Magners League – School’s Out for Summer

Munster: A Performs consistently in his local school, where there are no bigger French and English boys to bully him. Always gets homework done and usually to a good standard, though discipline could be better. Ended up deservedly top of the class.
Leinster: A- In recent years this pupil has excelled at the sciences, but struggled in the more creative subjects. That has been remedied this year, with top marks being achieved across a range of subjects. The exchange trip abroad came at an unfortunate time, and could have won top prize but for concentrating on it.
Ulster: B+ Much improved student who has finally learned to complete assignments. Has done very well out of South African exchange programme, as well as showing plenty of youthful promise back home. Still struggles on the really tricky exams though.
Ospreys: F A most frustrating student. Gets the best of everything at home, but really must try harder next year. Results simply not good enough considering his talent. Losing several of his best study aids next year, and will have to go back to the drawing board.
Scarlets: B+ Hard work has paid off for this pupil. A few years ago, problems at home meant expensive study aids needed to be ditched. The virtues of a more home-spun revision technique have been found, and this pupil is the pride of the Art department.
Cardiff: D Did well in the lesser known cultural exchange last year and was expected to use this to boost grades. This hasn’t materialised, and the application of this student consistently disappoints. Must decide if he is serious about taking exams – can seem disinterested.
Dragons: C+ A dull and unfashionable boy, but works hard. Unlucky not to get picked for European trip next year, as he finished higher than many of the boys going.
Connacht: B- Perenially bottom of the table, this student has been mooted for transfer more than once. Knuckled down well this year, refusing to be distracted by extra-curricular activities, and achieved accordingly. The suspicion remains that a more solid foundation at home is needed to go further.
Treviso: B+ This pupil was transferred from a much less prestigious school and was expected to struggle. However, we have been pleasantly surprised at his performance, especially the work on the basics. A naturally friendly character, this student has fitted in very well, and given a new colour to the school – which could get rather dull in the winter.
Edinburgh: C- Weak-willed boy who really ought to find a new, smaller school. Attendance record abysmal, and results not much better. Oddly, Dutch is his favourite subject.
Glasgow: D It can be a struggle to engage this student. Seemed to have finally settled in last year, but reverted to bad old habits this year, although his parents banning him from using his textbooks for the exams was not conducive to good grades.
Aironi: C- New boy who took a long time to settle in, and was generally a laughing stock early on. Improved in second term, at least fighting back a little, and well-positioned to do better next year.

John Hayes, Your Country Needs You!

As the season rumbled to a close, Whiff of Cordite managed the miracle of being in two places at one time (well, there are two of us I suppose) to get a view of all the action. Some things we noticed:

Munster deserved the Cup. They have struggled on the big occasion this season, but their consistency in the league is admirable. They played the final with an intensity Leinster couldn’t dredge up after their heroics last week. McGahan deserves some credit for switching his selecion policy mid-season to putting faith in youth, and a number of gems have been unearthed. Top of the class is Conor Murray, who, it could be argued, should not only travel to New Zealand, but be Ireland’s starting 9.

John Hayes is going to the World Cup. Munster’s scrum has improved beyond all recognition in the last couple of months, and the big Bruff man has surely seen off the non-challenge of Tony Buckley for a spot on the RWC plane. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the somewhat rejuventaed Marcus Horan could join him – swallow dive and off-the-ball hit notwithstanding.

The Flying Fattie still has it. Rupeni Caucaunibuca is one player we really hope to see in the World Cup. Spare tyre or otherwise, the sight of this huge man running the length of the pitch in the final moments of Toulouse’s semi-final win was surely the moment of the weekend. A shout-out to rugby genius Maxime Medard is also in order.

Thank heavens for Schalk Brits. Amid the Premiership drudge-fests at least there’s Schalk to keep up the fun-quotient. Saracens’ ridiculously dynamic hooker put in a man-of-the-match performance to swing an otherwise drab final for his side. He lit the place up, and his try-saving tackle on Alesana Tuilagi was the stuff of greatenss. South Africa are missing a trick if both he and Richardt Strauss are sitting at home this September, as is likely.

As for Montpellier‘s fairytale adventure, we’ll be having a closer look at just how the second-favourites for relegation at the start of the season have found themselves in the Top 14 Final a little later in the week.

Magners Playoffs: Not Quite Top 14

The playoffs (and Treviso) have rescued the Magners League this season. They have prolonged a dull and stratified league season that would have been finished by April, but there is still a strange sense of bathos surrounding the whole concept. Last year’s final at the RDS was a soulless affair, as the organisers employed London PR gurus to strip the heart out of the RDS in an effort to ‘neutralise’ the venue and the match. So there were no D4TRESS posters, no Leo the Lion, an English announcer and a lame attempt at razzle-dazzle before kick off. In the end, Ospreys deservedly ran off with the cup, but the occasion was flat and lifeless.
This year, semi-final attendances were disappointing – Leinster and Munster season ticket holders baulked at the notion of having to fork out for another match that was not included in the original package, both content to wait for the final they seemed certain to reach.
Well, reach it they did, and Magners have got their wish, a Munster v Leinster final and a shot at redemption for the organisers. This one has sold out, of course, and Leinster winning the HEC means it couldn’t be any better set up. Let’s just hope the league have learned from last year and let Munster put on their impressive pre-match palaver – giant stags, Stand up and Fight and all that. Early indications aren’t good though – Leinster won’t be subjected to the usual wait on their own for a good two minutes before the Munster team come out – the teams will emerge from the tunnel together.
No such trouble in the Premiership where the playoffs are well established. Twickenham is all but sold out for the Premiership final, a repeat of last year’s classic. The only quirk is that Sky don’t have the rights to the final. Only ESPN subscribers will be able to tune in. No Barnesy assuring Miles and us all that it’s a classic as Owen Farrell thwacks the leather off the ball for the 715th time? What’s the point in even watching?!
And the Top 14 remains the most exciting and glamorous competition at the business end of the season. In an inspired move, both semi-finals are being brought to the 60,000 seat Stade Velodrome in Marseille, the spiritual home of French rugby.
Friday night’s contest between Toulouse and Clermont should be the game of the weekend. The match-up between two hugely physical packs will be wince-inducing, but let’s hope there’s at least some space out there amid the fatties for the likes of Medard, Clerc and Malzieu to flaunt their genius. Then on Saturday, we will find out if the magic Montpellier roundabout will roll on, or if Racing Metro can advance to what they see as their rightful place in the Top 14 final.

Crazy coaching

So, Sarries are basing their scrum-half selection for the Premiership final on a coin-toss. Professional. It all got Whiff of Cordite thinking – what other moments when coaches lost their minds can we recall?
  1. In the opening game of the 2009 6 Nations, Nick Mallet picked openside flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum half against England. Not Mallett’s finest hour, it must be said. Frankly crazy, didn’t work, and unfair on a great player.
  2. Lesley Vainikolo. After just 9 games of union and 6 tries (5 of them against Leeds), the Sunday Times unleashed a double page spread by the reliably lunatic Stephen Jones (Headline: “Next Big Thing”). Sure enough, he was railroaded into the England team. Toe-curlingly awful – he could barely catch or pass and seemed unfamiliar with the rules.
  3. Clive Woodward on NZ Lions tour 05 – Woodward went a bit mad on the Lions tour, recruiting Alistair Campbell, posting Power of Four wristbands to the players and, of course, picking the entire England team of ’03. And Charlie Hodgson.
  4. Ceri Sweeney overlooked for Gav Henson on the Welsh bench at Lansdowne Road in 2006. Cue Stephen Jones injury, while playing beautifully, and a man who could barely run a club game from 10. Dire.
  5. We were going to laugh at the time Lievremont picked Sea-bass Chabal at 7, but we thought we had better broaden it to any time Lievremont picked Chabal. Or is it the sponsors picking him?
  6. Remember RWC11, when Uncle Deccie brought John Hayes? Utterly unfair on the man, he got caned against Russia. A sad way for a great career to end.

What other coaching lunacy have we missed?

Caption Competition

We’ll start:


“I’ll throw in my medal if you give me the sunglasses AND the scarf”



HEC Team of the Season

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we? Here’s our Heineken Cup XV of the season.

If Leinster dominate the selections, then it’s probably no surprise. Toulouse lacked a little of their usual pizazz, Perpignan ran out of juice in the semi-final and Munster weren’t their usual selves. Leinster overcame the toughest group with a game to spare, securing a home QF in the process, beat two heavyweights in the knockouts, before winning in memorable style in the final against a hard-nosed Northampton team.

15 Isa Nacewa (Leinster) – The key to Leinster’s counter-attacking game. Not the quickest full back but is a visionary player in how he exploits the space in front of him. Try against Leicester was unforgettable.
Honourable mention: Ben Foden (Northampton).

14 Shane Horgan (Leinster) – No longer in demand at international level, but Shaggy had his best season in years for Leinster. Ability at restarts particularly impressive.
Honourable mention: Morgan Stoddart (Scarlets), Andrew Trimble (Ulster).
Dishonourable mention: Matt “4 tries against Aironi” Banahan (Oooooooooohhh Bath) – what were Planet Rugby thinking?

13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster) – Few things left to say about the great one at this stage, but his ability to come up with the goods when his team needs it are unparalleled. Witness match-winning try against Toulouse.
Honourable mention: Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)

12 Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse) – Dismissed by Matty Williams as a poor selection for Toulouse’s visit to the palindrome (and of course by Lievremont for RWC11), he proved the doubters wrong. Can be flakey, but has magic in his hands and feet.
Honourable mention: Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan), Ooooooooooohhh James Downey (Northampton)

11. Alesana Tuilagi (Leicester) – Oooooooooooooh, that’s a whole lot of Tuilagi. Rescued Leicester when they alsmost lost to Treviso in the opening round, and should have scored when he flattened BOD in Lansdowne Road.
Honourable mention: Vincent Clerc (Toulouse)

10. Jonny Sexton (Leinster) – Haul of five tries and phenomenal kicking percentage was one thing; that performance in the final was another. Looks a player set for the world stage.
Honourable mention: Ian Humphries (Ulster), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)

9. Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) – A classy footballer who brought a winning mentality to Ulster. Distinctly un-South African in that he can pass and run as well as boot the ball into the air.
Honourable mention: Lee Dickson (Northampton), Dmitri Yachvili (Biarritz)

1. Soane Tonga’uiha (Northampton) – Raw power helped the Northampton scrum become one of the most feared in the competition. His first half in the final was simply astonishing.
Honourable mention: Perry Freshwater (Perpignan)

2. Richardt Strauss (Leinster) – His throwing and scrummaging were good enough to get in, but his open field play secured the position – how many times was he right on the shoulder of the ball carrier?
Honourable mention: William Servat (Toulouse), Dylan Hartley (Northampton)

3. Mike Ross (Leinster) – Europe’s premier tight-head right now, his intelligence and tactical nous put him a class apart. Hard to believe that he (or Strauss) couldn’t get a game last year.
Honourable mention: Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), Brian Mujati (Northampton)

4. Courtney Lawes (Northampton) – Phenomenally athletic young lock who packs a serious punch. His patrolling of the ruck against Ulster got Northampton out of a sticky patch.
Honourable mention: Leo Cullen (Leinster)

5. Nathan Hines (Leinster) – Absolutely everywhere this seaseon. Line-outs, rucking, carrying ball, and scoring in the final. Knits the Leinster team together.
Honourable mention: Jerome Thion (Toulouse)

6. Sean O’Brien (Leinster) – Man of the match 3 times in the group stages and his barrelling ball carrying ensured Leinster had go-forward ball all-season. The 40 metre run in the final with defenders hanging off him will live long in the memory.
Honourable mention: Tom Wood (Northampton)

7. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse) – Classy operator who appears to make a tackle every 2 minutes. Toulouse’s leader, he chipped in with 4 tries.
Honourable mention: Phil Dowson (Northampton)

8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster) – Gets the nod for his latter performances after a patchy and injury-affected group stage.The stand out player in the knock-out stages.
Honourable mention: Joe van Niekerk (Toulon), Roger Wilson (Northampton)

And finally, a nod to our top 3 players in the Amlin Vase, or whatever its called. He might be regarded by some as an honest journeyman, but the performances of Chris Robshaw in the knock-out stages, especially at Thomond Park, were of the highest quality. We also doff our caps to Nick Evans and Sergio Parisse – class is permanent in both cases.

Notes from a Small Country

With one half of Whiff of Cordite manfully running the show from home, the other was on a crucial research trip in Cardiff, Bristol and (ooooooooooohhh!) Bath this weekend. The following memo details our findings:

1. The Millenium Stadium is unmatched in Europe. The palindrome has the best location, Stade de France the most appealing design, Twickenham has front-lawn barbeques en route to the ground, but The Millenium tops the lot. Ear-shreddingly loud, right in the centre of town, and so steep-sided that there is not a bad seat in the house – this was one ground we’ll never forget.
2. Jonny will be the Lions test out half in 2013. How much can be attributed to his half-time speech we can never be sure, but one thing’s for sure: Jonny was wired. He had the look of a man who wasn’t going to accept defeat. It was reminiscent of a certain fly half from Cork…
3. It was the greatest Heineken Cup Final ever. Leicester v Stade and Wasps v Toulouse are generally held up as the classics, but this surely topped the lot. It was one of those exceptional occasions where sport takes on the realm of theatre, with the players’ emotions writ large on their faces. Let it not be forgotten that Northampton played a huge part.
4. The Heineken Cup final is the party of the year. Northampton and Leinster fans travelled en masse, of course, but they weren’t the only colours represented. Whether it was La Marseillaise booming out of an Irish pub, or Les Toulousaines passing people over their heads on the train, this was a party with a very international flavour.
5. It was sweeter than 2009. If most Leinster fans are honest, the semi-final victory over Munster felt more significant than winning the Cup that year. Leinster’s form in that competition was patchy to say the least; but this year, they were the best team in the tournament from the first moment to the last. Even their only defeat, away to Clermont, was a great performance.
6. We heart Bath. Whiff of Cordite has always been bemused by the venorated treatment of Bath Rugby, but having visited yesterday, we are card-carrying fanclub members of this magnificent town, which deserves a team to match it. Amazing Roman ruins, beautiful limestone buildings, natural hot springs and one of the great old Englsih rugby grounds. We can see ourselves quite happy there, in fact: Saturday afternoons at the Rec with Barnesy, stretching out in the Thermae Bath Spa steam rooms with Barnesy, Sunday lunch in the Pump Room with Barnesy…

Post-coital Bliss

Although Whiff of Cordite is physically split between Dublin and (Ooooh) Bath, one day out from THE game, we are of one mind on our musings:

The half-time turnaround is obviously the key – what happened? We think Dylan Hartley’s injury had a huge effect on the Northampton team. We can envisage a half-time dressing room of few words and few stepping forward to plan a close-out of a match all-but-won as Hartley received treatment. This is in contrast to the Leinster dressing room, where BOD himself alluded to the leadership being shown by Jonny Sexton, no doubt in addition to O’Driscoll himself, plus Cullen, Heaslip, Horgan and Reddan, amongst others. The Saints looked unsure of themselves from from the start of the second half.

As soon as Leinster got the first score, you got a sense the tide had turned irrevocably. From the 41st minute on, it was the Saints who were falling off tackles, whose set-piece was crumbling, and with none of the bloody resistance that had done for Ulster. Perhaps the inevitability was felt by the Northampton players as well – they themselves were on the other end of an eerily similar game just 2 weeks ago – how the Leeds players must have felt is an interesting question.

The Leinster selection was wrong. All year, Joe has picked on form, not reputation, and has reaped the benefits, building a much deeper squad throughout the season. Fitzgerald was again poor yesterday, falling off several tackles (notably against Foden in the 67th minute) and not showing much in attack – McFadden should have started. The McLaughlin/Jennings call was more marginal, and form was less of a factor – but with Jennings in place, the back-row looked much better balanced. Also, Locky’s first-half scrummaging was poor – Mike Ross will not have been amused with his detachment. In the second half, the Leinster 8 got the shove on straight away, helped by everyone muscling in.

Whiff Of Cordite had a huge amount of respect for Northampton as a club and a team before this game, and has even more after it. The daring nature of the Northampton gameplan was uber-refreshing, and the team literally gave it all. The post-match actions of the team, led by captain and coach, of staying on the field for as long as Leinster did showed huge respect, and will hopefully give these guys the hunger to scale the peak themselves. The experience of yesterday will stand to this team, and we suspect there will be many more titanic battles between these 2 sides in the near future.

And finally, the referee was excellent. Romain Poite has received a fair degree of heat from the Irish media, but Whiff of Cordite has only praise for his display. The stronger team in the scrum was consistently rewarded with penalties, and his positioning for the Dorce non-try was perfect, as was his reversion upstairs just in case. One very slght caveat – Barnesy made an argument in commentary for a possible penalty try for a bat-down with 3 outside during the advantage being played for Dowson’s yellow, but he went back for the original offence. Maybe WoC’s hero in Tara Street will give him the, eh, credit he is due.

All roads lead to Cardiff

As Palla Ovale is busy collecting 4-leaf clovers, rabbits feet, horseshoes and wishbones for Cardiff tomorrow, I will take it upon myself to educate him a little on the finer points of the big match, though not in the usual Northampton-have-a-good-scrum-and-don’t-kick-to-Nacewa way.

Northampton
Strengths: Yes, the Saints have a good scrum. Yes, their rucking is controlled and brutally effective mayhem. But why? We think it is down to their phenonemal team spirit and togetherness. Let’s be honest, man for man, the Saints aren’t actually that good (even the Ospreys might trump them on that card), but the collective supremely maximises their resources. Previously unheralded players like Dowson, Dickson, Wilson and Downey are all now key cogs in the machine. Their never-say-die attitude is hugely admirable, most obviously in the quarter-final, when Ulster went in at half-time confident they could close out the game with a bit to spare, but were smashed apart in the second half. Dylan Hartley has matured into a real leader with Johnno-esque qualities, and, but for his accent, would be a potential Lions captain in 2013. For sheer bloody-mindedness and determination, few better Northampton.

Weaknesses: This one is a bit more easy. In a powder-puff pool consisting of Castres, Edinburgh and Cardiff, the Saints only scored 16 tries; the same as the Scarlets, who finished 3rd in a pool with Leicester, Perpignan and Treviso; and 1 less than Munster, whose campaign was nothing short of disastrous. In last weeks Premiership semi-final, the Saints never looked likely to score a try. If your close-in defence holds firm and you track the runs of their dangerous back 3, you can be relatively confident of holding them out. If the scrum/ruck penalties do not accumulate for Northampton, how are they going to score enough points to win?

Leinster


Strengths: If you consider the 10 teams dispatched by Leinster and Northampton so far, there is a pretty coherent argument that the best 5 have all been beaten by Leinster. Toulouse, Leicester, Clermont and Racing Metro are most defintely the best 4 sides of the 10, and the next is a toss-up between Sarries, Ulster and Perpignan. Looking at this on a more granular level, Northampton’s toughest game was against Ulster, who Leinster routinely whack and bag without getting out of third gear. Northampton will need to play better than they have to date against a side far better than anyone they have met to date in order to win. Its a seriously tall order.

Weaknesses: Leinster have huge trust in their defensive system, possibly sometimes too much. In the 2 HEC knock-out games to date, both were still in the melting pot after 80 minutes, despite Leinster being the better side in both cases. Ditto against Ulster in the Magners semi-final, Leinster were not out of sight until Fitzy snuck in with a few minutes to go. Some day, they will be soaking up pressure, buckle, and find themselves with too much to do and not enough time to do it.

There is only one person in the world who could convey how excited we are, so lets leave the final word to Barnesy:

“Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhh”

Decisions, decisions…

The injuries situation at Leinster is causing Whiff of Cordite a few butterflies this week. Having rotated the squad so well all season, and having everyone fit and fighting for the final push for silverware, the last thing Joe Schmidt needed was to see His Bodness and Strauss, for whom we have no experienced replacement, go down injured against Ulster. The good news is that Strauss is passed fit, while they’ll wait until the last minute on BOD. Expect him to start. Happily for Joe, he has a few positive selection dilemmas to mull over before friday’s team announcment. Here’s a look at the tight calls and how we see them going.

Loosehead Prop: Cian Healy vs Heinke van der Merwe

The thinking goes that van der Merwe is the stronger scrummaging prop, and after his phenomenal half hour against Toulouse, could be the better option to nullify the scrum, generally accepted to be Northampton’s strongest weapon. That said, witness Daan Human’s comments regarding Healy’s improvement at the coalface. We expect Healy’s dynamism around the park to swing it for him.

Verdict: Healy to start, vd Merwe to finish

Back row: Kevin McLaughlin vs Shane Jennings

Arguably the toughest call of the lot, and one that rather depends on where Joe decides to fight his battles. Locky gives a tail lineout option and is a hard, abrasive player, whereas Jennings does his best work on the ground and is a key leader, especially in defence. We feel the backrow is more balanced with Jenno in the team, and his presence allows the Tullow Tank to cut loose with ball in hand. A sub-plot is that Northampton’s own lineout-tail backrow, Tom Wood, is out, but it’s hard to know which player’s cause that helps.

Verdict: Almost too tough to call, but Jenno may just get the call.

Scrum Half: Eoin Reddan vs Isaac Boss

Two curates eggs go head-to-head for the 9 jumper. Joe has tended to use Reddan at home and Boss away. So what about a neutral ground? Reddan remains frustratingly inconsistent, and played poorly against Toulouse, but looked sharp when he came on against Ulster. Boss’ physicality has given Leinster a great option, but we expect Reddan’s zippier pass (when he’s on song!) to get him the nod. Boss is also carrying a niggle, which may just tip the scales in Reddan’s favour.

Verdict: Reddan to start, but Boss to play at least 20 if fit

Left wing: Luke Fitzgerald vs Fergus McFadden

Another tough call. Luke is still nowhere near his best, and his performance against Ulster was headed for 3/10 until his superb try reminded us of what he can do. Fergus, on the other hand, appears to be willing to run through walls to show Joe he deserves to be a starter. Phenomenal in contact and showing plenty of gas, not to mention his place kicking, he is looking increasingly hard to leave out. However, Fitz remains the greater gambreaking threat and we suspect Joe may persevere with him one more time in the hope that he eventually comes right.

Verdict: Fitz to get the nod, but can consider himself a fortunate starter

The team will be announced at noon on friday. In Joe we trust.