Moments of the Season Part II

Yesterday, we had Egg Chaser’s moments of the season; today Palla Ovale takes us through the moments he won’t be forgetting for a while.  Yes, Cardiff features.

Leinster’s kids take it to Clermont.  The sight of emergency wing Fergus McFadden breaking the line off the back of a scrum on Leinster’s 10m line away to Clermont was the moment Joe’s gameplan had fully arrived at Leinster.  The move broke down as Sexton’s offload could’t quite find Nacewa and Leinster eventually lost the match, but the coach, shorn of all his Lions backs, had not only put faith in youth, but sought to have a cut in a stadium where nobody wins – it set the template for a magical season.

Sergio Parisse after Italy v France.  Whiff of Cordite sees nothing to be ashamed of in having a man-crush on Sergio Parisse.  And the sight of the great Italian No. 8 reduced to tears following his team’s historic victory over France in the Six Nations in Rome was a a truly special moment indeed.  In truth Italy should have won three games in this year’s series – they have learned to compete for 80 minutes, now they just need to find composure in clutch situations.  And a consistent place kicker.
Besty’s Inside Ball.  Ulster sparkled against Northampton with some eye-catching back play until the second half, when the Saints crushed their set piece.  Spence, iHumph and Trimble all caused the Northampton defence real trouble with slick handling and hard running.  But what was this?  Is that – it can’t be? – Rory Best giving the most subtly disguised inside pass into Andy Trimble’s midriff to split the Saints’ defence and set up a try?

Cullen holds the pass.  Yes, we had to mention that second half, and while Sexton’s tries, Hines getting over in his last HEC game for Leinster and The Penalty Scrum all stood out, the sight of Leo Cullen, of all people, somehow holding Strauss’ slightly inacurate offload encapsulated the performance.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, surely Leo would have dropped it, but this was 40 minutes of rugby when Leinster were simply irresistable.  A few rumbles later and Hines was over.

Moments of the Season Part 1

In keeping with the end of season theme, we’re going to take a look at our favourite moments of the season.  First, Egg Chaser takes us through his, tomorrow Palla Ovale follows suit.

Chris Ashton’s length of the field try against Australia. Australia, fresh from beating the All Blacks in a remarkable game of running rugby, landed in Twickers in November. Its fair to say WoC probably weren’t the only ones expecting the Wallabies to be the only team playing fast and loose, but in an incredible match, they were beaten at their own game.There had been flutterings of something happening for England in Australia in June, but the anthracite-clad red rose announced itself this day, with the highlight Ashton’s try. It established Ashton as a star, and signposted a gloriously unexpected positive attitude, the type of which we had not seen in an English team since 1990.

The best two teams in Europe collide. Coming to Lansdowne Road for the final game of the 6 Nations, England needed a win to complete a first Grand Slam since 2003, when it was also finished off (in style) in Dublin. Less than a minute into the game came the first scrum, something Dylan Hartley was clearly relishing, judging by the way he shoo-ed away the physio. Cue Mike Ross mincing the England scrum, a quick tap penalty by Sexton, Banahan’s outside shoulder exposed by Earls, and 80 metres gained by Ireland. The English platform had been decimated, and Ireland never looked likely to lose afterwards.

Reality dawns on the Northern Hemisphere. Following the rather dowdy and generally low-quality Six Nations, the Crusaders and the Sharks came to Twickers as refugees from the Christchurch earthquake. To stunned Northern Hemisphere fans made comfortable by the likes of Mad Dog Jones deriding the Super XV as basketball, this was a serious shock to the system. The players here seemed to be playing a different sport to that which “graced” Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium. Not only did we see wonderful running lines and a series of deft and intelligent offloads by Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, we witnessed a display of powerful scrummaging from the Crusaders and ferocious rucking. Simply incredible.

Clement Poitrenaud not scoring against Clermont. If any passage of play symbolised French rugby over the last decade, it’s this one. Indeed, if any player symbolises French rugby over the past decade, it’s Clement Poitrenaud – a man who mixes the sublime with the ridiculous, sometimes within seconds of one another – just like here. Toulouse covered 105 metres in just six marauding phases, a mesmeric series of play full of offloads, line breaks and runners flooding the support channels, all in a visceral and powerful lunge at Clermont’s throat. Poitrenaud touched the ball 3 times in this magical 45 seconds, once to draw in 2 tacklers to a prop, again in a brilliant half-break to commit 2 more men before offloading to Servat, and the third time to drop the ball when all he needed to do was fall over to make this the try of the century. Which almost made it better.

Cordite Awards 2010-11

So, with Toulouse winning the Bouclier de Brennus, the Northern Hemisphere season proper ground to a halt on Saturday night.  However, we’ll still be busy in the off-season, so stay with us over the coming weeks.  We’ll be having a look at Ireland’s World Cup squad options, taking a very long view of the Lions Tour in 2013, and later in the summer, looking at the other teams involved in the World Cup, all the while keeping an eye on goings on down under in the none-too-straightforward Super 15.

But to cap off a memorable season, here are the inaugural Cordite Awards.  Take it away, boys:
Davy Tweed award for International Diplomacy: Chris Ashton. After the November series, it seemed like England had put together a team and a style which was likeable to the neutral. Luckily, Chris Ashton’s increasingly tiresome series of swallow dives against second rate teams restored the status quo of bitterness and resentment from the Celts.
Jason Robinson award for inter-code relations: Shontayne Hape. Never again will right-thinking union fans consider it a good thing that a rugby league player is considering a code switch. Shontayne’s selfless work to denigrate the lesser code is appreciated by all.
Captain Cook award for appreciation of Pacific culture: Stuart Barnes. Barnesy has numerous entries here, mostly for his uncontainable excitement at Manu Tuilagi’s tackling technique but this reached his apogee when Manu unleashed his frustration at not winning the Davy Tweed award on the likeable young scamp Chris Ashton in the AP playoffs.
Jules Winfield award for nutritious snacks: Paddy Wallace. Belfast man Paddy sat on the Ireland bench for around 397 minutes of the 6 Nations, spending the other 3 as a blood sub for Dorce. The word is he makes a seriously mean half-time orange. I mean, why else would he be there, its not like the incumbent Ireland 12 was playing like a drain or anything.

Arsene Wenger award for false hope: Danny Cipriani. After bursting on to the scene for the Melbourne Rebels with a series of eye-catching performances, and one fantastic individual try, Danny Cipriani’s season descended into disciplinary issues, conflict with management, and ultimate disappointment. WoC is a huge fan, but maybe Johnno was right all along.
Brendan Venter award for Whinging about the Ref: Gerry Thornley.  It didn’t matter who was reffing or playing this year, if an Irish team lost, the erstwhile Gerry found a way to blame the ref. Pearson and Poite got the worst of it, usually for daring to penalise the Munster forwards in a European game. WoC contacted Gerry once this season, and got the frenzied response that Pearson had asked Wilko for his autograph at full-time. Hmmmmmmm.

Niccolo Machiavelli award for political scheming: Frankie Sheahan. Commentating on RTE on a nondescript ML game just before the 6 Nations, Frankie awarded the MotM to his client (and WoC favourite), David Wallace. Wally himself was clearly bemused during the presentation, probably because he did not break sweat and came off after 50 minutes. WoC is sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Wally was fighting with Sean O’Brien for the Ireland 7 shirt the following week.

Frankie Sheahan award for neutrality: Stephen Jones. We were going to give the entire Irish press corps this award for confidently predicting Ireland would easily dispatch the Springboks without breaking sweat in November, but then we saw the Stephen Jones 2013 Lions team. A Henson-Roberts centre partnership might be more convincing if either of them 1. had played recently, or 2. were actually any good.
Warren Gatland award for trash-talking: Neil Best. The Worcester Warrior wasn’t Deccie-bashing on his own behalf, but for Roger Wilson and James Downey, who were no doubt delighted that such a renowned statesman as Besty was batting on their behalf. Wilson must have particularly appreciated this gem from Neil: “I look at the Ireland back-row and think you need to be world-class to get in there”

The Tana Umaga Award for Failing to Ground the Ball: Graham Kitchener.  Toulouse’s Caucau being too fat to bend over and ground the ball properly was one thing, but it wasn’t that important in the end. So the prize goes to Worcester’s Graham Kitchener who ran in for a try 5 minutes from time in the playoff semi-final, with Worcester still needing the conversion to take the lead, celebrated, and then knocked-on.  He looked a broken man afterwards.

The Stephen Jones Award for Bizarre Punditry: Jeremy Guscott.  At the Sunday Times’ chummy roundtable discussion before the Six Nations the subject of young Scottish lock Richie Gray came up.  All were agreed that he looked a prospect.  All, that is, except for Jeremy Guscott, who said ‘he looks like he’s running through quicksand’.  It made little sense then, and absolutely none after the tournament finished, and Gray was pencilled in by most as the 2013 Lions Test 2nd row.

The George H W Bush ‘No More Taxes’ Award for About Face: George Hook.  Serial winner of this award George Hook triumphs again on several counts, chief among them his assertion after the Scotland game that Jonny Sexton shouldn’t play for Ireland until after the World Cup.  Post-HEC Final, Hooky is calling for Sexton to be captain.  He’s not prone to hysteria, is our George.

HEC Draw: It’s Bath Time

Whiff of Cordite warned in its preview that getting an Italian team was not the golden ticket it’s made out to be for the Irish teams, as it was guaranteed to be accompanied by a big French and English side.  So it has  proved for Ulster, who in spite of drawing Aironi, have a hell of a job to repeat last year’s feats.  Here’s a quick immediate reaction to the groups.
Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Scarlets, Castres
Not ideal for Munster, who are defending 11 ranking points this year and simply must get out of their group after last year’s debacle, or there will be blood on the streets.  Northampton are a team with genuine pedigree and no little hunger after this year’s tournament, and qulification will most likely come down to two almighty scraps between the big guns.  Both going through is not inconceivable, but they will need to win home and away against Castres and Scarlets to make it happen.
Pool 2: Cardiff, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro
The group of dearth.  Fourth seeds Racing have been handed a huge opportunity, and if they want it enough they should qualify.  In truth, this group is there for the taking if any of the four can get their act together and pinch a win or two on the road.
Pool 3: Leinster, Ooooooooooooohhh Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier
Leinster could hardly have handpicked a more benign group, though if Montpellier are interested they could be a banana skin; better to face them in Round 5 or 6.  Glasgow offer a meek threat, while Leinster and their fans will have happy memories of the Rec.  Whiff of Cordite fell in love with Bath on a recent visit and cannot wait to return…

Pool 4: Leicester, Clermont, Ulster, Aironi

A bit of a stinker for Ulster, drawing two of the most physically intimidating sides in the competition.  Four wins is not beyond them, and two teams will probably go through, but it is hard to see them getting enough crucial bonus points to edge out one of Leicester and Clermont.
Pool 5: Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens, Treviso
A great chance for Sarries here to build on their Premiership win and make a statement in Europe.  Ospreys will struggle next year with so many names leaving in the summer, while Biarritz rarely impress in spite of a strong qualification record.
Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht
Not an ideal draw for Connacht, who will find the step-up from the Amlin a tall order.  They could easily emerge winless and not disgrace themselves, but will target the home games against Gloucester and Quins.  If nothing else, it will be fun to see Toulouse’s great rugby aristocrats roll out at the dog-track, hopefully on a friday night when it’s blowing a gale.

Team in focus: Montpellier

This weekend sees the final game of the Northern hemisphere season, and we aren’t talking about the latest episode in the tiresome story of a washed-up Welsh 12. At 19:45 Irish time in the Stade de France, one of the more remarkable fixtures of the season will kick off – the heavyweights of Toulouse, looking for their 18th Bouclier, against Montpellier, appearing in their first ever final.

The story of Montpellier is a fascinating one. At the beginning of the season, many pundits had them tipped for relegation. The team were coming off a disappointing 10th place finish in 2009-10, prompting the replacement of the coaching staff and the retirement of key pivot Federico Todeschini.

Brought in to turn the team around were Eric Bechu, who coached unfashionable Colomiers to the final in 2000, and his former on-field general, and French scrum-half, Fabien Galthié. The coaching staff were not daunted, with Galthié proclaiming  “The first conclusion I can draw is that the team is young enough that it has the potential to develop”.

The coaching staff kept the nucleus of last years squad, with a couple of additions. Bechu went to Argentina for a bit of shopping, bringing back inside back Santiago Fernandez and outside back Martin Bustos Moyano, both of whom have been key players this season. Weighing in with 265 points, Bustos Moyano’s dead-eyed goal kicking has been a crucial factor in Montpellier lasting the pace. Providing the cutting edge out wide has been former Ulster folk hero Timmy Naguca, who has contributed 10 tries, a statistic which will shock all but the most blinkered of Ravenhill regulars.

With the local youngsters and unheralded imports superbly marshalled by Francois Trinh-Duc, the mix has worked very well. Not only was the goal of Heineken Cup qualification achieved, with a stylish last weekend  27-3 victory over boot merchants Toulon, but gutsy wins over Castres and, in one of the most exciting games WoC has seen, Racing Metro, have propelled them into the final.

Regretably for all who love rugby, team captain and hard ground lover Fulgence Ouedraogo has been ruled out with a fractured hand, leaving Montpellier shorn of their most important player and leader. This may make Saturday a step too far, especially with Montpellier-born and raised contact magnet Louis Picamoles in the opposing back row. Whiff of Cordite would love to see Montpellier go all the way, but suspects the aristocrats of Stade Toulousain might spoil the story. Still, its been a great ride, and the Racing game will live long in the memory.

Vive les Heraultains!

The HEC Draw: It’s Complicated

The HEC draw take place on 7th June, and Ye Gods, it’s fraught with complications. As many a kickyball commentator would put it, you’d need a Maths degree to work out the permutations. In all honesty, it wouldn’t hurt.

The pools look as follows, with a Cordite Rating determining the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of each side:

Pool 1 Cordite Rating
Leinster Stench
Toulouse Stench
Munster Whiff
Cardiff Blues Odourless
Biarritz Olympique Slight Whiff
Leicester Tigers Stench

Pool 2
Northampton Saints Stench
ASM Clermont Auvergne Stench
Ospreys Odourless
Bath Rugby Slight Whiff
Harlequins Whiff
London Irish Slight Whiff
Pool 3
Ulster Rugby Whiff
Saracens Whiff
Gloucester Rugby Slight Whiff
Glasgow Warriors Odourless
Scarlets Slight Whiff
Edinburgh Odourless
Pool 4
Connacht Rugby Odourless
Castres Olympique Slight Whiff
Benetton Treviso Slight Whiff
Montpellier Whiff
Racing Métro 92 Whiff
Aironi Rugby Odourless

The rules are thus: there moust be one English team and one French team in each group, and one group will include two English teams (one of which will be Gloucester, as the lowest ranked English side).  None of the other nations’ sides can be paired together.  And because there is only one French team in Pool 2 and none in Pool 3, it means that Leinster and Munster are much more likely to be assigned a French team from the fourth pot.  Put it this way: the only chance they have of getting an Italian team is by drawing Clermont and getting Sarries into the bargain- not an ideal scenario however you care to look at it.

Now, look at Ulster’s perspective.  They can’t be drawn with Leinster or Munster, so they stand a great chance of getting either Toulouse or Biarritz as their top seeds, and failing this, they can also get Clermont from Pool 2.  If this happens they can’t get another French team from Pot 4, and they can’t get Connacht either, so the only teams left are Italian teams.  So, Ulster getting a group like last year is in fact very likely indeed.

As for Biarritz, who apparently fix the draw in their favour every year, well, sadly for conspiracy theorists, they do have a very good chance of picking up an Italian team simply by dint of being French and in Pool 1, both of which are of course self-sustaining (unless that part of the Basque country secedes to Spain).  They can’t get any of their fellow countrymen from Pool 4, so they simply must be drawn with either Connacht, Treviso or Aironi.

So, looking at possible draws the Irish sides can get, we have…

The Good…

Leinster / Munster: London Irish – Glasgow – Castres
Ulster: Biarritz – Bath – Aironi (sound familiar?)
Connacht: Biarritz – London Irish – Glasgow

The Bad…

Leinster / Munster: Northampton – Gloucester – Racing Metro
Ulster: Toulouse- Northampton – Treviso
Connacht: Toulouse- Northampton – Gloucester

… and the Away-trip Friendly

Leinster / Munster: Bath – Edinburgh – Racing Metro
Ulster: Toulouse – Bath – Treviso
Connacht: Toulouse- Bath – Edinburgh

Probably best not to think about it too much and just hope you get to visit at least one lovely city, and try to avoid Northampton, Clermont and Saracens if you can.