All-Ireland Final

Phew, howzat for a weekend of rugby! The Pallas nerved their way around Porto on Saturday, relying on Tw*tter and t’interweb for updates, then crowded around a laptop screen today, chewing all fingernails to the quick.

The Eggs had a somewhat more conventional rugby weekend, with prawn sandwiches and beer at the Palindrome yesterday followed by a raucous night in town … with Poite! Retirement to the same Japanese stream as the Pallas Sunday afternoon was incredibly nerve-jangling – we can only sympathise with the Palla clan, who were last spotted wondering around the harbour in Porto in a daze.

So what did we learn this weekend? Let’s start with Ulster:

  • Ulster’s gameplan of giving the ball to Embra oh-so-nearly blew up in their face – the Scots, led superbly by Wee Greig, tossed the ball around with gay abandon for the first 40, and were very unlucky to go in behind (more of which anon). Ulster settled after half-time and choked Embra, playing territory and forcing them to make tackles
  • The Irish Prop Crisis ™ had a bad weekend – Declan Fitzpatrick, in his first start in a big game (at 28!) at times minced the all-international front row facing him – Ulster’s first 10 points came directly from him, and he will surely tour NZ as the backup tighthead. It’s good to see him fulfilling some of the promise of years gone by, and it’s hard to imagine Hagan, Loughney or Archer (his equivalents in the other provinces) faring as well
  • If the Northerners are to harbour genuine hopes of winning at Twickers, they simply must get Chris Henry back. Willie Faloon is that rare beast, a Genuine Openside, but he was conspicuous by his anonymity on Saturday – bossed by the Embra flankers, he fell off one too many tackles. We knew Ulster’s depth chart wasn’t good, but how far Faloon was off HEC standard came as a shock – you can see why Humph sent him to Connacht
  • Paddy Jackson was comprehensively outplayed by Wee Greig, but he can be relatively happy with his day. He played the full 80, stood up in defence and never looked completely at sea. When you have Pienaar and Wallace either side of you, you essentially have the luxury of not having to run the game for your side. He will have learned from the experience, and will start many many more HEC matches (sarting with the final)
  • Ruan Pienaar is an incredible player – anything he tried came off, goal-kicking, box-kicking, leadership. He is undoubtedly one of the superstars of world rugby, and Ulster’s key man – he’s the Rocky Elsom of 2012

As for Leinster .. what can you say. Of all the brilliant performances the team has produced down the years, this was the best, and the game itself was one of the highest quality that we can recall:

  • People talk about Championship Minutes, and boy do Leinster know when those are. At half-time they looked like they were teetering on the brink, one score away from being Saracened, but they came out of the blocks and had 10 points on the board within 7 minutes. This surge was the platform for keeping Clermont at arms length for 30 minutes, until the frenetic endgame, when they produced another 3 minutes of bravery to get over the line, typified by Sean O’Brien in the final phase
  • Clermont’s lack of experience at this level looked to be a factor – they had the winning of the game at half-time but failed to keep up the intensity while Leinster stepped up. When they needed to get a foothold in the game, their rhythm was disrupted by substitutions. Then, crucially, on 78 and 80 minutes, when it looked for all the world like they must score, they didn’t take their chances. A bit more dead-eyed composure is required next time – and there will be a next time
  • From minutes 40-75 , Leinster were virtually flawless. They pulled ahead and away on the scoreboard and took the crowd out of the equation. The team was forced up to this level by a brilliant side, but if they produce a spell like this in 3 weeks, Ulster are snookered. It would be remiss not to point out that Wayne Barnes’ leniency with Dorce following a cynical ruck offence helped them stay on top
  • Fortune favours the brave. In protecting narrow leads once the clock has ticked into the red it’s customary to stay well away from the ball at every ruck and just hope for an error by the opposition, but Sean O’Brien was having none of it.  Feet planted, he duly reached in and got his mitts on the ball to win the crucial turnover. Another penalty and it was card time, but he had the conviction to go for it and it was the match-winning play
  • Rob Kearney is from Mars. Whatever he’s having for breakfast, we want some
  • Stretching the arm out over the line and safely grounding it isn’t easy. Shane Horgan was the master of it with his shovel-like hands. Wesley Fofana didn’t quite have it.
  • Clermont continued their incremental progress in this competition – today’s experience will stand to them next year, when the rarified air of the last 4 won’t be as novel. A top seeding will mean an easier draw, and probably the introduction of HEC knock-out rugby to the iconic Stade Marcel Michelin and another last 4 visit. Rather like their accession to their first Top 14 title, expect them to crawl step by agonising step across the line over a period of what seems like millennia

It has been another memorable weekend in Irish rugger – 2 provinces will contest the HEC final for the first time, and 2 unforgettable occasions will live long in the memory. There’s no doubt Leinster are playing at a higher level than Ulster right now, but it will come down to a once-off game, and, lets be truthful, Ulster have to beat Leinster some time!  Let’s see if we can still be friends here at Cordite Towers in three week’s time…

Gerry’s Verdict

Huge news – Gerry wears his sunglasses in the office!

Also, he spends a minute moaning about Barnes, another 2 minutes bigging up Clermont, and goes for Leinster anyway (shock horror). It will be an all-Irish final if our muse gets it right.

 

HEC Semi Final Preview: Ulster v Edinburgh

Two unfashionable outposts of European rugby lock horns for a place in the final that seemed unlikely at the start of the season.  But they’re here now, so let’s get on with it.

History: The two sides crossed paths, and traded wins, in the 2009/10 season. A late try by – who else? – Tim Visser won the tie 17-13 for Embra at Murrayfield, while Cave and Isaac Boss crossed the whitewash in the return leg. Neither side advanced to the knockouts.  In this season’s Pro12, Ulster have dished out two thrashings to Edinburgh, wrapping up  four-try bonus points in both legs.

Form: Edinburgh are the two-headed hydra of European rugby this season.  Abysmal in the Pro12, where they lie 11th and regularly roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled, they come to life in the Heineken Cup. Watchers of Connacht will recall Michael Bradley’s strategy of targeting particular games and dining out on fifty-burgers in others: well, he has taken that to the nth degree this season. WoC has always been dismissive of the argument that the English and French are stymied by being in more arduous leagues, partly because Munster and Leinster, the Pro12s traditional challengers in Europe, are competitive in the league and see it as a trophy worth winning.  But Edinburgh’s attitude does bring into question whether a more merit based qualification system is in order.  Their results since beating Toulouse are a 54-10 reverse at the RDS and a 38-13 beating by a pretty ordinary Cardiff Blues side, but little should be read into those scorelines; they weren’t trying a leg.

Ulster haven’t exactly killed themselves in the fortnight since beating Munster either.  Their seconds got beaten by Connacht, with Ian Humpreys putting in a distracted, lazy performance, and lost at home to Leinster with something more like their first team, but minus heavy hitters Tuohy, Best and Ferris.  But at least their losses were respectable.  It’ll be a different team which takes the field on Saturday.  Ulster’s strength in depth has come up just short in mounting a challenge in the Pro12, but they are a team transformed when Ferris and Best are in the side.

Gameplan: Edinburgh will want it loose, open and broken up.  They look to keep the ball alive and offload wherever possible.  Their two props offloaded more than any other forwards in the pool stages.  They’ve good carriers in their pack, with No.8 Netani Talei ably abetted by Ross Ford (no longer flattering to deceive) and David Denton, fresh off an impactful Six Nations.  Ross Rennie will look to rule the breakdown area.  In the half-back division, Mike Blair is still something of a headscratcher, and it puzzles WoC to this day how he went from brilliant to awful seemingly overnight some time around 2009.  The centres are average, but they’ve plenty of threat with Tim Visser out wide.  Give him some grass to run into and his big long arms are capable of some of the best hand-offs in the game.  Dude knows where the tryline is.

Ulster will want a more structured game, but they also play a brand of rugby that’s good to watch.  As discussed in the week, they look to their classy 9-10-12 axis to spread the ball wide and quickly, and get their strike runners into space.  A call has to be made at 10, where little iHumph is woefully out of form.  Paddy Jackson is inexperienced, but showed flashes of his talent against Leinster.  With Marshall probably missing, the option of moving Pienaar to 10 looks to be a non-starter.  McLoughlin’s a conservative fellow, and it would be a remarkable call if he threw young Jackson in for his first Heineken start in the semi-final.  Could it be a Johnny Sexton moment?  Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble is good at coming off his wing and looking for work (by work, we mean opportunites to bosh).  They’ve a tough, granite-hewn pack with Wannenbosh and Stephen Ferris expected to provide plenty of hard yards.  Best and Tuohy will be required to chip in.  Hard carries up the middle, spread it out wide.  Simple, and if accurate, pretty effective.

Prediction: It’s hard to see past Ulster.  It’s in Dublin, they’ve come here the hard way, and you can’t help but feel Embra got through a bit of a Group of Dearth.  We’re not expecting it to be easy, though.  For all the supposed experience of Ulster’s World Cup Winning South Africans, they didn’t show much composure down in Thomond Park – they really just gutsed it out.  This time the onus will be on them to play a bit more rugby.  They won’t have it all their own way, but they should be able to grind down an Edinburgh side that appears to lack the sort of grizzled leaders to win this game.  Grizzled leaders like Rory Best and Johann Muller.  Ulster by 7.

HEC Semi-Final Preview: Clermont v Leinster

It’s semi-final weekend and these are nervous times in Cordite Towers.  In order to remove the overrunning emotion from the occasion, bible-thumping Ulsterman Egg Chaser is going to brush the chip off his shoulder and preview Clermont v Leinster, while cappuccino-slurping D4TRESS-regular Palla Ovale will look at the Ulster v Edinburgh Big Match Special.

Clermont v Leinster

History: Lots of recent history. In the 2010 quarter-final, Leinster triumphed 29-28 in a memorable game in which Brock James missed 5 kicks and 2 drops at goal – Clermont did everything but win, and their fans would go down as one of the best (and the most naked) sets of away fans to visit D4.

In the following season’s group stages, they beat each other at home – a heroic away performance by Leinster set the tone for a dominant tournament, and their denying of a losing bonus point to Clermont put them in the driving position in the pool. Back in the day (2003), Leinster did the double over Montferrand.

Form: Both teams are on the top of their game, and, with due respect to Uster and Embra, would be likely finalists if they avoided each other at this stage.

At domestic level, Clermont are joint top of the Top 14 with Toulouse, miles clear of Toulon in third. They have the best defensive record in France, and have won every game at home – in fact they are unbeaten in 42 games at home. In Europe, they came through top of a tough pool which looks even tougher in retrospect. Leicester, who have 6 bonus point victories on the trot in England, could only finish 3rd; and fellow semi-finalists Ulster were runners-up. In the quarter-final, Saracens were ground into the dirt in an intimidating statement – putting to bed suspicions from some of the underpants brigade (©Farrelly Productions) that they lacked the mental.

Leinster have been opening cans of whoop-ass all over the Pro12 this season, despite resting most of their big players for the tournament. They have already secured top seeding for the playoffs and the home advantage throughout that that entails, and are hot favourites to take it home. This year’s HEC campaign has been a bit of a stroll, especially in comparison to last year, winning all 3 home games by half time and grinding out 2 wins and a draw away without having to hit top gear. In the quarter-final, a divided Cardiff side were eviscerated. Leinster are undefeated in their last 13 HEC games, dating back to last year’s loss in … Clermont.

Gameplan: Joe Schmidt would, uinder normal circumstances, start with Leinster ‘away’ team for a game like this, with McLaughlin, O’Brien and Boss included from the start, and Jennings and Reddan coming in to inject pace on the hour mark. However, its hard to see how rope-a-dope will work – Clermont are no Bath or Glasgow – so Leinster’s best chance probably comes from getting some pace into the game – Reddan is likely to start on Sunday.

The away template tends to consist of territory and playing it tight, but, again, giving Clermont the ball is not a strategy thats likely to succeed. Leinster will look to put pace on the ball, playing to their strengths. Expect the Leinster flankers to try and put some heat on Morgan Parra – if the matinee idol genius is ratty, Clermont tend not to be at their best. With some-guy-called-Brian (© G. Thornley) back and Schmidt’s knowledge of Clermont’s players, expect rock solid defence. Shane Jennings and Heinke van der Merwe will be the first substitutes on to the pitch, and Leinster will look to take advantage of any gaps opening up.

Clermont have a plan of terrible beauty and it’s oh so simple. Firstly, deny Leinster clean possession at scrum and ruck time with their gargantuan pack. They will want to see Reddan taking the ball going backwards and the Leinster fowards having to put in a huge amount of work to protect ball. Secondly, when they do have the ball, expect the creative inside backs to shift ball quickly to onrushing huge powerful backs (Rougerie, Sivivatu, Malzieu) and force Leinster to make big tackles. It’s a fearsome side and one that just pounds mercilessly until they get their reward. Cotter will shift in some powerful beasts after 50 minutes – Vincent Debaty was sensational against Ulster, turning the tide when it looked like Clermont were in a spot of bother, and the bench will be of top quality.  Look out for our new favourite bright young thing, Jean-Marcel Buttin.

Prediction: This one will be epic. Quinny said in the IT today that semi-finals can be grinding affairs, but we think that more applies to finals – there have been some memorable games at this stage: Munster-Leinster (twice), Leinster-Toulouse, Munster-Wasps, Leicester-Cardiff. However, this one is not going to be a try-fest, both teams will be content to have the last man standing.

When facing a baying crowd of Auvergnats (yes, we know its in Bordeaux, but don’t expect it to be anything but intimidating), the first 20 minutes are crucial – Leinster came flying out of the traps last year with an early Shaggy try, and Ulster bent but did not break in January. If you get past that, you have a chance. A small chance.

Clermont’s stated mission is to win this year’s Heineken Cup – this season, they have come through four games tougher than Leinster have faced (Ulster H & A, Leicester A, Saracens A) due to the champions’ somewhat powder-puff draw. Leinster had their quarter-final wrapped up inside half an hour, and proceeded to practice defence for most of the second half.  It’s not the greatest habit to get into.  If Leinster are not immediately at the intensity of the second half of last years semi-final, they won’t win, despite more experience at this heady level. Away to a gnarled set of huge and driven opponents, and with a creaking lineout, we have Leinster slightly odds-against.

They’ll ask plenty of questions of Clermont, and when the going gets tough they’ll hang in through pure muscle memory but they might come up just short – we’re going for Clermont by less than a score.

Twelve by Four

There’s a bit of uncertainty over who exactly will be turning out in the 12 jumpers for the Irish provinces this weekend.  Ulster and Leinster’s coaches both in a pickle, but it’s a different kind of pickle.

Bad Pickle

First to Ulster, whose pickle eased yesterday evening when they revealed that Paddy Wallace should be fit to play.  Phew!  Poor Paddy is something of a punchbag for Irish rugby fans.  There are plenty who will always remember him as the chap who almost gave away the grand slam, or the fellow whose face got mashed into horrible gargoylian shapes earlier in that same tournament.  But here at Cordite Towers we recognise that he’s a superb creative 12 with one of the best passes in the country.  In an age of bosh-‘em-up crash-test-rugby, he’s a proper footballer, y’know, one with like actual skills and stuff.  I know, weird!  Unfashionable he may be, but he’s been Ireland’s form 12 this calendar year.

He’s also crucial to Ulster’s gameplan.  Ulster look to get the ball wide quickly, and use their 9-10-12 axis – smooth passers all – in midfield to work the ball swiftly across the pitch.  Craig Gilroy’s try  vs. Munster was a classic case in point.  Pienaar and iHumph absolutely fling the ball from right to left, getting it across the openside (created by Trimble boshing through O’Gara) in just two passes to take out the narrow defence.  Although Paddy wasn’t involved on this occasion (he was clearing out the ruck (!) after Trimble’s bosh) he is generally central to this sort of attacking ploy.  On Friday night, he threw one such peach of a pass into the onrushing Gilroy’s arms early in the game.  All while suffering a migraine and visual disturbances.

Rewind to Ulster’s 20-9 defeat to Leicester in Welford Road earlier this season.  Shortly afterwards, we were even moved to write this piece.  It might seem strange now, but at the time we were genuinely concerned about Ulster’s season petering out to nothing.  Paddy Wallace was injured back then (so was Pienaar, which wasn’t helping either) and Nevin Spence was playing at 12.  Rather than working the ball wide, Ulster were looking to truck it up the middle at every turn, and with little success.  Tries were hard to come by against good teams.  Not any more – they’re second top scorers in the Pro12, and have been prolific in the H-Cup too.  A fit P-Wal allows Ulster to play their natural wide game; without him they’re narrower and more predictable.  Leinster had plenty of joy getting Dave Kearney around his man on the wing against Edinburgh Friday before last, and while it would be foolhardy to read too much into an eight-try turkey shoot, this is a game made for Paddy’s ball skills to get Gilroy on the front foot.  Take those Hedex tablets, Padser.

Good Pickle

Joe Schmidt is in the sort of pickle you want as a coach – both his international 12s are fit and raring to go.  Who to choose?  I like Gordon D’arcy… but I like Fergus McFadden too… there’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

Whoever gets the nod will be going up against Wesley Fofana of the winged feet – a little jewel of a player.  D’arcy has looked more like his old self since getting his mainstay back beside him, but he still doesn’t pack the punch of the old D’arcy.  His feet are still quick, and he’s good at tidying up sloppy ball, but the linebreak threat is lacking.

Yet again, Fergus McFadden put his hand up for selection in Ravers on Friday night.  Having made a splendid impact against Munster and smashed all sorts of holes in the Embra defensive line recently, this was another performance full of hard running and gainline successes.  He must surely be closer than ever to passing out D’arcy, and finally getting selected for a knockout game.  However, like Spence, he’s a bit of a bosher.  He’s not short of gas, but loves nothing more than getting the head down and ploughing through contact.  His passing could be described as rough-and-ready.  Is he dynamic enough for the type of game Leinster need to take to Clermont – lightning fast, sleight of both foot and hand?  We suspect the old guard in midfield won’t be broken up just yet.

Wallace, presuming he’s fit, and D’arcy to start, then.  The age of the bosher is getting closer, but it’s still hanging by the telephone.

Johne Murphy … Zhonnee Moorfee … Nul Points

It’s that time of the year again – awards time, when professionals get to tell each other how great they are, and everyone can feel good about themselves no matter how rubbish they are – even London Samoa get to have a player of the year.

Over in Blighty, Ooooooooohh Brad Barritt and Ooooooooohh Jordan Turner-Hall get to fight it out with Oooooooooohh Matt Banahan for Most Over-rated Bosher, in France Lionel Beauxis and David Skrela compete for Most Disappointing Ten, and over here in Ireland, rank parochialism means the usual provincial carve-up of the big prizes.

The process is that a committee at IRUPA pick 3 names and the players vote along provincial lines for their choice. This year’s nominees for the Big Boys Cup were Fez, Bob and Radge; and for the Toddlers Prize its O’Mahoney, Gilroy and Madigan. Tiernan O’Halloran would doubtless have got nominated were he not based in (Hell or) Connacht, but it would be hard to find fault with the nominees, with one caveat – ROG.

A bit like the nomination of Piri Weepu for IRB Player of the Year, the nomination of ROG seems to be based purely on column inches – the man’s preference for the dramatic has played in his favour. We’re not naive enough to think that the committee didn’t just select the best Munster player (in their eyes), but it’s a bit of a farce – O’Gara is still a fine, massively important player for Munster, but this hasn’t been a vintage year for him, late drop goals aside.

ROG had an ok World Cup – playing better than Sexton in the group stages, but having an utter shocker in the quarter-final. In the HEC, his impact was huge, but more due to dramatic fireworks than sustained excellence.  He spluttered rather than strutted at times in the group round, along with the rest of the team and conspicuously failed to fire against Ulster. He was a peripheral figure in the Six Nations, where he didn’t start any games and didn’t score a single point.  There were a few more deserving contenders within Munster:

  • Paul O’Connell. Superman wears Paul O’Connell pyjamas etc. Well, he probably does after this year. O’Connell seemed to be carrying Munster on his shoulders at times this season, and was comfortably their stand-out player in the HEC. At international level, he continues to astound – like the best locks these days (Bakkies, Shawsy, Nallet, Thorn), he appears to be peaking in his early 30s. Long may this last.
  • Keith Earls. Played like a drain in the World Cup warm-ups, then like silk in the group stages, before missing 5 of 8 tackles against the Welsh. Come 6N time, he grew into you-know-who (© G Thornley)’s shirt and has (finally) shown some real development as a player – his (and the Irish 13 jumper’s) future looks brighter than it did in August.
  • Donnacha Ryan. Displaced Stakhanov from the Munster HEC team, and has added some aggression and dog to the pack that the newbies behind him have yet to develop, excepting POM. Had a curious Six Nations, in which he was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament, yet failed to displaced Teacher’s Pet despite being laughably superior. It would be remiss, however, not to mention that it’s unlikely Big Jim, Johann Muller or James Horwill would be speared by their opposite numbers.

Still, at least ROG’s nomination gave David Kelly the chance to erroneously claim that it meant O’Gara’s peers rated him higher than Sexton, and it has given us a reason to rant. We can only assume the committee used the following criteria:

  • Impact at international level (5%)
  • Impact in Heineken Cup (25%)
  • Impact on fawning domestic media (25%)
  • Impact on YouTube viewing figures (45%)

By that logic, Tom Croft is the best player in the world. To balance the ledger, let us show you the reason ROG is on the list – note: we think its official to refer to this as epic…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFJ65Og3A2o

P.S. at the Sunday Times round table, one of the panellists said that referees were given a notification to clamp down on sealing off and players going in off their feet after that game – it’s not the first time Munster’s sealing tactics have resulted in a new diktat from on high.  You can’t but be impresssed by Munster’s ability to bend the game to their will, but while they may have won the Northampton battle, they lost the Ulster war partly thanks to Paddy O’Brien being distinctly unamused at Owens’ home-towning.

Upriver about 75 clicks past the Do Lung bridge

When you read the Sunday Times chummy round table debates, you can almost feel your skin crawl with cringe – Barnesy telling Guscott how much weight he has put on, Jones laughing about annoying the Irish, yawn who cares. Well, they are much more fun live. We were lucky enough to be drawn out of the Sunday Times competition hat for free tickets for the HEC edition on Tuesday night, and it was a great lark.

Here’s our intel report:

One and a half hours of fun, and one imagines the transcript in Sunday’s paper won’t contain some of Barnesy’s more enjoyable rants, and there was more free Heineken than Dave Pearson could shake his white stick at – what’s not to like?

The first thing we noted was the audience demographic – white, professional and well-fed. Stop press, eh? Then we settled down to the debate, which was thoroughly enjoyed. Let’s rates the participants to within an inch of their lives.

Miles Harrison (compere) 3/5 – Miles has the voice that you recognise, but certainly not the face – he’s like a cross between George Bush senior and Rodrigo Roncero – but he knows his stuff. In a nation used to the likes of McGurk, it was great to see a debate where the host listened to the experts, and even let them finish what they were saying! Sounds easy, but there are many that can’t do it. Miles let the debate flow perfectly, and all that was missing was the half-octave higher that he goes when Manu Tuilagi gets the ball. Points were lost for a tad too much overt mateyness and in-jokes with Barnesy.

Peter O’Reilly (Sunday Times) 4/5 – O’Reilly is a comparitive rarity in Irish rugby journalism in that he himself isn’t the story. The quiet intelligence you can see in his pieces are certainly reflected in his prose and person – thoughtful, erudite and knowledgeable. He often tempered the stronger opinions of the other panelists and brought a more analytical perspective when occasionally others resorted to something approaching bombast. Plus he is a former Irish international … in cricket. Our money is on him being a upper middle-order batsmen who knows how to tame bowlers and can bat time – think Mike Hussey.

Tyrone Howe (Token Ulsterman) 3/5 – Tyrone was most definitely the grey man on the panel, but, as befits a former public representative, he’s a good speaker, and didn’t seem too  pissed off about getting the least airtime from Miles. A hint of inner steel/Ulster bitterness came as he excorciated Deccie for continually picking one player who couldn’t even get a game for his province while ignoring eminently better qualified candidates. We’ll let you guess who he was referring to…

Stuart Barnes (Oooooooooohh) 6/5 – Barnesy’s performance wasn’t just the highlight of the night, but quite possibly the highlight of life itself. When the man took to the podium swilling a glass of Bordeaux, you just knew it was going to be one of the Guinness books, and he didn’t let anyone down. Truly the life and soul of the debate, Barnesy was opinionated, intelligent and thoughtful without ever straying into “Pick Harrison Brewer!!” foaming-at-the-mouth territory. His thoughts on English rugby were fascinating, and he intruiged the audience with his non-Irish perspective on why Embra and Clermont could spoil the party – indeed, Egg has started stitching together a voodoo doll of Wee Greig on the back of it.

Shane Byrne (Leinster through and through) 3/5 – Munch was very much looked forward to by us, but he only shone in patches. Took a while to settle and seemed content to be the butt of Miles’ jokes for the first 30 minutes. He redeemed himself with some superbly insightful commentary on the front row, and how the usual Hook-esque quick fixes just won’t work. He dovetailed well with Howe when they considered the relative merits of province and country – you could feel the comfort zone being left behind as they spoke.

Audience (well-heeled) 1/5 –  After an hour, Miles turned the mike over to the hoi polloi, and they showed exactly why they were the ones who aren’t on the tellybox. The first question was a moan from a Munster fan about Poite (in the context of the semi-final refereeing appointments) – Barnesy jumped straight down his throat, refusing to countenance any of it, and putting him back in his box with the force of a Stephen Ferris tackle. Then the rest of the questioning turned into a Leinster love-in, ranging from the Pulitzer-bothering “Johnny Sexton is class, isn’t he lads?” and “Brock James will definitely choke, right Barnesy?” to the slightly more interesting “Joe Schmidt has to be Lions coach, doesn’t he?” and, more enjoyably, “Why can’t Deccie do what Joe does?”.

When it came to calling the semis, we do not wish to scoop the ST, especially O’Reilly, who has been good to us, but let’s say both of us left with a sickening feeling that there was trouble around the corner.

To wrap it up, and again keeping what goes on tour on tour, let us just say that the highlight of the night was when somebody said:

You’re sitting there watching Sale Sharks against Worcester and its 6-9 and you’re just thinking ‘Why are you so shit?’

We’ll leave it with you to guess who.

Trawling the World

Last week Ronan O’Gara urged Munster to trawl the world for the best possible head coach.  The search has turned up two names: ITM Cup side Canterbury ‘s head coach Rob Penney and Counties Manakau head coach Tana Umaga.  Some trawl.  Penney was interviewed yesterday, and Umaga rolls into town today.  Following Ulster’s appointment of Mark Anscombe, the Irish provinces certainly appear to be putting a lot of stock in the ITM Cup, which is the second tier of New Zealand rugby.

A little while ago, we ventured that Munster might find it difficult to recruit a top name, given the timeframe involved, Foley’s obvious stature as head coach in waiting, and the difficult transitional job involved (notwithstanding the obvious lure of a great club with a fine tradition and a fanatical, if expectant fanbase).  This appears to have come to pass.

Given the only argument being held against Foley is his lack of experience, Tana Umaga would be a bizarre appointment.  He was a failure at Toulon, and has nothing else on his CV to recommend him.  Even as a backs-coach appointment to work in tandem with Foley, they would look an oddly fresh-faced team.  Rob Penney is predominantly a forwards coach, so he would appear to dovetail poorly with Foley.

The decision not to interview Eddie O’Sullivan (backs coach par excellence) looks strange.  Another backs-oriented old hand like Brian Ashton, who has no head coach ambitions and an excellent record as a No.2, is another who would fit well with Foley, but doesn’t seem to have been in the frame.

Unless the Munster Branch have a trick up their sleeves that they’re not telling us about, the job is obviously Foley’s, and the recruiting process has all the hallmarks of a whitewash.

Play-off Shakedown

We’re down to the business end of the season in Europe’s major domestic leagues.  With a couple of rounds to go, there’s still quite a lot hanging in the balance.  Here’s how it’s shaping up in each of Europe’s major leagues.

Rabo Pro 12

Four teams qualify for the semi-finals, with superior league position dictating home advantage right through to the final.

Home and hosed: Leinster have a home semi-final, and are assured of topping the log.  Having lost the final in the last two years there might be a feeling of unfinished business.

Looking good: Ospreys are second and have some momentum behind them.  They beat Leinster at the RDS recently and won away to the Blues this weekend.  With Dragons and Aironi to play in their last two games, they should hold on to second place.

Jockeying for position: It’s two from four between Munster, Glasgow, Ulster and Scarlets, in that order.  Glasgow have the kindest run-in, with Treviso and Connacht standing in their way.  Ulster have the toughest, with Leinster due at Ravers on Friday and their last game a trip to Thomond Park (another handy six point win, right?).  Munster’s other game is away to Scarlets.  Win either and their passage should be secure, but they’d like to avoid the RDS in the semi-final.

Semi-final line-up: Ospreys, Glasgow and Munster to win all their remaining games, leaving us with Leinster v Glasgow and Ospreys v Munster. Our Southern cousins (literally in Egg’s case) might not want to hear it, but we think a repeat of the 2010 final is on – Leinster-Ospreys in the Oar Dee Esh.

Top Catorze

Three rounds to go here, and six teams get to keep their hopes alive, with a mini-quarter final between the 3rd-6th placed sides determining the semi-final line-up.  Semi-finals are played in Toulouse and the final in Paris.  It looks like a bit of a reprise of last year’s line up, with five of the same six set for qualification.  Swap out Biarritz for Toulon and it’s the same teams, if not necessarily in the same order.

Home and hosed: Toulouse and Clermont have not only qualified, but have assured themselves of home semi-finals.  They are joint-top with 78 points, some 15 ahead of third placed Toulon.

Looking good: Toulon are third and are looking on track for home ties in the quarter-final stage.

Jockeying for position: Montpellier are just a point behind Toulon, but have to travel to both Toulouse and Clermont.  This weekend they whupped Lyon’s hides, with Gorgodzilla scoring a hat trick.  Their only home game is against a somewhat rejuvenated Biarritz.  After that it’s three points back to Racing Metro and Castres.  Racing face Stade at home and travel to Agen and Biarritz in their last three games.  And Castres have two home games left, so it would be no surprise if one or both of them inched ahead of Montpellier.  Stade Francais are 7th, but it’s hard to see them making up a sizeable six-point gap to Castres above them – they’ll have to content themselves with a place in the HEC next year.

Quarter final line-up: Toulon v Montpellier and Racing v Castres, with Toulouse and Clermont awaiting the winners, and the way they have been playing, they will see each other in Paree.

Oooooooooooooohhh Aviva Premiership

Two rounds to go, and the semi-finals could have a fresh look to them this year, with a couple of new entrants capable of joining the likely lads, Leicester and Saracens.

Home and hosed: Not quite there just yet, but Quins have all but secured a home semi-final.  After a barnstorming first half of the season, things have tailed off a little for Conor O’Shea’s men, but they’ve done enough to stay perched at the top.  They currently lead by six points.

Looking good: Those loveable scamps Saracens have been there or thereabouts all season.  They won the thing last year, but dropped to third last weak.  They’re still nailed on for a semi-final, but look set to miss out on home advantage.  The team that usurped them are the Leicester Tigers.  Tigers lost five of their first six games, suffering particularly heavily for providing so many players to the World Cup.  However, they’ve only been beaten once since then, and are finishing the season like a train.  They have five try-bonus point wins on the trot, Toby Flood is back to his immaculate best and they’re by a distance the top try-scorers in the league, with 63.  This weekend they dished out some serious pain to Northampton in the Gardens.  Next up it’s a trip to the Stoop, and a chance to lay down a marker against the league leaders.  It would be foolish to bet against them.

Jockeying for position: Exeter Chiefs are the story of the season.  The plucky boys from Devon don’t have many household names (translation: we’ve never heard of most of their team, though Tom Hayes, brother of John, does line out in their second row), but find themselves in the lofty position of fourth.  A place in next year’s Heiny Cup has been secured, and if they could squeeze into the playoffs, well, it would be a remarkable achievement.  They’ve a beastly run in though.  Their rivals for the fourth place are Northampton Saints, the very side they play this Sunday.  It’s in Sandy Park; and it’s pretty much a winner takes all affair.  Should Exeter lose, Saints will finish above them, as they’re at home to Worcester in the final round, while Exeter must travel to Saracens.

Semi-final line-up: We’re believers in romance.  Harlequins vs. Exeter and Leicester vs. Saracens. You would fancy the Tigers with their momentum to get to (another) final, and what price Exeter to join them? – Quins are teetering right now….

Casualty Ward

On hearing the Tommy Bowe and James Cawlin injury news last week, our minds casted back to our last Southern Hemisphere tour – to New Zealand and Oz in 2010. It was a similar type of season to the current one – a shorter summer than usual for the top players (Lions Tour 2009, RWC warm-ups 2011), 2 Irish teams in the HEC semis, 2 Irish teams in the Magners/Rabo playoffs (in all likelihood) – and we were decimated by injuries, particularly in the pack, where even Ed O’Donoghue got picked.  We’re bracing ourselves for an attritional end-of-season.

That tour was 2.5 tests (counting the Maori as half a test, even though caps were not awarded), so this one will be more intense – expecting the front-liners to play three Tests in NZ in two weeks is asking a lot (Admittedly, on the rotation front, Deccie’s penchant is not for turning). Also, it would be normal to expect more season-ending injuries than the ones already announced, so we thought we would cast an eye forward, look at the players capped on that tour, and see what we can expect (or fear) in June.

Note: we are taking the selection hierarchy as per Deccie – for example, Stakhanov would be #1 choice at 4, not #4 choice as advocated by some of the underpants brigade (including us).

So, lets start by looking at who played in 2010, in order of Deccie preference and by position – we’ll start with the backs:

15: Kearney – 2, G. Murphy – 1

14, 11: Bowe – 2, Fitzgerald (inj.) – 0, Earls (inj.)- 0, Trimble – 2, Horgan – 1, J. Murphy – 1

13: You-know-who – 2, Duffy – 1

12: Dorce – 1, P. Wallace – 2

10: Sexton – 2, ROG – 1

9: O’Leary – 2, Reddan – 1

All-in-all, not bad, and a very good cadre of replacements. Of that lot, you’d only fear for sending Duffy and Johne Murphy into the House of Pain. Neither will make the squad of course, nor will Horgan (retired), Geordan Murphy (retired from Deccie-land) or O’Leary (gone to pot). Jones, Gilroy, Cave, Little Kearney and O’Halloran should go if injuries take a similar toll. Murray will be the scrum-half.

If backs decide how much matches are won by, it’s forwards who decide who wins. And the situation up front was … er … grizzly. If you are feeling squeamish, look away now.

1: Healy – 2, Horan – 1

2: Flannery – 0 (inj.), Best – 0 (inj.), Cronin – 2, J. Fogarty – 1

3: Hayes – 0 (inj.), Buckley – 2 (inj. in last test), Court – 1

4: O’Callaghan – 2, Cullen – 0 (inj.), Tuohy – 1

5: O’Connell – 0 (inj.), O’Driscoll – 2, O’Donoghue – 1

6: Ferris  – 0 (inj.), Leamy – 0 (inj.), McLaughlin – 0 (inj.), Muldoon – 1 (inj. in 1st test), Henry – 0 (needed at 8), Ruddock – 1, Ronan – 1

7: D. Wallace – 1 (inj. in 1st test), O’Brien – o (inj.), Jennings – 1, Ronan – 1

8: Heaslip – 1 (suspendedafter 1st test), Leamy – 0 (inj.), Henry – 2

Grim – that’s 13 forwards out.  We were down to (at least) the 3rd choice guy in 7 positions to get through the tour, and the seventh choice blindside. Picture an equivalent perfect storm of injuries/suspensions as above, replicated with today’s pecking order and we’d rule out: Best, Cronin, Ross, Court, O’Connell, Ryan, Ferris, O’Brien, Leamy, O’Mahony, Jennings, Heaslip and Coughlan.  Ireland could take the field for the final test with a pack of:

Healy, Varley, Archer, O’Callaghan, McCarthy, McLaughlin, Henry, Ruddock

with Sherry, Hagan, Tuohy and Muldoon in reserve.

Ouch!