Six Nations: Dr. Deccie or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Choke Tackle

Here’s a question nobody really knows the answer to: how will Ireland do in the Six Nations this year?  The bookies have us as lowly fourth favourites, but the Observer has us down as winners, and Shaun Edwards (mindgames alert!) has said we’re overwhelming favourites.  But Frankie ‘My Client!’ Sheahan’s traditional Grand Slam prediction on Against the Head was a bit half-hearted and the public at large seem fairly underwhelmed by the whole thing. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of feeling that, even with the provinces demolishing all before them, Ireland can really capitalise and win the Championship.
The truth is that this Ireland team flatters to deceive, and has done since their annus mirabilis in 2009.  Just what is this team all about?  They made matchwood of Australia’s tight forwards in the World Cup, and played at a ferocious pace against England last Spring, but looked dull and ponderous for vast swathes of 2011, never more so than when they kicked the ball over 50 times in the Millenium Stadium in losing to a poor Wales side.

To be fair to the group, the Achilles heel appears to have been identified.  It seems that in their recent get-together at Carton House, the players identified their attack with ball in hand as the weakest part of their game.  Well, duh.  In spite of Gerry’s laughable attempts on Newstalk a few weeks back to convince us that Ireland’s attack was in fact very good, the players themselves felt they had become predictable and lacked the firepower to respond with tries when their defence, which is a big strength for the team, finally leaked in the World Cup quarter-final.

Les Kiss, Jamie Heaslip and Dorce have been among those making positive noises about a new(ish) style of play, more ball-in-hand and with more depth and decoy runners in attack.  They haven’t thrown away the playbook (such as it was), all were quick to point out, but they will be adding a bit more to their play.  The flat, lateral, moribund shovelling that has characterised much of Ireland’s atack over the last 24 months will not be missed. Ireland lack cohesion and a genuine identity in their style.  At times the players themselves look muddled – how many times have we seen Jamie Heaslip, arm out to offload the ball, but no-one on hand to take it? Dorce indicated that the players came away with a much clearer idea of what the gameplan will be than ever before.  Bring it on – this is the single most important area for the team to deliver.

That’s the gameplan ticked off Deccie’s list – now, to put the best team on the field to implement it.  A good chunk of the team picks itself at this stage, so let’s get that out of the way: Healy, Best and Ross in the front row, Paulie captain, Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip in the back row.  The back three will be Trimble, Bowe and Kearney.  That leaves a partner for Paulie, the halves and the centres, which we went through yesterday (we’re set on McFadden and Earls).

At halfback, Kidney needs to put faith in Murray and Sexton.  We’d ask, as we have done with the 13 shirt, that these two be given the championship to develop a relationship.  Sexton has been in flying form with Leinster, his place kicking flawless and his all-round game sublime.  Murray has come in for some criticism for his far-too-numerous carries and hesitancy to pass this season.  But we have a suspicion it’s under instruction, with Munster using him as a primary ball carrier; it’s an area where they’re light in the absence of Wally (it’s not Ronan or O’Mahony’s strength) and Murray is a strong in contact.  Behind the carrier-heavy Irish backrow Murray could focus on smooth delivery (he has a sweet pass), with an occasional snipe, of course. It helps that, traditionally, Deccie eschews provincial partnerships at halfback – even at Wolfhound level where Boss and Keatley faffed about with completely expected unfamiliarity.
At 4, our great friend O’Callaghan has been fairly invisible this season with Donncha Ryan stepping into his shirt with Munster.  He’s playing great stuff and deserves a test start – we’ll be disappointed if Kidney sticks with Donncha ‘Unseen Work’ O’Callaghan.  Ryan just holds off the challenge of Ulster’s intriguing Dan Tuohy.  Tuohy’s lineout work is solid, and with good carrying ability and nice hands, he’s more of a footballer than any of the other options – he’s our man to bring off the bench.  With Court, Cronin, Tuohy, Reddan and ROG taking their places on the plinth, all that remains is a reserve outside back and a backrow.  Given our centres can cover the wide channels, Dorce gets into the 22 shirt (since Luke is injured), where his experience will come in handy.

In the backrow, we are a hung jury…
Palla makes the case for Peter O’Mahony: O’Mahony deserves his chance.  He offers more versatility than Jennings or Ruddock and has had a terrific season so far.  He’s a tigerish fellow, but also a fairly rounded footballer.
And Egg for Chris Henry: Henry has had his best season yet for Ulster – he covers the entire back row and is familiar with the international setup. Henry has spent most of the season covering the openside, which is where Ireland are likely to use a replacement – Fez will slink off after 65 minutes and SOB will switch across. To be truthful, we will be happy with either.

The team selection issues are secondary this season.  It’s an exciting, cutting-edge attack that we really want to see.  If the patched-up coaching team without a dedicated attack coach can deliver it, Ireland have everything else in place – set piece, defence, personnel, to have a good Six Nations.  Victory in Paris might prove a step too far, but four wins would put Ireland right in the shake-up.  Any less and we’ll be asking questions.

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Six Nations: We need to talk about Keet

Sorry, make that Respect Keet. We have got in trouble for not showing adequate respect to everyone’s favourite blond Limerickman, so Anon, if you are reading (despite promising you wouldn’t) your over-sensitive antennae might get a bit upset shortly, so look away now.

The key question for Ireland in this Six Nations is an impossible one to answer – how do you replace the irreplacable? Drico might be back in a while, but make no mistake, the hill has been browed, and it’s Operation Replacement.

We have been running our regular Thirteenwatch series for a few months now on the contenders for the sacred 13 shirt – in the very first one, we joked about how Deccie was going to play Keith Earls there no matter what. Now, after 6 rounds of HEC, we finally agree Earls is the man for the job, especially after Darren Cave’s misfortune.  The field has essentially narrowed to three: Earls, Bowe and McFadden.  None are naturals in the role, but Earls’ case is the most compelling.   McFadden has plenty to offer, but need not be excluded altogether – he should be included alongside Keet at 12.  Bowe has not played at all at centre, and is needed on the wing.  And Keet’s form is good – he threw in a howler against Castres, but the manner in which he bounced back against Northampton put him back in credit.

So Earls it is. Straightforward? No, not at all. We have some serious reservations about Respect Keet, but lets start with the positives. He has great feet, pace to burn and a serious eye for the tryline.  While he’s no BOD, not by a long shot, it’s worth dwelling for a while on what Earls will bring to the team.  A combination of McFadden and Earls would have serious gas – not something Ireland have had in midfield since D’arcy and O’Driscoll were in the flush of youth and at their peak, in the 2006 Autumn series when Ireland looked like world-beaters.  It would give defences something new to think about.  We’re not saying they’ll be better but it will offer a different kind of threat.

Now for the bad stuff.  When we see Earls, we are always reminded of the great Arrigo Sacchi’s opinion on Steven Gerrard:

“He is a great footballer, but not a great player. He lacks what I call knowing-how-to-play football.”

Earls has all the tools to be a great player for Ireland, but he just does not fully convince. The defensive errors Earls makes at 13 are worryingly consistent and similar (e.g. Leinster 2009, Fat Manu 2011). In addition, one does not see huge development in Earls game since his breakthrough season in 2009 – contrast with Bob Kearney, who has come back from injury a much more rounded player than before, and  is a much better player even than he was in 2009, the previous peak of his powers. We’re unsure if Earls will improve as a player, or whether he is getting adequate guidance in this department. Caveat: the chopping and changing positionally is a major hindrance here.

There is also the mental side of things. When Earls is not completely psychologically clued into a game, he can be desperate. On his Lions debut, his nerves were palpable 6,000 miles away, and he succumbed with his first Garryowen. Fast forward to October – he flagged in the press a few days before the Wales quarter-final that he was thinking ahead of the game at hand, missed 5 tackles out of 8, and was at fault for all 3 tries. While his enthusiasm, as evidenced by the Superstar quote, or talking about wanting to go out there and run around and have fun, is endearing, it’s also a bit concerning that a professional sportsman talks like a 10 year old. It’s a classic mental mistake – thinking about the outcome and not the process – and it’s one that is repeatedly made.

Now, breathe.

Let us say this. If Earls is going to be the man, he must play all 5 games, even though over the course of five hard games, we can more or less say he will throw in one shocker. It’s important people remember that it’s essentially his first test level start in the shirt, and it won’t always be smooth. It’s also imperative because of Earls’ unique circumstances i.e. his fragile mentality. Earls must be trusted, and it must be made clear to him in advance he is trusted – not a Deccie trait (according to Donncha’s autobiog) it must be acknowledged.

We have outlined our reservations, but from this moment on we are fully behind him.  It’s important everyone is 100% supportive of Keet at 13 – he needs it, and Ireland need it. No-one will be happier than us if he delivers in the shirt in the series.  If and when he does have a bad game – hopefully it happens early on so he can finish on a high note – he must be backed (to be fair, this is a Deccie trait). And all the better if he starts showing increasing maturity, and even some evidence of embryonic leadership qualities – a totem is bowing out, and a man of Earls talent would be a proud successor …. if he can marshall it effectively. Fingers and toes crossed…

Six Nations: Re-Inventing the Wheel

Part Three in our pre-Six Nations series looks at the ‘fresh start’ factor. National teams these days tend to think in four year RWC cycles, and build towards a planned crescendo at the next RWC. Southern Hemisphere teams, however, do it better than Northern ones – NZ last year and SA in 2007 managed to time their peaks just about right, Australia under Robbie Deans are targeting 2015, but only France of the NH sides successfully implemented a four year build plan – and it didn’t exactly run smoothly at all times.

So how are each of the countries viewing this year’s tournament? Will there be caps scattered like confetti, or more substitute appearances from the Leo Cullens of this world? We look at each country and rate on the Deccie Revolution scale, where 5 is never changing your selection no matter what the external circumstances and 1 is dart-throwing at a list of names i.e. Lievremont circa 2008.

France:

There is a revolution Jim, but not as we know it. The French players are largely the same, with some notable exceptions such as Yoann Maestri and Wesley Fofana, who can expect to go straight into the first XV, but it’s the new coaching ticket which gives this French team a new broom. Lievremont and his worrying moustache are gone, and Philip “Sale won the Premiership once” Saint-Andre is in charge, despite being a notably poorer candidate than Fabien Galthie. The priority is to stabilise the structure rather than change personnel – this group of players have very high currency in France, and it wouldn’t do PSA much good to start ditching them willy-nilly. This will be about re-establishing the relationship between management and players, media and fans.
Deccie Revolution Rating:

England:

The ongoing civil war between the clubs, the players, the RFU, the press and everyone else is immensely damaging to English rugby. The RWC preparation was poor, and the team were let down by senior players. Accordingly the management (Johnno) and some senior players have been cut loose. Stuart Lancaster is promising a back to basics approach, and some more enterprising rugby. There were quite a few new faces in the squad, and one can reasonably expect a new spine, and mentality, to be put in place. Lancaster may or may not be around to see it through, but it’s Year Zero for England right now.
Deccie Revolution Rating:

Ireland:

It’s like Bunker Hill in 1776 all over again in Camp Ireland – Deccie has jettisoned all the 30-something hangers on and brought in the youngsters who have been leaving their stamp all over this seasons HEC. Expect a fresh vision from the Ireland coaching staff this year – proven international attack experts have been brought in to work on Ireland’s tired and predictable attacking “gameplan”, and the new faces will ensure that the sense of urgency that we typically save for one game a series will become a constant. A new dawn.

Sorry, we were daydreaming there…
Deccie Revolution Rating:

Wales:

It’s a hugely different Welsh squad from the one we saw in last seasons Six Nations, but this is primarily because Gatty and Co decided to pass the baton to the generation of Faletau, Warburton, Priestland and North before the RWC. This revolution is in its early stages – the Grand Slam heroes of 2008 are being phased out and a new generation being phased in. Gatty made a smart move back in August – if the geriatricos had underperformed in NZ, there would be lots of changes; now he need only be incremental. They won the Slam at this stage of the last cycle, and Gatty will be feeling bullish about delivering another. Hey, what’s new?
Deccie Revolution Rating:

Scotland:

Robbo is by nature an evolution not revolution man, but there is a natural change coming. Pack hardman Nathan Hines and boring boot merchant Chris Paterson have gone, and the (mostly) incumbent 10 of the last while, Dan Parks, will not be around for too much longer. Some of the Embra lads, Weir and Jones, will come straight in, as will HupHup Tim Visher by June. Robbo is an underrated coach, and we have a suspicion he will manage incremental change (3 to 4 new faces) each year, and build towards 2015 with something of a sure hand on the tiller

Deccie Revolution Rating:

Italy:

Rather like France, the revololpution is in the coaching ticket. Jacques Brunel, fresh from leading Perpignan to a first Bouclier in forever, arrives to take the reins from Nick Mallett. Italy have been improving year on year, but the big breakthrough of 2 wins not over Scotland has yet to happen. They came close last year, beating France and being a front-line kicker away from beating Ireland, but they are still stuck at the glass ceiling. The personnel are virtually the same, and Brunel will be hoping Treviso’s promotion from Whipping Boys to Awkward Arthurs translates to the international level.
Deccie Revolution Rating:

Six Nation Preview: The Joy of HECs

Part 2 of our Six Nations preview looks at what the HEC has thrown up, and how this might have a bearing on the international sphere.
It’s been an extremely positive tournament for both Scotland and Ireland. Scotland have their first quarter-finalist in 8 years and this has got to be good news for Robbo. For a start, he will have some players on the field who know what it takes to win close games, a facet of performance in which Scotland fell notably short in the RWC. True, Edinburgh weren’t exactly in the Pool of Death, but you still need to beat the teams in front of you – 2 away wins laced with cojones are positive signs, as is the try count – 17 – more than Scotland have managed in the last four Six Nations put together. In addition, the team is largely Scottish, and is well-marshalled by Greg Laidlaw at 10 – a position where Scotland have failed to find consistent leadership of late.
Ireland, in turn, have an unprecedented 3 quarter-finalists, with one guaranteed semi-finalist and the press full of breathless talk of a Munster-Leinster final. It’s all positive then, right? Possibly not. The contrast between and confused bumbling in the green shirt and the sure-footed confidence in the blue/white/red shirt has grown starker and starker since 2009, and, despite a decent RWC, it’s not clear anything is changed. Ulster are marshalled by the accents of Bloemfontein as much as Belfast, and Munster and Leinster operate to disparate gameplans. Talk is emerging of a new style and clearer attacking strategy, and it would want to, because Ireland frequently look an uneasy, confused hybrid of the two. The squad announcement was a flat affair, and there’s been little sense among the rugby public that Ireland can capitalise on the provinces’ dominance.

For England and Wales, the HEC did not augur well. England’s RWC squad was backboned by players from Leicester, Northampton and Bath (16 out of 30 including Thomas the Tank Engine, drafted in for Ted Sheridan). All 3 suffered merciless and record-breaking beatings at the hands of Irish provinces this year, which has given rise to hilarious hand-wringing in Blighty. Ackford thinks the solution is more English teams (no, really), Barnesy has started touting the Pro12 as the model, and Cockerill has pointed his pudgy fingers at the salary cap, referees, injuries, the heavy Christmas programme, the Catholic Church, Dick Cheney and the euro.
All that aside, what looked like a new-ish broom swept in by Stuart Lancaster has already turned into a damage limitation exercise – the HEC has left English rugby’s confidence dented, and it needs to find its pride again. Even Harlequins have stumbled. Confidence will likely stay dented right up until Chris Ashton
belly-flops his way to 3 tries against Italy, when they will be prospective world champions again.
The Welsh had exactly the opposite problem after NZ – how to temper expectations (not their strongest suit, it must be said). However, the regions have done a pretty good job for Gatty and co. The Scarlets produced a signature performance in thumping the Sinners in Franklin’s Gardens, but failed to follow through, losing 3 of their last 4 games in circumstances where a team with belief and a pack would have won at least 2 of them. NKOTB Rhys Priestland has been de-scoped from the 10 slot in favour of bearded has-been Stephen Jones and the marvellous young backs (Scott and Liam Williams, JJV Davies, George North) have been successfully neutered.
The Hairsprays didn’t expect to capitulate so rankly in Biarritz on the last weekend, although double losses to Sarries and a draw with Treviso had snookered them before the off. Cardiff qualified, but only as a runner-up, and made extremely heavy weather of an easy pool. Anything less than a severe thumping at the hands of Leinster in April would be considered progress after a measly 9 tries in 6 games – against 2 sides determined to throw the ball around like confetti (Edinburgh and Racing Metro) and 1 of the worst sides in the HEC (London Samoa). It looks like positive momentum lost, but then again, the Welsh national side has never fed off the regions. They’re a curious side whose performance can go any which way, depending largely on what mood they’re in. It might not matter that much.
For France and Italy, it was all a bit … meh. Of the 6 French sides, only 3 bothered – Toulouse (group winners), Clermont (group winners) and Biarritz (narrowly pipped for a knockout place, and began looking more menacing after the Harinodoquy-Yachvili-Traille spine was bedded back in for the later games). The other 3 sides used the tournament for practice – either backline moves (Racing Metro) or scrummaging (Castres, Montpellier). The Top 14 will always be a priority for French sides (despite their lack of connection with their fan bases, Gerry), and HEC success is a pleasant side-dish in most cases. It’s hard to know what impact this all will have on the national side – not much we suspect.
The Italian sides were a curates egg. The positives came from Treviso’s home form and their willingness to play a more rounded brand of rugby – no longer can you go there and rely upon your scrum breaking even and your kicker to kick 80% in order to win. On the flip side of that, Aironi regressed from last year. No-one expected miracles, but they beat Biarritz last season and were generally niggly at home. This time around, they got fed an eighty-burger (thank you Demented Mole) by the Clermont reserves, and the only success, such as it was, was denying Leicester a bonus point in the Zafanella. One hopes that Italy will take more from Treviso’s performances, and make it a proper Six Nations.

French need to learn Culture and Passion From Irish

Gerry Thornley’s been warming to his theme of IRFU-bashing lately – he’s been awoken from his autopilot by the new NIE laws and is using his weekly column as a platform from which to berate the [Insert number Here] Old Farts.  Which we approve.  And, of course, he’s only too delighted to see three Irish provinces in the HEC quarter finals.  After all, who isn’t?

But the final paragraph in today’s piece set off the alarm bells:

But, for all its wealth, foreign imports and benefactors, the Top 14 remains, a la the Premier League in England, something of a circus act which works against its national team. Nor do they have the same sense of culture and identity between fans and players who truly represent their regions.
What’s that Gerry?  The French club sides don’t have a sense of culture and identity between fans and players?  Really?  Tell that to the Clermont Auvergne fans whose ground is the most intimidating in Europe, and make their mark on every city to which they travel.  Or the Toulousains who pour into the streets donned in rouge-et-noir whenever they land silverware.  Anyone who was there two years ago for the Leinster-Clermont quarter final will regard it as the greatest atmosphere ever to grace the RDS.

There’s no need to go on, because we all know this.  We’ve all seen the French support, and we all know how much the fans value the Bouclier, and how attached they are to their club teams.  The idea that Perpignan could learn a thing or two from the Irish pishun is ludicrous.  Maybe we could teach them to cook, make wine and dress stylishly while we’re at it? 

We’re entitled to be pleased with the state of Irish rugby, but this sort of smugness has no place.  The Bouclier de Brennus has been contested since 1892, quickly took on the character of village against village, providing an outlet for the denizens of Albi, Dax, Carcassonne and Aix similar to that which soccer provides in the north of England. Domestic Fench rugby has a tribal ferocity to this day.

Perhaps Gerry should watch the video of Pere Harinordoquy taking to the pitch to fight some Bayonnais forwards in the recently contested Basque derby.  Speaking of which, the bi-annual match-up between Bayonne and Biarritz is considered the single most intense rivalry in European rugger. It’s a longstanding one too – while we can’t be entirely sure, we think it might even pre-date the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006.

Six Nations: Lions Coach Wanted. Apply Within.

We’ve had the World Cup, we’ve had the group stages of the Heineken Cup, heck we’ve even had some Rabodirect Pro12 League Mega Sized Action, but now all those terribly nouveau tournaments move aside, and the Grand Olde Dame of world rugby, The Six Nations, looms into view.  The annual event should bring the usual array of dashed hopes, stagnant rugby, corporate days out, banal press conferences, inter-provincial blame-gaming and George Hook, but y’know, we can’t help but get excited about it.  We’re the sort that dares to get his hopes up.

This year, we are eschewing the usual “England will be hard to beat and Ireland can’t score tries”-type country-by-country preview for something a bit more thematic. We will be previewing this year’s tournament by asking a series of questions:
  • What are the management teams doing? And why are they all wearing their ‘Power of Four’ wristbands
  • How will the recently-finished HEC group stages impacted the Six Nations?
  • Post RWC11-rebuilding – who is doing what and how?
  • A, ahem, deeper dive on Ireland – was all the pedestrian back play down to Gaffney??
  • Actual predictions where we put our neck on the line. Like when we confidently predicted Biarritz would make the HEC knock-out stages and the Liginds would struggle.

In the first, we run the rule over the coaches overseeing the whole shambles.  Here goes nothing.

One curious side issue of this year’s Six Nations is that the Lions administrators have effectively said that the manager of the 2013 Australia tour will be one of Warren ‘Wazza’ Gatland, Declan ‘Deccie’ Kidney and Andy ‘Andy Robinson’ Robinson, with a backstop of St. Ian McGeechan if each of those three are deemed suitably hopeless.  They haven’t ruled out anyone else (in the whole world) but they would prefer the coach to be affiliated to one of the home unions, with the anointed one required to take a year out to dedicate himself to the role (those Premiership games won’t watch themselves, and somebody has to mail out those Power of Four wristbands).

It makes for an intriguing competition within a competition, even if it’s not quite a straight shootout based on final placings.  We can’t but see Wazza as being firmly in poll position.  He’s already been on a successful tour, as an important presence in 2009, he’s a progressive selector, and the way he tactically outwitted Deccie in the World Cup is fresh in the memory.  He’d also provide good copy with his pre-match bluster, and as a Kiwi, is au fait with dishing it out to the Aussies.  This Six Nations we can expect him to be in bullish mood.  He’s already very proud of himself for picking 18 year old speedster Harry Robinson, and his currency has rarely been higher.  We’re not sold on the whole Wales Are The World’s Greatest thing, but a halfway decent Six Nations and the gig should be his.

The image of Andy Robinson punching walls in the Lions’ technical box seems a bit far fetched, and we can’t quite see it.  Robinson has done a decent job with Scotland, but they still haven’t made that breakthrough that they keep threatening, and have a tendency to freeze on the big occasion.  Even if Scotland do brilliantly, we just can’t see him as Lions head coach.

We have to admit to hoping against all hope that Deccie gets the call, if only for moments like this…

Sky Hype Interviewer:  ‘Well Declan, congratulations on a historic Lions win.  What did you make of the incredible Oooooooooohhh 17-tackle, 6 lineout-takes, 60m carrying performance by Oooooooohhh Courtney Lawes?’


Deccie: ‘Courtney went well, but maybe if we’d gone with Donncha we would have won by more points.  Sure, aren’t we blessed to have two such great fellas.’

The Aussies wouldn’t know what to do with him.

Away from the Lions circus, Stuart Lancaster is in something approaching a win-win situation.  England are at such a low ebb that the only way really is up.  Nobody’s expecting too much, and if they play a fairly watchable brand of rugby the public will be happy, regardless of results.  Even if England get the wooden spoon, he can say he has given the next generation their head.

France are under new stewardship, with Philipe Saint-Andre stepping into the breach.  He’s picked a strong squad, and it seems he wants to break with the Mad Lievremont years.  Such is the depth of talent in the French squad, it looks like even a halfway decent coach should be able to coerce them into playing some decent stuff.  Saint-Andre’s CV isn’t that impressive (his Toulon side finished ninth in the Top 14 last year) but some consistent selection and a clear gameplan would be half the battle.

Finally, Italy are also under a new coach, with former Perpignan man Jacques Brunel taking up where Nick Mallett left off.  Mallett was popular and respected, so Brunel won’t want to rock the boat too much.  Keeping Italy hard to beat while gradually broadening their game will be the order of the day – and that should have been made easier by the Pro12 sides beginning to throw the ball around a bit, and some talented youngsters like Benvenuti and Semenzato.

 

Weeks Out… Round Two

That’s your lot for Round One, now the whole tournament goes on hiatus for a couple of months and we reconvene on drier tracks in the April.  Everyone take a deep breath.  As Group stages go, this was up there with the best of them.  Every week seemed to throw up something bizarre.  Indeed, the exact line-up went down to the very last phase.  With Cardiff having a lineout in the Racing 22, but then turning over and Racing almost breaking out for a try of their own, three possible outcomes were in play.  Try for Cardiff, and Cardiff were home to Clermont; try for Racing and Biarritz were playing Munster; no try (as it turned out) and Cardiff were playing Leinster.  Phew.  Here’s our final Heineken Cup Good Week/Bad Week.

Good Week
Frankie goes to Hollywood
It was a good weekend for Frankie. Firstly, in Galway on Friday night, he (astonishingly) wasn’t the worst commentator in view – his lead (whose name we can’t recall) spent the first 79 minutes patronizing Connacht, patting them on the head and thanking them for giving Quins a tough game – the realization that they had won came late in the day, and Frankie crowed like only he can. Then, on Sunday, his big prediction came true. Last Wednesday, he had anointed Peter O’Majesty the HEC Player of the Group Stages in his blog. Oh, how we scoffed, especially since Frankie himself had awarded one of the MOTM’s he referred to. We are big POM fans, but we didn’t agree with the hyperbole. Cue Sunday, and a breath-takingly good performance from the man himself and, while we don’t want to declare him the greatest player in world rugby just yet,  we’re pretty sure he looks the real deal. Frankie the sooth-sayer, we salute you! Wait, stop press, what’s this? Surely not a conflict of interest?
Who said Round Six was predictable?
One of the best (and worst) games of the group stages was in the Sportsground on Friday – a memorable victory for Connacht, and confirmation the Quins bubble has well and truly burst. Despite of the nail-biting and desperate attempts of both teams to lose, the real story on Friday was Gloucester beating 4-times winners Toulouse. Although they have a really gassy back 3, Gloucester are an average Premiership team. Toulouse , despite giving away a ridiculous early try, eased 17-7 in front. But that only inspired Gloucester to cut loose, and the Cherry and Whites ended up winning by 10 points. Make no mistake, this was a massive win – Toulouse are top of the Top 14 and looking menacing. Given Connacht and then Embra ensured Toulouse are not only through, but have a benign route to the semis, this result may be lost in the mists a little, but try telling that to Glaws.
On the Seventh Day, God created Fez
The sense of bathos surrounding Ulster’s quarter-final is a bit strange. I mean, they produced the best Irish performance yet in the Marcel Michelin – eschewing containment for an aggressive and fearless drive to win. Clermont’s initial superiority melted away, and only the impact of the Clermont bench, some uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Pienaar and a lack of true ruthlessness let them down. A win would have, incredibly, meant 3 home quarter-finals for Irish teams (although they would have played Toulouse). Instead, Ulster now await the bear-pit of Thomond Park, and have to address the toughest question of them all: do they have The Mental to win big games away from home? One fears it may be 2013 before we learn the answer, and they need only ask Northampton Saints about how much fun the glass ceiling can be if they don’t answer them correctly.

Bad Week


The Aviva Premiership Moaning Competition


It’s been a poor season for the Premiership teams, and expect a lot of headscratching (and even more carping) over the next week or so.  The Torygraph has already nailed its colours to the mast and wants to see a more meritocratic qualification system.  Paul Ackford has a right old whinge, but never offers any explanation explain why, Sarries aside, the Premiership teams have been so poor this year – Leicester got thrashed in Belfast, Bath in Dublin and Quins blew up when the pressure came on. Northampton Saints epitomised the malaise, with just two wins out of six, and showed a surprising lack of savvy.  They couldn’t see out a potentially seismic win in Munster, and on Saturday, couldn’t stay in the game when they were under the kosh.  Their team is breaking up this summer, and last season looks like their peak, rather than a springboard for success.


Leinster, Cardiff, Toulouse and Edinburgh


All are in the quarter-finals, but all pitted in the away half of the semi-final draw.  It remains the single biggest flaw in the quirky tournament – the difference between getting Toulouse, say, or Clermont home or away is a masive swing, and it’s all decided on pot luck.  This year, though, it mightn’t be as big an advantage as it looks.  Ulster have never played in the Palindrome, and Munster are zero from two there.  It’s a bigger advantage for Leinster to play there than either of the other Irish provinces, but that won’t be happening this year.  Sarries enjoy their trips to Wem-ber-ley, but it’s no fortress – Leinster have already gone there and won, without BOD.  Meanwhile, we’ve no record of Clermont playing in St. Etienne or Lyon.


Declan Kidney


Uncle Deccie will inherit the happiest 52-man squad in Irish history.  Hooray!  A record three provinces in the HEC knockouts, and Connacht finally ending their losing streak.  Munster finally found a cutting edge, Jamie Heaslip is at his marauding best, and Ulster have become men.  But with that comes heightened expectations.  Deccie will have to work extra-hard to turn this group of in-form players into the lateral-attacking, penalty-condecing, gameplan-confused, poorly selected side we’re used to seeing.  The real hard work begins now.

Ulster says… Maybe

After last Friday’s wonderful display in Ravenhill, Ulster have 19 points, and are sitting pretty on top of their pool. However, with a trip to the daunting Stade Marcel Michelin to come, where the home side have won 38 on the spin, they aren’t too confident of finishing there.
To rub salt into the wound, the Brethren, despite being the best runner-up to the tune of two points over Embra and three over Quins, appear to be outsiders to reach the last eight, as home games to London Samoa and away games to Connacht are slightly easier to navigate than away to the Bananamen.
However, given we are Maths nerds, and measure our self-worth in Fields Medals and not girlfriends, we’re going to try and quantify exactly how likely they are to become the third Irish province in Sunday’s semi-final draw, which will see Saracens get the home semi-final they need to guarantee a Twickers sell-out in May.
There are 4 ways Ulster can make it:
1.       Beating Clermont
2.       Losing by <7 with Quins not scoring 4 tries
3.       Losing by <5 and scoring same amount of tries as Clermont
4.       One or more of Toulouse, Quins, Cardiff and Embra losing
Options 2 and 3 are too hard to work out, and pretty unlikely anyway, so lets concentrate on 1 and 4.
Beating Clermont: According to the bookies, who are generally right, Clermont have an 85% chance of winning the game. This seems absurdly generous to us, so we are going to bump it up to 95%, and put some sneaky money on Les Jaunards to help heal the pain of the inevitable thumping. So Ulster have a 5% chance of winning.
One or more of Toulouse, Quins, Cardiff and Embra losing: This is easier to work out – unless all 4 win, Ulster are through. Therefore the probability of Ulster going through down this route is [ 1 – the probability of all 4 winning ].
Again, using the bookies as a benchmark, the probabilities of winning are as follows:
·         Toulouse (A Gloucester) – 70%
·         Quins (A Connacht) – 79%
·         Cardiff (H Racing Metro) – 90%
·         Embra (H London Samoa) – 83%
These all look reasonable, except the theory that Toulouse are most likely to choke. Toulouse tend to chug along in third gear for most of the pool stages, but rest assured they will crank it up if they need to. Let us bump that up to 90%.
So the probability of all 4 winning (assuming independence, for all you pedants out there) is  [90% * 79% * 90% * 83% ] = 53%. Therefore, Ulster have a 47% chance of qualifying, no matter what happens in France.
Taking into account that all 4 games could go against them, but they could win in Clermont, which has a probability of [ 5% * 53% ] = 3%. So, Ulster’s total chance of qualifying is … 50%! Given that Options 2 and 3 must have some positive value, we make Ulster slightly better than 50-50 to go through.  Hooray!  You heard it here first!  But still, talk about being on a knife edge.  The moral of the story is that it’s better to have the points in the bag than have a nerve-shredding must-win-or-lose-by-less-than-five-with-equal-tries game.
Let keep our fingers crossed that Disraeli’s nonsense about statistics doesn’t get proven right. Again.

Ireland 2008 Six Nations Squad Named – Easterby Omitted!

Question: Were you in New Zealand in September/October?

If the answer is yes, you can expect to be in Deccie’s core Six Nations squad, announced this lunchtime. If not, forget it. You could sum up the changes to the RWC 22 in one line: BOD is injured, so bring in Paddy Wallace and Ferg.
But as usual with all things Deccie (and don’t say we didn’t warn you!) the whole picture can be hard to see. There’s a 24-man squad, with six ‘additional players’ (translation: tackle-bag holders) who will train for the first week, and a 23-man Wolfhounds squad. There’s likely to be movement from one to the other, and you can’t hang your hat on a clear pecking order. Once the Wolfhounds game is out of the way, expect the six bag holders to make their way and six fresh young Wolfhounds to make their way up to the senior squad, but will they really and truly be in contention? Or will they simply be taking over the bag-holding. Therein lies the crux.
All said and done, this is yet another regressive squad from Deccie. Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings (a player Deccie never even fancied) and our dear friend Donncha are still in the 24 – leaving aside the fact it was announced Leo requires surgery this morning (Just what was the point in naming him in the squad?).  Cullen was just about international class at his peak, which is long past, and all three have been outperformed at provincial level. Paddy Wallace makes the cut despite playing just once (admittedly playing well) since returning from injury.
The worst case scenario here is that Deccie has decided on his matchday 22 already, with precious little of it based on this season’s form. How else to explain the presence of – you know it’s coming – Munster reserve lock Donncha O’Callaghan ahead of the marauding Dan Tuohy. If this does prove to be the pecking order, expect us to be very cross indeed. The more optimistic outcome (probably too optimistic) is that Deccie wants to see how the likes of Tuohy and maybe McCarthy or McLaughlin perform with the Wolfhounds before giving them their head at test level. But we won’t be holding our breath.
The Wolfhounds side itself isn’t that inspiring. The explosive Paul Marshall will have to content himself with playing for Ulster while Slow Hands gets another chance, despite showing no spark of form whatsoever. Anyone with eyes on their head could see Marshall is a better player. Isaac Boss, 31, is also selected – what more do we stand to learn about him?
We have just started a new RWC cycle, and Ireland have made zero unenforced changes, to a team which wasn’t exactly in the first flush of youth to begin with. We’re not calling for Lievremont-style experimentation, but we’d have thought this marked a line in the sand for older fringe players, and a time to bring in some new blood. Now, things might change through the tournament, but Deccie has given an early signal to the young tyros of Ireland that they will have to wait in the queue while their seniors play out their dotage. We can only be thankful that Darren Cave didn’t have to feel the disappointment of being left out.
Full squad(s):

Ireland Training Squad

Rory Best (Banbridge – Ulster)
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Tom Court (Malone – Ulster)
Sean Cronin (St.Mary’s College – Leinster)
Leo Cullen (Blackrock College – Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne – Leinster)
Keith Earls (Young Munster – Munster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon – Ulster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf – Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Naas – Leinster)
Shane Jennings (St.Mary’s College – Leinster)
Rob Kearney (UCD – Leinster)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere – Leinster)
Conor Murray (Garryowen – Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Clontarf – Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution – Munster)
Paul O’Connell (Young Munster – Munster)
Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution – Munster)
Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne – Leinster)
Mike Ross (Clontarf – Leinster)
Donnacha Ryan (Shannon – Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (St.Mary’s College – Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena – Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ballymena – Ulster)
Additional Players
Ian Nagle (Cork Constitution – Munster)*
Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution – Munster)*
Tiernan O’Halloran (Galwegians – Connacht)*
Paddy McAllister (Ballynahinch – Ulster)*
Andrew Conway (Blackrock College – Leinster)*
Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution – Munster)*

Wolfhounds

Stephen Archer (Cork Constitution – Munster)*
Isaac Boss (Terenure College – Leinster)
Gavin Duffy (Galwegians – Connacht)
Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College – Leinster)
Chris Henry (Belfast Harlequins – Ulster)
Denis Hurley (Cork Constitution – Munster)
David Kearney (Lansdowne – Leinster)*
Ian Keatley (Young Munster – Munster)
Ronan Loughney (Buccaneers – Connacht)*
Ian Madigan (Blackrock College – Leinster)*
Mike McCarthy (Buccaneers – Connacht)
Kevin McLaughlin (St.Mary’s College – Leinster)
John Muldoon (Galwegians – Connacht)
Tomas O’Leary (Dolphin – Munster)
Eoin O’Malley (Old Belvedere – Leinster)*
Rhys Ruddock (St.Mary’s College – Leinster)
Mike Sherry (Garryowen – Munster)*
Nevin Spence (Ballynahinch – Ulster)*
Devin Toner (Lansdowne – Leinster)
Dan Touhy (Ballymena – Ulster)
Damien Varley (Garryowen – Munster)
Brett Wilkinson (Galwegians – Connacht)*

Not considered due to injury:
Brian O’Driscoll, David Wallace, Darren Cave, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery, Eoin Griffen*, Denis Leamy, Niall Ronan.
N.B. * denotes uncapped player

 

Keep Calm and Carry On (Picking Donncha)

Deccie announces his Six Nations squad tomorrow.  It’s his first since the World Cup, in which he made a couple of bold, surprise calls for the squad.  Deccie doesn’t throw too many curveballs, and tends to give as little away as possible until the actual team has to be picked for the first game, so don’t expect to learn too much tomorrow.  Nonetheless, we expect a little culling around the fringes, with ageing tackle-bag holders moving aside for younger, fresher tackle-bag holders.

Last season he announced a 32-man squad as well as a 22 man Wolfhounds squad of players who were ‘still in contention for the first game’.  And sure enough, Tomas O’Leary played so well in the Wolfhounds’ defeat to Scotland that he gazumped all the other scrum halves to start against Italy, where he utterly justified his selection.  He must have, right, why else would they have stuck with him for the France game the week after?

Props
Senior Squad: Cian Healy, Tom Court, Tony Buckley, Mike Ross
Wolfhounds: Brett Wilkinson, Paddy McAllister, Stephen Archer
Thanks for the memories: Marcus Horan, John Hayes
Very much a case of ‘as you were’, with few alternatives emerging.  Lamentably, Tony Buckley, being used mainly as an impact sub by Sale, will make another senior squad, but can expect to be on Eddie Rockets duty.  Court maintains his hold on the No.17 jumper, as he can scrummage badly on both sides.  Paddy McAllister looks the real deal, despite injuries curtailing his impact, but should still make the Wolfhounds.  Brett Wilkinson is a mainstay at that level, and Jamie Hagan and Stephen Archer will fight it out for the last spot.  It could go either way.  Hayes has retired and Horan’s days as a test level prop are long since gone.  There’s little point in calling him up.
Hooker
Senior Squad: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Damian Varley
Wolfhounds: Adrian Flavin
With Flannery still out and Mike Sherry also injured, the cupboard is pretty bare beyond the first three.  Varley might have to play the Wolfhounds game before joining up with the main squad. Are we missing anyone? Except Nigel Brady obviously.
Second Row
Senior Squad: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callagan, Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner
Wolfhounds: Damian Browne, Ryan Caldwell
Thanks for the memories: Leo Cullen, Mick O’Driscoll
As we’ve already discussed at length, we can expect some change in this division, with Micko and Cullen making way for some bright young things.  Ryan, Toner and Tuohy have all stepped up admirably this season, and each deserve the chance to earn caps this Spring, even if its for 4 seconds.  It’ll be a case of one from the pack to partner the great O’Connell.  O’Callaghan will still make the senior squad, but his place as a mainstay in the team must be under pressure, with Ryan displacing him at Munster.  We suspect one of Tuohy or Toner may be sent down to help out with the Wolfhounds, before joining the main squad.  Failing that, Caldwell deserves to be reminded that he’s in the picture following some abrasive performances for Bath. One hopes Paddy McAllister’s lifting of Johann Muller has given him adequate muscular power to lift Damian the Hutt.
Back row
Senior Squad: Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Kevin McLaughlin, Peter O’Mahony, Mike McCarthy
Wolfhounds: Chris Henry, Willie Falloon, James “Cawlin” Coughlan, Rhys Ruddock
Injured: David Wallace, Niall Ronan
Thanks for the memories: Denis Leamy, Shane Jennings
With Denis Leamy hurt, it appears injury has once again been Ireland’s best selector.  It was surely time to cut the Munster reserve flanker loose anyway, as a Deccie mainstay he would probably have been called up again.  Likewise, Jennings’ time has surely passed.  Mike McCarthy has played some great rugby in a poor side, and Kevin McLaughlin is a solid presence and good lineout option.  Peter O’Mahony has had a positive impact with Munster, and should get the call, although whether he has been better than Chris Henry (who won’t make it) is a debate for another day.  All three will be scrapping for a place in the matchday squad.  James Coughlan would be an ideal candidate to captain the Wolfhounds, for whom Henry must be on the verge of breaking some kind of appearance record.
Scrum Half
Senior Squad: Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray, Isaac Boss
Wolfhounds: Paul Marshall, Tomas O’Leary
Thanks for the memories: Peter Stringer
Boss holds on to his squad place by his fingernails.  Paul Marshall has impressed hugely, but until he’s a nailed on starter with Ulster, may find the full breakthrough elusive.  Nonetheless, he deserves a chance to impress with the Wolfhounds.  Tomas O’Leary has started the season where he left off, i.e. playing dreadfully, despite Quinny’s assurances to the contrary on Saturday, and looks to be falling further off the radar. [Aside: while we have been impressed with Quinny’s musings in the IT, would truth-telling about Munster players get him banished from Club Ligind?]
Out Half
Senior Squad: Johnny Sexton, Ronan O’Gara
Wolfhounds: Ewan Madeegan, Ian Keatley
Thanks for the memories, such as they were: iHumph
The senior squad-members pick themselves.  In the Wolfhounds, as we’ve discussed here, it’s time for a look at the exciting talents of try-happy Ian Madigan in green.  iHumph departs the scene – a talented player, but one unlikely to make the step up to test rugby.
Centres & Utility Men
Senior Squad: Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden, Keet Earls, Darren Cave
Wolfhounds: Ian Whitten, Eoin O’Malley
Injured: Brian O’Driscoll
Yes, Paddy Wallace, but hold on for a sec …. the burning question first.  Just who will play 13?  We’ve been over it many times, and one thing’s for sure: we won’t find out tomorrow.  We’ll come back to this issue before the team announcement, but suffice to say Keet Earls’ awful performance on Saturday didn’t do him any favours.  Eoin O’Malley’s lack of recent gametime is likely to leave him out of contention, but he should get a run with the Wolfhounds.  We think Paddy Wallace will just about squeeze into the squad after a successful comeback on Friday night, where he hilariously dumped Lionheart Croft into touch.
Outside Backs
Senior Squad: Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble
Wolfhounds: Craig Gilroy, Denis Hurley, Dave Kearney, Tiernan O’Halloran
Thanks for the memories: Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy, possibly Gavin Duffy
A big welcome back to Luke Fitzgerald, whose return to form ensures a return to the squad.  He’ll be duking it out with Trimble to fill the 11 jersey, as we’re still assuming Keet will be picked in centre.  Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are nailed on starters. Gavin Duffy could make the seniors (he generally does) as a second specialist full-back, probably at the expense of Wallace or Cave.  A number of other good players are knocking on the door, but will have to settle for Wolfhounds action.  O’Halloran has caught the eye, while Simon Zebo hasn’t been included in our list, but could feature.  Hurley will provide security at 15.