Ulster had a neat win over Connacht on Friday night, built largely off their imposing pack – the Westerners scrum was demolished and the breakdown was owned by the Ulstermen. Still, they only scored three tries, and rarely managed to get their silky backs on the ball in the Connacht 22. For all their power, they still lack some fluidity, which is a mild concern when bonus points are so important in the HEC and Castres at home is such a clear candidate for one. Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson both had decent games, but neither grabbed it by the scruff of the neck to really capitalise on their pack’s dominance – Ulster look in need of a general in the halfbacks. Of course, Ruan Pienaar will be back, but he is surely going to be rested for the Castres game, and probably the Glasgae one too. Fez and Chris Henry getting up to full power will help too, with setting targets and linking play respectively. Let’s not worry just yet, but monstrous packs without domineering halves is not a recipe for silverware (see: Clermont, Northampton).
He Did the Mash. He Did the Monster Mash
As for Nick Williams, the monster-man keeps eating up the yardage. If he can stay on this level, Ulster have got themselves the signing of the year. More astute observers than ourselves pointed out we were too dismissive of him in our pre-season analysis. The only question is: can he sustain it? We’re not eating humble pie just yet but we’ve the oven at 180 and we’re rolling out the pastry.
We’ll be starting our HEC previews this week, but how did the provinces opponents do this week? Exeter will go to the RDS with a pep in their step after a bonus point 42-28 win over Premiership champions Quins. Connacht’s opponents Zebre lost (again), this time at home to the Ospreys – they have yet to win a game in their new incarnation, but there is no doubt they will be targeting Connacht. Result of the week in France was Castres win over Clermont – but the perennial HEC bunnies were at home and playing domestically – lets see how many of that XV line up in Ravers on Friday night. Fellow bosh-merchants, and Ligind hosts Racing Metro lost at home to best-of-the-rest Montpellier on Saturday – they’ll be looking to grind Munster into the dirt up front, and tot up points in 3s.
We hate to come over all Gerry, but the standard of refereeing the 2 inter-pros left a lot to be desired – first uber-pedant Clancy on Friday night, then some laughable ineptitude from the Aviva officials on Saturday. Two incidents in particular rankled:
- Just prior to Ulster’s penalty try, Clancy binned Dave Gannon for collapsing a maul. Ulster motored over in the next phase (roughly concurrent to Clancy blowing the whistle, but before Connacht had stopped playing), so had he played advantage they would have scored. The penalty try rule says this: “A penalty try is awarded if a try would probably have been scored but for foul play by the defending team.” – given that the probability of Ulster scoring a try was 100% (they did get over), why didn’t Clancy give one? They (inevitably) got one a few phases later, but that is not the point,
- Conor Murray sniped round the side of a pile of forwards and dotted down effortlessly right under the nose of the touchjudge. Literally, right under his nose. So why did he need to go upstairs? It’s bad enough when pushover tries don’t get given because the referee abdicates responsibility to a man who simply cannot see a grounding, but sending such obvious incidents upstairs is just incompetent – make the decisions you get paid for, guys.
Note: the Pro12 still operates under the old rules, so the ref could not have gone upstairs for the later Laulala no-try – it would probably the wrong call, but that’s just plain old bad call as opposed to megalomania/incompetence.
[Aside: to the Premiership] Ooooooooooooooooohhh
After the Ulster game on Friday night, we switched to Sky to watch the last 20 minutes of Sale-Leicester. Holy Lord, how bad are the Sharks? And what is Richie Grey doing there? The standard of rugby was terrible, and we saw pretty much every type of unforced error from the Northerners in an embarrassingly short spell. Leicester dealt with them with ease, and will be pleased to have such an easy lead-in to another shocker of a HEC pool.
McFadden and Earls – Ireland’s next centre partnership?
Saturday night’s entertaining derby match was enlivened by two strong performances from Ireland’s in-waiting centre partnership. McFadden had perhaps his best game for Leinster, looking a more rounded player than ever before. We all know he’s a dervish in contact and quick once he gets going, but his distribution looked a notch up from its usual fair-to-middling standard. He’s likely to be shifted to the wing next week, given Leinster’s injury crisis in the outside back division and the impending return of Gordon D’arcy, but this showing at 12 will have been noted by his coaches.
In Paul O’Connell’s absence, Keith Earls has become Munster’s best player. Always a lethal runner, he has added excellent passing to his reportoire and now looks at home in the 13 channel. Munster’s best chance of progressing from the pool is to try and get him and Simon Zebo on the ball as often as they can. To be fair, it looks like that’s how Penney has them set up, albeit with a kicking fly-half. Which bring us along to…
Penney’s Out Half Conundrum
For the second week in a row, Munster looked more threatening once Rog was replaced by Ian Keatley. Keatley’s the man in form and looks more geared to play the Penney way, playing as he does, flat on the gainline. Penney should have started him against Leinster. If he is to pit Keatley into action from the start in next week’s increasingly significant looking game against Racing Metro, he does so without any previous exposure to high intensity rugby. This was the ideal opportunity to give him the chance to audition for the shirt. We expect ROG to line out against Racing, the old head for the sleeves-rolled-up away assignment. Keatley’s first Heiny Cup start could come the following week, in the more forgiving environs of a home game against Edinburgh.
After Munster’s excellent start to the Pro12, some of our more excitable followers posited that the transition had happened in Rob Penney’s two-week pre-season. Sadly, that has been exposed for the wishful thinking it was. With only Paul O’Connell to return (who is admittedly huge, but not a miracle worker), their pack is looking unfit for the purpose of getting their electric backs on the ball.
Dave Kilcoyne might be able to carry, but in the tight he is a wet blanket. Peter O’Mahony simply does not yet have the ball-carrying skills for an 8, and (as we suggested it would) the hype of last year has done him a disservice – a hard year’s work nailing down a shirt (probably 6) and learning his trade is required. Donnacha Ryan is an able worker, but no sort of replacement for POC – he hasn’t yet got to the stage where he can drag a team on his own will. There is a lot of work to be done, and its a multi-year job. They’re on the right track for sure, but patience is still the order of the day.