Movin’ On Up

You don’t experiment against New Zealand

Or maybe you do.  Kidney has picked a team with a new front row, new second row, pretty new back row, new centre partnership and new wings.  After the moans and groans that greeted every Six Nations selection, this team is like a breath of fresh air.   There’s a chink of sunlight shining through the grey torpor that is the Irish rugby team.  Could this be a team that’s fun to watch and support again?  Dare we dream? 

It’s a selection that indicates Kidney has thrown off the shackles a bit and looked beyond his group of stalwarts, the lads he ‘knows what they can do’.  The two biggest undererformers from the Six Nations, D’arcy and O’Callaghan, have been jettisoned – cue sighs of relief from Limerick to Belfast via Dublin. 

Into the second row comes Dan Tuohy, who’s been knocking hard for inclusion the whole season, and indeed since the last tour to New Zealand, where he looked international material. It may be 2 years delayed, but he’s going to get a run in the team now by the looks of things.  He forms a granite-hard partnership with the increasingly influential Ryan.  It ticks a lot of boxes, so long as they can manage the lineout between them, where neither is predominantly a middle-jumper – although Tuohy has some experience there this year when paired with Lewis Stevenson.

The centre partnership excites.  The numbers on the shirts are 12 Earls and 13 BOD but don’t expect them to necessarily play that way.  They’ll probably mix and match, but we’d expect that BOD is there to deal with the defensive threat of Sunny Bull and will play in the inside channel more often.  It defies logic to have Earls’ pace and running stuck in heavy traffic. Conrad Smith is a wily operator – Earls will have his hands full, but he has the football for it.

It’s a curiousity that there are 4 players in the 22 who would tell you their preferred position is outside centre – BOD, Earls, Cave and McFadden. It speaks for the versatility of this generation of backs that they can be accomodated without the squad looking lop-sided.

The wingers are a curious pair.  With Bowe and Luke injured, and Trimble’s form tapering towards the end of the season (fatigue?), it’s all change.  On the right we’ve Fergus McFadden, fresh from strong performances out wide in two finals in the last month, but something of a heads-down contact magnet and hardly a try-machine. 

Simon Zebo will split the jury on the left.  His pace and finishing are top drawer, but he is defensively suspect, both positionally and in the tackle.  Many would prefer Craig Gilroy or even Dave Kearney.  But at the very least, it’s a ballsy call that has attack, rather than defensive solidity in mind.  You feel that if they wanted McFadden on one wing, they need to balance it up with an out and out finisher on the other. It’s a seat of the pants selection, but hey, we’ve moaned about Deccie’s conservatism for a long time, so let’s see how it plays out.

In the tight, Ross’ injury leaves the coaching team with little choice but to turn to Ulster reserve Declan Fitzpatrick.  He’s in the Ross mould in that he can scrummage well, but will offer little around the park – and Amen to that.  The set piece is king.  His performances against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final and Leinster in the Pro12 have catapulted him to the top of an admittedly short queue. Still, it’s John Afoa’s reserve in one team, and the man John Afoa couldn’t shift in the other – eek.

We have a bone of contention at scrum-half, where Reddan is once again the easiest man in the country to drop – he could be closing in on Mick Galwey and Mike Catt’s record by the time he hangs up his ickle boots.  Conor Murray has had an indifferent season, and if Ireland are to make the most of a backline that teems with strike runners, he must deliver quick, accurate service and get Sexton moving onto the ball in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed when watching Leinster. Maybe with proper carriers in front of him, Murray will concentrate on getting the ball out – he should watch videos of last year’s Pro12 final all week!

If we’re to quibble, it’s at the lack of an overarching philosophy of selection, a grand vision.  Kidney has gone from being totally resistant to change to suddenly throwing debutants in at the deep end.  There are shades of the 2009 Autumn series / 2010 Six Nations when Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien went from being completely ignored to playing 80 minutes of every game.  We seem to lurch from one series to the next.  Dan Tuohy couldn’t even make the training squad in the Six Nations, in spite of his form being every bit as impressive then as now.  Wouldn’t it be easier for him to be starting his first game with a little Six Nations experience under his belt?

But as the saying goes, we are where we are, and we can only move forward from here.  Kidney has shown that he can drop his favourites, he can pick on form, and he can pick a team that excites, on paper anyway.  Now the trick is transferring that to the pitch, with only the world champions in their way.  We would hope that the new faces are afforded some slack if when the Kiwis win at a canter.

Summer Lovin’

It’s raining outside, work is dull and everyone is hibernating – what better time to take a holiday? Egg and Palla have been off-radar for the last while, taking their own holidays (of sorts in one case), but we’re back now, just in time for the Northern Hemisphere’s long-suffering players to postpone their holidays and go on tour. Let’s have a butchers, shall we?

Wales

Where are they going? Australia, for 3 Tests

How is it looking? Not too bad on the Welsh side of things – at club provincial franchise regional level, only the Ospreys have been bothering of late – the rest were done and dusted by January (Cardiff clearly didn’t consider a trip to the Palindrome worth practising for), so they re relatively fresh. Gatty is their biggest injury worry, but you would think Rob Howley will cope just fine – the team has a plethora of heads-up on-field generals, and they should be ok.

The Wallabies are ticking over quite nicely thanks – leaving aside the BaaBaas, and the midweek dirt-tracker against Scotland (more of which anon), these are the 3rd, 4th and 5th successive Tests against Wales. The Aussies are in rude health, with the only blot being the form of the Queensland Reds, who contributed a lot of the RWC11 team.

What’s going to happen? Australia will win the series, no doubt about that. This does, however, represent the best shot of a major win for a NH side, so the first Test will probably decree if it finishes 3-0 or 2-1. Given the Aussies will be hurting from today’s loss, we’ll plumb for the Aussies being ready. 3-0, but three competitive games.

England

Where are they going? South Africa, for 3 Tests and 2 mid-week games

How is it looking? The English are thankful to some leniency for the presence of Hartley and Tuilagi, and are basically at full-strength. How capable that full-strength side is, however, is another question. They were dire for most of the 6N, and they still don’t know who, and in what combination, will play at 10-12-13. The gameplan of uninspired bosh and Farrell’s boot won’t have the Boks quaking.

This is Heineke Meyer’s first series as SA coach, and he has picked a squad top-heavy with Bulls and light on top-of-the-table Stormers which is not going down well at home. The supposedly transitional nature of the side, with Smit, Bakkies and Victor moving on, may be over-emphasised – they are still chock full of experience, and peppered with promise as well.

What’s going to happen? The best-case for England is that they don’t get humiliated. We think they will however, with a 3-0 defeat, probably one big loss, and the two midweek games are such obvious ambushes (in all senses) that we are wondering why they are bothering.

France

Where are they going? Argentina. The ARU wanted to take the games out of Buenos Aires and spread the gospel  – there was talk of beautiful Mendoza, but France are going to Cordoba and Tucuman

How is it looking? The French season is still going on, but there won’t be any respite. PSA has picked a young-ish squad, but there is still room for lots of Toulouse and Clermont players, who have essentially been on the go since August. It’s a great opportunity for younger lads like Tolofua, Samson, Buttin, Dulin and, er, Freddie.

Los Pumas will be well up for this – most of the European-based players are being rested for the Quad-Nations/Rugby Championship (notable exceptions Dr Pippo and Roncero), and its mostly locals who will be aiming to play themselves onto the plane to South Africa.

What’s going to happen? Argentina are tough to beat at the best of times – in front of a raucous crowd against their best buddies France, they won’t want to lose. France won’t be too pushed as long as they get a chance to sample some Malbec – and their hosts will gladly lay it on for them. Still, its a fuller strength French than Puma team. We’ll say 1-1

Ireland

Where are they going? It’s three Tests in the Land of the Long History of Chastening Beatings

How is it looking? If you leave aside Leinster, there is precious little reason to be confident from an Irish perspective. Luckily, the Irish gameplan leans heavily on the all-conquering (and mostly Irish) European champions, so there is a positive vibe around the team. Wait, something doesn’t make sense there… Oh yes, that’s right, Ireland are muddled and poorly-coached. And, crucially, are missing 3 irreplacable forwards (Ross, POC, Fez) for the first Test.

This will be New Zealand’s first Test since the RWC11 win, and they have paid tribute to those guys by continuing to pick them, even the ludicrously-sized Piri Weepu. The NZ teams in Super Rugby, with the exception of the Auckland Blues, are going very well, and there is a nice warm glow around the team right now.

What’s going to happen? Gulp. New Zealand don’t anticipate any problems, and they are unlikely to get any. Three-zup as they say down there, with one nasty one in prospect. Deccie will come home a lame duck with blood-curdling war cries like “Sure, we were never going to beat New Zealand” and “Think of all the injuries” ringing in his ears from the combative Irish press.

Scotland

Where are they going? They’ve already beaten a midweek-ish Aussie selection, which is a great start for them. Now, (admirably) it’s on to Fiji and Samoa

How is it looking? In theory, Scotland can build on Embra and Glasgow’s youthful and successful seasons and integrate some of the promising youngsters like Stuart Hogg into the international setup against beatable opposition. In practise, they were awful in the 6N, but today’s win sets them up for a successful series.

After today’s winning start, they are going island-hopping – you have to admire when established teams go to the Pacific Islands, despite of the drawbacks – poor facilities, stifling heat and huge opponents. New Zealand, for all the Islanders they have “naturalised” have never reciprocated by visiting Apia. Poor show, and kudos to the Jocks.

What’s going to happen? We got an NH win from the Scots – and we should get at least one more against one of the Islanders. Fiji were a rabble in the World Cup, but Samoa gace South Africa a real game, and will be dangerous at home. 2 wins, 1 loss.

Italy

Where are they going? The Americas – one Test each against Argentina, Canada and the USA

How is it looking? Italy’s squad is full-strength but for one (significant) injury – captain and marvel Sergio Parrisse. There is quite a bit at stake for Jacques Brunel – this is his first tour with Italy, and he will be looking to have them playing the way he want to by the end of it. The younger players will relish the chance.

The Pumas are likely to scrummage them off the park first up, but they should have it more their own way against the Canucks and Eagles.

What’s going to happen? They should come home with two wins, and a spring in their step for next season.

Season in Review: Connacht

As we say goodbye to the provincial season, we sign off with the last of our provincial reviews – a look at the men from the West.  We sought some external assistance for this one, and went to our own man from out west, known on Twitter as ummm, a long-standing Connacht fan, for his views on how Connacht’s first season went.

Ummm’s general mood was upbeat, and supportive of Elwood’s second season at the helm.  Elwood is something of a polar opposite to his predecessor Bradley, who targeted specific games and was happy to turn out 15 marshmallows in others.

In general, though, I think Eric has done as good a job as he can. I can’t say it’s a complete success, not with a 14 game losing streak in the middle of the season, but those depressing winter months aside we’ve been more competitive than in previous years. Even during those months we were competitve, just incapable of taking that extra step.

When Eric was named coach some were worried he was too closely associated with the Bradley era, when we would follow a good performance one week with a shocking capitulation the next. But Eric came in and promised to bring a new mental attitude. I think it shows. While we’d rather be winning, having the highest number of losing bonus points in the league shows how close we are to gaining those extra points that will make us a more competitive team. He has also brought in Mike Forshaw as defensive coach and that has worked wonders, with only Scarlets and Toulouse (both away) getting try bonus points against us this season.

The flipside of course was a horrendous losing run in the middle of the season, when  Connacht’s inability to see out winning positions bit them hard.  They were minutes from a remarkable win in Gloucester, but slipped off a tackle; a drop goal at home to Leinster dropped just under the bar.  But ummm argues Elwood had little choice but to persevere.

It’s hard to see what else he could have done. Connacht have the smallest squad in the Pro12. Any time we have rested players it has meant playing academy kids. They haven’t been overwhelmed when they have played, but it’s a massive step up for them. Inclusion in the B&I Cup will help us in that regard.

Of course, the season was all about the Men From the West’s adventure in the Heineken Cup.  Drawn in something of a nightmare group, the additional six games on top of their league commitments drained the squad.  But they did produce one monumental, season-defining win.  On a gale-force night (in Galway? Who knew such things were possible?) they defended a two-point lead into a 12-point breeze against a Quins side who needed victory to qualify.  Ummm reflected on a dream that threatetened to tip into a nightmare at times:

Ultimately it was a dream come true, but the fact that it took place during our losing streak nightmare took the gloss off. Our attendances for the home games against Gloucester and Harlequins were not that different from the visits of Ulster and Aironi this season, which doesn’t sit right with me. In the end the win against Harlequins managed to resuscitate our season, but I have to wonder where were the 9,000 who turned up for the Toulouse match.

One area where Connacht have been weak in the past is recruitment.  Sure, the budget isn’t there for marquee signings, but some of the South Sea Islanders just look like dead money, while offcuts from other provinces, such as Leinster’s Paul O’Donohue have failed to convince.  However, ummm sees some improvement.

To be honest it will always be tough with the money we can offer. Compare Connacht’s signings to the other provinces and, yes, there is a distinct lack of Rocky Elsom/Ruan Pienaar-ness, but compare it to previous Connacht signings and it’s looking good.

It didn’t help that thanks to the IRFU having impose a 1 year contract rule on Connacht the majority of the squad were out of contract at the same time. Connacht don’t really have the resources to deal with so many contract re-negotiations. A lot was made out about the Big 4 of Carr, Cronin, Keatley and Hagan leaving, but Connacht lost half their
squad before the start of the 2011 season. Recruitment may have looked ordinary, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. We weren’t helped with Keith Matthews (a great servant to Connacht Rugby) being forced to retire, but the signing of Kyle Tonetti eased the pain, he has looked very dangerous.

The experienced Parks signing is exciting. Many say he’s a spent force but he’s exactly the kind of player we need to control tight games, to turn the Losing Bonuses into wins. With our signing history it’s all relative and I’ll take an international out-half with RWC experience any day. The fact that we can attract Parks shows we are heading in the right direction and will hopefully serve to attract even better players. Some won’t be impressed with the signing, but from a Connacht perspective it’s baby steps. Parks today, Richie McCaw in about 3 years time!

All in all, ummm was happy to reflect on a positive season for Connacht.  Eighth in the table, a spirited showing in a tough HEC group, and a sense that the club is starting to move in the right direction.

Has it been a good season? By Connacht standards, absolutely. Our highest ever Pro12 ranking, all while playing in our first every Heineken Cup season. To better last seasons finish while not being able to rest players during the early Amlin stages has been an incredible achievement. If I’m honest I was not expecting that, I thought the Heineken would take it out of us.

Add to that a 105% increase of home match attendances and season ticket sales going from 800-odd to 3,500 shows there is a market for rugby in the west, no matter what the IRFU may think.

Best performance: securing a famous 9-7 win over Harlequins in the Heineken Cup.

Worst performance: losing at home to Treviso in the Pro12

Best player: Tiernan O’Halloran is a diamond in the backline and brings a running threat and finishing ability.

Worst player: Paul O’Donohue struggled at scrum half.

See you next season: Willie Faloon arrives from Ulster.  He will be required to fill the boots of much-respected opensides Ray Ofisa and Johnny O’Connor.

Thanks for the memories: Keith Matthews was forced to retire after years of distinguished service.

With thanks to ummm,  follow him on Twitter here for more Connacht and general rugby related stuff.