying others points is just as important; if Munster can beat Saracens by more than seven points and deny them a bonus, it’s almost as good as an extra match point.

Munster, by the skin of their teeth, are still alive in the tournament – had they not managed their terrific comeback, they could forget about qualification. But manage they did, and the four points effectively means they are par for the course after one round. In their pool, Globo Gym picked up a home win, and, possibly crucially, scored four tries and got a fifth point. That, in effect, puts them a point ahead of the benchmark, edging them ahead of Clermont and Munster in the reckoning. Clermont will be content enough with their losing bp, particularly as they put it up to a team which had embarrassed them and fed them a forty-burger six months ago, and are also level par. The aggregate number of points dished out in the match was six, which is the result Munster would have least enjoyed.  Contrast with Leinster’s pool where Harlequins and Castres received only four points between them.  Slight advantage Saracens after round one.

The other slightly unfortunate news for Munster is that in beating Sale away from home in round one they may simply have softened them up for everyone else.  It’s a scenario Ulster ran into last year.  Beating Montpellier away looked like a pool-defining result, but it only resulted in Montpellier being less than fully commited and allowed Leicester to follow suit a few weeks later.

In Ulster’s pool, it looked like curtains for the Northerners at half-time in Welford Road – the Tigers had three tries on the board (almost a fourth) and a losing bp seemed a long way adrift. Finishing the game on a match score of 4-1 when 5-0 looked odds-on was quite the achievement – 5-0 would have put Leicester two points up on Ulster in the bonus-off, but now both are on par. Both teams will be feeling a bit bummed after the game – Ulster for losing and Leicester for eschewing a chance to get the boot firmly on a group rival’s throat.

In the same pool, Toulon beat the Scarlets but did not get four tries – this was a slight negative for the champions as they would have been expecting a full haul. They are still more than capable of going to the non-fortress that is Parc y Scarlets and running amok, but it ups the pressure a little. Toulon are just off schedule a little, but plenty of time to rectify that.

Next up it’s must-win home games against last years finalists – Munster open round two up against the likeable ruffians of Saracens and Ulster face the uphill struggle that is Toulon at home. Four points each, and they’ll both stay on course for the target of 19.  Deny the opposition a bonus point and it’s better still.  Easier said than done, though.

Naturalised Kiwis? I’ll Take Two

Joe Schmidt pulled a surprise yesterday by announcing his panel for the November internationals a week early. We don’t know what the logic behind the premature announcement is; perhaps he just likes to keep us on our toes, the scallywag.

As invariably happens with these things, the squad is pretty large so talking points are kept to a minimum. The real sniping only really gets going when the team is announced for the first test, so keep your powder dry folks! Nonetheless, with five new caps, 15 injuries and one or two notable omissions there was a bit of information to be gleaned.

Jared Payne has long been earmarked for a role as a naturalised Irishman and his moment has finally arrived. Will he be auditioned for 13, where he still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable, or seen as back-up for Rob Kearney? A test debut seems probable in any case.

Connacht’s Darragh Leader is the beneficiary of both Connacht’s good start to the season and a scattering of injuries in the back three. He’ll be competing with Bowe, Zebo and Gilroy for selection on the wing and at the very least will get valuable exposure.

Dominic Ryan is rewarded for a strong start to the campaign after his career looked to have stalled. He was among Leinster’s better players against Wasps and in the absence of Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, he adds welcome depth.

Munster’s Dave Foley looks a good pick having looked solid throughout Munster’s up-and-down start to the season. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him named on the bench, because Mike McCarthy has looked a bit leaden for Leinster.

Of the five newbies, the biggest impact could be made by another naturalised Kiwi, Nathan White, Connacht’s rock-solid tighthead. With Marty Moore injured, there’s every chance he will leapfrog Stephen Archer and maybe even Rodney Ah You, who somehow remains in the panel, to perform the sizeable role of seeing out the match after Mike Ross collapses from exhaustion.

Elsewhere, the main talking point was Paddy Jackson’s omission. Schmidt has left out the Ulsterman in favour of Ians Madigan and Keatley. It’s a form call and one imagines if it was tight in the first place, this weekend’s events may have been the decisive pendulum-swing. While Keatley was being lauded for his drop goal heroics, Jackson rather summed up Ulster’s night in Leicester with a lackadaisical conversion which was charged down. It’s a very definite boot up the arse for Jackson, who will be well aware that in a World Cup year, one of he, Keatley and Madigan will find themselves squeezed out of the touring party. Get your game face on fella, starting this weekend against Toulon.

One player a shade unlucky to miss out is Duncan Casey. His lineout stats are unmatched in Europe this year, and neither Cronin nor Best are exactly technicians, so he would have dovetailed nicely. Richardt Strauss hasn’t done anything of note this season, but clearly Schmidt is a fan. Also missing out is Darren Cave, whose ship appears to now have sailed. Squeezed onto the bench at Ulster having failed to take his chance with Ireland this summer, it looks like other options will be explored.

There was better news for Tommy O’Donnell who is recalled. The Tipp man hasn’t quite hit the barnstorming heights of his early 2013 form, but he is at least out of the doldrums of last season. Another player who has been on the same up-down-up trajectory is Craig Gilroy, who looks back to something like the razor-sharp runner who stunned Argentina in one of the most memorable test debuts in living memory. Both play in positions with notable absentees and have a chance to stake a claim.  Now gentlemen, no more injuries, please.  Pretty please.  With sugar on top.

The Unstoppable Rise of Darragh Fanning

Darragh Fanning has started every game for Leinster this season, and on Saturday night his Leinster career hit new heights, as he scored two tries in his first European Cup match. He’s living the dream. Initially signed to plug a gap while players were injured and unavailable, with a glut of players still injured, he’s becoming a fixture in the team. Expect to see plenty more of him this season.

Fanning, or ‘Fanj’ as he’s known, is 28 years old and so qualifies as a late bloomer. A productive winger for St Mary’s at AIL level, he spent a season at Connacht before returning to the club game, then Leinster came calling. If you had told Leinster fans that he would be starting a European match a year ago, they probably would have laughed. But here he is, and with two tries to his name. It’s as many as Irish international wing Dave Kearney managed in the whole of last season.

There’s a tendency on the terraces and in internet fora to be a bit sniffy about players who arrive at the top level via this path – and before we’re accused of pointing fingers, we’re happy to admit some culpability ourselves. We talked recently about the hipster’s choice players; guys like Fanj are really the anti-hipster’s choice. They scream ‘journeyman’, and nobody ever gets excited about that.  How skilful can they be if they were languishing in the AIL for most of their mid-20s? The accepted way for players to get to the pro ranks in Ireland is via the academy structures. When a player arrives in the first team, freshly minted by the academy, hipster ‘do’ rendered just-so, there is an innate desire to proclaim him the next big thing. When someone is brought in to ‘do a job’ from the AIL it’s a case of ‘meh’.

Demented Mole has written about the topic, and noted that the sole route to professionalism via the academy has its flaws in that it favours those who are physically developed at a young age, and others who have potential but may not have the same physical development by the time they’re 18 can slip through the net. Brendan Macken has always had the look of someone who became a campus hero because he could steamroll other schoolkids, but never developed the skills to thrive against better, stronger players.

It’s very different in France, and to an extent in England, where there is a second-tier professional league which is an ideal breeding ground for youngsters, and the smaller clubs often act as feeders to the Top 14 sides. It means more players who may be unheralded in their youth at least find a home in the second division or at one of the smaller Top 14 sides, rather than slipping out of the professional game; and if they do manage to bloom later in their careers, they can find themselves elevated to the top level. Morgan Parra started life at Bourgoin; Vincent Clerc had four years at Grenoble. There are umpteen Irish plugging away in both ProD2 and the English Championship, while scrum half Jambo Hart has found himself elevated to the Top 14 and is dining out on great reviews with high-flying Grenoble.

Other players to make the upgrade from AIL to pro in recent(-ish) years are Craig Ronaldson at Connacht and the pick of the bunch, James Coughlan who proved a stalwart for Munster after his belated elevation, and currently finds himself earning a last-of-the-summer-wine payday with Pau in the ProD2.  Coughlan proved so effective that some excitable fans thought he should displace Jamie Heaslip from the Irish team. Whether Fanning can become such a cause celebre for Leinster remains to be seen, but for the moment his progress continues. The thought of him going up against Christian Wade was mildly terrifying, but there’s more to rugby than screeching pace. Wade scored a brilliant try, but Fanning scored two and Leinster won the match. He will never be able to do some of the things Wade does but there are plenty of things Wade isn’t great at that Fanning is pretty good at, like clearing rucks etc. *genuflects in front of framed Joe Schmidt picture*.  That’s rugby for you, it takes all sorts.

 

Anglo-Irish Rivalry

Since 2007, when Leicester lost to Wasps in an all-English Heineken Cup final, the Irish have lorded it over the arrogant English © Gervais de Thornleille – four tournament victories to none, five finalists to three and ten semi-finalists to six … all from approximately half the tournament representation. The perceived advantage in qualification enjoyed by the three major Irish provinces was one of the drivers of the ERCC setup (even though it’s bollocks – under any qualification rules, the three would have cruised through in most seasons).

This weekend, all three provinces played English opponents – and they struggled mightily. The combined half-time score was 62-21 to the Premiership – an average of 21-7, although it should be noted that it was a very blustery weekend and in each case the English teams had the wind at their backs in the first half. In the second halves, all three Irish teams came out and fought for their lives in the tournament and began to show something like the quality we all think they have – Leinster and Munster eked out wins over Wasps and Sale, and Ulster got close enough to earn a bonus point and leave Leicester somewhat worried and mildly panicky. Combined, the score was 71-70 to les Anglais. Two of the three games were played in England, but still, this wasn’t by any means the cream of this year’s Boshiership season – the English teams stand 5th, 8th and 10th. Or in other words, the same berths occupied by Connacht, Embra and Cardiff in the Pro12 – none of whom are gracing this years HEC.

This was hardly an outstanding weekend from the provinces, and it really felt like muscle memory keeping them in it at times – BT Sport might be over-anxious to sell this as a brand-new tournament, but the provinces’ collective history and experience certainly told at times when there was a prospect of wipeout.

A quick word on each.  Munster were able to use the wind to good effect in the second half and Sale just couldn’t get out of their own half.  Any platform they did get, they found Peter O’Mahony and Dave Foley all over their lineout ball.  And in CJ Stander they have found a wrecking ball.  This was a performance for the ages, he just could not be contained.  At times he looked to be going into contact too upright, but is just so strong he could keep going.  Remarkable!  They still have a problem at centre though.  Hurley’s up-and-down season hit a trough here, and JJ Hanrahan’s nicely angled kick to the corner late in the match showed his contrasting style in a good light.  Also, Simon Zebo seems a little out of sorts?

Three yers ago, Ulster lost in Welford Road and showed no cutting edge whatsoever, and got beaten.  Those days are certainly gone, and Ulster now boast a backline capable of the sort of try that Tommy Bowe dotted down on Saturday night.  With such potency behind the pack, they’ll be annoyed they gave Leicester a three try start in the match.  Coupled with Jackson’s conversion blooper, it felt like an Ulster performance that only got to 90% intensity; never enough to win in a ground like Welford Road.  Still, they’re alive in the pool, but must beat Toulon this weekend.

As for Leinster, they were the only one of the three at home, but this was another bounty of handling errors and tear-your-hair-out stuff from them.  It’s becoming the default.  Injuries are a mitigating factor and once the team was announced sans Messrs. Kearney and Ross, this had the potential to be a banana skin.  Again, they dug themselves out of a corner, and used the wind to decent effect in the second half.  Amid the injury crisis, Dom Ryan and Darragh ‘Fanj’ Fanning have stepped up admirably this season, and continued that streak here.

There is no doubt the delight we take in beating English teams, and we find it hard to really rate them – perhaps they are better than we think… and perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are.  Next week, things get dialled up a notch as Munster face Saracens.  The last installment of this rivalry was a damp squib, but a repeat is unlikely.  We’ll have a fair idea of where everyone stands afterwards.

Get Back To Us After Round Five

Amid the turbulent birth of the new tournament, much has been made of the supposedly more competitive pools the new 20-team format has thrown up. As has become customary, it’s an argument that’s only half-true, and one which supporters of Bruce Craig and his chums are keen to stretch to its limits.

On the face of it, there is certainly at least some truth to it. Missing in action, in effect, are Edinburgh, Zebre, Connacht and Cardiff, none of whom are exactly heavyweights who would have much expectations of making the knockout stages.

But a closer look at last year’s results reveals that all bar the hapless Zebre made a significant splash in the competition.

  • Cardiff finished second in their pool with three wins, including being the only team to beat Toulon in the competition
  • Edinburgh managed three wins too, a big one at home to Munster and even a rare win on the road, against Gloucester
  • Connacht also managed three wins, including one of the most remarkable results in the history of the competition, away to Toulouse – admittedly the other two wins were against the Zebras, and they got fed a brutal 58-burger by Globo Gym. But they still beat Toulouse away!

Indeed, the worst performers in the competition, outside of the Italians, were a surprisingly useless Ospreys, Perpignan, who went on to be relegated from the Top 14, and Racing Metro, all of whom could muster just one win each. Ospreys and Racing Metro are back this year (and to be fair, are expected to do much better this time around – helped by being in the same pool as Treviso!) while Perpignan have been replaced, in effect, by Wasps, who won the playoff to be the 20th team.

The truth of the matter is that the pool stages have not been as exciting in the last three years, with most pools more or less decided going into round six, and relatively little at stake in the final week; even the running order of the top eight seemed largely pre-ordained. We wrote a piece about this back in January. In fact, the pools were so easy to predict, even we could get seven quarter-finalists right in our preview for last year, and don’t really expect a mid-tier team to make a run from the pack this time around either.

So will the pools be more competitive this year? Squeezing the talent from six pools into five should have an impact, but it is up to the middle-tier teams to show that they can take enough points to put the top seeds under pressure. In the article linked above we noted that the lack of round six hoopla was not so much down to the likes of Zebre being completely useless, but the fact that the second-tier teams haven’t been good enough to put pressure on the top dogs by accumulating enough points over the full six weeks.  The ‘more competitive’ argument appears to make a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a pool competitive: it’s how closely matched the top two or three teams in the pool are, not how far off the next rung the fourth team is.

Last year, Gloucester were a hopelessly inadequate opponent for Munster, while Harlequins and Montpellier took an almost laissez-faire approach to the tournament. Northampton had their day in the Palindrome, but were too hot-and-cold over six rounds. Toulon, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont breezed through their groups without great pressure from beneath. Munster and Toulon could even afford to throw in ridiculous defeats and still qualify with a round to spare. This year, it is up to the likes of Harlequins, Wasps, Bath, Montpellier, Racing Metro and Sale Sharks to show that they are genuinely more competitive and can make the likes of Gerry Thornley, and ourselves, eat our words.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating and after round five, we will return to assess just how much is at stake in the final round, and judge accordingly. Having four less teams does mean one thing – genuine knock-out rugby starts early – by our reckoning last year, once Ulster beat Montpellier away (14th December), the eight quarter finalists were essentially decided. This time around, we’d be stunned if Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Leicester aren’t relevant in the last round- and the fixtures on the first day already feel must-not-lose for the Tigers and Sarries. And if Munster’s pool is decided by any greater margins than a post-41,000-phase-86th-minute-bonus-point try against Sale, set against the backdrop of a weeping RTE commentary team, we will be disappointed.

Whatever about more competitive pools, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the wildly unbalanced nature of the pools.  Pools 1 and 3 are crammed full of talent and the rest are decidedly bantam-weight by comparison.  The newly domestic-based seeding system, based on one year’s domestic results, where Glasgow found themselves in the top pot and Toulouse in the bottom one, is undoubtedly responsible.  The short-term nature of the seeding is the polar opposite of the generously long-term nature of the previous system, whereby Biarritz maintained a perma top seed status (right from the first ranking-driven draw in 2008-09) due to a couple of finals and being drawn with Aironi/Zebre every year – until they dropped out entirely because they were hopeless. We’re not clear on whether this seeding system will persist or whether the performances in the European competition will count towards the seedings of future tournaments.  Anyone?

New Broom

As Gerry might say, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The brand-new European rugby tournament is here, and it’s … err .. completely different. For example, it’s got a better TV deal – oh no, wait, just a French domestic one and a UK/Ireland one where fans aren’t sure what package they need to see their team on a given week – ok, more commercial clout – wait, off that, same sponsor – better governance? – same staff, but in non-cowboy country – well, that’s something. Phew!

On field, we’re down from 24 to 20 teams, having chopped some of the chaff (Connacht, Cardiff, Embra and the Zebras) and that’s no bad thing. We’ve been left with a couple of stonking pools (1 and 3) but, to be fair, there are also a couple of duds in there (2 and possibly 4). We still see three teams as going oh-from-six (Treviso, Scarlets and Sale) and three others as having essentially no chance of progression (Wasps, Castres, Racing Metro) – meaning an expected knockout stage lineup as very similar to the last couple of years. We reckon you’ll have 6 of last years quarter finalists back in April for the runoff and, presumably much to McCafferty’s chagrin, three of them will be Irish! Whoop-de-whoop. So here goes this year’s flight of fancy (or maybe not, we got seven right last year):

Pool 1 (Globo Gym, Munster, Clermont, Sale Sharks):

Three of last year’s four semi-finalists – this is one tough pool. Saracens and Clermont are top of their respective leagues, and Munster will need all of their fabled Europan cup nous to get out of this one.  When two of the three met last year, Saracens made mincemeat of Clermont, winning by 40 points. That could be relevant here as Clermont are not the strongest mentally. It’s hard to see the Sharks winning a game – they are languishing in the Boshiership and are a clear level below the rest. They aren’t an intimidating presence, even at home, and are bonus point fodder. This could easily see the big three trade home wins with two qualifiers decided by bonus points. Saracens look to have the best recent history here (runners up in HEC and Premiership last year) and are the easiest to back as the most likely to win at Munster or the Marcel Michelin. After that, if it came down to a Munster vs Clermont HEC-off in front of teary, rabid  fans, we’d back Munster. Just.

Prediction: Saracens to win (70% confidence level), Munster to qualify as runners-up (50.01% confidence level)

Pool 2 (Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps):

An utter dud of a pool – Leinster are playing like drains and struggling with a gameplan, on-pitch direction and a lengthy injury list. If they had Munster’s draw, we’d give them virtually no chance of making it through, but they don’t – they have a bit of a gimme. Castres are in the Top14 nether regions, and rarely give a hoot about Europe, and Wasps will be playing in front of zero fans and are reliant on Andy Goode – those two are out. Quins have something about them and are a tough nut to crack at the Stoop, but it’s hard to see them doubling up on the bunnies. They haven’t quite pushed on since their glorious championship-winning season, though any team with Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back has to be at least useful.  If Leinster can win in Castres in round two then they are on the path.  Where Quins will be dangerous is in the race for second place against Munster – if they win four games, they’ll be in the mix – the brave and the faithful should be cheering full-throated for a pair of Leinster whuppings. Leinster may not hit top gear but they have the experience to deal with this lot.

Prediction: Leinster to win (95% confidence level)

Pool 3 (Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets):

Pool of death! Scarlets are the bunnies here – they are <insert patronising platitude here> but are beatable at home and consider defence optional. They are capable of pulling one outrageous win out of the bag, but we’re expecting them to be whitewashed.  Of the three remaining, one are double European and reigning Top14 champions, one have been bridesmaids so many times they are in danger of becoming the Northampton Saints, and one are an injury-addled shadow of their former selves. Toulon are deservedly tournament favourites, and they are unlikely to become unstuck here – they could field two teams that would win this pool, and are good enough to beat anyone. We have covered Ulster already, and first up is the best time to play Leicester away – Barnesy feels Ulster are tournament dark horses, and they have enough tough wins in the European locker (Leicester home and away, Montpellier away, Clermont home, Saints away, Munster away) to warrant some faith here. They have shown themselves adept at getting through the pool stages, but have lost their heads in knockout games with exasperating frequency.  Time to deliver, boys.

Prediction: Toulon to win (80% confidence level), Ulster to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

Pool 4 (Glasgow, Montpellier, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh Bath, Toulouse)

This is a very interesting pool – unlike the previous three, there is no standout team here, and you can make a coherent case for each to qualify. The least coherent case is probably the Montpellier one – they are down a couple of forwards from two years ago, and Francois Trinh-Duc is out until 2015 – they gave up on the HEC after losing to Ulster at home last year, and might not be bothered. We’d dearly love to tip Glasgow to make the breakthrough – great for the Pro12 and a very likeable team addicted to high-risk, watchable rugby – but they have three tough away games ahead, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to back them in any of them. Potential is there, and the pool is up for grabs, but they’ll need to show us something new. Bath are flying high-ish in the Boshiership, marshalled by the quicksilver George Ford, but one feels dirty mucky French packs won’t quite be to their liking – they looked primed to be arm-wrestled out of it. Which leaves European aristocrats ™ boring bosh merchants Toulouse. Which team will show up – the one who beat Saracens twice, or the one who lost at home to Connacht and bent the knee in Thomond? Either way, they have the quality in their squad and consistent experience of just topping the pool to prevail here.

Prediction: Toulouse to win (60% confidence level)

Pool 5 (Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Hairsprays, Treviso)

Let’s start with the easy bit – Treviso won’t win a game. The Saints look the best team here – they (finally) won the Premiership last year and are riding high again – in the last three years, they have come unstuck against Irish teams at home, this time around the draw is kinder and a quarter-final beckons. For the runners-up slot and (we reckon) the last place in the knockouts it’s red-hot young fearless Ospreys, with a pair of excellent halves, versus behemoth bosh-heavy moneybags Racing Metro. The Parisians are without Jonny Sexton for the opening rounds, and are really tough to have any confidence in – we’d like the Spreys to continue their recent form and get back to the knockout stages.  Backing them to transfer their Pro12 form to Europe has been a losing trade in recent years, but maybe this time it will be different?

Prediction: Saints to win (90% confidence level), Ospreys to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

So there you have it – out go Leicester and Clermont and in come the Saints and the Ospreys. The group winners are mucking in for the all-important home draw – and without knowing who has that prize in the bag, or the home semi-final draw, picking winners is a fools errand. We will say this though, given the Saints pool, and the guaranteed 10 points from Benetton, they will expect a home draw – and they are a decent bet at 13/2.

Stop Press: Ulster Optimism

This particular Ulster fan is feeling pretty chipper right now. That’s right – chipper! And it’s very unlike him – normally he worries about Ulster’s lack of depth in the front five, Paul Marshall being near the first XV, Jared Payne running the defensive alignment and (especially) when dishy Steve Walsh will next referee his province. Dreamboat.

But there are grounds for hope, and more than that, what with the HEC cranking into gear soon:

  1. He worried incessantly about the wisdom of replacing both props in one summer. Now, he maintains it was a risk, but he can’t argue that things aren’t looking good. On the loosehead side, Andrew Warwick looks more powerful every time he plays – he looks a real find. Maybe he’s not ready for HEC rugby, but why not? He seems able. On the tighthead side, Wiehann Herbst has been a revelation, turning Ulster’s scrum into a real platform – John Afoa has not only not been missed, but he has given Ulster fans a chance to wallow in some glorious schadenfreude at his travails at Glaws
  2. Let’s not talk about the second row, bar saying Alan O’Connor played well on his debut and Franco van der Werve better not get injured in the next three weeks
  3. Ruan Pienaar has arrived back at Ravers! Ulster simply must get him on the pitch next weekend, or they are goosed
  4. Stuart Olding has picked up where he left off 15 months ago and looks in spectacularly good nick – Ulster missed a bit of guile in the opposition 22 under Cowboy, and they look to have added clinicality – Olding is a big part of that

But, more, much more than that, its the horrendous start to the season endured by the Leicester Tigers that has this Ulster fan feeling so chipper – the HEC (for that is what it is) starts in nine days, and it starts in Leicester. If ever there was a time to play the Tigers its now, and Ulster already have experience of playing there – and winning.

Those of us who love rugby, and love ye olde school English clubs, love the Leicester Tigers, but unfortunately for them, everyone is injured.  The pack is missing several most of their best forwards, including the Toms Young and Croft and the unfortunate Dan Cole.  That leaves them with a pack anchored by the same Italians that have been tearing up the Six Nati … wait, that’s wrong … and Big Bad Brad Thorn, who finally seems done. Leicester are renowned for tough uncompromising forward play, but it’s just not as frightening when your pack enforcers are .. er .. Graham Kitchener and Julian Salvi. And giving this team direction from 10 is Freddie Burns, who is now a fully paid-up member of the English out-halves who looked decent for three months then collapsed in a pile of dung club, which is chaired by Ryan Lamb and Shane Geraghty.  Way to let the next England fly-half go off to Ooooooooohh Bath, goys! Also missing is Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi – the anchor of their backline.

They lie just above the Boshiership relegation zone and their form is dismal. Here are their results this season:

  • Leicester 36-17 Newcastle
  • Exeter 20-24 Leicester
  • Bath 45-0 (NIL) Leicester (Videprinter moment)
  • Leicester 19-22 London Oirish
  • Gloucester 33-16 Leicester

Sure, Ulster might have lost to the Zebras, but they made 10 changes for that game, had a guy sent off and still probably should have won. And they weren’t at home. To London Oirish. Make no mistake, this is a winnable game. Eminently winnable. Its literally the best possible time to play in Welford Road.

After that, it’s the big one, double champions Toulon – this is a toughie, especially with injuries in the second row – Bakkies and Ali Williams don’t cost megabucks for nothing. Still though – Ulster are at home, and Ravers is a bit of a fortress these days, and a sizzling atmosphere a la Saracens last year is guaranteed. Not that that will phase Toulon of course – despite what Gerry might think, there is little the Irish can teach the French about culture, passion or roaring hot rugby grounds. Toulon’s away form has improved this year (3 wins from 4), but they lost their opening HEC away game last year – to Cardiff, of all teams!  Toulon might travel with the sense that a losing bonus point is a decent outcome.

It is unlikely to be a classic, but Ulster are a tough nut to crack in Ravers, and it will be tight. If Ulster can eke out two wins, that would be eight points on the board with a double header with the Scarlets to come – and with three from five runners-up qualifying, they will have got themselves into an excellent position. Ulster have qualified from tougher pools – notably 2011/12 with Clermont and Leicester when Clermont were at or around the peak of their powers (and Leicester, again, succumbed to an injury crisis) and Ulster are much improved since then. They went 6-for-6 last year, winning in Montpellier and Leicester, and have enough about them to justify some faith – we’re tipping them to win both and take a giant leap to the knockout stages of the inaugural HEC.  How’s that for glass-half-full Nordie Optimism?!

The Slow Fade

Rugby careers come to an end in one of two ways; through injury, or on occasion, on a player’s own terms. Cases of the former are increasingly rare. Ronan O’Gara and – just about – Brian O’Driscoll are two appointed a retirement date and quit. The list of recent retirements through injury – serveral in their recent 20’s, others more fortunate to have had a longer career, is lengthy.

One thing notable about O’Driscoll and O’Gara is that they went out at the top. Ok, Radge had lost his place in the Ireland team, but there was no shame in that, and his swansong was a top-tier match (and performance) against Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup semi-final. BOD’s last outing was in a Pro12 final and he was in the national team to the last breath.

Plenty of others have a final season in which they ‘wind down’ their career. Leo Cullen and Mal O’Kelly retreated to the role of first reserve in their final season and appeared to perform sort of ‘handover’ role.

One player who sadly won’t be going out at the top is Donncha ‘Stakhanov’ O’Callaghan, Ireland’s joker in the pack, who once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers while on the Lions tour. When Saturday’s team was announced journeyman Billy Holland was selected on the bench behind O’Connell and Foley, depriving fans of the chance to see O’Callaghan’s windmilling technique on the touchline. If Ryan were fit, it means O’Callaghan would conceivably be fifth on the depth chart. But this is no final wind-down season for Stakhanov. He has a contract until 2016; he signed the contract in late 2013 when he was still in or around the Irish set-up (though it is a Munster contract and not a central one, whatever that really means).

It must be a strange time for the player, who has been there and done it all; 94 Ireland caps, played all games in the grand slam, four caps for the Lions (where he famously pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers), two Heineken Cup wins with Munster … but most recently found himself lining out for Munster A, where last weekend he packed down alongside Sean McCarthy and took on Tom Denton and Gavin Thornbury of Leinster A. At least they won 18-8, which is something I suppose.  What must it be like for a player who has scaled such heights, played in the biggest of games, to find himself overlooked for Billy Holland and playing with the A’s?  That’s show business for you.  One day, you’re the most important guy who ever lived.  The next day, you’re some schmo working in a box factory.

While it’s natural to wonder whether O’Callaghan is the most expensive fifth-choice lock in world rugby, it’s also hard not to feel some sympathy for the once stalwart lock whose decline has been inexorable. By all accounts, O’Callaghan is a hard worker and a good character and not one to feel sorry for himself – after all, this is the man who pulled Ian McGeechan’s trousers down on the Lions tour. And to be fair to the old dog, he adapted surprsingly well to Penney’s second-rows-on-the-wing tactics.  He can’t be faulted for effort, or trouser-removing japery, but theold energy levels just aren’t there, and he doesn’t have much else to fall back on. The chances of an Indian summer feel slim, and it looks like a long, slow fade out to Donncha O’Callaghan’s career.

Also, did we mention that he once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers on the Lions tour?

Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!

Very Mild Fever in the Aviver

Four weeks of decidedly ho hum build-up is over and the real season begins this weekend. At least that’s how it feels anyway. Leinster v Munster has come to represent the start of the ‘season proper’ and this season is no different. Coming the week before the first round of European matches, the tuning up is over and the intensity increases several notches.  Unless any province has a disastrous start to the season, the early skirmishes tend not to matter too much. The real business starts now.

Unfortunately, Munster have brushed with disaster in a spectacularly ignominious start to Axel Foley’s leadership. The catastrophic own goal of the leaked player review email has set the tone for a dire start. If Foley didn’t know the extent of the job he has at Munster, he does now. Two wins and two defeats doesn’t sound that bad, and is no worse than Leinster, but the wins were against meagre Italian opposition and the defeats were at home, where the proletariat have gone a bit cold on the revolution, seemingly preferring the more bourgeois pursuits of sitting at home watching deh telly. Consider that Munster still have all their hard away games to come this season and it already looks like they’re on the back foot. To make matters worse, the media – who we assumed would be utterly supine to the point of cheerleading Foley – have been surprisingly unsparing, with Gervais Thornley particularly critical.

Not that Leinster have been that much better. They’ve won their home games at least and both their defeats have been narrow and against teams that often beat them, but the same problems as last season have marked all their performances: in particular a lack of attacking cutting edge and a rudimentary game plan at the centre of which appears to be a desire to kick the ball to the opposition and chase it half-heartedly.

Much has been made of the lacklustre build-up to the latest round of what has come to be one of the biggest – but at times the most suffocating – derbies in the rugby calendar. The middling form of both teams hasn’t helped, and neither fanbase will be arriving feeling especially bullish. Indeed, the overriding feeling is one of fear. Leinster fans are thinking ‘If we lose to this Munster team…’ while Munster fans have come to expect defeat in the Aviva, and another loss would mearly exacerbate the sense of gloom around the team.

It doesn’t help that lots of players are injured: the derby would be so much more attractive (not to mention intense) if Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were on the pitch, among others. But they won’t be – although O’Mahony is apparently back training and Munster must be desperate to get their talisman and most talented forward back in the team. A whole heap of jerseys are up for grabs and how both sides line up, and how they play, will be the first item of fascination.

In the front row it’s advantage Leinster, with Jack McGrath making a timely return to fitness. Either Mike Ross or Marty Moore will start on the other side, and the collective should be enough to get the edge on the waning BJ Botha and David Kilcoyne. At hooker Sean Cronin has tremendous pedigree but has yet to hit the heights of last season’s stupendous form and Munster have unearthed yet another fine No.2 in Duncan Casey. In a lineout-heavy game he hit his man an impressive 20 out of 21 times against the Ospreys. He’s young and looks set to go far.

Kane Douglas has arrived and should get another hit out alongside Devin Toner. Toner’s ability to give and take a pass was one of the more impressive elements of Leinster’s win over Cardiff last Friday. We can only presume that Paul O’Connell will be partnered by Dave Foley. If Axel persists with O’Callaghan it will be a staggeringly bad pick, as the once Stakhanovite lock is now several shades of completely useless. Good partnerships both, but O’Connell gives Munster the slight edge.

In the backrow, Leinster are down three opensides, with Jennings, O’Brien and Murphy all out. Dominic Ryan should keep his place, and he’s having his longest run in the team for some time. The stratospheric expectations from 2011 have been put away but he can still become a decent squad player. Heaslip has started well, as ever, his footwork especially impressive and Rhys Ruddock is one of the revelations of the season. Always strong but not particularly dynamic, he looks to have added a deal of explosiveness over the summer and it’s helping him break tackles. A strong showing here, and he’s duking it out with POM for the green 6 shirt.

Munster will line out with CJ Stander at 6 and Copeland at 8. We’re guessing one of O’Donnell and Dougall will play at 7, with O’Mahony probably not quite ready. It’s a good unit. Stander is proving a big success and Copeland may not have the multi-faceted game of a Jamie Heaslip, but he can certainly carry ball. Both can get Munster on the front foot.  How the two contrasting No.8’s get on in direct opposition will be instructive. If O’Donnell plays, who is going to focus on the breakdown?

Come noon on friday, all eyes will be on the backlines to see if the cause-celebre 10/12s get picked. We think Madigan will – at 12 – and Hanrahan won’t. The Gopperth-Madigan-D’arcy axis had its moments on Friday and is good for another run out. McFadden and Darragh Fanning will probably stay in the team. Fanning playing in a Leinster v Munster derby – there you have it.

We’ve nailed our colours to the mast as regards Munster’s centre picks, but we’re expecting Keatley-Hurley-Smith and all that goes with it. Leinster will be happy not to face Hanrahan. Simon Zebo and van den Heever should give Munster a huge advantage out wide, so it would strike us as barmy not to include a centre who can pass a bit.  Dare we suggest that Leinster will be looking to bosh through the middle, while Munster look to move the ball wide as often as possible?

The match is unlikely to be a classic with so many big names and good players missing. But the game is timely for both sides; it has a habit of focusing minds.  Munster will surely put up a better show than they have so far. It was reassuring to see Foley talking about accuracy and execution and playing down the importance of the pishun. Nonetheless it’s hard to see an outcome other than a win for Leinster on their home turf, even if the Palindrome has lost some of its lustre for them in recent outings.  Strangely, performance could be more important than the result for both teams, or sets of fans at least.  Munster might take a loss if they at least go down swinging, while Leinster fans have been starved of quality under O’Connor and want to see some panache.

There are some signs of hand-wringing that “only” 40,000 tickets have been sold, but, to be frank, that’s about 30,000 more than the rank rugby served up so far by both sides warrants. If the improvement doesn’t happen, both provinces will go into European rugby in as glum humour as they ever have done. One can only wish RTE’s Rog-cam was re-constituted by Sky, live from Jonny’s apartment, to see the two generals who have given so much to this fixture shake their heads and go back to the foie gras and comte reduction and croissantsin order to get through the substitution-riddled, error-strewn second half.

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