The new IRFU NIE Rules and what they mean

Yesterday, the IRFU released the new set of rules governing the provincial teams’ recruitment of Non-Irish Eligible (NIE) players, which will come into play in the 2013/14 season.  The changes are as follows:

– One non-Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.
– For the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
– All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
– All future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.
– Connacht are external to this process as it has recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development agreed with the IRFU

The rules are aimed at striking a balance between provincial success and benefiting the national team, which is very much at the top of the Irish rugby pyramid.  The IRFU want two players competing in every position for the national team, with the thinking being that with a maximum of one NIE full-back (say Jared Payne playing for Ulster), there will be an Irish one at both Munster and Leinster.  NIE signings will now be position specific – so, for example, BJ Botha will essentially be branded with a giant ‘3’ on his back.

Let’s face it, this is all about the front row.  The IRFU is trying to remove the current situation where young Irish props are confined to the British & Irish Cup while Wian du Preez and Nathan White are togging out in the Heineken Cup.  A quick glance through the list of 16 NIE players currently plying their trade in Ireland shows where the overlap is:

1 Wian du Preez (M), Heinke can der Merwe (L)
3 John Afoa (U), Nathan White (L) and BJ Botha (M)
4 Steven Sykes (L)
5 Johann Muller (U)
8 Padrie Wannenberg (U)
9 Ruan Pienaar (U)
10 Matt Berquist (L)
11 Simon Danielli (U)
12 Lifiemi Mafi (M)
13 Will Chambers (M)
14 Dougie Howlett (M)
15 Isa Nacewa (L), Jared Payne (U)

Given that Simon Danielli won’t be missed too greatly and Dougie will hardly be around in 2014, while Isa Nacewa can easily be classified as a 14, the only significant overlap is in the front row.  With just one loosehead slot, and one tighthead going between the two provinces, there is going to be one serious bunfight to get those prized slots.  Each of Munster and Ulster currently have imported world class technicians in those positions, but succession plans will need to kick off in earnest right away.  One of the two is going to end up severely weakened – but which?  And who decides?  And how?  Would Munster be four from four in the HEC without BJ Botha?  Its not likely.  Meanwhile, anyone holding shares in Irish tighthead Mike Ross plc just saw their investment double in value, although even he could be pushing over the hill by 2014.

However, the crucial detail, to us anyway, is that once an NIE player’s contract is up, he must be on his merry way – and you cannot replace him with another NIE player in the same position.  Essenatially, the IRFU is saying ‘You can sign an NIE, but only for a couple of years while he keeps the shirt warm for an Irish player.’  So, if Ruan Pienaar’s contract were to expire, he would be thanked for his time and sent packing, and Paul Marshall would presumably be handed the starting jersey (or Ulster could recruit another Irish player).

Speaking of Pienaar, when Ulster signed him, they were at pains to point out that he was being signed as a scrum-half. At the time it looked like a case of not hurting iHumph’s feelings, but perhaps Ulster saw this in the pipeline.  A bit too conspiratorial?  Maybe.

We think the one-contract-and-out element is too harsh on the provinces, and could make life needlessly difficult for them.  To cite another example, Munster have not produced any centres of note in recent times.  Now, once Mafi’s contract expires, they will be forced to play an Irishman there, though none may meet the standard.  Perhaps the end result will be greater movement between the provinces, with someone like Nevin Spence guaranteed game time in that position for Munster.  Similarly, Leinster might see this as the catalyst to go in pursuit of Ian Nagle, who is buried not beneath NIEs, but a pile of Irish locks at Munster, while the Leinster second row well is pretty dry.

This rule will also make it more difficult for the provinces to recruit high quality NIEs.  Players will know they are precluded from staying for longer than their first contract allows.  Howlett, Contepomi and Nacewa all went on not only to become legends in their provinces, but brought up their families here.  Would you bring your family somewhere you know will be no more than a two-three year stop-off?  Unlikely.

The IRFU are broadly correct to tighten the rules on NIEs at this point.  The argument that the likes of Jim Williams and John Langford taught the Munster players so much is true, but it’s no longer relevant.  Professionalism is now entrenched in Irish rugby, and the last players with connections to the amateur era are now retired.  We don’t need a bunch of Aussies explaining that going out on the sauce when you’re injured isn’t a great idea any more, valuable though it was in the past.  The Irish senior players are now in a position to pass on this advice.  But as the IRFU say, it’s all about balance, and they would want to be mindful they don’t overly restrict the provinces.

There is a danger that this is stemming from the provinces having achieved so much in the last few years, and the IRFU seeking to transfer this success to the national team by committee.  We would be quick to point out that Leinster’s success is down to the outstanding coaching and squad management of Joe Schmidt, and that the same is available to the national team with more progressive coaching, gameplan and selection, rather than an overhaul of structures.

Ultimately, it is the provinces, rather than the national team, that have driven so much of the growth in the game in the last decade.  The IRFU point out that the Irish national team is still the main revenue driver, and subsidises the provinces, but this reveals only half of the picture.  Would the desire to watch the national team be so strong without the provincial successes we’ve enjoyed?  Increasingly, the Heineken Cup is the more enjoyable, exciting and glamorous tournament than the Six Nations.  The fans feel a bond with their provincial side, which isn’t quite there at national level, where the players tend to be removed from their communities.  It’s a distinct possibility that the IRFU could be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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Mystic Egg (Chasing)

Predicting the winner of the HEC from the off is folly, given the importance of home advantage in the knock-out stages. For example, Northampton rode a powder puff 6-0 pool last year to advance all the way to the final via home games with Ulster and Perpignan.

At least the Saints earned a home quarter – the semis are literally a lottery. Of the last 4 semi-finals, arguably all would have gone the other way if played in the oppositions “home” venue. So, even at this stage, it’s something of a fools errand, but sure, let’s crank up the crystal ball anyway.

Pool 1

What to say? Munster are the only team left that are 4 from 4, but they have been pretty poor by their own standards. It’s arguable that without Paulie and Rog (and better kicking coaches at opposition teams), they could be 0 from 4. They just know how to get over the line. We think they will beat a disinterested Castres and probably secure a bonus point, but lose in Franklins Gardens. Saints may be out, but they’ll be up for that game.  Scarlets should win twice, but with no extras. We think it’s:
Munster 22
Scarlets 19

Pool 2

The Group of Dearth at the start, but it’s shaping up to be a very interesting finish, thanks to the rejuvenation of Scottish “club” rugby (more of which anon). Tim Visser has Embra have done well to get three wins, but one of those was in rather farcical circumstances. It’s one thing to beat Racing 95-94 at home, but winning away? Nah. We fancy Cardiff to go to Fortress Reading and come away with a win, and then hockey Racing in the last game.
Cardiff 22
Embra 17

Pool 3

Its been all Leinster so far. As expected, a tough opener, but afterwards they have had it more or less their own way, opening a serious can of whoooooooooooooooooooohhhp-ass on Bath at the weekend. Glasgae have been nothing if not brave, helped in their second-chasing endeavours by Montpellier giving up. Leinster should get 9 more points roysh, and a home win and a losing bp in Beautiful Bath will get Glasgae second place, but no cigar.
Leinster 25
Glasgae 15

Pool 4

Tighter than the proverbial Kiwi duck’s butt – and as expected, it’s going to come down to bonus points. On that score, Clermont are in control – Leicester “lost” one away to Aironi and in Clermont, and Ulster lost one in Leicester. Ulster will come away empty handed from the Michelin, and will probably get their hoops handed to them as well. If they beat Leicester by more than 7 at home, second is theirs, but even if Marshall and Pienaar are the halves, Leicester are dogs and know how to tough it out.
Clermont 21
Leicester 18 (ahead of Ulster on head to head)
Ulster 18

Pool 5

Sarries have done some very hard work with a tough win in Osprey-land, but with Biarritz having picked up 4 bonus points so far, they still need to beat them and possibly Treviso away to ensure passage. They will do both, very narrowly, and progress. Biarritz will get 6 more points.
Saracens 23
Biarritz 18

Pool 6

Quins threw the tournament wide open (and forced Gerry to praise English rugby, albeit between gritted teeth) by winning in the toughest club venue in Europe (except the Aviva? Discuss). Still, Toulouse are in the saddle here, they should swat Connacht aside and although not a fait accomplis, they should win in Gloucester to go through as winners. Quins will beat Gloucester, possibly with a bonus point, and should win in Galway without one.
Toulouse 22
Harlequins 21

So, we have the eight quarter-finalists ranked as follows, bearing in mind it will come down to tries scored to seperate ties:


Leinster 25
Saracens 23
Toulouse 22
Munster 22
Cardiff 22
Clermont 21
Harlequins 21
Scarlets 19

Munster are currently two tries ahead of Cardiff – if they get the bonus point against Castres, they should maintain that advantage, but not overtake Toulouse. Amazingly, if the Scarlets slip up, Biarritz are in pole position to take advantage – the nous to scoop up bonus points while playing badly is worth its weight in gold in Europe (Asterisk Miracle Match).

The quarters will then be:
Leinster-Scarlets
Saracens-Harlequins
Toulouse-Clermont
Munster-Cardiff

Four home wins I hear you say? Even predicting this far ahead once the quarter-finalists are decided is fraught with peril – there’s a whole Six Nations in between so things can look very different when the Heiny resumes.  You’d still fancy Leinster to take Scarlets and Munster would most likely have the Mental to grind down Cardiff and should win. Toulouse-Clermont – mouth-watering, Toulouse to edge it. Sarries-Quins will depend on how the sides are motoring at the time in the Premiership … and where their prioirities lie.

Note, our eight quarter-finalists at the beginning were Northampton, Cardiff, Leinster, Clermont, Biarritz, Toulouse, Leicester, Saracens – so if we’re right this time, last time we’ll have called five from eight. Meh.  But, y’know, we’ll probably be wrong again.

HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

Second Row- All Change, All Change!

Ireland’s second row has been a low turnover position over the last decade.  Paul O’Connell and Mal O’Kelly were in situ between 2002 and 2006, bolstered by Donncha O’Callaghan, until the lovable scamp passed Big Mal out, and since then the Munster pair have been untouchable.  Mick O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen have stepped in during injury layoffs, and in the World Cup Donnacha Ryan warmed the bench, but when available The Two OC’s were pretty much, rightly or wrongly, cast in stone in the Irish XV.

Well, no more.  Donners has found himself dropped at Munster following a spell (a four-year long spell, his detractors might argue) of indifferent form.  And indeed, we reckon there’ll be a fairly new look to the panel of second rows in Deccie’s squad this spring.

In Dr Beeching’s cross-hairs:

Cut from the squad: Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll

Still a fine player and captain with Leinster, Leo has achieved plenty in his club career, and can feel a little aggrieved he never got the rub of the green at international level.  Even when he finally got to a World Cup, he was ousted from the matchday squad and his only runout was with the midweek squad against Russia.  That said, at 34, Leo is unlikely to suddenly make an impact in test rugby.  A decidedly old school lock, he’s best served continuing to do his thing for Leinster.

Micko is a long-standing bete-noir for Leinster fans who could never quite see why this decidedly middling player persistently made Deccie’s squad, but is nonetheless a handy, durable fellow who leads the pack well (notably in “that” game where the Kiwis did “that” against their fellow countrymen) and presumably a reliable tackle bag holder.  He can reflect on a fine career, but it’s one that’s starting to fade.  Micko no longer makes the Munster matchday 23, so it’s hard to see how he can still be viewed as an international player.

Demoted from the First Team: Donncha O’Callaghan

A polarising player to say the least.  An invaluable grafter willing to do – yawn – the ‘unseen work’ or an underpowered penalty machine?  Either way, Donners has fallen behind his almost-namesake Ryan in the Munster team, and can expect the same to happen with Ireland.  Inevitably, he’ll still have a place in the panel, and could still make the matchday squad.

TGV service to RWC15 departing from Platform Deccie:

Into the starting team: Donnacha Ryan

With management already in the fanclub, Ryan is likely to find his recent long-overdue breakthrough for Munster mirrored at international level.  He’s a player that grows on you, and brings a real  aggression to his play.  Still a rough-edged jewel but getting better all the time.  Also prone to foolish penalties, but, hey, so is O’Callaghan.

On the bench: Dan Tuohy

Ah yes, Dan Tuohy.  The big Ulsterman is strange by Irish second row standards in that he can carry and even run with the ball.  A luxury, surely?!  He’s still a bit up and down in his level, but his performance in the Leicester defeat showcased a player of real quality.  As Ireland’s only really footballing lock he would be worth a place as a replacement capable of offering us something different – he looked very comfortable in the green shirt in his only showing to date.

On tackle bag duty: Devin Toner

The Tall Man played badly last year, but the Leinster coaching staff appear to be getting the message through and Toner has played – whisper it – pretty well this season so far and is using his physique to better effect.  His sheer height will always be a double edged sword, but there is an obvious value having him in the middle of the lineout.  He has only started one of the three HEC games so far, but has performed commendably in all three, and given Joe’s horses for courses selection policy, it would be no surprise to see him start all the remaining three group games.  More likely to feature in place of an injured O’Connell than alongside him.

Worth Keeping an Eye On: Ryan Caldwell

An athletic, talented player, but prone to hot-headed silliness, Ulster lost patience with Caldwell.  But he’s winning rave reviews in Bath and impressed in the encounter with Leinster.  Now in his prime, out of sight will hopefully not be out of mind.

The Fat (well, big) Controller:

Paul O’Connell

The great man will be going nowhere, and the good news for any inexperienced partner is they’ll be playing alongside Europe’s pre-eminent second row.  Playing better than ever it seems, some of his carries have even extended beyond the 70cm mark, while his work at restarts is astonishing.

Leaves on the track:

Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey

The best lineout operator in the Premiership (TM), except its not true any more and he is in and out of the London Samoa team these days. Bob offered impressive ballast in his peak, which he is way past, but the comically sized small table they make him sit at on TV means we simply have to mention him

Tom Hayes

Deccie, just because the Bull has gone doesn’t mean you need to pick his brother. Come on now. Deccie? Please tell us you aren’t on the phone to Ed O’Donoghue. Oh, Ian Nagle? That’s ok, but Ludd has said he isn’t picking him until 2016…

Tour Diary: Bath

Saturday: Morning and Afternoon

Egg, Palla and their better halves made their way across a snowy Belfast to the airport for the first flight to Bristol. In spite of the best efforts of the Hitlers (our clear plastic bags containing toileteries were the wrong size. Seriously) and the “restaurant” (Palla’s sausages were nothing short of vile) we made it across the Irish Sea.


Bags were dropped off at the Linton Travel Tavern Holiday Inn Express and the train to Lahn was merrily boarded. One stop later, twas Beautiful Bath. After a stroll around the Christmas market, collecting 4 currywurst, 1 cheese board and a mental list for Sunday; we chanced upon the Thermae Spa. After enquiring if Barnesy had checked in yet (“Who?”), we joined the beautiful people of Bath in the rooftop pool – a most excellent way to while away 2 hours.


Saturday: Evening and Night

Next stop was the outside of the Pig and Fiddle for the Munster match and a rendez-vous with Egg Spoon, Egg Cup, Miss Egg Cup and Tackle Bag. One Radge masterclass (TM) later, and we retired to the inside of the Pig and Fiddle for Sarries-Ospreys. Well, it was a rugby weekend after all…

By this stage, all were drooling over the prospect of a venison burger at Gascoyne Place – a pang not even copious amounts of wine could sate. After checking if Barnesy was eating (“Errrr, no.”), we discovered venison was off, but steak burgers were wolfed down with gay abandon. Picking up Ou Cacador and Senyoreta Ou Cacador, we headed towards the Westgate (thanks for the recommendation Stephen), sunk some digestifs (2 x double rum & coke + 2 x double vodka & white for £20 – high fives all round) and practised Samoa tackles.

Sunday: Morning

Fuzzy heads abounded in the am, but it was nothing a Bath Pasty and some coffee couldn’t sort out. A leisurely stroll down to the Rec was next – one of the highlights of the trip. Followed by the real highlight – the Rec itself.

What a ground – character, setting, charm – the place has everything. The match itself was fairly bitty – Leinster tried their best to throw it away, but ultimately Bath didn’t know how to win and Barnesy’s new favourite closed it out.

Sunday: Afternoon and Evening

The remaining highlights of Bath were on the agenda for our post-match stroll – the Circus, Queen Square and the Royal Crescent. Despite the increasingly grim weather, you couldn’t but love the place. The observation that there were 30 houses in the Crescent led us to the only logical conclusion – it was where the Bath squad lived. After knocking on number 10 looking for Beaver, it was back down town for some food.

A much more enjoyable than Saturday stroll around a half-empty Christmas market was next, and some gifts were procured – mostly for Mini Egg and Little Palla – lack-of-contact guilt was kicking in. One train, one automobile and one plane later, it was back to an icy Belfast for the final leg – 4 tired and happy campers slept well on Sunday night!

For the next episode, it’s Dublin this Saturday for Beaver in the Aviva.

Road Trip Reseach Report

Lovely Bath: we came, we saw, and Leinster did their best not to conquer, but did so in the end, thanks to Johnny’s composure and a good forward effort in the last 10.  But it was nervier than it should have been, and Sean O’Brien will be looking for somewhere to hide in today’s video session.  As for the town itself, suffice to say WoC were in awe of its multitude of wonders – from the setting of the rickety old Rec to the Thermae Baths and Royal Crescent, with many fine eateries and pubs in between, this is up there with the great rugby towns.  Throw in the last weekend of the Christmas Markets and you’ve got the perfect leisurely rugby weekend.  We’ll be back.  On with good week/bad week…
Good week
Munster and BJ Botha
With an aggregate points difference of +8 after three wins, this Munster team is not necessarily dominating opposition, but they know how to come out on the right side of tight fixtures.  Few fancied their massively depleted side to come out on top against a vaunted Scarlets outfit, but thanks largely to the scrummaging of their South African tighthead, and the obligatory Radge ‘masterclass’, they are now three from three and looking at a home quarter final.  They’re back in business.

Treviso

No longer the whipping boys of Europe, Treviso now have a draw and a win in their two home games so far.  Having been desperately unlucky to cough up a late levelling penalty to Ospreys last week, here they held their nerve to slay the ailing Basque club.  What’s most remarkable is that both games have been try-heavy, high-scoring affairs.  Treviso’s desire to expand their game is impressive in and of itself, but it is getting results for them too.  In Tomasso Benvenuti they have an attacking weapon in the backline, but on Saturday they left the scoring to the fatties.
The Big French Clubs

The middle-tier French sides have been indistinguished this year (Racing, Castres, Montpellier, Birritz) but they still provide two of the favourites.  Clermont Auvergne swatted Leicester aside and are firmly in control of their pool, while Toulouse asserted their superiority against a fancied Harlequins.  We were surprised at the bullishness of many English commentators before the game, and Toulouse duly showed Quins the level they need to get to.  They have an ominous look about them.

Bad Week

Rhys Priestland

We’ve been here before.  Mega-hyped young fly-half is deemed set for greatness, only to come up against the wily old master, Radge, and come off distinctly second best.  Erratic from placed ball, where he missed three from five shots at goal, he was moved from the 10 channel when Stephen Jones was brought on to try and get Scarlets back into the game.  He’s still a promising player, but not quite a Lions fly-half just yet. 

Pascal Gauzerre

He being the ref from Sarries v Ospreys.  Some very poor calls indeed, and Ospreys will feel a little hard done by in what was a very entertaining game.  Called back for a non-existant forward pass when they looked to have broken clear, Ospreys conceded a soft try directly from the resulting scrum.  Then, in the second half, we’re still dubious as to whether Chris Wyles grounded the ball for the final Sarries try.  At the very least, Gauzerre should have gone upstairs, but simply awarded the try.

Weeks Five and Six

The double headers falling between the top sides in each group is a double edged sword.  Exciting in Rounds Three and Four of course, but by the last two rounds, many pools will be settled.  Munster, Leinster and Toulouse will be home free, and Sarries, Cardiff and Clermont could join them by winning on the road next week.  There could be uncharacteristically few groups going to the wire.

Double Trouble

After a brief and extremely entertaining interlude of domestic action – more of Harinordoquy Pere and Saints-Leicester fisticuffs please – the HEC resumes with some mouth-watering double headers to look forward to.

The December home/away trysts tend to remove some of the fog from the HEC – from around 14 mixed contenders, you tend to end up with two teams with home quarter-finals more or less guaranteed, another two with qualification virtually in the bag, and a few teams eliminated from contention, leaving six or so to slog it out for the rest.

Last season, Munster never recovered from two stodgy showings against the Hairsprays, especially as Toulon beat London Samoa twice to take charge of the pool; and Leinster never looked back following two impressive performances to whack and bag Clermont, a team that had all but beaten them on their own patch the previous year.  That Leinster only won the head-to-head by a point underlines that it’s all about coming out on top, no matter how slight the margin.

Remarkably, in every pool, the top two meet back-to-back- the first time this has happened. Any team that does the double can expect to be firmly in the driving seat for qualification as a result, and a points split among the front runners could let one of the stragglers regain some initiative. So, what do we foresee?

Pool 1: We think a horrendous injury list in the back division is going to make a losing bp very hard to come by for Munster in Llanelli, and a winning one all but impossible the following week. Strangely, aloof and cranky though he is, Munster’s bete noir Romain Poite may come to their rescue here.  They might get an edge come scrum time and they’ll hardly be writing letters of complaint if the ruck area is slow and messy.  5-5 looks a safe bet, probably putting the Scarlets in poll position. If Castres give up completely, 9 points is possible for the Saints – and with a home game against Munster to come, they may not be dead yet.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘You write Munster off at your peril.’

Pool 2: We like Cardiff, but Embra have shown mightily impressive fortitude so far – there might be a trade of home wins here, and the prospect of a Scottish side being alive in January for the first time in forever. We’ll guess 5-5. The other two are gone we reckon, although Racing have three bps racked up already, so if they are interested, they might stay in contention by doing “Irish” twice.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Cardiff are riding the crest of Wales’ newfound positivity.’

Pool 3: Our away trip to Oooooooooooooooohh Bath with our better halves is causing huge excitement in Cordite Mansions. The Rec is a great ground, but hardly Fort Knox – anything but two wins for Leinster will be a surprise. The pool will be all but won by then, leaving the other three to fight out over an Amlin slot.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Oooohh, Bath will simply run it from anywhere.’

Pool 4: Leicester are top, but Clermont are in the driving seat. Clermont thrashed Leicester at home a few years ago, going 40 points up after 50 minutes (and nearly giving away two bps at the end) and the Tigers are unlikely to get anything from France. Welford Road is a different story, but Leicester aren’t the force of old – you could see a surprise …. 8-1 to Clermont. Ulster, meanwhile, need 10 points from Aironi to make up for the “lost” bp in Leicester – and they might only get 9.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Welford Road, what an impregnable fortress’

Pool 5: Sarries-Ospreys is the leaders battle, and a model for a 5-5 split, but what Biarritz do might have more bearing on the pool – the hard-fought (literally) win over Bayonne may have kick-started their season, and 10 points would not be a seismic shock, leaving them 1 win away from a quarter-final.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Once again, Biarritz have landed a plummy draw. How do they do it?’

Pool 6: Quins are in dreamland this season, but even one win over the mighty Toulouse would be a coup. Toulouse don’t tend to extend themselves in the group stages, but we just can’t see Quins beating them – 8-1 to Toulouse. Connacht really fancy a shock at home to Gloucester, and they might just get it. Rumours of Eric Elwood doing rain dances on Eyre Square are abounding. Revenge might be ugly next week, but Connacht won’t care – 6-4 to Gloucester, moral victory for Connacht.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Toulouse, the aristocrats of Europe…’

Although we will probably be completely wrong, but won’t care while we hang out Barnesy in the Christmas Market. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

Strings, Strings, he’s our Boy, if he can’t do it, Tomás will

The Ludd Revolution at Munster continues to grind on – retirements and injuries have knocked a few of the Liginds off, one was dropped this year (Donncha), and last week, for the first time, one of them left Munster by choice, albeit temporarily for the time being.
Strings has jumped ship, gone to join Sarries– the very anthesis of Munster – on a three month loan deal.  Perhaps it’s cathartic for him. He was no ordinary player – iconic for his size and bravery, and he won it all with province and country, and deserves better than to play out his last days in the British & Irish Cup.
Stringer was one of the five new caps introduced by Gatty against Scotland in 2000. From that moment until “Georgia” he was undisputed first choice for Ireland.  The overlap with his Munster first choice career was remarkable – for only 6 months either side of his Ireland career was he the red 9 of choice.
If you think of the landmarks in Irish rugby in that period – Munster’s European breakthroughs from 1999-2004, Ireland’s Triple Crowns, the win over England in Croker, the first HEC, the Grand Slam – Strings was there for them all. Yet there must be some caveats … and there is.
Strings’ professional career was largely governed by two men – Eddie and Deccie – and neither quite trusted him 100%.  At national level, Eddie frequently called up duff scrum halves and gave them gametime (Neil Doak, Kieran Campbell, GuyEasterby), not something he was ever renowned for in other positions. Then after the Namibia/Georgia debacles in France ’07, it was Stringer alone who paid the price, getting the curly finger for Eoin Reddan.
In Munster, Strings was dropped by Deccie as soon as Tomás O’Leary’s pass wasn’t absolutely terrible. Stringer’s much superior passing and game management were sacrificed in favour of O’Leary’s physicality and breaking. The circumstances of the chop were astonishing – a coach known for his conservatism replaces a mainstay of the team for an away HEC quarter-final! It was a shrewd call but nonetheless it was, and remains, cruel, and a sad way to effectively end Stringer’s career as a starter.
Stringer didn’t even get off the bench for the rest of that HEC knock-out campaign, and his next start of note was the semi-final against Leinster in 2009 – and we know how that went.  He started three pool games last year in O’Leary’s absence, but the last of those – the dismal capitulation in Toulon – more or less signalled the end of his Munster career as a frontline player.
It’s also a fact that when Ireland (the Grand Slam and the Springbok game in Croker were the peaks) and Munster (who were imperious in the 12 months from the Gloucester game) peaked, Stringer wasn’t in the team. The solid extra dimension of O’Leary (combined, it must be said, with the stinking ELVs) gave Ireland and Munster what they needed to get to the next level.

All the best to the wee man in Watford, and how ironic is it that Stringer’s most memorable contribution to Irish rugby was doing that what he apparently couldn’t do (Ryle: ‘He can’t make a break?!  Well, he’s just made one in the Heineken Cup Final!’:

Keep your eyes on… Ian Madigan

The Irish Wolfhounds play England Saxons in late January in a game that should give Deccie a chance to look at a few up-and-coming options.  Who he picks to play fly-half will be of particular interest.  Wolfhounds fly-half may sound inconsequential, but with Radge moving towards retirement, Deccie will most likely be looking to groom someone he feels can back up, and challenge Jonny Sexton in the near future.

The choice would appear to come down to three Ians – Humphreys, Keatley and Madigan.  Humphreys has been the traditional choice for these games, and is the only one of the three that is first-choice at his province – but he’s now pushing 30 and management have made it clear that they believe his frailties are sufficient to ensure he won’t be making the step up to test level.  It’s time to move on.

That leaves us with Keatley and Madigan –  or Ewan Ma-dee-gan, as he will always be known to some.  Keatley has already played for Ireland and has a wealth of Pro12 experience with Connacht, but Madigan’s career graph is moving consistently upwards, and continued to do so on Friday night when he bagged another try and looked assured for most of Leinster’s rout of Cardiff.  Keatley, meanwhile, had the proverbial stinker in Munster’s pretty rank defeat to Ospreys.

Along with Devin Toner, Madigan is the most improved player in the Leinster squad.  Last season, most Leinster fans would have regarded McKinley as the more promising of the province’s two academy graduate out-halves, but Madigan has impressed hugely this term.  It is no exaggeration to say he is the best passer of a ball in the country, and his eye for a break, and pace to go with it, has seen him score four tries in six starts and four sub appearances so far.  A decidedly atypical Irish pivot, he plays more in the mould of an Aussie first-five, or a French 9-cum-10.

There’s still work to do.  Game management is an issue, with too many loose kicks and missed touchfinders (although he has got a big boot), and while this should improve with experience, it remains to be seen if he has ‘the mental’ to dictate a game in the manner that Jonny Sexton and Radge can.  The game is littered with talented out-halves who never learn this art – think of Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb or even James Hook.  His place-kicking has yet to be tested at Pro12 level, and we’re unlikely to see it for a while, given McFadden’s form with placed ball.  On Friday, well though Madigan played, Jonny’s cameo showed him where he has to get to – could Madigan have executed the deft cross-field chip for Dave Kearney, or the 75m gain from the penalty in his own 22?  The jury is still out, but with distribution skills to die for, this is one diamond that’s starting to polish up nicely.

A legend departs the international scene

This saturday’s game between Wales and Australia should make for decent viewing: expect to see two attacking sides with the shackles off playing under little enough pressure.  It’s also significant for one other reason: it’s the last time we’ll see Shane Williams in a test match.  The impish genius with the matchless step will depart the scene with a phenomenal 58 tries in 87 tests, including two in four caps over two tours for the Lions, and two grand slams with Wales.

It’s a haul that’s hard to argue with, but the strange thing is, that some do, particularly those with selective memories who can only recall the Kiwis battering through him on the ill-fated Lions tour in 2005 (when everyone around him was covering themselves in glory, right?) and overlook his frequent brilliance against Southern Hemisphere teams.  Indeed, WoC remembers looking on slack-jawed during a pub discussion where one 10-man rugby enthusiast insisted on his preference for Ian Dowling over Shane Williams, given the choice, on the basis of his sturdy defence.  Yowsa!

Fifty-eight test tries.  Fifty-eight!  To put that in context, Vincent Clerc has 31 and Sitiveni Sivivatu has 29.  Even the great Brian O’Driscoll is 13 behind on 45, and in almost 40 tests more than Williams, albeit from centre.  In fact, only David Campese and, erm, Daisuke Ohata (the veteran Japanese wing) have scored more international tries in the history of the game. And with all due respect to Ohata… ahhh, we’ll let him have his moment.

That alone would mark Williams out as one of the best finishers in the game, but Williams has always offered much more than an eye for the tryline.  Lethal in tight spaces or broken field, his ability to step off either foot is his greatest attacking weapon, but it’s followed closely by his exceptional hands and distribution.  It’s often forgotten that when Williams originally signed for Neath it was as a scrum-half.  His skill-set and willingness to take on responsibility have frequently seen him temporarily switch to scrummie or even first receiver down the years, usually when Mike Phillips is buried at the bottom of the ruck.

Remember him, not only as one of the most exciting players to watch, but one of the greatest wings of the modern game; a genius if you will.  Even in the modern era of bish and bosh rugby, there’ll always be room for a guy of his stature, but only if he’s unbelievably good.

Here’s a few classics that will live in the memory bank for a while.

1. Shaney Williams can’t do it against big physical teams?  Tell that to South Africa. He frequently outplayed Habana throughout his career.

2. Never one to hang around the wing, here he steps into midfield, runs a killer line, makes a brilliant offload, and turns up on the wing a couple of phases later to finish a great team try:

 

3. Or just enjoy one of the many montage tributes to his greatness on YouTube (Warning: may contain soft tackling):