The 1973 Barbarians were Rubbish

At first glance, today’s Breakdown just looked too boring to read. But after a particularly heavy burrito, early afternoon snooziness was setting in, so we tackled it.

And boy were we glad – it’s a great episode. It looks at some statistics from modern rugger, and makes interesting comparisons to days of yore (the sideburns, muck and no tries era). The stat that caught our eye was this:

Between 1971 and 1973, including the Barbarians against New Zealand …. the average match then generated 101 set pieces, 63 lineouts and 38 scrums, and there were 31 rucks/mauls. In the 2000 Six Nations, the set-piece number had dropped to 58 (31 lineouts, 27 scrums), and the rucks/mauls totalled 116. This year, lineouts and scrums were down to 37 (23 lineouts, 14 scrums, only eight of which saw the ball used) and rucks/mauls had risen to 181.

Just another 37 of these to go, chaps

Sixty three lineouts! Thirty eight scrums!! And remember, lineouts were a shambles in those days (see our Tw*tter/F*cebook profile pics) – the games must have been rubbish. So much for the grass-was-greener brigade. Even if there happened to be a game in the 1970s were someone beat a drink-sodden touring side and made a play about it, the game must have been desperately poor to watch, despite its reported attendance of 580,000. It shows the strides made, especially since the RWC began (the amateur era versus the shamateur and professional era if you like).

It got us thinking – what are the best and worst things about modern-day rugby? Here’s our thoughts:

The good:

  • Ruck turnovers, especially when a ravenous forward pack drive over a tiny marrooned back
  • The lineout – a soaring catch and quick offload is a thing of pure beauty
  • Offloads by tight forwards – who can’t help but smile when one of the fatties shows hands of silk. Mushy specialises in this, but loses points for being rubbish in the tight 
  • Backline tries in the corner – think anything by Girvan Dempsey
  • Linebreaks in broken field – sending a lithe centre through a non-existent gap in the blitz and seeing acres of green .. beautiful
  • The scrum .. when it works (1% of the time)

The Bad:

  • Ham-fisted lateral shunting across a backline – like Ireland 2011
  • Ineffective rucking – seeing your tight forwards make no  impression on a wall of  opponents is seriously dispiriting and begs the question what they do all day in training
  • Carries for 0 metres that end up using 4 forwards in a ruck against 1 opponent – utterly brainless in this time of tactical planning
  • Inept handling by professionals – get some practise in already!
  • Players in specialist positions who can’t specialise – O’Leary or Banahan spring to mind
  • The scrum .. when it doesn’t work (99% of the time)

End of the Pier Affair

The Amlin Cup has narrowed down to an all-French mid-table affair – a sort of mini-Top 14 5th place playoff.  While the Heineken Cup has been low on French might this season, the Amlin quarter finals were home to some impressive end-of-the-pier powerhouses. 

Toulon smashed an injury-hit Harlequins to smithereens and Biarritz’ seconds went to Wasps and won, albeit while doing their very best to let the Londoners back into a won game.  Brive and Stade ground out their wins, with Stade in particular riding out their good fortune in overcoming a gutsy Exeter side.

It serves as a reminder that the Heineken Cup would benefit greatly from the presence of strong versions of the old school French sides.  The nouveau riche likes of Castres, Racing and Montpellier are content to glide through the tournament, and if they pick up a couple of wins then all the better, effectively reducing the French contingent to Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz.

The Basques have played like a pub team for much of the season, yet were the highest-ranked non-qualifier and were in contention for a QF place right up to the final game of the groups stages (if Racing Metro had scored a late try against Cardiff, Biarritz were in). They were never the most watchable of sides, but on Friday their destructive scrummaging and string-pullers at 8 and 9 made the entry-fee worthwhile – just!

Stade are a pale shade of the side that won back-to-back Top Catorze titles with Pichot and Hernandez running the show.  Even the iron-willed Michael Cheika has struggled to impose his way on them, but they could still sneak into next year’s competition, despite having Tom Palmer. 

Brive were last a force in the Heineken Cup in 1998, back when Bath were European powerhouses (Oooooooooooooooooohh!!!), and don’t look like rediscovering competitiveness any time soon. 

Toulon are the odd one out, card-carrying members of the Nouveau Riche brigade, but they have such ambition that they will be competitive in the Heineken Cup, like last year, where they made the knock-0ut stages in their first attempt.  They are third in the Top 14, so should make it next year, and we’d welcome their presence despite their occasional reversion to puke rugby – they’d give the tournament a real go, as we pointed out yesterday. (As an aside, if they do qualify it would give Steffon Armitage the platform to make a bolt for Lions selection – every time we’ve seen this guy play for Toulon he’s been brilliant.)

The other missing ingredient is those headbangers Perpignan, who’d either strong-arm you off the park (see Welford Road last year, when their draw was better than Clermont and Ulster, both semi-finalists, managed this season) or implode amid a raft of stupid penalties (see the semi-final last year – stupid and dangerous penalties handed the game to the Sinners on a plate).  The Heineken Cup is poorer without the likes of Marius Tincu and James Hook.

Vive l’Old School! And remember France are now guaranteed a seventh HEC representative for next season – let’s hope it’s someone fun.

The Changing of the Guard

In the decade from 2001 to 2010, the Heineken Cup was dominated by four teams – Leicester, Munster, Toulouse and Wasps. The quartet between them won 9 of the 10 tournaments and were runners-up a further 5 times (with a nod to Biarritz and Stade, who never actually crossed the line). It was a truism that until you battled past these big guns in a knock-out situation, you had yet to prove yourself. Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Leinster were among those to feel the white rage from Munster after being talked up in advance.

This era is now firmly over. The Big Four contained players of a similar vintage – those who started out at the fag end of the amateur era and were the first generation of professionals – and all four have essentially fallen away at the same time.

Wasps won the tournament as recently as 2007 with an exciting and star-studded lineup and a progressive and driven management team, but when the Worcester Warriors handed them a donut last year, Wasps had none of that 2007 starting lineup in the team, and the coaches were preparing to lead Wales to a second Grand Slam under their tutelage. Wasps are currently struggling to preserve their Premiership status for next season, and are a salutory lesson in how quickly a team can lose its direction.  Look through their current  team sheet, and if you’re familiar with more than five names, let us know and we’ll post you out a Barnesy-endorsed Premiership Anorak award.  Their demise has been the steepest.

Back when English rugby produced players that were feared

The team they beat when they last won the Cup, domestic rivals Leicester, were runners-up three years ago, and gave Leinster a really tough test last year. This season, however, they limped home from the type of pool they used to relish with a whimper, and a 40 point beating in Ravenhill. The Tiger team that night contained just three of the XV from the ’07 final – Marcos Ayerza, Geordan Murphy and Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi – and it’s fair to say the latter pair won’t be getting better any time soon. The current Tiger setup has lost its way somewhat, and a bloated squad which is low in quality has failed even to maintain its pre-emptive status in a Premership shorn of its international reputation (even Barnesy is struggling to hype it up these days).

Munster built their Heineken Cup dynasty on a grizzled pack and Rog. Of the forwards that played in the Miracle Match (you know the one – Farrelly’s first game of rugby), 6 played again in the 2009 semi-final. And of those 6, only Donncha played on Sunday (O’Connell was injured in 2003) – a significant change, and one most notable by the difference in their backrow play. Munster were semi-finalists in 2010, but Generation Ligind is now disappearing over the sunset with all their experience and nous – they will do well to match that achievement in the next few years. Paulie captures the frustration within the team that they just can’t do what they used to:

We had the territory to do it, but just one try is disappointing. We need to make better decisions. You just can’t beat yourself. I’m not taking anything away from Ulster, but we just need to be that little bit more clever. It’s what we did in the past.”

Poor Tomas - he just can't catch a break, can he?

In that same 2003 tournament, Toulouse beat Perpignan to win their second title. The spine of the team contained such luminaries as Poitrenaud, Jauzion, Clerc, Bouhilou, Pelous, Poux, Servat – all currently or recently first-choice at Le Stadium. There is a tremendous amount of miles on those clocks, with 5 Heineken Cup finals and 4 Top 14 finals in 2 notoriously attritional compeitions, not to mention 1 RWC final and 2 semi-finals for a lot of those names. The hunger, desire, and will just isn’t there any more, and the fact that most of the names above still start will tell you all you need to know about the next generation, in spite of abundant promise. No doubt the squad is still packed with quality, but they only sparkle in patches. When they lost to Edinburgh it wasn’t really a seismic shock, more of a mild surprise, given Toulouse’ performances this season – changed times.

Toulouse and Munster will probably hold on to their top seeding in the HEC for a while (it’s based on four previous year’s results), so it would be a surprise if they disappeared as Wasps did, but they are firmly exiting stage left when it comes to winning the thing.

If Generation X is heading for the glue factory, who will be Generation Y?

Last year’s final was the first since 1999 not to have any of the former Big Four in it, and it had a fresh feel to it. Leinster’s stirring second half comeback after Northampton’s tactical coup early on was great to watch, and made the Irish province first and strongest of our contendors for the NKOTB. The 2011 trophy gave Leinster their second title, having broken the establishment hold on the HEC in 2009 (beating 3 of them along the way), and the bookies have them as favourites for a third this year. The age profile of the squad is generally positive, albeit with a few (key) caveats, at second row and at 13 mainly. If Joe Schmidt sticks around and the squad don’t become sated, Leinster could be at the top level throughout this decade.

Bosh!!

Their opponents in this year’s semi-finals are Clermont Auvergne. This is a team that has been knocking at the door of European greatness for a while, and which has a great domestic underage record – look out for Jean Marcel Buttin, the next superstar of French back play. Clermont have run the gauntlet of painful defeats (mostly to Irish provinces) and have made progress incrementally, crucially appearing to learn the lessons of what is needed to get across the line in this competition. With a frightening pack, the little genius Morgan Parra and a cabal of threatening backs, it’s a pretty intimidating side. If this isn’t the year (and it is perfectly set up for them), it will come soon – the best youth structure in France, huge institutional drive, and a fat chequebook will help. Their time will most definitely come. 

After era-defining wins over two of the former big four this season, Ulster look to have arrived somewhere close to the top table. The influence of their imports has been highlighted, not least by Farrelly, but they have a core of hardened Irish mid-20-something leaders (Best, Tuohy, Henry, Ferris, Cave, Trimble, Bowe) who can guide their golden (Irish) youngsters (McAlister, Marshalls L&P, Spence, Jackson, Stevenson, Henderson, Annett) towards the goal of maintaining their new-found status. It’s a pity there is a rather large elephant on the horizon, in the form of a new coaching ticket. Still, we gotta trust Humph and hope he takes Ludd’s Year 1 approach and keeps interference to a minimum. We suspect McLaughlin’s influence is not as large as it should be anyway, and that Ulster are self-coached to a degree, so we can only hope the change doesn’t derail them.

This time six months ago, we would have bracketed Northampton Saints as a team with the hardness to step on and stay at the apex of European rugby. However, this season has been a disaster – the European campaign collapsed following Munster’s 41 phases and the Scarlets ambush in Franklins Gardens. Add in the break-up of the team of 2011 (Wilson, Downey, Ashton all leaving), injuries to key players (Lawes), suspensions (Hartley, Clark), the Mallinder-for-England campaign and selection indecision (Myler/Lamb), and its pretty clear the Saints have lost their way. It will be interesting to see how they recover (they hauled themselves from Championship ignominy to the cusp of HEC glory in no time), but for now they are back in the chasing pack.

Saracens are another team who have looked on the verge of something until recently. They toughed out a bruising pool, and looked set for a long run after drawing a home quarter-final against a team that is flaky on the road. It didn’t happen however, and the Premiership’s tough guys were ground into the dust by Clermont. Again, they won’t go away, but until they win a game against one of the new biggies, they aren’t there yet.  Whinging about the salary cap doesn’t show a big club mentality, though, and Niegel Wray’s words from over a decade ago are still relevant: there is no place called Saracens.

Outside those, Toulon have the bank manager and the megalomaniac owner to build on last years quarter-final. Their evisceration of Munster in last years pool stages was the type of statement that reverberated across Europe (not least in Tara Street where it still feeds Gerry’s anti-Pearson rants), but they failed to qualify for this year’s event after a late collapse in the Top 14. If they make it this time around (they should), expect them to be by far the biggest Great White in the fourth seeds ocean – one to avoid, and one Irish teams are less likely to avoid than most due to the vagaries of the draw (Munster and Leinster drew French teams from that pot this year).

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the lack of Welsh and Scottish (and Italian) names in that selection above. Better to be a has-been than a never-were, and the lamentable Welsh regions must be categorised as just that.  Their ongoing under-achievement is beginning to bubble to the surface in the Principality, as the players all head off to brighter shores. As for the rest, let’s hope Embra’ superb achievement this year is the start something across Hadrian’s Wall, but when you only attract 3,000 or so to most league games, you aren’t going to compete consistently.

Ulster Have Their Stoop Moment

Well, that lived up to expectations;  1.45 kick-off times tend not to produce classics, but this was assuredly one of the great Heineken Cup knockout matches.  It was a mad old game in many ways.  Ulster raced into a remarkable 19-0 lead, and 16 of those points were scored from inside their own half, and the other three came from an opportunistic, and sweetly struck, drop goal.  Did Ulster win a single ruck ball in Munster’s 22? 

Johann Muller salutes the fans

You never doubted the Munster response would be ferocious.  They even looked like favourites at around the 45 minute mark – the deficit was down to six points and Ulster were well and truly on the ropes.  It wasn’t until the 65th minute that Ulster got a foothold back in the match, and as Munster began to err in the final quarter, Ulster were able to get the job done.  Just.

This was Ulster’s Stoop moment.  It was frequently reminiscent of that frantic game.  They seemingly did everything to invite Munster back into the match: missing touch from penalties, losing a key lineout, being dominated in the aerial challenges, slicing clearances – but kept making tackle after tackle.  Often in rugby, it’s about having the composure to see out a winning position, but sometimes it’s just about having the guts.  That was the case for Leinster in the Stoop in 2009 and it was the same for Ulster here.  With 78 minutes on the clock they only had to win their own scrum, pick and drive and kick the ball dead – instead they managed to turn the ball over and give Munster one last shot at glory.  Too often Ulster have capitulated away from home, but they hung on here by sheer will to win.  Make the tackle, get up, make another one.  Incredible.

In The Stoop, Cheika didn’t make a single substitution, and McLaughlin repeated that tactic here.  It does reflect the lack of depth available to Ulster, and also shows just how lucky they have been with injuries.  They have a superb starting 15, but outside of that set, only Paul Marshall and Paddy McAllister are really challenging for a starting berth.  Lewis Stevenson is having a good season and Nevin Spence is talented, but his progress has been disrupted by injuries.  McLaughlin did the right thing – no troop would leave the field of battle.

Egg Chaser was delirious afterwards, but also sanguine enough to suggest that Ulster had won without playing much rugby, and that maybe it wasn’t actually a great performance.  I felt the need to put him right – any win in Thomond Park is a great win, especially one in the knockouts of the Heineken Cup.  It doesn’t matter what team Munster have out, or how you manage to get over the line, it’s a huge win – and it was a great performance, in its own way.  Plenty of good teams have been beaten out of sight in Thomond, and just having the belief that you can win is massive in and of itself.

The reward for Ulster is huge.  They’ve got this far the hard way, but the semi-final – with all due respect to their opponent – is the stuff you dream about – Edinburgh in Dublin.  It would be a seismic shock if Ulster didn’t get the win and make the final.  The final!  Another intriguing element is the Brian McLaughlin factor.  At the time of the announcement that he’d be stepping down, we saw some method to Humphreys’ approach, but the appointment of Mark Anscombe was underwhelming, and if McLaughlin can get this sort of performance out of his team, what more can be asked of him?  What if Ulster win the Heineken Cup?  It’s a curious state of affairs, but we would like to hear Rory Best and Johann Muller’s take on it.

What the win emphatically does is bring Ulster to the top table.  As few as three seasons ago they were languishing at the wrong end of the Pro12 (then Magners League).  The turnaround has been swift and impressive.  Much has been made of their cabal of Suthefrikans, but if Ulster have been guilty of anything, it’s of superb recruiting.  John Afoa, Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenbosh, Ruan Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche have all performed brilliantly.   Cheap they may not be (although we have been here before – only Pienaar and Afoa are top dollar, and Afoa is cheaper than Botha), but value is what they are.  The contrast with how Munster have recruited (Tuitoupou, Chambers, Tokula, Borlase) is stark. Factor in the age profile of the natives, and it’s clear why they’ve switched places.  For the rest of the season, it’s about keeping everyone fit (touch wood!), and timing the emotional peeks accordingly.

As for Munster, well, going out at this stage shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world.  It’s a far cry from last season’s debacle in Toulon, when an ageing, stagnant team with no scrum and terrible scrum halves got beaten out of the park.  Sure, losing twice in a row in Fortress Thomond (both to fierce rivals) will feel pretty raw for a while. The players will have felt a huge opportunity has been missed, and the sense that Munster have now slipped to third best Irish province won’t sit well with anyone. 

Try not to look too dejected, and remember the good rebuilding work that's been done this season.

But in actuality, Munster have in fact achieved a huge amount this season.  After the Toulon fiasco, this year was always going to be about rebuilding.  Winning six out of six in the pool was a huge, surprising bonus, although the golden egg turned out to be a date with one of very few teams that actually expects to win in Thomond.  Zebo, Sherry, O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Murray, Jones and Barnes have all been handed their first Heineken Cup starts – that’s half a team right there.  It’s also Ryan’s first season as a HEC starter. 

Not all the newies are of Generation Ligind standard, but there are good players in there.  O’Mahony and Murray have become fixtures in the Ireland XXII and Sherry and Zebo will surely go on to win international honours.  Felix Jones played poorly on Sunday, but is obviously a class player who has a big future.  O’Donnell looked a bit overawed by the occasion, and it’s been a hard season for Barnes, but it’s early-ish days for both.  McGahan deserves credit for this – he has been unafraid to leave out the likes of Leamy and O’Callaghan for younger, more effective players.  It’s all money in the bank for next year.

Munster’s biggest problem this season has been a lack of ball-carrying heft.  Coughlan is outstanding in this regard (51m carried on Sunday), but he needs a couple of other players to share the burden (and not the scrum-half in an ideal world).  Ryan and O’Connell chip in with yards, but the rest of the backrow is a tad light – for all the good stuff O’Mahony has done this season, he isn’t a huge carrier.  Niall Ronan brought something different to the table, and helped Munster play at a higher tempo, but once he got injured they were stretched.  Looking forward, Munster need another carrier in the backrow.  Wally’s absence has been keenly felt, but can he rouse himself for one more season?  It looks unlikely – he’ll probably be deployed in 20 minute bursts from here on.

Elsewhere, things look ok.  Crucially, there is no danger of O’Connell or ROG disappearing over the horizon any time soon.  Next year will see a new coach arrive with new ideas.  A brand new pair of centres will be coming (again). Downey will give Munster a target to carry ball, and even if he’s one dimensional, he is effective, and he should suit them, although Rog will need to be closer to the gainline to get the best from him. 

Something a bit more constructive is required in attack, where Munster’s lack of cutting edge was cruelly exposed by Ulster. All 3 of the outside backs missed crucial tackles for Gilroy’s try, and the youngest of them, Zebo is still very raw for this level – he needs to work on his basic skills over the summer, lest he turn into another Vasily Artemyev.  Earls’ skillset at centre has improved hugely, and it would be a mistake to shunt him back to the wing – Munster need to build their game around him.  With that in mind, some investment in Ian Keatley is required.  He has been no better than average this year, but should be given a chance to play with the first team.  He needs to get to the level where he can be seen as a viable replacement for ROG in the last 20 minutes of Heineken Cup games.  Munster needed a converted try in the dying minutes on sunday, and a fly-half with a breaking threat might have asked some questions of the Ulster defence which they hadn’t had to think about up until then.  ROG is still the man, but a Plan B would be nice.

Munster probably won’t win the Heineken Cup in the next couple of seasons, but there’s no danger of a Wasps-like fall from grace either.  Defeats at Thomond Park will continue to be rare – and will continue to be cherished by those teams that achieve them.  Shtand uuuuuuup for the etc.

Palla Ovale says: Munster will win

“Should we trust him, your Neutralness?”

“All I know is my gut says maybe.”

Sunday will be a fanstastic day to be a neutral, and as a Leinster fan, this scribe finds himself in exactly that position.  Hopefully by Sunday lunchtime Leinster’s passage will have been secured and I’ll be watching in relaxed pose from my chaise longue as my manservant peels me grapes and drops them into my mouth.  After yet another low-try dogfight between Leinster and Munster, there’s a feeling that the familiarity between those two great rivals is becoming overbearing on the matches themselves: neither of this season’s bouts were particularly brilliant.  In contrast, there’s a real freshness to this game.  It’s a bit of an indictment of the Pro12, but these two rivals don’t play each other properly very often.  When they meet, it’s typically with shadow teams and predictable outcomes.  It lends a sense of the unknown to the occasion – after all Munster v Ulster should be every bit as intense a rivalry as Munster v Leinster – here’s its chance to stake a claim.  Bring it on I say, and fetch me my mint julip post haste, manservant!

Egg Chaser has bullishly presented his case for the team on the upward curve, but I’m just not feeling it.  Here’s why I reckon Munster will win:

The Injury-ometer

Not unlike Peter Snow’s swing-ometer, this thing has taken a massive turn on its axis in the last week.  Not long ago things were looking grim down south with a raft of injuries to key men.  Munster without Paul O’Connell (not to mention Wally, Ryan and Murray) are a significantly diminished beast, but he appears set to start, as are Murray and Ryan.  Wally could make an appearance from the bench.  Meanwhile, up North, the Protestant equivalent of rosary beads are out for their all-important flanker Stephen Ferris.  We have a sneaky feeling he might just play through the pain barrier, but will he be able to make the shuddering hits and inspiring carries his team needs?  Without him, it’s almost impossible to see Ulster winning.

Away Day Blues

Ulster were rightly acclaimed for their bullish performance in securing a losing bonus point in Clermont, but the result was still another L in the away game column.  Ulster are dynamite in Ravenhill, but have precisely two significant away wins in recent (and not so recent) history, and both were against fairly average Oooooooooohh Bath outfits.  They have yet to show that when it comes down to the sharp end of tough away games, they have the belief, experience and discipline to win.  The away game at Leicester was a missed opportunity, and they could have beaten Clermont, but didn’t seem to have the ice-veins.  Contrast with Munster who, even when second best, have the ability to come up with winning scores late in the day (sometimes after as many as 41,000 phases).

Shades of 2006?

The hypnosis treatment to wipe the memory of Black Sunday didn’t entirely work, and this game reminds me a little of the build-up to that match.  Munster were then the better side, but in the lead-up were slightly sniffily treated as the media raved over a more glamorous Leinster team who had just achieved an incredible and unlikely,  if uncontrolled, win over Toulouse.  They were crushed by a Munster team who had more pedigree and experience when it mattered.  This Munster vintage isn’t of the same calibre, but they will be mentally in the right place on the day.  Ulster appear to be incredibly hungry for this game, but can they control their passion?  Leinster whipped themselves into a frenzy on Black Sunday, but emerged from the tunnel oddly flat.  This is the biggest game yet for this Ulster team – they have to show they can manage the occasion.  It could be one of those days when Munster put the squeeze on and Ulster never get going.

Nobody – nobody! – beats Munster six times in a row

Peddling the Munster will win because they’ll win argument wouldn’t be our style, and as Egg rightly argued, Munster won’t win simply because they’re Munster.  But in many ways the Leinster result was the perfect preparation.  If it was the same personnel running out again, I wouldn’t be confident, but it’s primed for Paulie and ROG to give the troops a right kick up the you-know-what and take the situation by the scruff of the neck.  Axel Foley will have had the cattle prod out in training this week, and a wounded Munster side is a dangerous beast.  Ulster will have felt good about their six-try smashing of travel-sick Aironi, but will they be able to bring the intensity up to Munster-in-Thomond level?

Roman Poite and the scrum

Eh? After last week?  Well, yes.  It looks close to call on paper, but I have Botha and du Preez marginally ahead of Afoa and Court.  Poite generally allows the front rows to go at it any which way and gets the straight arm up for whoever’s marching forward, and I’ve a suspicion Botha may be the canniest scrummager on the pitch.  Afoa is no slouch in the scrum, but Court looks to be the weakest link here.  This could just swing a tight match the home team’s way.

This neutral just can’t wait for sunday lunchtime.  If I don’t survive, tell Ms Ovale, “Hello.”

Egg Chaser says: Ulster will win

This house is divided in advance of Sunday’s big game at Mass time in Limerick – half of us is convinced an epoch-ending/starting win for Ulster is in prospect, the other can’t see Munster losing at home in a HEC knockout game. Well, like Irish politics, we are slightly exaggerating our differences – both of us think it will be very tight, and whoever steps up their performance will win, but we will feign outrage and present both sides of the argument.

There is a real, to coin a phrase, whiff of cordite about this game – these are two sides who don’t like one another, and who see themselves as better than their opponents – don’t expect any quarter to be given by either team.

Here’s why, as a proud Ulsterman, I’m looking to Sunday with quiet confidence:

Bitter Northerners – For this years Six Nations, Ulster players were overlooked by Deccie in favour of their drain-playing Munster counterparts. Stakhanov and Tomas O’Leary were picked largely on loyalty, and Paul Marshall and Dan Tuohy will be itching to show them (and the selectors) what they can do. There are several other Ulster players who feel they haven’t got a fair crack of the whip as well – Chris Henry has been playing O’Brien-lite stuff at 7 all season, but was leap-frogged by Peter O’Mahony on the basis of one HEC game there; Paddy Wallace has been the best Irish 12 on show this season, but got nary a chance; and Tom Court will be bitter that the Twickers debacle is being attributed to him – he is back in his strongest position, and should be able to show BJ, with whom he is intimately familiar, that he can do it at this level. Ulster have been building for months to this game, and have had a peak for this weekend mapped since February, while Munster have had the distraction of 6N and then Leinster. This is Ulster’s moment.

Glory Days

The Toulon Effect – The Ulster conviction is based on evidence, the Munster on faith – they can’t lose in Thomond, they will step it up, they do have the pishun. Both of us are long enough in the tooth to know that when you hear “this time it’s different” you should be suspicious. Egg calls it the Toulon Effect – last season, all available evidence pointed to Munster being thumped in Toulon, yet the perceived wisdom was they would win, because … well, they just would. Yet we know what happened. For Munster to win, they will need a performance in excess of what they have produced this past two seasons (including the faintly mad game in Franklin’s Gardens) – that is something that is based on conviction. For Ulster to win, the type of performance they produced in the Marcel Michelin (a far more intimidating venue than Thomond) will suffice – Ulster know the level they need to reach, and have been there recently.

Mean Grizzled Pack – Comparing the two packs, the Ulster one looks the stronger scrummaging unit, has much better ball carriers, and has a grizzled look, albeit (and this is a huge albeit) much less grizzled without Fez. John Afoa has been a revelation since he arrived, with destructive scrummaging and dynamic loose play, and Ulster look a far more potent prospect than they were with BJ. Both hookers struggle with their darts and are useful in the loose, but Best is at a higher level than Varley (or Sherry?). The difference in carrying between Afoa/Tuohy/Henry/Wannenbosh and Botha/Stakhanov/Ryan/Coughlan is stark – less stark than when including Fez in that equation admittedly, but Ulster are more likely to be able to get a multi-phase continuous game going.

Centre Stage – Outside and in space, the Munster strike runners – Earls, Jones, Zebo vs Trimble, Gilroy, Terblanche – are probably better, but Ulster are far more capable at getting their outside backs on the ball. Radge is standing too deep to fire his backs, and the way Mafi is playing at the moment, you can’t blame Rog from not giving him the ball. In contrast, Ulster have two halves who can get the ball out quickly, and, more importantly, the best centre partnership in Ireland. Darren Cave (who kept Earls on the wing at underage level) has been a revelation this season, and Paddy Wallace is an ideal foil for a man whose running lines have been picking out minute gaps and breaking defensive lines all season. The Munster backs could be frustrated spectators while the Ulster ones might get some familiarity with the pill, and they they have the tools to do damage if that is the case.

Panic on the Streets of Tara Street– Our muse, Gerry, has spent the last 15 months being hysterical about referees in general and Blind Dave and Poite in particular (especially Pearson’s performance in Toulon). Gerry might be obsessive and delusional at times, but he is right about Blind Dave. But he’s wrong about Poite, who is a much better referee than he was 5 years ago. Gerry’s #1 issue is that he occasionally penalises the Munster forwards. If Nigel Owens is Munster’s favourite referee (witness the extraordinarily permissive 41 phases in November), Romain Poite is their least favourite – he has binned Paul O’Connell for lip (in Thomond Park!! On Munster’s 5 metre line!!!) and generally favours strong scrums and takes a dim view of breakdown chicanery – neither of which will work in Munster’s favour. You knew in the Northampton game that Owens would have given a penalty if he had the chance, but if Munster are in the same situation on Sunday, it’s far more likely Poite will penalise them for sealing off. His appointment is bad news for Munster, and good for Ulster.

Ill-informed Dimwits – Up to this point in Ulster’s revival, the Southern press have treated them a little bit like a growing kid brother – encouraging commentary and pats on the head all round. Now, however, Ulster are a serious threat to the established order, and the coverage is a little more serious. This morning, our friend from Dolphin, Mr Farrelly, veared towards the insulting with a ridiculous pop at Ulster – it’s not just bad for Munster if Ulster win, but it’s bad for Ireland. Farrelly has written some dumb dross down the years, but this takes the biscuit. Even though the only Irish-qualified prop on the pitch will be wearing white, and even though the only reason the up-and-coming Ulster players have not made the breakthrough at international level is Deccie picking his mates, Munster are on a mission to save Irish rugby by beating Ulster! Well, thanks Hugh, you have given Ulster an extra reason to win – to shove your idiotic words back down your throat.

Another One Bites The Dust

Shaggy Horgan’s retirement coming so hot on the heels of Jerry Flannery’s really ran the message home: the ‘golden generation’ is coming to its end.  We wouldn’t be the biggest fans of the phrase, but there’s little doubt that a group of great players, broadly split between Leinster backs and Munster forwards, emerged at the start of the last decade and grew old together.  Drico and POC are still going strong, and ROG will play until he’s 96 of course, while DOC and Dorce appear to be on the way out, at international level at least.  Wally is unlikely to return to international rugby.  And that’s pretty much all that’s left.

It’s a group of players that oversaw a complete transformation of Irish rugby’s status and effectively launched the hugely succesful provincial franchises.  As such, it’s a sad day indeed when one of them retires, and that’s certainly how it felt when Shane Horgan’s retirement was confirmed last week.  The news was one of Ireland’s worst kept secrets, and in the end came as no surprise, but the melancholy still resonated.  Shaggy was one quarter of the Leinster ‘glactico’ three-quarter line that tormented international defences and frequently cut loose in the Heineken Cup in spite of a soggy pack.

He started out at centre, but it was when he moved to wing that his career sparked.  A decent crash-ball centre was transformed into a world-class finisher, his shovel-like hands and tall frame clawing their way over the try-line on countless occasions, and his dominance in the air barely needs to be recounted here.  Here’s a countdown of our top 5 Shaggy moments.

5. Intercept try vs. Lllanelli – a showcase for his classic running style.  Thoroughbread stuff, he eats up the ground with ease.

4. ‘Get into the scrum! – on my first visit to the old Thomond Park, at one Leinster set piece, Shaggy was so close to the touchline as to have chalk on his boots.  Which put him pretty close to the crowd.  One flat-capped Munsterman no less than a few feet from him roared out ‘What are you doing on the wing, you big heifer?!  Get into the scrum, would you!’

3. That try No.1 – ‘Shane Horgan, if you’ve done this you’ll be remembered for many, many years’

2. That Try No.2 – The Gaelic skills in Croker, and all of that.

1. The pass – last phase of the game and Leinster need a try to secure a crucial bonus point at home to Brive.  Take it a way Shageroony…

Chop Their Hands Off!

Last week saw two shameful cop outs by the disciplinary authorities in Blighty – firstly Dylan Hartley got 8 weeks for biting Fez, then Calum Clark got 32 weeks for his appalling breaking hyperextension of Rob Hawkins’ elbow. Both were below the lowest estimate of most pundits, and both are far too short, particularly in Clark’s case.

Hartley was cited for biting the finger of Fez, which carries a minimum sentence of 12 weeks and a maximum of 4 years. Hartley got the minimum, then got 4 weeks knocked off for his past record. The same record that involved a 6 month ban for gouging in 2007. We know that was 5 years ago and Hartley has grown up a little, but if you gouge a fellow professional’s eye, that is something that, in our view, you should carry around forever – like the criminal record you would get if you did it off the rugby pitch. Additionally, and amazingly, the committee thought it appropriate and relevant to take Graham Rowntree’s confession that Hartley might soon be England captain into account – so much for balance.

[Aside: The practise of knocking a few weeks off a players ban for their good behaviour / past record / fearsome QC is a recipe for booting the can away – plus, like benchmarking, it only works one way; Felon Armitage gets suspended all the time and his record never appears to count against him]

Conveniently, the English starting hooker will be available for their tour to South Africa – Hartley will miss 3 regular season games with the Saints, and probably a play off semi final, and get to put his feet up after a tough year then hop on a plane for Cape Town – it would almost make you want to chomp on someone’s finger!

Moving on from bad to terrible, what Calum Clark did to Rob Hawkins was the worst thing we have ever seen on the sports field – Clark claimed he did not intend to injure Hawkins, but that is frankly laughable – what did he think was going to happen when he did what he did? He broke a fellow professional’s arm and has put his career in jeopardy. If he replicated his actions 10 metres away in the stand at Sixways, he would be doing 2 to 3 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Yet the beaks in charge deemed the offence worthy of 32 weeks, a ban which includes the summer, so is effectively half that. He will miss 3 league games for Saints, a potential play-off, about 7 rounds of early-season rugby next year, 2 HEC games and a chance to tour in June. All told, its 13 games of rugby. And he, too, will be back just in time for some England games – in November, if they choose to select him.

The Clark video is here, but (genuinely) look away now if you have the squeams:

The Man has missed a chance to send a real message clamping down on the type of stuff that should be eliminated from the sport for good – they have been letting dirty players away with this stuff ever since the book was thrown at Julien Dupuy and David Attoub for gouging (ironically) Fez in 2009 – Attoub got 70 weeks (higher because …. oh, yeah, he had done it before) and Dupuy 24, reduced to 23 on appeal. These seemingly draconian, but utterly merited, bans were themselves somewhat of a reaction to the puny 8 weeks Schalk Burger got for fiddling with Luke Fitzgerald’s cornea. Those who gouge, bite or intentionally injure a player should pay a very heavy price. Clark should be gone until the end of next season and Hartley until November.

Contrast this to recent happenings across the pond. The NFL has been investigating the New Orleans Saints (Superbowl winners in 2011) for running a “bounty” system where defensive players and their coaches contributed cash to a fund which paid out bonuses if opposition players happened to get injured on the field of play.

The sanctions for the coaches have just been announced, and the NFL has thrown the book at the Saints – the defensive coach has been banned from the sport indefinitely, the head coach for a year and 2 assistant coaches for 14 games in total (a season is 16 games). The penalties for the players have yet to be announced as the NFL Players Association is still conducting a parallel enquiry, but there are already calls for Jonathan Vilma, one of the main protagonists, to be banned for life. Vilma is a teak-tough linebacker who has been selected for the Pro Bowl (All Star game in effect) 3 times – think Bakkies.

Can you imagine any of the rugby authorities banning a big name for good for intentionally injuring someone? The NFL Commissioner is hell-bent on ridding the game of dirty play, and his stance is to be applauded, and should he held up as mirror to the wet blanket attitude over here.

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