Anglo-French Moaning – Episode Deux

As an addendum to this morning’s post on a potential new HEC structure, lets explore how next season’s HEC would look following our rules. The automatic qualifiers would be as follows, with new entrants in bold:

  • France: Toulouse, Clermont, Toulon, Castres, Montpellier, Racing Metro, Stade Francais
  • England: Quins, Leicester, Saracens, Northampton, Exeter, Sale Sharks, London Bosh
  • Pro12: Leinster, Ospreys, Munster, Glasgae, Scarlets, Ulster, Treviso
  • Bonus Places: Leinster, the HEC winners, have already qualified, so lets give their place to the next best Pro12 team, Cardiff (as the Pro12 is one distinct qualifying competition now). Biarritz qualify as Amlin winners, as before. The top-ranked non-qualifier by our calculation is Edinburgh, pipping Perpignan and Bath.

So, its not all that different from now. The tournament would lose Aironi and Connacht and replace those with Stade Francais and London Irish. There is no doubt you have an uptick in quality as well as equity, and, lets be honest, Aironi and Connacht might benefit more from an Amlin Cup with had, say, the remaining 4 Frenchies, 5 English, those pair, the Dragons and 8 “developing” teams e.g. more Italians, or some Georgian/Romanian representative teams.

Its a pity in this imaginary scenario Embra didn’t miss out altogether because, lets face it, they deserved to for their derisory gaming of the system which has put other Pro12 teams in the crosshairs of the French and English.



Anglo-French Moaning?

The English and French clubs are ready to submit a list of demands on the Celtic countries, threatening to pull out of the Heineken Cup if they are not met. Chief among them is the desire to level the playing field and demand merit-based qualification from the Pro12. They claim the current system of virtually automatic qualification for ten Pro12 sides gives them an unfair advantage, because they can concentrate solely on Europe. The French also want to reduce the number of sides in the competition to 20, in order to squeeze more derbies into the year, by increasing the Top 14 to a Top 16. Madness surely?!

While we have no truck with the reduction to 20 teams or the Top 16 idea, we do see some merit to the Anglo-French complaints regarding qualification. Currently, six teams qualify from each of the English and French leagues, while ten make it from the Pro12. On top of this, the Scottish and Italian sides are guaranteed progress to the H-Cup, while the status of Connacht as a development province makes it all but certain who makes it from Ireland. As it happens, Leinster’s back-to-back championships have made room for Connacht at the top table.

It’s tempting to see the carping from the French and English as nothing more than moaning – because, let’s face it, they do moan an awful lot – but there is some truth to their argument. Here at WoC we’ve never given much credence to these arguments in the past. Stephen Jones has tended to write at least one article a year, the crux of which was usually relegation rather than qualification for the Heiny, but the case was never that compelling. Do Leicester really have to worry about relegation? And besides, the teams who challenged in Europe typically found themselves in the higher echelons of the then Magners League anyway. Leinster, Munster and – to a lesser extent – Ospreys nearly always made the top six at the very least.

This year it’s different. Without wanting to wail excessively on a smaller club who achieved a lot this season, it must be said that Edinburgh have rather made the Anglo-French argument for them. They won six out of eight games in the Heineken Cup, dumped out Toulouse and were a couple of dropped balls in the 22 away from the final. Contrast with the Pro12 where they won six, drew 1 and lost 15, finishing above only the now defunct Aironi and conceding more tries and points than anyone.

The reason? They didn’t try a leg in the Pro12. It makes a mockery of the Pro12. Half of WoC was there at the RDS when they allowed the Leinster seconds to rack up over 50 points. Had they been required to qualify for next year’s tourney, they would surely have put more resources into the Pro12 in order to finish above Treviso and Dragons, teams they are obviously better than. Instead, there are no consequences. It belittles the Pro12. The main thrust of the arguments WoC has seen against any changes are as follows:

  • The tournament is designed to build support for the national game of each of the countries, and is not an end in itself
  • Any change to the current structures will detract from the ‘international’ element of the tournament
  • Northampton were relegated in the same year they made the semi-finals of the H-Cup in 2007, showing that league and Cup form can diverge, just like Edinburgh this season.
  • It’s pure greed on the part of the English and French sides, looking to weaken the smaller nations in grabbing a bigger share of the pie for themselves.

None of the arguments are without merit, but there are solutions, as we see it.

  • This is all well and good, but the Heineken Cup is big enough to stand on its own. Legions of fans prefer it to the staid, corporate Six Nations. The tournament has to have integrity.   Let’s face it, it is a big advantage for the Celtic sides to qualify automatically.
  • This can be managed through a fair compromise, more of which below
  • It’s not the divergence of Cup and league form that’s the issue so much as what happened next. There were consequences. Not only did they not qualify for the following year’s Heiny, they were relegated. It’s just not comparable
  • There’s probably some truth in this. But don’t forget about the Amlin Cup. Would it be the worst thing in the world if Aironi, or whoever replaces them, were to play in the Amlin, where they would be competitive, rather than be the fish in a barrel in the Heineken Cup?

We propose the following 24-team structure as a fair compromise:

  • The top seven from each of the Premiership and Top 14
  • The top Irish, Welsh, Scotish and Italian teams from the Pro12 o The three next best sides in the Pro12
  • The Heineken Cup winners
  • The Amlin Cup winners
  • The highest ranked non-qualifier
  • In exchange for the new structure, the French club sides must give assurances they will field first choice teams both home and away

The main benefactor will not be the English and French, but the Pro12. Heineken Cup qualification should focus the minds of the mid-ranked teams in the league and make for much more competitive fare. Would Ulster, for example, be happy to send down a junior side to the RDS knowing the points were important? Would the IRFU be compelled to give the provinces a little more access to centrally contracted players? It might just work to the Celtic sides benefit if they’re brave enough to go for it.

Season in Review: Leinster

What a pity.  Two scores in front with nine minutes to go with a historic double knocking on the door.  But even then you never felt Leinster were in control.  With Poite on their back at scrum time, a couple of costly errors gave the all important territory to Ospreys: Sexton’s booming spiral kick bouncing just into touch and the crossing incident when Leinster were attacking the Ospreys 22.

Such is life, as the French say.  Once again, the double has proved elusive. Leinster will be aggrieved at Poite’s refereeing of the scrums and the offside line, but in truth they never really controlled the game – and it wasn’t Poite’s refereeing that caused them to miss so many tackles.  Ospreys’ quick feet and offloading game got them through plenty of gaps.  It all served to underlie just how difficult it is to win back to back titles. Leinster restrained their post-final celebrations, and clearly wanted this trophy, but, down to the reserve front row for most of the match and missing Sean O’Brien, it was not to be.  Maybe they used up their good luck chips with that Fofana ball (mis)placement.

The sad thing is that the players will wake up this morning feeling gutted when they have so much to shout about over an extraordinary season.  They lost just four games all season, and took their game to new heights.  At times – the first halves against Cardiff and Bath, the second against Clermont, and the final against Ulster stand out – their passing and ingenuity in attack were unplayable.

What’s more, they scorched the earth in a season when their two marquee forwards had difficult seasons.  Sean O’Brien endured something of a ‘second season syndrome’, (though he found his form for the knockout stages of the Heiny) and Heaslip had a quiet campaign confined mainly to dirty work at the coalface.  In addition, BOD was out for all but the final few weeks.

Huge credit must go to the footsoldiers who stepped up.  Kevin McLoughlin had a terrific campaign and deserves his call-up for the summer tour.  Shane Jennings had another solid season, McFadden stepped up another notch and place-kicked exceptionally well for much of the campaign.  Devin Toner – previously a bête noir of ours – improved out of sight.  There were plenty of starlets on view too, with Ian Madigan, whose sweet pass and probing runs have been thrilling to watch.

We’re going to single three individuals out for special praise, contrary as it may be to the notion of the ultimate team game.  Joe Schmidt, the coach extraordinaire for his high standards, now infamous video meetings and empowering the team to play the way they do.  It’s particularly impressive how the ‘midweek’ team is able to fit in seamlessly and play in the same ‘Leinster way’, albeit against lesser opponents.  His recruitment of Brad Thorn to shore up the second row showed the sort of ambition and shrewd thinking that sets him apart.  Secondly, Johnny Sexton, whose form this season has been unmatched in Europe.  His pass is sublime, he can boom the ball 60m down the pitch and his place kicking nudged close to 90%.  He’s Leinster’s Cranky General.  Finally, Rob Kearney.  The forgotten man last season, his feats under the high ball defy belief, but his determination to run the ball back and his improved passing game were just as impressive.

It’s hard to see Leinster falling off a cliff next season, and they should be competitive again.  Three in a row?  They’ll certainly be favourites, but every team will be gunning for them.  Succession is being managed well, and the eventual replacements for Generation Totes Ledge (Dorce, Drico etc.) have already amassed plenty of experience.  This year they evolved from an offloading team to more of a passing team, and chances are they’ll have to look for more innovations next year while the chasing pack analyse how to trouble them.  Ospreys certainly seem to have found a means of containing them, perhaps there’s a model to be followed there.  Of course, as Munster know all too well, bad luck with injuries can slash a season to pieces, and for all Leinster’s depth they’d be vulnerable if they lost Sexton, Ross or O’Brien to name but three.

The main issue is the second row, and it has been looming since Nathan Hines left.  Brad Thorn bids farewell, and leaves a huge hole to fill.  Leo Cullen was withdrawn from both finals before the 60 minute mark – can he deliver another season as a first pick?  It seems unlikely.  Devin Toner’s performance yesterday was hugely encouraging and he should force himself into the role of regular starter in the big games next year, on the loosehead side of the scrum.  A tighthead lock appears to be on the shopping list (suggestions welcome).  We will watch new arrival Tom Denton (signed from Leeds Carnegie, and seemingly with a good reputation) and academy graduate Mark Flanagan’s progress with interest.

Leinster won’t always be this good, so best enjoy the moment and try not to dwell too much on the one that got away.

Season to remember: Kevin McLoughlin.  Abrasive blindside and terrific lineout forward.  Doesn’t catch the eye but something of a workaholic and textbook tackler. 

Season to forget: we had high hopes for Fionn Carr’s return to the provine, but broken field line breaks could be counted on one hand.

Best match: Clermont 15-19 Leinster.  A titanic battle between the two best teams inEuropethat came right down to the wire.

Best performance: Leinster 42-14 Ulster.  Sucked up everything Ulster could throw at them and racked up the tries with cold ruthlessness.

Worst performance: Ospreys 27-3 Leinster.  Take your pick from three defeats to the Ospreys; this mauling was pretty nasty.

Thanks for the memories: Big Bad Brad may only have played a handful of games, but his contribution was massive.  From listening to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, so great is his charisma that meeting the man is like that brilliant passage in The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway describes the titular Gatsby’s smile.

See you next season: Dom Ryan’s campaign was obliterated by injury.  We have high hopes for him.  Lets hope he can make the long awaited breakthrough next year.

Season in Review: Ulster

It’s been a pretty memorable season for Ulster – their best campaign in 13  years, some unforgettable games, huge strides made by the team – but you would be pushed to say it’s been an unmitigated success. Taking only the Heineken Cup, its been an A, but everything else (league, off-field activities) is more like B. Now that the champagne and tears have tried up after Twickers, a more mature realisation is taking place that Ulster will need to continue the hard work if they are to repeat, or improve on, 2011-12.

In Europe, it’s hard to see how they could have done better – a character-filled grind at home to Clermont, a Tiger-tonking and a crucial point in Clermont, followed by an historic win in Thomond, a memorable occasion in the Palindrome, and the trip to Twickenham, where the performance was good … on a stage where merely being good is not enough. But no shame, far from it, plenty of pride and lots to build on.

In the league, not so much. Sixth place in the Pro12 reflects the lack of quality of Ulster’s backups, and was holed beneath the waterline by 4 successive losses in September/October. In the context of the HEC run, it’s probably just acceptable, but no more, and certainly won’t be next season, when another step forward is needed.

The most impressive thing about this year from Ulster was the sheer volume of players who had their best season to date at the province – Tom Court, Rory Best, Dan Tuohy, Fez, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wanneberg, Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave. Add this to the breakthroughs by Declan Fitzpatrick, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson and the steady hands on the tiller of Muller, Pienaar and Terblanche and reason for this years progression is obvious – the players dammit.

Ulster are now an an altitude where they feel comfortable and at home – challenging for trophies and primacy among the provinces. The burning desire pushing Ulster forward in recent years has been the success of their compatriots in Europe – Leinster and (particularly) Munster’s achievments have not gone down well in a province used to being Number 1. What Ulster desperately need to prove  is that this year not a flash in the pan – they need to consolidate their second ranking in the inter-provincial sphere and start looking for viable ways to target Leinster.

Ulster’s signature performance in the 2010-11 season was a mucky and ugly victory over a mucky and ugly Biarritz, and the defining one was a lightweight and inexperienced capitulation to a Northampton team that looks worse after their own follow-up year (note to self: don’t be the Saints). This year, the defining matches were of a much higher level – the slaughtering of Leicester Tigers in Ravers, the near-miss in the Auvergne, the epic victory in Munster, the nervy win in front of 50k in the Palindrome and the respectable showing against the team of the era in London.

Not only does each of those games drive the team forward, but it ticks a box that every team needs if it is to set down a longer-term marker. Think of Munster’s matches in those categories (Gloucester 2002 – slaughter, Northampton 2000 – near-miss, Leinster 2006 – epic victory, Biarritz 2006 – nervy win) and Leinster’s (Toulouse 2006 – slaughter, Munster 2006 – defeat to team of era, Quins 2009 – nervy win, Munster 2009 – epic victory) and they are key checkpoints in the evolution of the team.

So, how are Ulster positioned to continue moving forward?

The most obvious risk is in the coaching staff. Ulster have the luxury of a permanent administration, led by Humph and Shane Logan. Beneath them, there is Neil Doak, Gary Longwell and now former head coach Brian McLaughlin. And contained in their somewhere is Rory Best and Johann Muller. This strong base ensures that the new coach coming in won’t upset the applecart too much, and, indeed, should seamlessly fit in. One has to presume Mark Anscombe knows that Humph is the boss with the grand vision, and that his role is confined to picking the team and complying with edicts from Deccie as regards player availability.

You would suspect that the new regime will not blow up in Ulster faces, given the continuity upstairs and in playing personnel, particularly bigger names like Best, Muller, Fez, Pienaar, Wallace and Trimble, but it’s still a risk. Ulster are second seeds for the HEC next season, and, as such, are likely to have an easier draw than this year, but it doesn’t do to start slowly.

On the playing side, Ulster will be losing Kyriacou (replaced hopefully by Niall Annett), Wannenburg (Roger Wilson), iHumph (Niall O’Connor it appears – eek), Simon Danielli (Tommy Bowe) and Stefan Terblanche (Jared Payne, who he was covering in any case). We’d say on aggregate the P&L on these deals is slightly positive for Ulster, offset by the fact the two losses are in key positions – 10 and 8, with 10 the biggest concern.

While Ulster’s front 5 depth is decent and improving (Court/McAlister, Best/Annett, Afoa/Fitzpatrick/Macklin, Muller/Stevenson, Tuohy/Henderson), and back 5 depth is pretty good (Wallace/L Marshall, Cave/Spence, Gilroy/Trimble/Bowe/Gaston, Payne/D’arcy); but from 6-10 they look shallow.

After Ferris, Henry, Wilson, Pienaar, Jackson you are looking at only Diack, Henderson (double-jobbing at 6), Paul Marshall and Niall O’Connor. Given Ferris isn’t going to give you more than 15 games a year and Pienaar’s stated ambition to play 9, allied to the fact Jackson surely can’t play much more than 15 games himself, you need to accept that Robbie Diack and Niall O’Connor are going to play a lot of games for Ulster. Without wishing to wail on them too much, Diack and O’Connor played a lot of games in 2008/09, and that year’s standard of play is unacceptable at this stage in Ulster’s development.

Anyway, let’s finish on a high note – its been a fantastic year for the province, chock-full of memorable moments, breakthrough players and huge advances. We’ll never forget it, and, lets hope its built on next year. Now, is it true the Chinese symbol for risk and opportunity are the same?!

Season to remember: Darren Cave began the season behind Nevin Spence, and ends it only behind Brian O’Driscoll – the breakthrough season Cave had always threatened

Season to forget: In our Ulster season preview, we said Willie Faloon was a classy, genuine openside who had a chance to nail down and balance a rather pedestrian backrow. In the event, it was Henry who became the genuine groundhog, and Falloon was largely anonymous and got bossed badly by Ross Rennie on the big stage. He will hopefully redeem himself next year … in Connacht

Best match: Thomond Park – one of the great HEC knock-out games. Had no ball, and scored only 3 points from Munster’s half. Maniacal defence and frenzied tackling did the rest

Best performance: the away loss in Clermont – came as close as anyone to breaking the remarkable Marcel Michelin home record – may have been able to close it out had they the Munster win under their belts at that stage

Worst performance: Take your pick of any of the games prior to the big boys returning from NZ. We’ll have the home loss to Treviso, thanks

Thanks for the memories: Pedrie Wannenbosh – originally thought of as an agricultural contact merchant, his incredible hands against Leicester won’t be forgotten easily

See you next season: Tommy Bowe returns home, and, oddly for someone who has achieved so much in his time away, will need to work for his place. He’ll get it though, and he’ll be brilliant.

Heineken Cordite Awards

Europe’s done and dusted for another season and – blimey! – Leinster are champions again.  It wasn’t quite the epic journey, or the emotional wringer of a final, of last year, but anyone who thinks Leinster had it easy would do well to name another team in Europe who could beat Clermont in their (sort of) own patch.  Equally, minds should be cast back to the very first week when Leinster had to come from 16-6 down against a Ouedraogo-inspired Montpellier.  That said, a few traditional heavy hitters were either injury afflicted (Leicester), tired and old (Toulouse), rebuilding (Munster) or just plain awful (Biarritz).  We would welcome them back as forces in next year’s tourney.

Without further ado, let’s roll out the Heineken Cup Cordites:

David Brent Award for Networking: Shaun Edwards. When the defence-inventing messiah was applying for jobs back in October, he had his beady eye, pugilist’s nose and stern mouth fixed on the Boshiership. No surprise then that his HEC preview for the Grauniad had no fewer than six (six!) English teams in the knock-out stages – Leicester, Northampton, Sarries, London Samoa, Quins and Ooooooooooooooooooohh Bath – lots of love, but no job, and it was back to Wales for the year until Reading came calling earlier this month.

Abraham Zapruder Award for Film: Sky Sports. Two of the best teams to watch in this years tournament were Embra and Racing Metro. Embra embraced an offloading and multi-phase HEC game while abandoning the league, and Racing Metro used the HEC to practise attacking moves. When the two clashed in front of three fans in Murrayfield, the results were fun – a rollicking 48-47 which featured comebacks from 24 points down and a completely fudged drop goal to lose it for Racing. Luckily, Sky had the cameras present … at Cardiff, where the Blues and London Samoa served up a 10 penalty and 2 try bosh-fest. Ooooooooooh!!

The Memento Award for Selective Memory: Gerry Thornley’s supplement of the 15 Games That Defined The Heineken Cup should have been entitled 15 Games That Gerry really enjoyed, or 15 Great Irish Provincial Wins.  No mention of Stade v Leicester, Toulouse v Wasps or Munster v Wasps.  And Munster v Saints this year, hugely exciting though it ws, hardly defined anything.

Funniest moment for non-English fans:

There’s Something About Mary Award for Hero Worship: Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’arcy.  On Newstalk on Monday night Shane Horgan revealed that in the dressing room after the final, BOD and Dorce were showing him photos of themselves holding the Cup with Brad Thorn, like a pair of fanboys.  They just really, really love Big Bad Brad.  Bless.

The Emilio Estevez Brat Pack Award: Chris Ashton. After Rog’s heroics in Thomond, the Saints had a chance to put their season back on track at home to Llanelli. The Scarlets hit them for 3 first half tries and had Northampton rocking. However, just after the hour, the Saints had ground back some momentum and had a penalty to get within 9. Ryan Lamb strikes the post, and it rebounds back into Northampton hands. A couple of passes later Chris Ashton fumbles the ball … and walks away, leaving a huge gap in midfield for the onrushing speed merchants of the Scarlets. Thirty seconds later, it’s the bonus point and Saints are out.

The Haagen-Dasz Guilty Pleasure Award: Biarritz 21-18 Toulon. We hate an unambitious boshfest as much as anyone (except Barnesy obviously), but there was something oddly compelling about 16 fatties teeing the ball up for 2 of the best generals in the business – Dmitri Yachvili and Le Jonny. It wasn’t pretty, but then if every game was about the piano players, we wouldn’t get to sneer at league. [Note: we know this was in the Amlin, but we don’t care].

Toto Schillachi Award for Fleeting Greatness: Rhys Priestland.  Played like a dream in the World Cup, but like a drain ever since.  Wobbly goal kicking, poor control and when presented with a huge chance to put Scarlets in charge of their group, he went into meltdown and they coughed up a home defeat to a patched up, if mentally resilient Munster team.  Lions fly half? You must be joking.

Best Atmosphere: Ulster 41-7 Leicester.  Palla’s first ever experience of the Ravenhill roar (Ireland A v Tonga doesn’t count), and he sure picked the right night.  Ferris smashed Tuilagi, Trimble scored two in the corner and Ulster blew away injury-stricken Leicester in every facet of play.  The rickety old stadium rocked from start to finish.

Player of the Tournament: Johnny Sexton.  ‘I just let him play’, said Joe Schmidt.  And boy did he do that.  Dug Leinster out of a couple of tight spots too.

Team of the Tournament: Kearney; Matavanou, Rougerie, Fofana, Visser; Sexton, Pienaar; Healy, Ford, Afoa; Tuohy, O’Connell; Ferris, O’Brien, Talei.

The Stats Don’t Lie

Just why is it that Johnny Sexton looks so dominant in a blue jersey, and cuts a sometimes cranky, frustrated figure in green?  Because he’s not quite up to test level, right?  Because ROG is on the bench unzipping his jacket every time Johnny misplaces a pass?  The good people at ESPN Scrum are here to offer a clue.

Here are Reddan and Sexton’s kick-pass-run statistics from Saturday’s final:

Sexton: Kick 4, Pass 27, Run 6

Reddan: Kick 5, Pass 90, Run 5

That’s 9 kicks, 117 passes and 11 runs between them.

Here are Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton’s stats from Ireland’s home defeat to Wales in this year’s Six Nations:

Sexton: Kick 15, Pass 18, Run 1

Murray: Kick 7, Pass 62, Run 7

That’s an aggregate of 22 kicks, 90 passes and 8 runs.  Twice as many kicks and fewer passes.  What’s more, after the game Declan Kidney accused the team of ‘playing too much rugby in the wrong areas’.  Translation: they should have kicked the ball more!  Can you see what we’re getting at?

To be fair to Ireland and Kidney, the halfbacks kicked the ball a lot less in the rest of the tournament.  For the middle of the series, when Sexton and Ireland played well, the stats were more comparable to those when they play in blue.  Against Scotland, when Ireland won 32-14, Sexton kicked 4, passed 18 and ran 2, while Reddan, who had replaced the stricken Murray kicked 7, passed 35 and ran 4.

The message is clear: why kick the ball when you have the best running-and-passing fly half in Europe?  And what the stats don’t tell you is how much flatter to the gainline Sexton stands for Leinster.  Whiff of Cordite utterly dismisses the argument that Sexton is incapable of playing at test level when he is so dominant in the Heineken Cup.

We also reject the argument that something akin to Leinster’s gameplan would not be as successful at test level.  Kidney’s apologists have pointed out umpteen times that Leinster have the advantage of playing every week, while Ireland can only convene on the training paddock a few times a year and have to cut their cloth accordingly.  But is the same not true of opposing teams – and therefore should their defences not be just as rough and ready as Ireland’s attack?  I thought test rugby was a step up form the Heiny, not a step down?

Besides, Leinster’s style is based on nothing so complicated as precision-accurate passing, supporting the man with the ball and a feral attitude at the breakdown.  The players have the skills to implement it.  The notion that these fundamentals are diminished at test level is laughable.  After all, it’s worked out ok for New Zealand.

“He’s taught me to let him play, he’s not that bad a player. Give him his head and he’ll call what he’ll see. He’ll come in and have a chat and build from week to week, but to be honest I haven’t seen much of him.”

The above is a quotation from – who else? – Joe Schmidt.  It’s high time Ireland did the same.

Deccie’s Zygotic Mynci

The Irish squad for New Zealand is out. Albeit the first cut before the rest of the injuries.

There are 4 places still to be filled: a loose-head prop, likely Brett Wilkinson (it appears Tom Court is rubbish injured), a second row if Paulie doesn’t recover, a back-row if Chris Henry doesn’t make it and a scrum-half if Hugo “Isaac” Boss doesn’t make it i.e. places for Horan, Micko, Tommy O’Donnell and Tomas O’Leary.

Here’s our initial thoughts:

  • It’s good to see Sherry and Fitzpatrick going – tight-head is a place of low depth, but as we have discussed before, we have players, it’s just they don’t get picked, so we can’t know if they are good enough
  • Dan Tuohy (at last!) makes a non-extended squad – let’s hope he gets in the team ahead of Stakhanov.  I know we’re approaching broken record status on this, but O’Callaghan has done very little this season to keep getting picked.  As a senior player in the Ospreys Debacle he was particularly culpable.
  • Kevin McLaughlin is seriously unlucky – his leadership, versatility and form over the last months probably deserved a call-up (admittedly backrow is competitive). Given the usual mounting up of injuries, we still think we will see him out there before the last test
  • Despite being in the best form of his career, there is no place for Paddy Wallace. It seems Darren Cave is a direct replacement, and Earls is a winger again
  • Bob is the only specialist full-back, and it looks like Earls is his backup
  • The squad is short on specialist wingers, but Earls and McFadden are wingers in Deccie’s world
  • Simon Zebo is blessed, Little Bob and (especially) Craig Gilroy are much more rounded players – the All Black wingers will have him for breakfast without so much as a burp. 
  • It’s a real shame Ian Madigan didn’t get the nod.  Unlike many in a breakout season, he has kept his form up right to the end.  It was a real opportunity to bring a player who will go on to win many caps into the fold and show him what it’s all about

All in all, it’s a squad that’s got Deccie written all over it.  It’s nice to see names like Cave, Tuohy and Sherry involved, but we suspect they’ll be spending more of their time familarising themselves with the coffee machines than playing test rugby.  Ah well, we’re used to it by now.

Heineken Cup Final: the Ulster Reaction

Phew, that wasn’t much fun. Egg’s much-vaunted high hopes never materialised and Ulster deservedly lost to Leinster, a team who, after 2 years of being head and shoulders above all comers (a short head in Clermont’s case), can be proclaimed as the best European side of the professional era.

What can Ulster take from Saturday? First of all, a few bruises and a few regrets. But mostly pride in their performance, pride in their fans and, when the dust has settled, acknowledgment that this could be the start of something.

Here’s a thought:

Its funny how good sides varnish dominant displays with late scores. And there was no doubting who was the dominant force here.

That’s from our muse, Le Gerry. And it’s from 2006, after Munster beat Leinster. In many ways, Ulster’s key games have mirrored Leinster’s that year – a breakthrough win in a notoriously tough venue, followed by a humbling at the hands of their neighbours. Leinster took the lessons learned that day, quietly built big-game fortitude and came back with the team of 2009, which now looks prosaic compares to the all-conquering 23 men of 2011-12. That’s Ulster’s task now – their position in the pecking order is well below Leinster, but above most others, and it gives them a clear level to aim towards. We said before that Thomond Park was Ulster’s Stoop moment – that no longer applies, so let’s at least hope it can be their Le Stadium Municipal moment.

[In an eerie parallel, Leinster had a duff bench that day as well – only a young Bob stands out].

There is no doubting Ulster will benefit from having played in a final – Egg had a brief thought yesterday that perhaps it would have been better if Toulouse had scraped past Embra and beat Ulster in the Palindrome – but it’s not true. If (when?) Ulster get back to the final, they’ll know what the day feels like, they’ll know how to manage the build-up, and they will be able to focus on the 2% extra to get over the line. The experience will stand to them.

As we hope it stands to Paddy Jackson – it was a harrowing day for the youngster, who looked nowhere near ready for this level. Hindsight is 20-20 of course, and the Ulster coaching staff know Jackson better than anyone, but when they selected him for Embra, they knew they would have to pick him for the final. Jackson looked overawed and nervy – understandable of course, but it is the coaches job to prepare him both physically and mentally, and their effort came up a long way short. We think Jackson will recover, he’s a talented guy, but it does seem to be a rather cavalier way to treat a talent of his nature. Conversely, iHumph looked spritely and expansive when he came in, his arrival corresponding to Ulster’s most threatening phase of the game.

Many other Ulster players who can be very happy with their individual days work – John Afoa was excellent, Rory Best nuggety and driven. Dan Tuohy didn’t look out of place at this level, and of course popped up on the wing to score his try from a sumptuous pass from Paddy Wallace, who skill level illuminated mostly pedestrian attacking moves. Cave and Gilroy also had good days; and the backline will have Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne next season.

Fez had a solid day – while not as explosive as he can be, he too looked comfortable on this stage, albeit not quite 100%. Speaking of not quite 100%, Chris Henry was not fully recovered from his injury – he was a marginal presence, and came off for Willie Faloon on 65 minutes. As the Mole said, if you see Faloon coming in, it wasn’t going to plan for Ulster.

The bottom line for Ulster is that they were beaten by a much better side on the day. But it was one of the great, if not the greatest, sides that did it. In terms of getting to the final, Leinster’s win in Bordeaux was the toughest task, but Ulster beat Clermont as well, and also beat Leicester and Munster, both better sides than anyone else Leinster beat. They were in the final on merit, and came across a whirlwind, a maelstrom of physicality, high skills and intelligent players who just weren’t going to lose.

Ulster can reflect on a breakout season, one where many of the core players had their best seasons to date (Cave, Wallace, Best, Tuohy, Ferris, Henry) and some outstanding youngsters moved into and to the fringes of the first team (Gilroy, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Jackson, Henderson) – Ulster have proved themselves against some of the greatest sides on the continent, and fallen short of the best.

No shame there – SUFTUM.

Heineken Cup Final: The View from the (Following) Afternoon

The house divided in the latter half of last week, and remains so until today. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our united front, but for one last time, each half of Team Cordite will look at the final from a partisan perspective.  Here are Palla’s thoughts from Twickenham.

As Sean Cronin raced to touch down under the posts and the clock ticked into the red zone, this blue-clad Leinster fan’s first thought was that the all the talk of the strength of the respective benches had panned out.  In fact, as is the case less often than you might think, the fairly straightforward pre-match expectations largely came to pass.   Maybe the margin of victory was glossed a bit, but plenty of the pundits’ boxes got ticked: Ulster forwards serving up a good fifty-ish percent of possession – check.  Leinster backline having more invention with their share of the ball – check.  Leinster bench able to take the game away from the opposition – check.  Gulf in class between the opposing 10s – check.

The one thing that didn’t come to pass was Ulster’s put-on-the-squeeze gameplan.  In fact they played quite a bit of rugby, looking to work the ball to their dangerous wide runners quickly with long cut out passes – as we thought they’d do against Embra, but never really managed.  They played pretty well at times and contributed much more to the game than the scoreline suggests.  Paddy Wallace had an outstanding match from where I was sitting, and Cave and Gilroy threatened.  They just weren’t quite sharp enough – Trimble’s season has tapered a bit and Ulster needed him at his most dynamic, and they played a passing game but left their best passer on the bench.  On Friday’s head-to-head I’d said I thought Ulster might benefit from having iHumph in the team to bring a bit of flair.  Turns out they asked too much of young Jackson and in iHumph’s 20-minute cameo he showed what they’ll be missing next year.  He was a risk that had to be taken to give Ulster any chance.

But this was Leinster’s day.  Two in a row, three from four, on for the double – this is a team that is writing the history books right now.  Future generations will ask if you were actually around when BOD, Sexton, O’Brien and Kearney were all in the same team together, and really, were they as good as everyone says they are?  So start practicing those stories about how Kearney would leap 50m into the air to pluck high balls out of the sky, or how O’Brien would hand-off seven bullocks at a time in his Tullow fields.  Folk will want to hear them.

There were a few dropped balls, the odd sliced clearance, and at around the 60 minute mark, I had the feeling Leinster were making hard work for themselves.  Then they brought on the bench.  Every reserve seemed to have an impact.  Jennings’ arrival and the speedier ruck ball were hardly coincidental.  Toner made one great carry and followed up with the softest of hands moments later. van der Merwe looked seriously up for it and Sean Cronin was hugely effective as a carrier – he has been great off the bench all season.   Leinster won the last 18 minutes 18-0. It served to underly the remarkable depth of Leinster’s squad.  van der Merwe, for example, is rarely talked about by anyone but has been a totem for Leinster over two seasons.  Healy knows he can waste himself in 60 minutes and Leinster can bring on a teak-tough, technically excellent replacement to see out the match.  Ireland, to name but one team, don’t have the same luxury.

Leo Cullen’s choice of Shane Jennings to lift the cup was a lovely moment, and was testimony to Jennings standing in the squad, even if he no longer starts regularly. It held up a mirror to the image of a photo of the pair doing exactly the same thing after Leicester’s Premiership win in 2007.  It served as a reminder of how far Leinster have come in that time, and that success has come the hard way to many of this group.  Cullen and Jennings went to Leicester because Leinster was a poorly-run shambles, and in 2007, when Jenno and Leo were scooping up silverware,  Leinster were beaten by Wasps in a one-sided quarter-final and blew a huge lead to gift the Magners League to Ospreys.  Truly, the recent past can be a foreign country sometimes.

For Leinster it’s a triumph of skill, great players and great coaching.  The ease with which they can integrate different players into the team without diluting their style is remarkable – they play the Leinster way whether it’s the Heineken Cup final or home to Aironi on the thursday before a Six Nations match.  Take a bow, Joe Schmidt.  Nobody doubts that the likes of BOD, Sean O’Brien and Sexton have the talent and the temperament to dominate these sorts of occasions.  But when the regal Sexton comes off with eight minutes to go and his uncapped replacement (Madigan) attacks the gain line and passes to those outside him with such skill as to appear to the manor born, the only conclusion can be that we are in the presence of greatness.

Heineken Cup Final: Head to Head

We’ve laid the groundwork, now we finally go head to head.  Egg Chaser’s Ulster vs. Palla Ovale’s Leinster.  How’s it going to do.  Two nervous, excited bloggers go toe to toe.  Have it!

EGG : So – I’m pretty excited – T-24 or thereabouts to kickoff, and T-18 ish until the flights are outta here. The nerves are increasing, but so is the excitement. How are you feeling?

PALLA : I’m getting butterflies. Rumours over the team selection didn’t help. Still not fully soothed either.  I can’t see how BOD is fit. Basically I’m like Quinny described himself on wednesday: started out confident but getting more edgy as kick-off approaches

PALLA : And you?

EGG : I can imagine – I think the novelty of it all is positive for Ulster- expectations are low, and having a party is high on the agenda. Leinster fans are presumably feeling deja vu from a confident trip last year followed by a horror start to the game. Ulster are very much basking in it – it’s a good feeling.

PALLA : I can imagine. I’m hoping last year’s first 40 is fresh in the Leinster players’ memories. It is for the fans I think, though there is some bullishness about.

EGG : Very much so. I have yet to talk to a Leinster fan who isn’t sanguine about the match (apart from yourself)

PALLA : I think Ulster fans have genuine belief they can win?

EGG : Hmmm … they do …. I guess this moves us on nicely to what we expect

PALLA : So what’s going to happen?

EGG : Ulster see parallels to last year inLeinster’s build-up. An epic SF against French aristocrats, an unexpectedly difficult Rabo semi-final. Of course, what followed was a very slow start (their worst half of HEC rugby in the Shcmidt era?) – Ulster need to lead from the front, and we feel it might happen.

EGG : And of course, Ulster aren’t as brittle as Northampton! (or so we hope).

PALLA : No, Ulster can withstand a barrage. Saints couldn’t contain Leinster once they lost the tempo. We saw that in Limerick. Ulster did lose control of the match, but they were able to stay in it – just!

EGG : In both games they struggled for control.

PALLA : They did.

EGG : Only 1st quarter vs Munster. And 3rd qurater vs Embra.

PALLA : Against Embra their defence was pretty porous, you could have driven a 46a through the gaps around the fringes.

EGG : In Clermont they got the balance right – they controlled the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and some more.

PALLA : They did.

EGG : Yes – play like that against Leinster and its over. But I think that won’t happen.

PALLA : No it won’t – Ulster will be furiously hungry in this game, and I think Henry won’t allow those sort of gaps to appear.

EGG : No – Henry was the key man in Thomond really, and Faloon wasn’t up to it. It seems odd to say it, but Henry is the best groundhog on the pitch (apart from BOD)

PALLA : I would argue for Heaslip!

EGG : Heaslip has added that to his game this year – he’s been unheralded, but I have been impressed.

PALLA : I won’t expect to see Jamie in the wide channels too much in this game.

EGG : No – most definitely.

PALLA : I think he’ll be tasked with keeping Henry off the ball.

EGG : So – what do you expect from Leinster

PALLA : Well, it will go one of two ways.

EGG : 1. BT2 2. Wagamama?

PALLA : Haha. If Ulster are off their game leinster will look to blast them off the park with tempo. They have obliterated the opposition in 30 minutes in their home games. But let’s face it, it’s more likely to be trench warfare. They will probably feel that if it’ tight after 50-60 mins they have the bench to pull away, in which case they’ll have to be patient

EGG : Flip that 30 minutes on its head, and look at Leinster away games: At half time – were they behind against Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath andMontpellier, level with Glasgae and behind to Clermont?

PALLA : Yeah, correct.

EGG : I think that will be Leinster’s approach. It’s a final, no need to put on a show – Win the match

PALLA : They are very good in the ‘championship minutes’. They will look to do their thing – lots of inside passes, clever offloads, the usual… but need to be patient and not force it!

EGG : They’ll be content, I feel, to bide their time. I expect Ulster to be ahead at half time, but Leinster to be happy if Ulster’s tackle count is 40-50

PALLA : Yeah, that will not worry them!

EGG : So: key men.

PALLA : Ok, for Ulster then…

EGG : This is easy!

PALLA : He’s big. He’s strong. He wears 6 on his back. Warning: following content may contain mancrush. Dude’s unreal, he just manhandles people

EGG : If you see the backrow prominent – Fez slamming tackles behind the gainline; Henry dominating the breakdown; Wannenbosh carrying and getting yards then Ulster are on top. Fez’ sheer size and speed creates holes for the likes of Wannenbosh and Trimble off his wing

PALLA : yes.

EGG : And his tackling!!

PALLA : unreal

EGG : I envisage a Will Genia moment for Redders. Possibly ugly enough to make Deccie drop him in advance.

PALLA : Redders has to make sure he doesn’t get sucked into that.

EGG : He does.

PALLA : We know how hot and cold he can run.

EGG : If the Ulster backrow are prominent, it is going to plan.

PALLA : So Fez is the key man then?

EGG : I’d say all 3.

PALLA : ok.

EGG : They are well-balanced. We *know* Fez will be everywhere, but they need all 3 to be on their game.

PALLA : They weren’t balanced before, but Henry has learned to play 7.

EGG : It’s Shannon rugby from Ulster (without as much pishun obviously) – unless they are chasing the game of course.

PALLA : Of course.  So what about Leinster’s key fellow… I cannot see beyond one man.

EGG : Farrelly’s favourite.

PALLA : They call him Johnny 10.

EGG : If Sexton get space and time to do his thing, you would argue Ulster can’t win.

PALLA : I think if the packs come out even-steven Johnny will be able to be the difference just plays with such authority. He has it all. He kicks goals, he’s a huge boot, he’s cranky, he makes tackles, he breaks the line and he’s got the temperament for the big occasion.

EGG : Ironic to say it in a HEC final, but his opposite number should be watching and learning!

PALLA : Let’s hope he doesn’t get too in awe. He won’t though.

EGG : So, on the breaking even up front thing …. who is going to do that? Brad Thorn must be the key.

PALLA : I think Leinster’s pack as a unit is pretty formidable. It’s a rock solid unit. Thorn will be huge in the scrum. But there’s an element of fingers crossed that the lineout holds up.

EGG : It is – it’s more than the sum of its parts. Only Thorn brings as much destructiveness as Fez

PALLA : Although SOB, if they can get him charging at the right people and can cause huge damage

EGG : He can

PALLA : Locky has a big job at lineout time I expect we’ll see him used a lot there

EGG : Yes – neither Leinster hooker is Jocky Wilson with the darts. Locky’s a quick and light fella – he widens the margins for error.

PALLA : He has great skills once he’s up there.

EGG : Now: The verdict. I’ll let you lead!

PALLA : Oooooooooooooohhhh! I’ll be honest, I am confident, I think Leinster will do it. Ulster need to play some rugby to win it, but they’ve left their flair players on the bench. So I think even if they do slow down the ball a bit Leinster will still have too much possession to lose the game.

Leinster by 9.

EGG : Just above the spread – bookies going 8.

EGG : So my dos centavos: I am relaxed, and strangely confident. This mirrors the feeling I had prior to the QF. I think Leinster will start slowly, and Ulster have an opportunity to build a lead. I most certainly agree that 9 man dross won’t suffice – penalties alone won’t do it. Ulster will come out like dervishes, and put everything into it – everything. The championship minutes will decide this – 40-60. Leinster are the masters in Europe of this portion of a game, but Ulster have guys who have won Super Rugby titles with the Bulls – they are the Southern Hemisphere masters of winning big games. Ulster, unlike most underdogs, and certainly unlike the Saints last year, will believe they can win it, in spite of their recent record against Leinster. I foresee iHumph coming in with 15 ish to go and Ulster perhaps replying to the onslaught by running it – giving the forwards a break. I just feel this is Ulster’s moment – they are fiercely driven, under no pressure, and are ready to give their all. They aren’t the best team in Europe, or even inIreland, but then neither wereLeinsterin 2009. This is Ulster’s moment – Ulster by 3.

PALLA : My only concern for Ulster is that their best performance this year was beating Leicester, but they’ve gone away from that template ever since.  It’s all a bit South Africa

EGG : Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh! It is the Springbok model – but they win RWCs when they aren’t the best team in the tournament!

PALLA: So we’re both going for our own teams to do the biz. Let me just say: hope it’s a great game and may the best team win

EGG : Absolutely. Neither of us would begrudge the opposition their victory, so let’s (try and) relax and enjoy it! Vamos!