Heineken Cup Final: Ulster

After cappuccino-slurping, Irish Times-perusing, 46A-travelling, Dundrum-shopping, Fallon & Byrne-frequenting, field-fearing Leinsterman Palla’s look at his team yesterday, I’ll be giving the proud Ulstermen some analysis today – SUFTUM etc.

We’re going to have a roundtable discussion tomorrow and give our forecasts – let’s hope it doesn’t come to fisticuffs.  We’ll keep you posted…

Who’s going to play:

Unlike Leinster, who can expect up to 12 of the team that played in their last Heineken Cup final, Ulster won’t be calling on any of the 1999 side, not even Gary Longwell. Also unlike Leinster, there isn’t much competition for places – the XV is pretty much set in stone: Terblanche; Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Gilroy; Jackson, Pienaar; Court, Best, Afoa; Muller, Tuohy; Ferris, Henry, Wannenbosh. Lots of Ooooooooooooohhh there (of which more anon).

On the bench, there is a chance Iain Henderson will get the reserve lock slot from Louis Stevenson (but it’s unlikely), so that is pretty much set in stone as well. McLaughlin hasn’t been one for changes in the big games, but with the probability Ulster will be chasing it in the last 20, you can expect Paul Marshall to come in for Paddy Jackson with Pienaar moving out; but that’s it unless there are injuries – the bench is low on experience and, in some of the more established players’ cases (Willie Faloon, Nigel Brady, the outside backs) HEC standard class.

What’s the plan:

Keep it tight. As tight as a duck’s butt. Like the proverbial Shannon quote (“if we ever find a number 8 who can kick…”), the lower the digits on the shirt of the players with the ball, the better for Ulster. Ulster will fancy their set piece is superior to Leinster’s, and will look for the template they employed in the Marcel Michelin – grind, bosh, boot and Bok.

They will aim to play territory, looking to kick for touch when they give the piano players the ball, and hope their superior lineout can get disrupt Leinster throws in their own 22. The good thing about this is they have four good tactical kickers (Pienaar, Jackson, Wallace, Terblanche) to execute the plan. The bad thing is their execution against Embra was poor, and Leinster have the best kick-returners in the business (Bob, Nacewa, Sexton) – a repeat of the first half showing in the semi-final and they’ll be going in 20 points down.

To win, they must:

Not deviate from the gameplan, and execute everything with absolute precision. They need to get their set pieces on top. The Ulster lineout is undoubtedly better than Leinster’s, their scrum will break even at least (but beware of the intelligent Leinster props turning a perceived advantage on its head). Assuming Kevin McLaughlin plays to shore up the creaky Leinster lineout, Ulster will have the best breakdown merchant and back frustrater on the pitch in Chris Henry.

Ulster will have been watching the Leinster-Clermont game and noted how Ulster’s performance away to Clermont was arguably better in the set pieces – they will think they can turn the screw on Leinster just as Clermont did in the second quarter, and as they did against Edinburgh in the third quarter.

When Leinster have their inevitable purple patch, Ulster must defend with discipline and intelligence – the boys in blue can score tries against anyone from anywhere – the likes of Wallace, Henry and Cave need to be alert for inside runners and their tackling technique needs to be bang on to take offloads out of the question – if the Ulster backrow are prominent, Leinster should be worried. The Springbok model of defending and hitting hard is the Ulster one – make the scores come in multiples of 3.

They’ll be snookered if:

They put a foot wrong! Any errant kicks will be punished, and punished severely – with respect to the Embra backs, they have nothing on these guys. Looking at Leinster’s results away from D4 this year, one try has generally been enough – if Leinster break through at all, you’d have to fancy Ulster’s chances are small. So don’t concede any tries.

If the scrum does not get on top, Ulster should be worried – Afoa and co need to put pressure on the Leinster fatties to take the ref out of the equation. In their knock-out games to date, they have had the luxury of Poite i.e. if you are on top, you get the penalty.  With Owens, unless it’s clear cut (and even when it is), the scrum penalties are a bit more of a lottery.

And finally, they must be ready for an onslaught in the final quarter. Ulster need to lead from the front, and Leinster might be quite happy to work the tacklers in the first half and go in, say, 6-9 down, with a view to pushing on like they did in Clermont, and bringing on their impact subs. Ulster will have much of the same XV on the field to the end, and they need to be mentally ready for the last 20 if they are to cling on.

Heineken Cup Final: Leinster

There’s a whiff of cordite in the air alright.  Oh yes.  Deep and pungent.  As tension builds in Heineken Cup final week, we’re barely on speaking terms.  Egg Chaser has started calling Palla Ovale a ‘D4-dwelling lady-man’ (surely he means ‘ladies’ man’?), while Palla hilariously, and not at all childishly, has resorted to putting Egg’s favourite bible inside a jelly mould.  Things reached a low when Palla said he never rated Paddy Wallace anyway.

In the semi-finals we elected to put emotion on the back-burner and have the Leinster man preview the Ulster game and vice versa, but that’s impossible this time (mainly because Egg’s first draft of his Leinster preview just had ‘Leinster are rubbish and Jamie Heaslip is a show-boating pansy’ repeated ad nauseum).

Onwards and upwards though, so, first, let’s have a look at Leinster.

Who’s going to play?

So poor is our track record of trying to forecast Joe Schmidt’s team selections that it’s almost laughable that we’re going to try again, but here goes.  As usual, the hard calls are in the front row, the backrow, and at scrum half.  With Luke Fitzgerald out there’s another in the back three.  We’re working off the assumption that all of those managing niggly injuries will show sufficient healing powers to make the cut.  Cian Healy should get the nod at loosehead, as he usually does in knockout games.  Expect him to waste himself for 55 minutes and the granite-hewn van der Merwe to be one of the first two reserves to enter the fray.  Wihle Richardt Strauss has not quite hit the heights of last season, he looks likely to hold off the challenge of Sean Cronin.  Cronin’s timing onto pop passes around the fringes is terrific, but his throwing is still woefully erratic (more of which later).  Mike Ross, Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn will fill out the tight five.

In the backrow, O’Brien and Heaslip are nailed on, but who is chosen to join them infers a lot about how Leinster intend to play.  In the semi-final Jennings was selected for his niggly scrum-half-harrying qualities.  We’re expecting a switch in the final, with McLaughlin to start.  Leinster’s lineout has creaked of late and Locky provides a superb tail-jumping option which will be needed against a lineout which is one of the best in the competition.

Fergus McFadden is long overdue some good news at selection time.

The other call which reveals much about Leinster’s gameplan is at scrum-half.  We’ve a sneaky feeling Isaac Boss might just get the start, but then we said Reddan would wear 9 in the semi-final.  Boss knows this Ulster team pretty well and Schmidt might like the idea of Reddan increasing the tempo in the final quarter.  One will start, the other finish.  Sexton, D’arcy and BOD in midfield, and Nacewa and Kearney Sr will certainly start in the back three.  The final outside back will surely be Fergus McFadden, seeing off the challenge of the greater broken-field threat of Dave Kearney, due to his sturdier defence.  The versatile back has had a career of selectorial disappointments, and it will be a satisfying moment for him to be selected in a final.

What’s the plan? 

Johnny Sexton is the most influential player in the competition

Leinster can play it myriad ways, as the above paragraphs will tell you.  But the principles generally remain the same: manic aggression and correct body height at the ruck, accurate passing with the ball.  Leinster are lords of the breakdown in Europe, and the addition of Brad Thorn hasn’t done them much harm in that regard.  Jamie Heaslip hasn’t had the best of seasons, but criticism should be tempered, because he is sensational in his work on the ground.  Once they secure quick ball it’s Sexton who dictates the play.  His form this season and last in the competition are matchless.

What they need to do to win:

Leinster are a better team than Ulster, and generally beat them home and away in the Pro12.  They need to relax, be patient and play their natural game.  Get the ball quickly away from the ruck, get Sexton involved, and treat the ball with care.  If they can play at a high tempo and the accuracy to which we have become accustomed, they will have too much in their arsenal for Ulster.  Breathe deep.  Relax.  Play.

They’ll be snookered if:

…their set piece work is shoddy.  Ulster relied on their set piece and some hard grunt up front to overcome Edinburgh.  They don’t appear to have a huge desire to play an awful lot of rugby, but they can grind you down in the tight exchanges.  Leinster’s lineout is a concern in this regard and Leo Cullen will no doubt be at his most nerdish this week, pouring through hours of tape and devising a plan.  With John Afoa returning at tighthead, Ulster look to have an advantage in the scrum.  Ross and Healy are capable of off-days and were outmuscled on their recent visit to Ravers.  If Ulster get an upper hand in the scrums, they can kick points from anywhwere and work the scoreboard impressively.  It won them a semi-final.

Season in Review: Munster

Well, it certainly ended badly.  Post-Six Nations, Munster had three big games: home to Leinster in the Pro12, the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster and the Pro12 semi-final.  They flunked out of all three, and the final game of the season was pretty undignified; a rare whupping, 45-10 at the hands of an Ospreys team with little in the way of household names. While surprisingly long on talent, it was still the guts of the team that struggled past Aironi the week previously – albeit without Justin Tipuric.

It brought the curtain down on a difficult, transitional season.  It’s not the disaster of 2011’s Heineken Cup group exit, but it’s a year that everyone will probably be happy is at an end.  Munster’s passing of the torch to the next generation has been a somewhat piecemeal and fumbled affair without an overarching direction in mind.  You get the feeling they have not yet committed to a grand vision of how the future should look, and have stumbled from one selection to the next.  The uncertainty has been felt more and more as the season went on, and reached its nadir on Friday night – most worrying from a Munster perspective was the lack of fight, there seemed to just be an acceptance of sorts, a palpable relief that it was over. Much of the work was forced through by injuries, and while plenty of new names have been dropped in, there have been some alarmingly wobbly performance graphs and a couple of players seem to have gone straight backwards.

This time last year, Danny Barnes was being touted by an occasionally excitable fanbase as the future of Munster centre play.  He has had a torrid campaign, and finds himself back at square one.  Conor Murray is a talented player, but his was a classic case of second season syndrome.  Whether or not his propensity to take the ball into contact so often was under instruction (due to a lack of ball carriers elsewhere) we don’t know, but someone needs to sit him down in front of the tape of last year’s Magners League final and remind him to simplify his game.  He has the quality to recover, though, and did put in a strong finish.

All that said, there have been numerous success stories, none more so than Peter O’Mahony.  The versatile backrow has enough snap and snarl in him to start a fight in an empty dressing room, but what stood out were his football skills.  WoC can recall at least two occasions on which he went scrum-half and whipped quick, accurate, long passes out in front of the first receiver.  He looks future captain material.  Mike Sherry endured a nightmare on Friday night, but it was a first major setback in what has been a fine breakthrough season.  He looks set to be entrenched in the No.2 jersey for years.  The jury is still out to some extent on Simon Zebo.  Eleven tries is an impressive haul, but equally telling are the defensive lapses and sloppy distribution.  He’s still a pretty rough diamond, but time is on his side.  Dave O’Callaghan and Tommy O’Donnell look solid footsoldier material. Ian Nagle should be pushing for Rabo starts next season, particularly with Micko gone and Donncha’s decline.  We also have high hopes for Paddy Butler, who would add another badly needed carrier to the backrow.

To be fair, Munster were debilitated with injuries for much of the campaign.  Doug Howlett’s absence was keenly felt (he was in scintillating form), and Munster lost an entire backrow for much of the season: Wallace, Leamy and Niall Ronan (another whose form was terrific) were all chopped down.  Once James Coughlan succumbed to injury, the backrow was looking way too callow.  And no team would remain undiminished without a player of Paul O’Connell’s quality, and while Ireland suffered his absence more than Munster, he is the man they can’t do without.

Munster’s playbook remains an issue.  Foley has been commended with reinvigorating their forward play and, for sure, their set piece is improved from where it was last year.  However, the frequency with which they are dominated at the breakdown is a concern.  The unheralded likes of Shane Jennings, Chris Henry and Justin Tipuric all ruled the roost against them at the ruck in recent games.  In attack Munster looked laboured.  Too often the ball is handed to an isolated runner one man out from the ruck, who charges into the nearest available defender.  In the backline, an innovative coach is needed to bring some new ideas to the table.  Against Ulster, they owned the ball, but couldn’t punch their way through the blanket of tacklers.  Munster actually have pretty good players from 9-15, so there is no need for their back play to look quite as ponderous as it does.

Meanwhile, discipline is a problem that just won’t go away.  When Egg Chaser recently met Romain Poite (in a well lubricated exchange in Bruxelles after the Heineken Cup semi-final), he asked him what it felt like to be the most hated man in Munster; Poite replied that every time he referees Munster they make the same mistakes.  As Paulie put it, they’re beating themselves.

Whiff of Cordite would be of the opinion that the sorry thrashing from the ‘Spreys could be the best thing that happens to this Munster team.  Too often this year, tight victories (Northampton and Castres), or excuse-laden defeats (the “Poite-inflicted” defeat to Ulster) have allowed the cracks to be papered over.  Now the picture has been revealed, and the full scale of what needs to be done is clear to see – those 41 phases and that Rog drop goal might have entered the pantheon of Ligindary moments, but they most certainly hid some seriously average European performances, and Rog’s least effective season to date.  Rob Penney will be a welcome new voice, one who comes to the club with no baggage whatsoever.

His job is to build a winning group out of what is now a fairly callow, inexperienced side.  The image of Munster as an ageing unit has now passed, and it’s been replaced by a more youthful, and rather more uncertain version – Penney’s reputation is that of a disciplinarian, but some of the newbies will be needing an arm around the shoulder.  With Wallace, Flannery, the Bull and Micko retired, Horan and O’Callaghan peripheral and Leamy a busted flush, we are down to the last vestiges of Generation Ligind.  Paul O’Connell is still a magnificent warrior, and one ventures that the 35-point margin in the Ospreys debacle would have been as much as 20 points lower had he been playing.  But for the first time, there are real doubts over ROG’s value to the team.  Now 35, he has done precisely nothing of note in 2012 and had perhaps his worst game in the red of Munster against the Ospreys.  For a player of his calibre, it wasn’t good enough.  His lack of breaking threat is a contributor to the attack woes that have bedevilled Munster for who knows how long.  ROG will need to be succeeded eventually, but how soon should the process begin?  And can Keatley be the man to succeed?  One thing’s for sure – it’ll be interesting.

Penney’s first task as Munster coach should be to identify a core of young players who can be Generation Next, its future leaders, and empower them to step out of the shadows of Generation Ligind and take the reigns.  WoC was disappointed in hearing that when Penney talked to two of the Munster players at the time of being appointed, neither was one of its future stars (he talked to POC and ROG; Joe Schmidt by contrast met with Leo Cullen and Johnny Sexton before taking the equivalent post at Leinster). 

We would earmark Mike Sherry, Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony as the core around which the club should build. Expect more difficult years ahead, but it is imperative they keep their eyes on the prize, which is HEC ambitions by around 2016. The years in between are likely to be characterised by silverware and success in D4 and BT6 – Munster must not get distracted by their rivals and should play the long game. Moaning and gnashing of teeth are anticipated, but (and just ask Leinster and Ulster) this type of hard work will pay off.

Season to remember: Keith Earls’ performances at centre have silenced many doubters, and his distribution and awareness are out of sight compared to twelve months ago.  Penney should be brave and keep him in the 13 shirt – Laulala will have to work around him.

Season to forget: Donncha O’Callaghan was only visible when warming up maniacally before his appearances as reserve.  National selection beggared belief.

Best match: the home win vs. Northampton.  Classic Munster drama.

Best performance: 36-51 win in Northampton.  O’Mahony owned the breakdown and Zebo shredded the Saints’ defence.

Worst performance: Limp capitulation to Ospreys was a sad end to McGahan’s tenure.

Thanks for the memories: David Wallace, the greatest Munster backrow of the modern era.

See you next season: James Downey arrives from Northampton.  Predictable, for sure, but he will at least provide another ball carrying option, where the outstanding James Coughlan needs a supporting cast to chip in some hard yards.

Panic on the streets of Dublin

The normally placid Irish press are at each others throats today. Hot on the heels of Colonel Toland’s idea not to bring Rog to New Zealand to sit on the bench, but invest in youth instead (which was our idea anyway), Farmer Farrelly is on the offensive, rubbishing the entire idea.

Toland (thoughtful, considered):

Having O’Gara on hand to aid the transition is crucial. But at what distance should that be? In the touring environment the experience and class of the veteran will rub off on those non-Munster players who know him less well but there is real merit in omitting him from the squad. However, should an injury occur to Sexton, and considering the opposition that awaits, it should be qualified that O’Gara would be quickly brought in to start.

Farrelly (foaming at the mouth):

The view that Ronan O’Gara should be left at home is preposterous — it’s impossible to envisage Ireland beating the All Blacks for the first time this summer without the 35-year-old in the squad

The logic is obvious – O’Gara is 35, and bringing him 10,000km to sit on the bench may not make sense. However, on the flip side, it is PREPOSTEROUS. Also, it is impossible to envisage Ireland beating New Zealand full stop, so Farrelly is technically right to say it is impossible without his friend.

In the interests of fairness, we should note Farrelly omitted Rog from his Ireland team, and only has 2 Munster players, Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray.

For what its worth, we would bring Sexton, Madigan and Jackson with O’Gara waiting on the runway at Cork airport with his iPad packed.

Welcome to Jackson Country

Last weeks news that iHumph is going to London Samoa came as a bit of a surprise – he has had an inconsistent season, but played a key role in Ulster’s Heineken Cup march. He was duff in Thomond, although it was his drop goal that ultimately won the game. Paddy Jackson’s selection for the semi-final was a glimpse of the new era, but we were fully expecting Jackson and iHumph to be sharing 10 duties for the next couple of seasons, before iHumph’s strolls into the sunset. But now that’s not going to be the case – Humphreys has decided to take up an apparently lucrative contract at Sunbury Apia Reading to finish off his career there.

There is a bit of a revolution going on at Irish – the rank and thuggish rugby supplied over the last few years is out, and a new approach is in. Head coach Toby Booth and forwards coach Neal Hatley have joined Gary Gold at Oooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath (which doesn’t exactly augur well for the return of the free-flowing rugby the English press think Bath serve up) and Mike Catt has joined Stuart Lancaster at Team England.

In come Brian Smith as director of rugger and, intriguingly, Shaun Edwards, inventor of defence, as attack coach. A fattie coach will be named soon, and suddenly Irish looks like a team going places. Felon Armitage has gone to join Steffon at Toulon, Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob has retired, and in will come Tomas O’Leary, iHumph, Shane Geraghty and bosher extraordinaire Setaimata Sa from league – an odd combo we admit.

We digress. Humphreys has had a good 4 years in his second stint at Ulster. He joined at the bottom, when Ulster were fending off Connacht for a HEC place, and leaves as a possible HEC champion – it’s always been acknowledged he has never been in the same class as his brother, but he did a good job, igniting a backline packed with potential with his silky skills and eye for a gap, and fitting in well inside Paddy Wallace. Astoundingly, he took a couple of years to shake off Niall O’Connor, but was pretty much first choice throughout his 4 years at Ravers.

When Ruan Pienaar arrived, it helped iHumph further – the dogs on the street could tell you about his defensive “issues”, and the presence of a superstar game-planner inside him tended to dissuade ravenous flankers and centres from blitzing him too much. Even with the arrival of Jackson at this level, you’d have expected Humphreys to stay and mentor the young lad through a couple of seasons before heading off, but it’s not to be. Humphreys is a genuine guy and has made the call to make the move – we wish him the best, and we’ll always have that kick against Biarritz, that try against Clermont, this beard, and his 2-0 HEC record in Thomond Park.

Now, back to Ulster, and the future. The Paddy Jackson era, which has been in genesis for 3 years, is suddenly upon us. Jackson is known as a distributor, but it was his defensive display against Leinster that got him the 10 shirt for Embra – he looked one of Ulster’s better players in the Leinster game. He didn’t do much in the Palindrome, but Pienaar was running the show, and it was Jackson’s job to get through the day without a major calamity and ensure that when he starts the final, it won’t be seen as a massive gamble.  It’s a great outcome for Jackson.  Johnny Sexton, despite his talent, had to wait until he was 24 to become the clear first choice for Leinster – Jackson looks set to be handed the role at 20.  It puts the likes of Ian Madigan in his sights.

Still, it’s a hell of a load on very young shoulders – Jackson is still young enough to be named in Ireland under-20 squad for next months World Championship in Seth Efrica [Aside: if anyone other than Deccie was running the seniors, he’d probably be going to New Zealand, at least for the experience]. He is nearly 3 years younger than the precocious Ronan O’Gara was when he made his Ireland debut in the 2000 Six Nations, although 6 months older than James O’Connor was when he debuted for the Wallabies – mind you, maybe that says more about the Australian sporting philosophy than anything.

It’s hard to see Ulster starting next season with a coterie of out-halves consisting of Jackson, half of Ruan Pienaar and James McKinney, who is less than a year older than Jackson and has just one Rabo start under his belt. If they do bring in someone to mentor Jackson and share game time, who is it likely to be? Hardly Niall O’Connor to return, as some have mooted, or Gareth Steenson from the Exeter bench – surely you’d be better off just investing in McKinney to take some of the workload.

With Jared Payne becoming a project player, Terblanche re-retiring and Wannenbosh heading somewhere sunny, Ulster might use their remaining foreigner card on an inexpensive senior out-half who can take some of the pressure off Jackson but not actually be good enough to steal his jersey for the big games – an Andy Goode with passing skills if you like.  Not quite Eddie Hakenui (too rubbish), not quite Paul Warwick (too good), someone more like Shaun Berne (just right).

Answers on a postcard please!

The Great Heineken Cup Swindle

In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter‘, the police turn up to interview the murder suspect with a view to finding the murder weapon.  Said item was a frozen leg of lamb which she currently has cooking and feeds to the police officers.  Upon leaving, one of the officers comments that the ‘murder weapon was probably right under our very noses’.

It’s not dissimilar to the standard of sleuthing being demonstrated by much of the Irish rugby media at the moment.  The likes of Farrelly, Thornley and even Matty Williams are keen to present this season’s divergence of provincial and international form as a seemingly unsolvable mystery, an endlessly ponderable enigma, like what happened at the end of the Sopranos.

Could it be to do with the abundance of foreign players? What about the fact that Leinster train and play together more often than the national team? Or is there just some magic in the provincial waters that seemingly dries up once the players get to Carton House?  Is it the lack of a national rugby philosophy?  Everyone wants to put forward a handful of half-baked theories, but the leg of lamb is sitting right under their noses – and nobody dares to consider it.

Previously, Thornley in particular has been at pains to tell us how successful Heineken Cup group campaigns have generally led to successful Six Nations Championships, but this season the picture doesn’t fit.  What’s more, Wales’ ascendancy has mirrored their much-discussed unravelling at club level.  What a mystery!  If only some clues would present themselves! Is it the ‘Welsh Way’ – the great history of Welsh international rugby – that inspires players that look workaday in their club sides?

One thing’s for sure – it certainly can’t be the coaching, tactics and selection, right?  Because that would mean – shock horror! – that Ireland’s coaching ticket isn’t really all that. Oh dear, and how does one square that circle with Gerry’s ability to uncannily predict the team week after week? I mean, 3 HECs in 4 Deccie-years, or 2 Celtic Leagues from 3 (and maybe more) in the same timeframe? Surely that means our players are good? So why aren’t they doing it at international level?

Lately we have had Thornley telling us the Heineken Cup had suddenly become ‘less correlated’ with international rugby, Farrelly declaring that foreign imports (especially at Ulster) are thwarting the hopes of developing Irish talent and on this week’s Wednesday Night Rugby, Keith Wood and Gerry Thornley pondered the ‘mystery’ of why Leinster players looked so much better in blue, and could only come up with the theory that they play together more often – it was up to Shane Horgan to belatedly mention that the coach had to ‘create the right environment for players to express themselves’, and argue that while he didn’t consider Gatland a great coach, this was an area in which he was strong.  Hilariously, Farrelly’s piece yesterday alluded to the national team’s patchy form as ‘the elephant in the room’.  While displaying a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of the phrase ‘elephant in the room’, it also raised new levels of irony in not mentioning the possibility that national management could be in some way culpable.  Now, that’s the elephant, Farrelly!

Matty Williams’ piece on Monday certainly sounded a note of clarity, in that it highlighted a lack of national rugby philosophy on which we can fall back, but it overlooked the fact that Ireland have been successful in the recent past, when the provinces were even further apart tactically than they are now.

So let’s rewind a bit: from RWC 2003 to RWC 2007 the provinces won 1 HEC and 1 Celtic League – it would be reasonable to conclude that, at provincial level, our players were okay, but weren’t achieving consistently. But what’s this? Ireland won 3 Triple Crowns in the same period? And were a late Elvis Vermeulen touch down in the corner against Scotland away from a Championship? Shurely shome mishtake Mish Thornley?

No points for spotting that the period above corresponded with the most ferrous period of Eddie’s iron fist, and what Eddie did – and was much criticised for – was play a very structured game; a game far removed from the boot and bullock at Munster, the sparkling and flighty back play at Leinster, or the slightly sniffy 10 man dross in Ulster. Sod any ‘national philosophy’, Eddie had his own gameplan and micro-managed incessantly – in the end, it did for him, but it was very successful when it worked. To use Ger Loughnane’s words, Eddie felt he had to “drive the horse over the fence”. When the bunch of losers (in trophy terms) he took over needed a different approach to win the race once they had worked out how to get over the fence, Eddie couldn’t give it, and he paid the price.

So in came Deccie with his mind-bending cute hoor-ism and essentially let the lads work it out for themselves (to use a word beloved in Egg’s place of employment, Deccie “enabled” the players). Through Bob’s brave words in Enfield and Jamie Heaslip’s youthful endeavour to the grizzled leaders at 5, 10 and 13, Ireland’s players made it over the line. It was a genius plan really – feed off the bitterness and anger of the near misses and the venom in the press and harness the inter-provincial rivalry for that last push.

Problem is, it could only work for so long. The more Deccie is required to interact, and actually engage and work out a plan for his players, the less successful he has been. Ireland have fallen inexorably from the peak of November 2009 against the Boks in almost a straight line. There have been a few shining one-off performances in between, but they came against teams who were psychologically frail, and usually when Ireland were painted into a corner:  a beaten-up England or a uniquely vulnerable Australia (that performance, while memorable, was steeped in good fortune and would not have sufficed against NZ, SA, France or Wales). Any team who plays Ireland with a belief they can beat them generally does.

And this is where the mystery deepens – Eddie got a huge amount of flak from the press for “only” winning 3 Triple Crowns, and for consistently challenging for the Championship, but not winning it. And look at his squad! Deccie, on the other hand, has presided over an initial burst followed by an energy-sapping descent into drudgery, with eight wins in the last three Six Nations – and has had a virtual free ride. Now, the obvious answer for this all-enveloping mystery of why Irish players appear so much better at provincial level is ignored. And it’s this: the coaches just aren’t doing very well.  It’s the leg of lamb, dammit.

Ireland’s gameplan under Deccie has gone from puke rugby (2008-2010 vs Wales) to going wide and lateral at every opportunity (2010 vs Scotland – 2012 vs Wales) to a promising-looking hybrid featuring backline moves other than the Randwick Loop (2012 vs Italy onwards). The lack of a coherent gameplan post-Boks 2009 for 2.5 years is one thing, but then the complete lack of questioning of it is another.  Meanwhile selection has become a dismally tiresome affair, with management handing out loyalty cards, but the same media apologists see it as their mission to defend every iota of team selection, even when it flies in the face of all available logic.

If Eddie had been presiding over such a series of duff results amid unimaginable provincial success, would the reaction have been any of the below:

Ireland did not lose the World Cup quarter-final to Wales because of overseas players, and particularly because Afoa was in Ulster and Botha in Munster. [Thornley]

You could call it the ‘Welsh way’, when talented players come together, are told to put their club issues behind and are then encouraged to express themselves in the name of their country. [Farrelly]

Someone has to finish fourth, and the margins between defeat and victory are tight at this level. [Thornley on Off the Ball]

I think Declan Kidney is a great coach. [Thornley, again on Off The Ball when McDevitt read a text from a viewer asking why Thornley felt the need to defend every selection]

Look, I still believe in Declan Kidney! [yep, Thorinho again on Off The Ball, when Emmet Byrne ran rings around him in a critique of Ireland’s failings after the home defeat to Wales]

While Leinster, Ulster and Munster play to a style that does not have its origins in a national philosophy, the national team will not benefit to the degree it should from provincial success. [Williams]

Or might it be that the coaching, selection and tactics are crap, and the current ticket cannot get the best from the resources at its disposal? Just a thought…

Wally’s Arms and The Hall of Liginds

Blimey, we’ve been writing a few of these career-end pieces of late (Flannery, Micko, Shaggy) and while it’s nice to be able to heap praise on great players and look back at glittering careers, it’s a sad day whenever another one of the stalwarts who’ve given so much to cheer about over the last decade is forced to throw in the towel.  So here we go again, as the great David Wallace announces his retirement, unable to return to fitness from the knee injury which ruled him out of the World Cup in the cruelest of circumstances.

It’s desperately unlucky that a player of such durability and astonishing fitness levels should be felled by a freak injury.  Jirry and Shaggy’s injuries were degenerative, and they would probably have sensed the end coming for some time, but Wally was chopped down suddenly when his knee went awry in a challenge amid a typically bustling performance in the World Cup warm-up match against England, as the game had been stopped but play carried on.  Tough break.

Most of our memory banks will be dominated by the Wally of the last six years, where he has been a constant in the national team, and a freakishly consistent performer.  So it’s weird to recall that at his supposed prime (the 25-29 years, as the Mole will tell you) he was a slightly peripheral in-and-out member of the Irish squad; the Eoin Reddan of the early-Eddie period.  A non-conventional ball-carrying openside, Eddie often preferred the more conventional No.7 (ask Hook and McGurk – they are well-versed in genuine opensides), Keith Gleeson.

Understandable in a horses for courses sense, for sure, but Eddie frequently omitted Wallace entirely from the picture (before then omitting Gleeson entirely – go figure).  It’s extraordinary to think that a 27-year old Wally was left out of the 2003 World Cup squad, eventually making it out as an injury replacement for Alan Quinlan but barely featuring.

In any case, there are enough great moments to remember that such grievances can take a back seat. Seventy-two Irish caps and three for the Lions, as well as 203 appearances for Munster.  He started all five games in the Grand Slam season, and was a cornerstone of Munster’s two Heineken Cup wins.  Man-of-the-match awards were frequent, and Wally, with his hard-carrying and speed over the ground, was a highly visible back-row operator.  He’d an eye for the tryline too, with 12 for Ireland and 40 for Munster.

His outstanding performances against England in 2011 and a barnstorming game, skittling of anything in front of him in the less familiar No.8 jersey against Sale at Thomond Park in a crucial 2008-09 Heineken Cup group game are two that instantly spring to mind.  When the era of Munster dominance came to its shuddering end in Toulon, Wally stood above all others in fighting the losing battle  in the Felix-Mayol. And, speaking of playing in an unfamiliar jersey, we seem to recall one injury-hit period in Munster when Wally played 4 different positions in 4 matches – across the back row and at 12 – Ooooooooooooooohh!! Its hard to think of another modern Irish player who could (and would) do that.

While we always knew Wally was great, it only dawned on this half of WoC (Palla) just how great he was when sitting in the front row of Croke Park for Ireland v Scotland in 2008.  Normally, I end up sitting up with the Gods for international games, but on this occasion I’d seats a couple of rows from the front.  Not so good for following the patterns and back moves, but great for feeling the collisions.  I came away with a whole new understanding of just how destructive Wally going into contact was. At times it seemed Scotsmen would be chucked over the hoardings into the seat beside me.  And – at the risk of getting into man-crush territory – the size of his arms!  Lordy!

He’ll be remembered as one of the best ball-carriers of the modern era, whose pace and leg drive drove him repeatedly over the gain line.  He was a tough, intelligent player and (ok, maybe we do have a bit of a man-crush) a handsome fellow to boot.  Pretty much how anyone would want to be go down in history.

P.S. Meanwhile, John Hayes has been inducted into the IRUPA Hall of Fame.  It goes without saying nobody deserves it more – he held up dodgy scrums against fearsome opponents for a decade.  We can add little to the mounds already written declaring him to be a ligind and a jolly good fellow, but suffice it to say that he gave everything he had for Ireland and Munster and even when he had nothing left to give, he continued to offer it up for the cause.

HEC Seedings 2012/13

With only a handful of regular season games left across Europe, the qualification and seeding picture for next season’s HEC is becoming pretty clear.

In England, barring a miraculous bonus point win for Oooooooooohhh Bath in Welford Road, the 6 qualifiers have been decided; ditto for Ireland (3 + 1 as the winner earns a place for Connacht), Wales (3), Scotland (3) and Italy (2). In France, 8 teams are in the mix for the 7 places (Biarritz will earn themselves a wild card if they win the Amlin, or Toulon will earn it for the 7th placed Frenchies).

As of right now, by our (possibly dubious) calculations, the 25 teams in contention are ranked thus (including points):

Leinster Rugby 38
Toulouse 29
Munster Rugby 23
Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque 22
Cardiff Blues 20
Northampton Saints 20
ASM Clermont Auvergne 18
Leicester Tigers 17
Stade Francais Paris 17
Ulster Rugby 17
Harlequins 15
Toulon 15
Ospreys 12
Edinburgh Rugby 12
Glasgow Warriors 9
Scarlets 9
Saracens 8
Sale Sharks 7
Connacht Rugby 6
Benetton Treviso 4
Castres Olympique 4
Racing Métro 92 4
Montpellier 3
Aironi Rugby 2
Exeter 0

Note there are 2 more points up for grabs for the winners of the HEC and 1 for the winners of the Amlin.

Biarritz are still fighting a relegation battle in France and cannot make the playoffs. If they get one win from their last 2 games, Montpellier (4th) away or Stade (7th) at home, they are safe, and, given its their only route back to the HEC, you’d also expect them to give the Amlin a go. Their form has improved, and their crushing of Brive in the semi-final (with the class of Yachvili to the fore) looked ominous.

At the top end, Stade Francais are 7th, but have Racing Metro(6th) followed by Biarritz (9th), both away. If they don’t win this weekend, they are reliant on Toulon winning the Amlin. Realistically they will need to win both to make the top 6 and qualify automatically.

Casting a glance forward to the possible seedings next year, here’s what to watch:

  • If Ulster win the HEC, they are automatically in the top tier, relegating Clermont and possibly Northampton (if Biarritz win the Amlin) to the second tier
  • The second tier will definitely contain Leicester, Stade (should they qualify), Harlequins and Toulon – none of those are a soft touch and are difficult away trips, particularly Toulon and Leicester
  • The third tier will definitely contain Embra, Glasgow, Saracens, Scarlets and Sale Sharks – Embra were semi-finalists this year, Sarries quarter-finalists and Sale will have Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani – those 3 are to be avoided
  • If Stade don’t make it, Connacht will be in the third tier – this means Toulouse or Clermont could get a pool with Connacht and one of the Italian teams or Exeter
  • Of the 3 lumbering French oafs in the bottom tier (assuming they all make it), Castres are the bunnies, Montpellier the fearsome boshers (Gorgodzilla ahoy!) and Racing Metro the entertainment merchants

For Irish provinces in the top tier, the nightmare draw looks something like Clermont/Saracens/Treviso (note Exeter > Treviso but you can’t have 2 English teams in a group), and the dream would be Quins/Glasgow/Castres. If Ulster are in tier 2, they will want Saints/Glasgow/Castres and fear Toulouse (or Clermont)/Saracens/Treviso. And if Connacht get into the 3rd tier, they will be licking their chops at Cardiff/Quins/Castres and cringing at the prospect of Toulouse/Leicester/Treviso.

Note we have included Aironi here – if the Italian federation decide to go with a Milan or Rome-based franchise, they are still bottom tier.

The Penney Drops *cringe*

So, it’s official. To our surprise, Axel hasn’t got the job, but will continue to earn his coaching spurs under Rob Penney for the next 2 years, at which point he will presumably get the big gig.

This makes Connacht the only Irish province that will not be coached by someone dismissed as an unheralded Kiwi next season – we can only hope Penney and Anscombe emulate Joe Schimdt’s considerable achievements at Leinster.

The first way to view Penney is as a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in. In the 2 years of his contract, Penney will be forced to retire Horan, Stakhanov, Leamy … and Radge. The first 3 should be easy, but O’Gara is unlikely to go quietly – apart from anything else, he is still head and shoulders above Ian Keatley or anyone else who is available for Munster.

However, we hope and suspect that his work at the Crusaders Academy may have been an important factor – the Munster academy is perceived as being behind Leinster and Ulster right now, and even Connacht have had more under-20 representatives in recent years. – some of the players who have come through from the Academy to the Super Rugby team in Penney’s time there are Owen Franks, the Whitelocks, Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Tyler Bleyendaal and Sean Maitland.

Or maybe it’s because he coached Peter Borlase in the 2009 Air NZ Cup (now ITM Cup) – if Munster can actually get the Kiwi Irishman on the pitch and playing it would save a hell of a lot of sweat once BJ gets kicked out.

Penney will be picking the rest of his coaching staff in the weeks to come. We note with interest that Brian Ashton is now a free man…..

Contract-shaped Confetti

There were a few new contracts announced at Leinster yesterday – 20 to be precise. The headline one was the IRFU stumping up for another 2 years for Dorce. While not in the Leamy-esque generosity category, after the Six Nations it was hard to imagine that D’Arcy will be in the national team for the 2014 Six Nations.

Still, the old warrior has upped his game since getting back to Leinster, and his tackle on Wesley Fofana on Sunday was essentially the winning of the game. But can you really see him in front of Fergus McFadden in 2 years? And what about Nevin Spence? ‘kind of like the Stakhanov thanks-for-the-memories contract from Deccie.

More important for Leinster’s long-term squad building was the 3 years given to Kevin McLaughlin. It wasn’t that long ago that Locky was intern-ing in Evil Bank with one of Egg’s mates for a summer with a view to leaving professional rugger behind. Since then, he’s had 3 great seasons with Leinster, made a few appearances for Ireland, become one of Europe’s premier defensive lineout operators at HEC level, and positioned himself as future Leinster captain (albeit potentially only at Rabo level) and one of the squad supremos. Its a well-warranted extension, and Locky is on course to become whatever a ligind is called in a D4 accent.

Staying in the back-row, Rhys Ruddock and Leo Avua’a get another 2 years each. Leinster are building serious depth in that line – besides the 3 mentioned here they have Heaslip, O’Brien, Dom Ryan and Shane Jennings – they certainly wouldn’t need to turn to Willie Falloon in the event of one injury. You’d have to suspect Munster offered Ruddock quite a few quid and possibly a 2000 jersey autographed by Gaillimh to make the switch, so its a bit of a coup for Leinster have managed to tie him down – he’d be a good fit in Thomond and isn’t threatening the Leinster HEC team right now.

In backs-news, Ian Madigan got a well-deserved 2-year extension after a stunning season culminating in an IRUPA Baby of the Year Award, in spite of being told by Hook, McGurk et al to just “go to Munster” for some first-team action. Team scrum-half have another 2 years each.

Further back again, Conway and Little Bob got 2 years each, which makes it a little surprising Fionn Carr has got another year as well – you’d have to think its last chance saloon for the blond bomber at the RDS. Isa Nacewa also got an extension of a year.

In other NIE-news, the IRFU have laid down the law folded like a cheap suit – Heinke van der Merwe has got 1 more year. We think that when the new rules come into force, both Wian du Preez and VDM will be going to the same loose-head slot. Expect Farrelly to publish some puff-pieces about du Preez being so settled in Limerick he’s pretty much Willie O’Dea in about 11 months time.

Newly minted Irishmen have arrived in the shape of Michael Bent (prop, Kiwi) and Tom Denton (lock, English) from Wellington and Leeds respectively.

The full list:

  • Leo Auva’a – 2 years
  • Isaac Boss – 2 years
  • Fionn Carr – 1 year
  • Andrew Conway – 2 years
  • John Cooney – 1 year
  • Leo Cullen – 1 year
  • Gordon D’Arcy – 2 years
  • Aaron Dundon – 2 years
  • Mark Flanagan – 1 year (Development)
  • David Kearney – 2 years
  • Brendan Macken – 1 year
  • Ian Madigan – 2 years
  • Kevin McLaughlin – 3 years
  • Isa Nacewa – 1 year extension
  • Eoin Reddan – 2 years
  • Rhys Ruddock – 2 years
  • Thomas Sexton – 1 year (Development)
  • Heinke van der Merwe – 1 year
  • Michael Bent – 2 years
  • Tom Denton – 2 years