Keep your eye on: Mike Ross, scrum nerd, being substituted

Thankfully, Whiff of Cordite has never been involved in the business end of a scrum, preferring instead to stand far away and not think too much about it. Luckily, we have located a total geek who knows a hell of a lot about the coalface. Step forward … Mike Ross:

“It’s basic physics at the end of the day and the focus is on the pack as a whole. I know it’s difficult in terms of their (backrow) defensive duties but speaking as a frontrow, it makes a huge difference if you have them staying down and giving that weight until the scrum finishes. A lot of teams will wait for the opposing backrow to stand up and they will come again; once they have you moving it is too late to come back from that.”

Impressive. Ross was renowned at Quins for spending huge amounts of time studying the opposition front row, and he has taken that approach with him to Leinster and Ireland. The proof of this pudding can often be seen in the eating – the early destruction of the English scrum at the Palindrome a case in point (about which more anon).

What we here at WoC find extremely interesting is how he gleans information on the opposing front row and passes it on to his replacement when he gets substituted. We first noticed this during the 6 Nations – instead of seeing the familiar sight of the Bull trundling off and Mushy trundling on, passing with a low 5, we saw Rosser stop Tom Court and talk to him for 30 seconds, replete with actions. A once-off? Why nay, didn’t he do the same thing with Stan Wright in the Toulouse match! Plus it seemed like Wright was listening (unlike Court) – as well he should. And last week, he more or less demonstrated Court’s technique on the Dog Barbecuer 30 minutes into the Ulster game.

We salute Mike Ross, scrum nerd, and leave the last word to him:

“I didn’t sleep well that night or for a couple of days afterwards. Before that I don’t think I gave away a penalty try in eight years. I was fairly raging afterwards.”

Will they never learn?

Danny Cipriani’s latest antics for the Melbourne Rebels saw him left behind for their trip to South Africa for two Super 15 games. It seems that both his management and teammates at the Australian franchise have already lost faith in him, just halfway through his first season down under. The story comes hot on the heels of two of rugby’s other serial morons getting in a spot of bother: step forward Gavin ‘Agent Orange’ Henson at Toulon and Andy ‘Golf Cart’ Powell, at Wasps (he will be at Sale next season).

The story made us wonder if for certain personalities the lessons of times past can simply never be learned. For most Level II Morons, the penny eventually drops, usually resulting in a lifetime of full-page newspaper articles on the theme of growing up, harsh lessons learned and so forth. But for Cippers, Gav and Andy it appears that no matter how many wise old sages attempt to beat some sense in to them, they are destined to be remembered for their misdemeanours rather than their sporting achievements. The time is surely beckoning, even for the immensely gifted Cipriani (whatever about the ‘talents’ of the other two), where professional clubs will decide that the gamble of hiring their services simply isn’t worth it.

Going backwards

Last week we handed out our Team FAIL gongs. Now, we present the Individual awards. Step forward the weak-willed, the constantly injured, the thuggish and the just plain useless.

On a fairly disastrous Irish tour to NZ and Australia last June, Ed O’Donoghue played against the Barbarians and NZ Maori and acquited himself well. Ed was coming off a good season for Ulster and had secured a move to Leinster. However, in a season where Leinster’s second row was beginning to creak with Trevor Hogan retiring, Devin Toner not really stepping up and Leo Cullen not getting any younger, Ed disappeared. Completely. He isn’t even listed in the programmes any more.

To be truthful, Delon Armitage never totally endeared himself to Whiff of Cordite, with his ridiculous chest thumping and 2009 “tackle” on BOD. This season, however, having lost his hold on the England 15 shirt, we expected him to put the head down. However, he has turned into a poor mans John Terry – when not screaming at officials, he was punching Stephen Myler off the ball. Whatever happened to professionalism?

Whiff of Cordite was at Croke Park in March 2010, fully expecting an(other) Irish Triple Crown to be wrapped up with victory against Scotland. Especially when we scanned the Irish back row and saw the names Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip. But the best back row forward on the pitch that day was John Barclay, and he ended last season as the front-runner for the Lions openside shirt. This season, the expected kick on has not happened. Showing minimal leadership qualities for an underperforming side that desperately needed them, Barclay checked out mid-way through the 6 Nations.

Speaking of Scotland players who seem to have given up, what about Euan Murray? As sanctimonious as ever, Euan’s performance in the 6 Nations was nothing short of embarrassing. Never mind his powder-puff propping, his lack of responsibility and poor attitude saw him ditched mid-way through the tournament by an exasperated Andy Robinson. Another Lions front-runner this time last season, he would struggle to make the plane right now.

On the topic of stroppy tight-heads, Tony Buckley also seems to have thrown in the towel. Back in October, with John Hayes on the verge of actual retirement (as opposed to retirement from scrummaging), Mike Ross not even on the radar and Tom Court playing primarily at loosehead, the Ireland tighthead shirt was Mushy’s for 3 years if he made even the slightest effort at fitness and application. Nine months later, his place on the RWC11 plane is uncertain and he is on his way to a flailing Sale Sharks side. With Andy Powell. And Sam Tuitupou.

Rocky Elsom arrived in the Northern Hemisphere in November on the back of leading a pretty successful Tri-Nations for Australia and a Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup ambushing of NZ. He departed, having decided abusing the touch judge was the best way to rally his weak-scrummaging troops in Italy, as one of the leading men in a Brumbies side expected to challenge for the Super Rugby playoffs. Player power then struck 3 games into the season with Andy Friend departing amid rumours the senior players wanted Stephen Larkham installed. Since then, Rocky has mystifyingly yet to tog out, the Brumbies sink to new lows virtually every week, and the Australian fans don’t want him in the team.

Oh, and has Mike Phillips been on strike recently? After walking out on his 3 year Ospreys contract? The Ospreys have got a lot of heat from WoC recently, but we are on their side on this one.

Sweet Sixteen

The Ospreys were given 400 tickets by Munster for the ML semi-final, and shifted …. 16 (Videprinter: SIXTEEN). The number itself doesn’t need any comment, but the reasons behind it do. Is this what regional Welsh rugby has become? That the best team (statistically that is, the Scarlets are the best team in reality) can attract less spectators than players for their most important game this season? Although, having seen the fayre dished up, perhaps the other 384 were the smart ones.

Down where the weather is nice, the Lions, led by the impressive young Elton Jantjes, broke a 16-year winless run in Australia with a storming win over the rudderless Brumbies, the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to the Ospreys. The same day, the Cheetahs beat the Crusaders to win their 3rd Super Rugby game in a row for the first time ever (ever!). SARU have promised that the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings will get a Super Rugby franchise for 2013, and its likely to be the Lions or Cheetahs making way – wouldn’t it be great if last year’s bottom two turned into front runners next year, and gave SARU a headache?

Le jenue de BOD

Well, we had a marvellous post full of pre-match jousting between the Leinsterman and the Ulsterman that make up Whiff of Cordite, but technical gremlins (i.e. Blogger breaking down for 24 hours) wouldn’t allow us to put it up.

Never mind, in the end Leinster ran out comfortable 18-3 winners, content to play out the second half with most of the bench emptied. In truth Ulster never really fired a shot, and Leinster were far more threatening thoughout, with Jamie Heaslip and Fergus McFadden outstanding.

Whether the use of the bench was by design or not we’re not quite sure, and none of Mike Ross, Richardt Strauss or Brian O’Driscoll looked particularly comfortable leaving the pitch. Joe Schmidt appeared most concerned about BOD’s knee, but expects the rest to be fine, though an anxious wait lies in store.

Leinster in the HEC without BOD is an unthinkably awful scenario, and here at Whiff of Cordite our lady friends have kindly offered to rub BOD’s knee all week if required.

Spence’s timing spot on

Our hero and inspiration Gerry Thornley was in fine form on Newsnight’s Off The Ball on Wednesday night. Like so many of us, it seems he is a big fan of Ulster’s exciting new centre Nevin Spence. Indeed, Spence has had a breakthrough season this year, and his performances have seen him pencilled onto our World Cup Bolter list.

But what Gerry was most impressed with was Spence’s timing. No, not in running onto the ball, but of his birth. ‘He’s timed his career perfectly’, Gerry told us.

So, we here at Whiff of Cordite would like to give a shout-out to Mr and Mrs Spence for having the canny foresight to give birth to the next great Irish centre just as Drico and Dorce’s careers are coming to an end. Kudos!

Don’t walk away Ruan-nee

Rumours are circulating that Ruan Pienaar, Ulster’s favourite of their many South African sons, will be heading back home with a view to playing out-half in the World Cup (and presumably the Tri-Nations as well). It seems there’s a bit of a crisis at 10 for the Bokke, as management have finally realised that being an international playmaker requires more than simply kicking the ball really high into the air, which is bad news for Morne Steyn.

If the rumours are true, we’ll be pretty upset here at Cordite Towers. Pienaar’s canny game management and slick distribution have helped spark a young Ulster backline, and his last-minute match-winning penalties have propelled his team to the Magners League playoffs. Indeed, he was honoured with the ML Player of the Year Award this week.

But we can see why chief headbanger Pieter de Villiers would have his beady eye on Pienaar, because none of the alternatives are really braai-ing our biltong. We would think about throwing in Patrick Lambie, a young player of huge quality, but it is maybe a year too early, and PdV is not known for his enterprising selections. Peter Grant is having huge difficulty sparking the Stormers stellar backline (de Villiers-Fourie-Habana) into action, and the less said about the Naas Olivier’s of this world the better.

Don’t break our hearts Ruan, and give us another year.

Keep your eye on: the Premiership play-offs

Here at Whiff of Cordite, we are self-proclaimed (and proud) rugby nerds. And in addition to Red Dwarf and Cheesy Wotsits, nerds love numbers. So let us look at the Premiership play-offs by numbers:

Leicester vs Northampton

The last 3 regular season games between the sides at Welford Road have had remarkably similar scorelines:
2010-11 Leicester 27-16 Northampton
2009-10 Leicester 29-15 Northampton
2008-09 Leicester 29-19 Northampton

The Tigers home record this season is daunting, with 9 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. The visitors have a respectable away record, winning 6 and losing 5 of their 11 games on the road.

Leicester have made the play-offs every year for the last 5 years … and won every time, with 4 of those victories coming at home. The Saints have been here once before, losing last year to Saracens (at home).

Saracens vs Gloucester

Saracens have won the last 2 regular season games at home against Gloucester (including a win just 3 weeks ago), but Gloucester have recent experience of a victorious trip to Watford:
2010-11 Saracens 35-12 Gloucester
2009-10 Saracens 19-16 Gloucester
2008-09 Saracens 21-25 Gloucester

Saracens have the best home record in the league this year, winning 10 matches and losing just 1. Gloucester, on the other hand, have the poorest away record of any of the semi-finalists, winning just 3 games on the road this season.

Both sides have won 1 and lost 1 of their 2 play-off semi-final appearances in last 5 seasons. Gloucester’s victory came against Saracens at Kingsholm in 2007 on a scoreline of …. 50-9!

Top of the Flops

All the silverware is still up for grabs, but for a bunch of teams, the season is already at an end. No shame in the performances of the likes of Treviso, who achieved their aim of respect at home in the Magners, or Exeter, who stayed well clear of relegation in the Premiership, but a bunch of teams will be taking home a sorry looking report card to their parents…

Glasgow Warriors
11th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Having been fired to third in last season’s ML by Dan Parks’ boot and the exuberant Killer B’s, this was a depressing reversion to type. Thom Evans was badly missed, Kelly Brown left for Saracens, and injuries hampered the campaign. Little wonder Max Evans is off to Castres. The misery was compounded by Andy Robinson withdrawing several key players, including Richie Gray, from the last few rounds of the ML.

Ospreys
4th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Whiff of Cordite has a confession to make. Following last season’s finale when Ospreys won in Thomond Park and clinched the title in the RDS, we erroneously thought Ospreys had located their cojones and would pose a significant threat in Europe this year. How wrong could we be? Weak-willed and negative in Europe, they blew their chance against a desperately out of sorts London Irish. In the ML, they were no better, but somehow fell over the line into fourth in spite of looking like they don’t really care. Never mind, Munster will beat them. Decline could be permanent, with Mike Philipps, Lee Byrne, James Hook and Jerry Collins off to pastures new. How long until Bowe bolts for the exit?

Stade Francais
11th in Top Catorze, Amlin finalists
Ok, they can still win the Amlin, but 11th in the Top 14 is a shameful performance for such an illustrious club. No longer the moneybags they used to be, but with the like of Parisse, Basteraud and Beauxis on the books, nobody should be looking for excuses. Primed for a clearout this summer, with a new side built in the manager’s image hopefully emerging. But, one has to wonder, has the power balance in the French capital shifted to Racing Metro?

Toulon
8th in Top 14, QF in HEC
A decent showing in their first season in Europe, but given their vast resources and extraordinary playing roster, they should be challenging for the Bouclier. The suspicion remains that their team of expensive mercenaries lack heart, and it was a pleasure to see unheralded Montpellier pip them to the playoff spot this weekend. Oh, and their brand of 10-man rugby is borderline unwatchable.

Wasps

9th in Premiership, QF in Amlin
Two words: Andy Powell.

Northamptonwatch

Anyone keeping an eye on Leinster’s HEC Final opponents Northampton will have seen a bizarre game in which they at one stage trailed 3-24 against now relegated Leeds, before turning the tie around to win 31-24. What such a strange game says about the side’s qualities is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: if they give a better side than Leeds a three try start, they will surely struggle.
It leaves Northampton with an imposing game away to Leicester – opponenets who Leinster described as test-level in terms of physicality – next saturday. We’ll follow their approach to this match with interest. Leinster will also benefit from an additional day in terms of turnaround time, as they play on Friday at home to Ulster.
Incidentally, what type of player does a swallow dive in scoring a try when you know it’s relegating your opposition? Charming as always.