Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Five

The Game: Gloucester 3-16 Munster, 5th April 2008

What it Defined: the transformation of Irish provinces into all-conquering Europe-dominating machines, and in particular Munster’s period of dominance

The State of Play

The Heineken European Cup (then just the European Cup) began with a bit of a whimper in 1995.  The first season had no English or Scots, but one Romanian representative. Ulster,  Munster and Leinster threw their hats in the ring, and the IRFU was delighted to find something for its newly-minted employees to do. Leinster were the only Irish side to make it past the first round, but were beaten by Cardiff in the semi-final, in front of 7,000 (!) at Lansdowne Road.

The English and Scottish joined the next year, and that ruined any chance of immediate success for the Irish. No Irish province made the knock-out stages, which was a fair reflection of Irish rugby’s standing at the time – until the English took a sabbatical in 1998-99.

It was that year that the Irish finally got a taste for the competition. The absence of the English gave them crucial oxygen at a time when the moneybags English game had its jackboot firmly on the Celtic throat – leaving 1999 aside; Bath, Northampton and Leicester (twice) gave England four wins in a row. Ulster and Munster took advantage of the empty field, both making their knock-out debuts. While Munster fell at the next hurdle, Ulster went on to memorable success – the semi-final win over Stade Francais was the first of many Epics involving Irish sides, and the final was an unforgettable occasion, if a forgettable match – the first Irish success in the competition, albeit with an asterisk.

From that point on, for the next 10 and a bit years, the story of Irish rugby in Europe was bound up in Munster’s story. Sporadic success from Leinster merely masked a poor setup, and Ulster endured the worst years in their history.  Both played second fiddle to the all-conquering Liginds from the south.

It was all the more impressive for having started at a low base.  They will always remember the lowest low in Munster: Mick Galwey standing under the Toulouse posts, begging the lads to keep it below 60 (they did). But their capacity to learn and develop led them to higher and higher peaks.

In truth though, there were three Munster teams – the cohort of 2000 and 2002 were essentially a crowd of players who had straddled the amateur and professional eras, led by giants from outside. Munster rugby had always stood in greater contrast to Ulster and Leinster in that the club scene was the main development pathway, unlike the schools system elsewhere.  This meant that players like Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey immediately brought the ethos of Limerick club rugby, which had dominated the AIL in the early 1990s, into Munster. Outsiders like John Langford and Keith Wood (remember, he played virtually his entire career in England) came in and channeled the latent talent into a team that could compete with the best.

That team’s finest hour was the 31-25 semi-final victory away to Toulouse in 2000, a remarkable result, and for many the day that Munster rugby as we know it was born.  It left them needing to beat an unremarkable Northampton team in the final, but in heartbreaking fashion, Munster let the game slip from their grasp.  The night before the game, the players had an emotional team meeting, with players reportedly in tears talking about the pride they felt in the jersey.  It backfired – the emotion was spent and the team were flat by the time they took the field of play.  The team that lost the 2000 final had a pack of Clohessy, Wood, Hayes, Galwey, Langford, Halvey, Wallace, Foley.

Two years later another final beckoned, but again Munster came up agonisingly short.  Unable to conjure up a try, they did manage to create a platform in the dying minutes with an attaking scrum, but… well, we all know what happened next.

The second great Munster team, the first to bring home the trophy, against Biarritz in 2006, had only Hayes, Wallace and Foley from the 2000 forwards – a serious amount of experience gone, but replaced by the next generation, typified by the aggression of Jirry Flannery, Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy. The near-miss against Wasps in the 2004 semi-final – one of the greatest matches in the Cup’s history – was the crucible that forged that side.  Only six of the team that day started the 2000 final, but most of the newbies would still be there two years later. The 2006 team also had Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara years older and more experienced, and possessors of a couple of Triple Crowns – key players were now becoming accustomed to success.

Either side of that 2006 triumph, Munster limped out in the quarter-finals – still respectable no doubt, but it showed they weren’t yet complete. Their true peak came from 2008-2009, when they mutated into a machine, a match-winning juggernaut that was the best team in Europe, supplied more Lions than any other team, and at times seemed unbeatable.

In the 2007-08 tournament, Munster had a stinking draw, their toughest to date: champions Wasps, their 2007 conquerers Llanelli and French nouveau riche Clermont Auvergne. The group games were memorable, primarily for the bonus point in the Marcel Michelin that ultimately put them through.  The stadium would become a familiar venue for Irish bonus points (no wins!), and Munster laid the marker down.  In the final pool game they ground a cocky Wasps side into the dirt, ROG giving his much-vaunted opposite number, Danny Cipriani, a lesson in how to play cup rugby on a wet day.

Waiting in the quarter-finals were Gloucester – top of the Premiership and flying high in Europe. It was a familiar stage for Munster, but their last quarter-final win away from Thomond was five years previously, and they were second favourites.

The Game

This build-up will be remembered for Deccie’s two massive selection calls – Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley came in for Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer. Both turned up and justified Deccie’s faith – admittedly when you are playing behind a pack like Munster had, that is a little easier to do. This was classic management from a wily coach – changing from a position of strength, and ensuring the new players were being dropped into a settled, winning team.  Munster were utterly dominant after a slightly off-key start.  Chris Paterson was given several attempts to get Glaws off the mark, but uncharacteristically missed three times in the opening quarter.

After that, it was all Munster – the high-octane frenzied defence and aggressive and opportunistic attack that was to be their signature were both present here. Ian Dowling and Dougie Howlett crossed either side of half time, and Rog’s boot did the rest – it was 16-0 after an hour, and finished 16-3. The intensity and control of Munster’s display was breath-taking, and a harbinger of things to come.

For sure there were more iconic games and more miraculous matches, if you will, but while other games may have defined the Munster spirit and ethos to a greater degree, we have chosen this game because we feel it was the point at which they became a great team, who will be remembered for their trophy haul and not just their pluck. From this point, they didn’t need miracles, only a stage for their greatness.

The teams that day were:

Gloucester: Morgan; Paterson, Simpson-Daniel, Allen, (Ooooooh) Vainikolo; Lamb, Lawson; Wood, Titterill, Nieto; Bortolami, Brown; Buxton, Hazell, Naraway.

Munster: Hurley; Howlett, Tipoki, Mafi, Dowling;  O’Gara, O’Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes; O’Connell, O’Callaghan; Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy.

The Aftermath

Munster went on to win the trophy for a second time, narrowly winning a nervy semi-final against Saracens before dispatching the mighty Toulouse 16-13 in the final. The last 10 minutes of the final became Exhibit A in favour of tweaks to the ruck laws to prevent teams picking and going to wind the clock down, but that didn’t stop Munster on the day.  To those playing and watching it felt different to the 2006 win.  First time around the overriding emotion was of relief that, having had so many heartbreaking near-misses, they had finally reached their holy grail.  In 2008, it felt like the arrival of a truly great side; a European force.  The players felt they could enjoy the victory more the second time.

The next season, Munster were insatiable. By now Kidney had moved on, replaced by McGahan, but the transition was seamless.  Incredibly, they stepped up another level – the pool stages were a wash, Munster only losing one game (in Clermont) to earn a home quarter-final. That was the game they peaked – smashing an Ospreys team containing Tommy Bowe, James Hook, Mike Phillips and most of the 2012 Grand Slam Welsh tight five 43-9. Seven of the pack that day played in the 2006 final, but only two of the backs.  This Munster had a backline threat to go with their test-level pack.  Paul Warwick gave them a newfound spark of creativity in the back three, and their sparkling new centre, local boy Keith Earls was enjoying a terrific breakthrough season. The days of Munster as a 10 man team were in the past.

It was the pinacle of Munster 3.0 – with back-to-back Heiny’s seemingly at their mercy, they lost the semi-final that year to an unfancied Leinster (more of which anon). They were the most consistent team in Europe that year, but finished without the trophy (that’s Cup rugby for you), and they never quite recovered.  The following year, they were patchy at times, but roused themselves for a couple of memorable performances.  They ended a lengthy home winning record in Perpignan’s Stade Aime Geral, thrashing the hosts 37-14, from where they topped the pool.  They followed that with a memorable slapdown of Northampton in the quarter-final. It ended in the next round though; Biarritz ground them into the dust, exploiting the rapid de-powering of the front row to end the short-lived dominance of Munster 3.0.

The combination of the experienced and powerful pack built through campaign after campaign in Europe with the perfect 10, a breaking 9, the best centre partnership in professional Munster’s history and the All Black’s leading try-scorer was a potent mix – and it first came together that day in Kingsholm. Keith Earls and Paul Warwick would improve it further.  Their peak was a year later against the Ospreys, and their last hurrah another year later against the Saints.

They began a five season period where Irish teams went from a situation where they achieved occasional success, but more often heroic defeat, to one where they beat all comers – four HECs in five seasons (and counting) is testament to that. Despite beating them in 2009, Leinster definitively overtook them only in 2010-11, and by then Munster 3.0 had disintegrated into the rabble that succumbed so meekly in Toulon – Father Time and a reluctance to move on had seen to that.

They’ll be back, but the magic that started in Kingsholm will remain their high water mark for a long time.

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Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Four

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Three

The Game: England 13 Ireland 19, 6th March 2004

What it Defined: The emergence of a consistently successful Ireland side

The State of Play

After the Night of the Long Knives following the All Blacks defeat in 2001, Eddie was always going to get some time to get things right – and he needed it. In the 2002 Six Nations, Ireland mixed the sublime with the ridiculous – veering from feeding Wales a painful 50-burger to being on the end of two shellackings in Twickers and Paris.  The inconsistency that had been Gatty’s downfall wasn’t going to go away quickly.

Next season, it looked like they had begun to sort themselves out. After being unable to beat Scotland for a decade, suddenly Ireland were finding it very easy – a 3rd win in 4 years got them off to a great start, and it was followed up by a routine win in Rome. The character of the next two wins had the Irish public sensing something different – a tough grinding win over France in Lansdowne Road was followed up with a last gasp one point win in Cardiff (shurely shome mishtake Mish Moneypenny). The mental toughness we had been looking for seemed within reach … as did a Grand Slam as England came to town.

Until, of course, it was slapped down in spectacular fashion by Johnno and co. at Lansdowne Road. The game will be remembered for the English captain’s perceived snub of Mary McAleese, but that preceded a right beating from the English, who were thoroughly sick of being denied Grand Slams by Celtic upstarts. A 5-try 42-6 demolishing was the result, but Ireland were quietly pleased with progress, and this was one hell of an England side.

The World Cup in Oz that autumn was about one thing in the minds of the Irish rugby public – atonement for Lens. Ireland had been drawn with Argentina again, as well as the hosts, and someone was going to bite the bullet. In the event, Ireland staggered past an obdurate Pumas side in a stinking game – Quinny’s try-scoring injury put him out for a long time, and both Argentinian props were accused of gouging in the aftermath.

The newly carefree Irish almost caught the Wallabies napping in the final pool game, but a last minute Humph drop goal sailing left meant it was the French instead of the Scots, and after 30 minutes Ireland were whacked and bagged at 24-0 down, eventually losing 43-21 – a defeat which prompted the retirement of all-time legend Woody.  It was about par for Ireland World Cups, but the players had a ball in a terrific base.  Shane Horgan rated it as a career highlight, but lamented that it came a year too soon for what was a young team.

The following years’ Six Nations started with defeat to France, but that was followed up by another handsome victory over Wales. Despite the loss of Wood, the trip to Twickenham was crucial for Ireland – another defeat and they were essentially back where they were after 2000 – some pretty wins, but no cigars.

England themselves were reigning world champions and at the peak of their powers – they had scored 11 tries against the concession of one in their first two games – we tend to associate the 2004 England side with their shambolic 2006-10 cousins, not the powerful machine which won a series in New Zealand and the World Cup in the nine months preceding this game – make no mistake, this was a formidable team, one of the best (if not the best) of the professional era.

The Game

This was the first Great Eddie Performance – a ruthless and well-executed devastation of the opposition’s weak point: the lineout. Thommo had the worst day of his career, and Mal O’Kelly the best, in tandem with the incredible Paul O’Connell. The English set pieces never got going, and Ireland kept them under incredible pressure throughout the first half. Despite an opportunist try from Matt Dawson, Ireland went in 12-10 in front thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties.

England came out flying after the break, with a Ben Cohen try in the corner ruled out by the TMO for a double movement. It was a tight call, but probably correct.  Ireland responded with one of the memorable moments of the last decade, and another Eddie Classic – an all-singing backline move started by a sublime step-and-go from Gordon D’arcy – suddenly playing to his great potential – and finished by Girvan Dempsey. Every step was training ground rehearsed.  Egg can recall the dirty Vinnie Jones-esque tackle on Dempsey by Cohen as much as the try itself, but it was beautiful to behold (although look how deep the whole line stands!).

Ireland closed it out after that with the sort of tough hard-nosed performance they needed to produce – it was a display full of grit, desire and marked confidence in their gameplan. Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell were excellent in their first games in Twickers and would be mainstays of the team for years to come. The England team they beat were missing Johnson and Wilko, but had a plethora of World Cup winners, and were led by Lawrence Dallaglio.

The teams that day were:

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Robinson, Greenwood, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio.

Ireland: Dempsey; Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; Easterby, Gleeson, Foley.

The Aftermath

The game was the catalyst for Ireland to win three Triple Crowns in four seasons – their most consistent period of success in history. The first was secured three weeks later at home to Scotland and prompted wild celebrations. The team of 2004 was largely the team that played for this entire World Cup cycle and through to France 2007, missing only the silky-haired Jirry Flannery – at that point just back in Munster after a sojourn in Connacht – and the soon-to-re-emerge David Wallace.

The following season, it was Wales’ turn, and they won a rather fortuitous Grand Slam, but this was the catalyst for Eddie’s best years – a Triple Crown followed in 2006 (as did a horror beating in Paris – something which was becoming a familiar marker), and that Autumn, Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia, and reached the heady heights of 3rd in the world rankings.  The South Africa and Australia teams were somewhat developmental in nature, but that was lost on a public giddy with excitement over Ireland’s form.  Ronan O’Gara surely never played flatter than in that series, and two new stars from Ulster emerged: powerful winger Andrew Trimble and wrecking-ball blindside, Neil Best.

The peak of the side was due to be in 2007, and it corresponded with the knocking down of decrepit old Lansdowne Road in favour of the sparkling new Palindrome – Ireland were to play their home game from 2007-2010 in Croke Park, the 80,000 seater occasionally atmospheric home of the GAA. The emotion and unfamiliarity of it all were undoubtedly contributors to a slightly off-key performance in the first game of the series, against France. Ireland were but a lucky bounce away from a home win that would likely have led to a Grand Slam.  As a fan, there are some defeats you never quite get over, and for Palla Ovale this is one – he simply sat, motionless in Croke Park with his head in his scarf for an extended period of time, before going straight home to bed.

The team were more proactive however – they were primed against England in their next home game. The emotional peak and nationalistic fervour conspired to inspire Ireland to their most complete performance to date – a 43-13 pummeling of a shell-shocked England. The momentum took them to a 50 point win in Rome, which would surely have been good enough for the Championship had France played Scotland simultaneously. In the event, it was another Triple Crown, and this one was greeted rather less positively than the previous two – it was, quite rightly, perceived as a chance of a lifetime having been missed, and Ireland felt short-changed.  They hadn’t climbed their mountain yet, but the mentality was one of winners.  A Triple Crown was no longer good enough.

After the physical and mental peaks of the Six Nations, surely Ireland would be firing on all cylinders again for the World Cup in October?

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Two

The Game: Ireland 44 Scotland 22, February 2000

What it Defined: The birth of a new generation of Irish players, a ‘Golden Generation’ according to some

The State of Play

Irish rugby has been in the doldrums for a decade.  The IRFU has grudgingly lumbered into the dawn of professionalism unprepared and unwilling.  The majority of Ireland’s players are playing for England’s club sides and the national team appear to be slipping towards the second tier of world rugby.  Results are appalling.  Ireland have not won more than a single match in the Five Nations since 1993.  The 1999 World Cup is a disaster, with Ireland exiting before the quarter-finals in a dramatic loss to a gutsy but limited Argentina side.  It is a very public humiliation, with the entire world watching our glaring incompetence.  In the opening game of the now Six Nations (after some notable results in friendly games, Italy are included in the championship for the first time), Ireland are beaten by a rampant England side by 50-18, conceding six tries.

However, all is not as bad as it might appear.  While the Lens debacle was a crushing and highly visible lowpoint, much work behind the scenes has been done.   With the birth of professionalism, the newly minted Heineken European Cup is successfully launched.  It creates a platform for four Irish provincial franchises, giving Ireland a vehicle to keep its best players on these shores, and just as importantly, to pool its playing resources into just four teams rather than a sprawl of AIL sides, and they get exposure to playing the big French and English clubs.  By 2000, the competition has gained significant traction and Irish provinces are improving rapidly.  Ulster win the Cup in 1999 (albeit with the English sides not taking part) and in Spring 2000, Munster have qualified for the quarter-final, having beaten Saracens and Colomiers home and away, with a young pair of halfbacks, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara catching the eye.  The new format is catching on with the public, too.  Ulster’s victory is played out in front of a rammed Lansdowne Road, and in Munster, where the club game has always been strong, an army of Cork and Limerick fans are rallying behind the Munster brand.

Ireland also have an exciting coaching team in place.  While Gatland has yet to preside over any upswing in results, he is held in high esteem.  And he has a new assistant coach in tow – Eddie O’Sullivan.  The Corkman is considered authoritarian and aloof, but is a technically outstanding coach of back play and a master at analysing how to hurt opponents.  He favours a highly programmed and rehearsed, but often exciting and attractive brand of rugby, with a heavy emphasis on first-phase back moves.

The Game

Following the defeat to England, Ireland face Scotland in Lansdowne Road.  Warren Gatland ditches the old brigade and selects five young players, four of whom are playing in Ireland, for their first caps.  The five are a giant prop, John Hayes, Munster’s fresh-faced halfbacks, Stringer and O’Gara, a rangy winger-cum-centre from Leinster called Shane Horgan and a gutsy backrow playing for Llanelli, Simon Easterby – all went on to be key members of the first team for 8 years.  The changes mean that 13 of the team are plying their club trade in Ireland; Easterby and Kieran Dawson (London Irish) are the exceptions.

After a slow, nervous start, Ireland fall 10-0 behind, but recover their composure to lead 13-10 at the break, with Mal O’Kelly scoring his first try for Ireland, and Ronan O’Gara settling into the match.  In the second half they pull away, winning the match 44-22, with Horgan bagging a try on his debut.  Two old hands, Keith Wood and David Humphreys, are hugely influential in the win, and the five debutants are all considered a success.

Four weeks later, after hammering Italy 60-13, Ireland, improbably, incredibly, go to Paris and win, 27-25, with a famous hat-trick from another kid playing his first Six Nations, a youthful Brian O’Driscoll, seemingly playing in a jersey several sizes too big for him.  Although the season peters out with a loss at home to Wales, the series is a success, with Ireland bagging three wins, their best for some time, and with a young, zestful team.  For the first time in a long time, there is a feelgood feeling around Irish rugby.

With the five new debutants picked to start against Scotland, the team that came together over the next decade was largely in place.  The full line-up that day was:

Ireland: 1 Peter Clohessy, 2 Keith Wood (c), 3 John Hayes, 4 Mick Galwey, 5 Malcolm O’Kelly, 6 Kieron Dawson, 7 Simon Easterby, 8 Anthony Foley, 9 Peter Stringer, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 11 Denis Hickie, 12 Mike Mullins, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 14 Shane Horgan, 15 Girvan Dempsey
Reserves: Jeremy Davidson, Rob Henderson, David Humphreys, Justin Fitzpatrick
Unused: Guy Easterby, Trevor Brennan, Frankie Sheahan

The Aftermath

The Golden Generation of Irish rugby is born.  With this group of players currently passing into retirement, the idea of them being a one-off ‘golden generation’ seems foolish, but, for certain, they were golden compared to what went before.  Whatever you make of the phrase, there is little doubt that throughout the noughties, Ireland were blessed by a group of brilliant players who completely turned the fortunes of rugby in the country.  The bad old days of the 1990s were behind us.

The new generation were fearless, incredibly tough and, crucially, professional to the core, with no hangover from the amateur days.  They were broadly split between a Munster-based pack and halves, which had lost none of the chippiness handed down from the previous generation, but had absorbed the tenets of professionalism, and a slick cabal of Leinster backs; skilful, exciting and capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch.  They were incredibly demanding of themselves and one another.  The old have-a-go-and-sure-we’ll-drink-them-under-the-table-anyway ethos was put to bed – these were men who dreamed only of winning, of securing silverware and medals.  They would go on to become heroes to a nation, household names and thanks to a certain pair of red underpants, even sex icons.

They’d have to do most of that without Warren Gatland, though, and the demise of the head coach after his conspicuous role in turning around the nation’s rugby fortunes represents one of Irish rugby’s great cloak-and-dagger moments.   Indeed, Gatland’s Ireland take another big step forward in the following Six Nations.  In a foot-and-mouth disrupted series, they beat France and Italy before the tournament is postponed.  Reconvening in September, the series is there for the taking, but they splutter to an awful 32-10 drubbing against Scotland.  The season is rescued in style, however: thrashing Wales in Cardiff and signing off with a Grand Slam party-pooping, Keith Wood-inspired 20-14 victory against England.  It’s a four-win series, and Ireland are denied the championship only on points difference.  A month later they give New Zealand a jolt, running up a 21-7 lead early in the second half, before eventually succumbing to the visitors, who are debuting a new openside from Canterbury, Richie McCaw.

However, it proves to be Gatland’s last game in charge.  The IRFU appear to be taken with the impact of his increasingly prominent assistant, O’Sullivan, who is credited with the newfound invention in Ireland’s back play.  Gatland recieves his marching orders, and as he is driving out of the Berkley Court Hotel, having been told in an eight-minute meeting that his contract will not be renewed, his assistant Eddie O’Sullivan is seen arriving, ready to sign a new three-year contract as Head Coach.  Gatland perceives it as an act of unforgiveable treachery, giving rise to ‘Dagger’s image as a ruthless political mover.

Three final pieces of the jigsaw were needed for Ireland to become properly competitive: an athletic, flame-haired pack enforcer in the second row, for their quick-footed line-breaking inside centre to get his head sorted out, and for their powerful ball-carrying openside to overcome a spell of injuries and patchy form.  Once those ingredients were in place, Ireland could begin to strive for something greater…

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match One

The Match: Italy 37-22 Ireland, December 1997

What it Defined: Ireland’s initial ineptitude in the professional era.  It was the prescursor to Ireland’s lowest ebb, the infamous defeat to Argentina in Lens, 20 months later.

The State of Play

The last tournament of the amateur era was the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. It gave the world the iconic pictures of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, Tony Underwood’s “tackle” on Jonah Lomu, Suzy the waitress, the Battle of Boet Erasmus and the tragedy of Max Brito. Ireland, and Irish rugby, contributed nothing to the tournament.

They were in a group with New Zealand, Wales and Japan – New Zealand administered a predictable beating, and it only got worse from there. They played Japan in Bloemfontein, and took them on up front, fearing the Japanese three-quarter line would run riot – the sprightly Japanese didn’t buy it, and just after half-time had Ireland in trouble at 21-26. Ireland resorted to the maul and pulled away to win by 22, much to the displeasure of the assembled Afrikaners. Next was Wales, and it was essentially a play-off to avoid being left behind in the coming professional era. The game was an abomination – Ireland’s tactic was to kick the ball over the dead ball line and force Wales to drop-out – it worked in that they won, but the paucity of skill was embarrassing. France administered the lethal injection in Durban a week later.

Four of that squad of 28 played abroad, and a few months later, the amateur game was dead.  Professional rugby in Ireland started with all the pace and certainty of a concussed sloth – the union didn’t want to contract the players without something for them to do, so the players found something for themselves … in England.  The IRFU had no idea how to keep squads of professionals busy, and the players did what could be expected of them – bailed to where the clubs had embraced professionalism.

In January 1997, following a defeat to Italy in Lansdowne Road, Murray Kidd was booted out and the IRFU hired Brian Ashton. Ashton was then considered the best club coach in the hemipshere, and had resigned as coach of Bath in 1996 after leading them to unprecedented success alongside Jack Rowell, then as head coach. The Ooooooooooooooooooohhh in Bath essentially came from Ashton (and Barnesy), and Ireland had him – it is like Romania signing up Heineke Meyer or Joe Schmidt tomorrow. He signed a 5-year contract, and he was the IRFU’s statement that they were finally embracing the pro era. They also committed to getting four full-time coaches in the provinces by the next season, and setting about bringing the players home – moves on this were considered key by Ashton.

A difficult first Five Nations, where Ireland tried to play it wide, but resorted to boot any time pressure came on, did not augur well. Ireland won one match, beating Wales in Cardiff by 26-25, whereupon a dismal “development” tour to New Zealand and Samoa (NZ Academy 74 Ireland 15, anyone?) did not improve matters. When Ashton came back the next season, only two provinces had full-time coaches (Mike Ruddock in Leinster, and Warren Gatland in Connacht) and the player exodus continued.

The 1997 autumn/winter internationals saw Ireland play New Zealand and Canada in Dublin and Italy in Bologna. After losing to New Zealand and beating Canada ,the players headed off to face the Italians – a team with a point to prove to one of the (then) Five Nations. Italy had beaten Ireland on their last two meetings, including Murray Kidd’s last game in charge.

At this point, Ashton did the logical thing and arranged training and rendez-vous where it was most convenient to the players… Sunbury, near London. Predictably, the IRFU exploded – the players had left and now the management had as well. Expectations were minimal, and while skill levels improving due to exposure to the professional English league, organisation was a shambles.

The Game

Italy looked upon the visit of a shambolic Ireland the way a wolf would look upon the visit of a plump chicken – the slick Italians had a pseudo-professional league running for years – the likes of Campo, Naas Botha and Michael Lynagh all played there during the amateur era, so they took to the professional game easily, and had an impressive recent record against Five Nations sides, including a win in Paris earlier in the year. In the 1995 RWC that Ireland stunk out, Italy nearly beat England and finished above Argentina – they were a proper side.

The team was skillful, experienced and confident, and was marshalled by the superb Diego Dominguez at 10 – they fully expected to beat the Irish, and further improve their credentials for joining an expanded Five Nations, something they had been pursuing since the 1980s.

The first half was even, with the boots of Humph and Dominguez the only scores registered. Italy then pulled away in the second half, scoring three tries, all from their backline (no, seriously), and they cruised to a 15 point win, with the Irish try a late consolation effort by Darragh O’Mahoney.

The Ireland line-up contained ten players plying their trade in England, including Kevin Maggs, David Humphreys, Mal O’Kelly and Keith Wood, who would go on to win 297 Test caps between them. The full line up was: Nowlan; Hickie, Maggs, McCall, O’Mahoney; Humphreys, Hogan; Corrigan, Wood, Clohessy; Johns, O’Kelly; Erskine, O’Grady, Miller.

The Aftermath

It proved the second last game of the Ashton revolution – with two provincial vacancies, no players at home, and a serious case of culture shock, it was inevitable. Ireland had no national coach, two full-time professional coaches, no structures, and had all their best players abroad – they were at rock bottom. They appointed the only man they could think of – Warren Gatland. Gatty came in with a serious dose of goodwill, to no little relief. He had to prove his way back then, and built up a rapport with the press – something Ashton conspicuously did not – but still, his experience was limited to Galwegians and Connacht.

The inevitable culmination of Irish rugby’s chaotic structures was the now infamous Lens debacle, when Ireland were defeated by a gamey, but limited Argentina side.  The paucity of imagination when you saw 12 Irishmen trying to plough over the Puma line with Humph screaming for the ball to kick across to Conor O’Shea, alone on the left wing, was a low point for everyone involved in Irish rugby.  It was a very public humiliation, with the eyes of the rugby world seeing Ireland lose to one of the teams outside the cosy cartels of the Sanzar trio and Five Nations.  It was the sort of thing that just shouldn’t happen.  It meant Ireland had to suffer the humiliation of qualifying for the next World Cup.  The horror, the horror.

But while it seemed like the end of the world to much of the nation watching, behind the scenes the tide had started to turn. Gatty’s honeymoon had continued right the way through to Lens, and enabled him to survive that horrorshow. Despite the continuing grim results, there was a recognition that Ireland were being left behind, and some continuity was required – the union brought in another former Connacht coach from the USA to help Gatland – Eddie O’Sullivan.  The players were filtering back home (not all due to an IRFU masterplan; English clubs were going bust at a fast rate) to play in a putative Welsh/Scottish/Irish league and the new European Rugby Cup, where new young players untainted by the 1990s were starting to make names for themselves. The initial desire of the clubs to play in it (Shannon vs Toulouse!!) was rebuffed by the IRFU in favour of the provinces – the one thing Irish rugby had going for it. As Nigel Wray said, there was no such place as Saracens. The identification of place was to be a crucial element in the development of Irish rugby. It was darkest before the dawn…

The Games That Defined a Nation

It’s been a frenetic season; hard at times to catch one’s breath.   It started and finished in New Zealand, kicking off with an emotional roller-coaster of a World Cup and ending with a freakish three-game series in which Ireland went from almost creating history to abject humiliation seemingly in the blink of an eye.  In between we had a glum enough Six Nations and a second successive Heineken Cup win for Leinster.  We had the rise of Ulster and the end of an era, and dawn of a new one for Munster.  Throw in the politicking of the IRFU’s foreign-player rule-changes and it’s been one chaotic season.

Between the hand-wringing over Deccie’s selection policy, Ireland’s propping crisis and the unceasing, unyielding nature of the rugby calendar, it’s hard at times to keep the bigger picture in view – to get your head out of your season ticket holder commemorative scarf for long enough to take stock of the whole situation.

So over the next month we’re going to take a step back from the hullabaloo and ask: Where is Irish Rugby And How Did It Get Here?  From the dawn of professionalism to today’s provincially divided landscape, via 15 years of heroism and heartache, we’re going try to plot its recent history through Eight Matches That Defined Irish Rugby.  These are not he eight best games, the most successful, the most heartbreaking or even the most memorable, but those which, for our money, had the most significance beyond what happened as 30 large men thudded into each other for 80 frenzied minutes.  Of course, you’ll disagree with our choices and opinions, and as ever, we welcome your comments.  Game One follows tomorrow.

Lions – The Backs

On Tuesday, we looked at the forwards putting themselves forward for Lions selection.  Today we see which backs should start learning the words to Power of Four, the fondly remembered Lions anthem.

Scrum Half

Already Packed his Spider-Bite Cream: Mike Phillips.  At this juncture, no player is more inked in to the Lions test jersey than the big Welsh number nine.  Not the most technically gifted, but a decent passer, his main strength is his running game and ability to link with his forwards.  Plus, he’s already impressed on a Lions tour.

Work to do: Ben Youngs would be the obvious and desired deputy to Phillips – someone who offers something completely different, and a potential impact replacement late in matches, upping the pace and running tap penalties.  He appears to have recovered his game after a difficult period.  Danny Care mixes the good with the bad, but has had a fine season with Harlequins.  You suspect Gatland would like Conor Murray in the panel as an insurance plan against Phillips, but he needs to show his best form. He needs to show greater speed off the base, but has a good pass once it gets moving.

Any bolters?  Ospreys’ scrum half Rhys Webb is a smashing player, and looks the most capable of making a late burst.

Fly Half

Already Reading His Lonely Planet Guide: Johnny Sexton.  With his goal-kicking yips behind him for Ireland, Johnny Sexton was one of the few successes of the Irish summer tour.  Still not quite as regal in green as in blue, but we suspect Gatland is the sort of coach who’ll cajole the best out of him.  Should be the test starter.

Work to do: We’re still not convinced by Rhys Priestland by a long way.  Gatland seems to be a fan, though, even if he’s taken him off place-kicking duty for Wales.  If Leigh Halfpenny cannot get into the side at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney, it will compromise his test credentials. Toby Flood and Owen Farrell offer slightly more stable talents than the hot-and-cold Welshman, and both will be on hand to provide solid back-up to Sexton should Gatland choose dependable place-kicking over more mercurial abilities.

Any bolters?  A couple.  A certain D. Cipriani will be back on English shores this season with Sale.  Gatland was his one-time mentor back in the day at Wasps.  It remains unlikely that the one-time next big thing will have the discipline and defensive willingness to push for a place on the tour, but how marvellous it would be if he could.  The incumbent next-big-thing, George Ford is another who could make a late dash, but needs to depose Toby Flood at Leicester first.

Centres

Surfboard at the ready: The only centre who looks anything close to nailed-on is Wales’ Big Bopper Jamie Roberts.  We had him in our ‘work to do’ section last year, but he has done plenty of that in the last twelve months.  Hard runner, good hands, when he’s on song he’s close to unplayable; he’ll be a key man for the Lions and nigh on irreplaceable.

Work to do: Can Brian O’Driscoll see out his career with a victorious Lions tour?  He would love nothing more.  The old ledge-bag looked sprightly for Leinster but played a touch fast and loose in New Zealand.  If his body holds together, he’ll surely do enough to make the plane.  Oooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi and JJV Davies offer more – how shall we put this? – straight-line tendencies, but both would offer a serious threat to the Aussie gainline.

Any Bolters? Quality inside centres to offer competition to Roberts are thin on the ground, and it’s possible his understudy for Wales, Ashley Beck, will do likewise for the Lions.  Performance in the Pro12 final underlined his quality.

Wings

Wine-tasting guide packed: George North.  There’s no shortage of quality on the wings, with all four countries putting up quality players for examination, but the big, bruising Welshman is top of the bunch.  No bosh-merchant, his skill, distribution and movement belie his monstrous physique.

Work to do: A large field.  From Ireland there’s Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe.  Earls’ ability to play centre could work to his advantage, and he has a Lions tour under his belt.  Bowe excelled in 2009, and is Ireland’s best attacker.  Wales’ other wing Alex Cuthbert (another monster) has timed his rise from obscurity to test class wing impeccably.  Chris Ashton’s star has waned a little, but he’ll be looking to reassert himself at Saracens.  And flying Dutchman (via Scotland) Tim Visser is in with a shout.  He has only one Six Nations to show he can handle international rugby, but he only has the hopes of a nation riding on it, so no pressure, laddie.

Bolters: This is the most bolter-friendly position on the paddock; youngsters can quickly emerge and put themselves in the frame in a short space of time – it’s also a position where confidence and form have the biggest role to play, so Gatland might look past reputation and take a punt on those who are banging in tries.  Christian Wade, Craig Gilroy and Charlie Sharples are just three of many to keep an eye on.

Full Back

Planning a visit to Ayers Rock: Another area of real depth for the Lions, with all four nations putting up a genuine contender.  But Rob Kearney, after his annus mirabilis, is at the top of the tree.  Outstanding performances on last Lions tour won’t be forgotten either.

Work to do: It’ll be at most two from three terrific international players.  Leigh Halfpenny has a mule of a boot and while he isn’t the tallest, is a beautiful runner and dependable catcher.  England’s Ben Foden is a shade off his 2010-11 form, but he is a handsome footballer in every sense of the word.  Already making a bolt is Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, having been eventually let loose for Scotland this Six Nations.  Greased lightning over the turf, his pace would be a real asset.

Any bolters: Felix Jones was mentioned in our comments section this time last year, but injury has been cruel to him.  Gloucester’s lightning-fast Johnny May is an exciting talent, but can he break into the England team to make an impression?

Just Eleven Months To Go

A year out from the tour, the augurs are good.  Wales ran Australia very close in the recent series, and were painfully unlucky to come out on the losing side in the latter two matches.  Surely augmenting that side with a handful of daring Irish, granite-hewn Englishmen, and a giant peroxide-blonde Scot will tilt the balance?  Warren Gatland has already been on one successful, albeit losing, tour and his task will be to deliver a harmonious, happy, competitive squad, similar to 2009.  Therer’s usually little enough you can do on the tactical innovation side in such a short timeframe, so don’t expect too much variation on the Welsh run-hard-run-straight gameplan, with Mike Phillips directing a brutish pack of forwards and Sexton looking to bring the likes of George North and Tim Visser into play as much as possible.  With quality scrummagers, no short of backrow options and plenty of good attacking threats in the backline, this is the Lions’ best chance of a series win since… ooooooh… 1997.  Memo to all: don’t get injured.

Lions 2013 – the Forwards

Put on your Power of 4 bracelets, park your xenophobia, marvel at the fact Andy Powell and Ugo Monye toured last time out, and brace yourself  for cringeworthy archive footage of Iain McGeechan bawling in 2009 – it’s the Lions!

Well, it will be in a year or so anyway. Last year, we looked at the runners and riders two years out, split (as this year) into forwards and backs – we got some things right (Ben Morgan and Dan Tuohy as ones to watch) and some laughably wrong (we said Rory Best was finished and mentioned Ooooooooooohh Matt Banahan).

One year on, we’re going to put our necks on the block (a little) – we’re going to call who is on the plane, who needs to do more, and guess some potential bolters … a fool’s errand if there ever was one. With Warren Gatland as head coach (as surely he will be), we think selection policy will be similar enough to last time, with form the key watchword.  McGeechan and Gatty made it clear they wanted players who were finishing the season well, and were happy to leave out players they hugly respected (Ryan Jones) in favour of those who were on top of their form (Alan Quinlan).  So we figure it’s not worth trying to name a 35-man panel at this juncture.  Today it’s the forwards and Thursday the backs.

Loosehead prop:

On the plane: Fresh from a top notch season with Leinster and Ireland where he emerged as a pack leader, scrumagger of note and destructive carrier, DJ Church can be pencilled in as a starter right now.

Work to do: Gethin Jenkins was favourite to start and a certainty to tour just 6 months ago, but was injured and then out-performed by Paul James in the second half of last season. If James continues his upward trajectory and Jenkins doesn’t improve, James will tour in his stead. Alex Corbisiero had a solid season for England last year – if he holds on to his shirt, he’s going.

Bolters: Prop isn’t a position where you emerge from nowhere so don’t expect a less-established name to go to Oz, but Ryan Grant rescued his career with a move to Glasgow last year, and had a good summer tour, just like Scotland. If he ousts Chunk from the national team, he has a chance.

Hooker:

On the plane: Despite what we said last year, Rory Best is going – he’s been immense for Ireland and Ulster this year. In 2009, Ross Ford toured as a token Scot – this time, he will tour by right – his offloading game for Embra in this years HEC was incredible, and his set-piece work is solid.

Work to do: Dylan Hartley has never quite convinced at the highest level – every time you think he has cracked it, he puts out a performance so bad you go back to square one. Wales have been chopping and changing at hooker for the last year – Matthew Rees has generally been first choice, but has not been playing well – if any of Huw Bennett, Richard Hibbard or Ken Owens pull out a good quality and consistent season and get the shirt for the Six Nations, they will go.

Bolters: He will shortly turn Irish, and multi-HEC winning Richardt Strauss has been a key part of Leinster’s success – although small, he is a dynamic player and looks well-tailored to be put up against the powder-puff Wallaby forwards.

Tighthead Prop:

On the plane: The best scrumagging tighthead in Lions contention is Adam Jones  – add his previous Lions experience and Gatty’s trust, and he’s in. Dan Cole is a yellow card machine, but he is improving every year – he had a good tour to SA as well – he’ll make it.

Work to do: There are no Sunday tests, but Euan Murray still need to do better than last year – as it stands he is behind the technically excellent Mike Ross.

Bolters: Again, tighthead props don’t come from nowhere, so don’t expect too many surprises barring injury. Deccie Fitzpatrick stepped up to a very high level this June and didn’t look too out of place – if John Afoa or Ross get crocked, he will come into the reckoning.

Second Row:

On the Plane: Richie Gray could fall into a big hole and spend 11 months getting out and still make the tour – he’s simply fantastic and we love him unconditionally. Captain last time out, Paul O’Connell makes his province and country twice as good when he is in the team – he is a captaincy contender (Gatty likes a meaty captain).

Work to do: After what looked like a breakthrough 2010/11, Courtney Lawes had his 2011/12 ruined by injury – if he comes back near his form of the season before last, he should still make it. The move to Perpignan may have come at the wrong time for Luke CharterisBradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones had good summer tours, and Ian Evans is still playing a t a high level – at least two of that quartet will be missing out. If Donnacha Ryan or Dan Tuohy can continue last years progression, both are in with a shout – more likely Ryan, given how easily he has adopted to the international stage. Geoff Parling is a decent lineout operator, but there would appear to be better options unless he makes more impact around the park.

Bolters: As far as we know, there are no Eben Etzebeth’s waiting to bust out of a reserve team anywhere, but Iain Henderson looks the real deal at Ulster – it’s more than likely too early, but Gatty hasn’t shied from picking raw and talented youngsters before (albeit mostly piano players rather than piano shifters).

Backrow:

On the Plane: This sector is ridiculously competitive, and some big names are going to miss out. As it stands, we see Sam Warburton going – you’ll need a fetcher to go up against Pocock, and Sam is also a captaincy contender. Stephen Ferris offers twitch power and strength unlike anything else in the hempisphere, and Chris Robshaw is ideal dirt-track leadership material – we think these three are in the lead right now.

Work to do: At the back of the pack, one of Jamie Heaslip, Ben Morgan and Toby Faletau is possibly going to miss out – Heaslip has the experience of SA in his favour, and has had a better year than most give him credit for, but is not firing on all cylinders. Morgan was England’s best player in the Six Nations but had a difficult SA tour, and Faletau carries more ball than anyone in the Welsh (Grand Slam) pack.

On the flanks, Sean O’Brien also carries well and he can play right across the backrow – that’s a plus on a busy tour. Looking at exclusive blindsides, Dan Lydiate will tackle until the cows come home; whereas Dave Denton can carry destrictively as well. Firmly ensconsed in the Stephen Jones Club is Tom Croft – he’s great in open field and scored spectacular tries in last years Six Nations, but he also got bumped badly by Dave Denton and dumped into touch by Paddy Wallace (Paddy Wallace!) in Ravers – he’ll need to improve. Or what about nearly-England captain Tom Wood?

If fetching is your thing, why, we can offer you a Justin Tipuric – Pro12 winner with the Ospreys and able deputy for Big Sam – or Ross Rennie, breakdown king in a HEC semi-final. And we haven’t mentioned John Barclay yet. The least you can say is there is depth!

Bolters: He may not have looked ready in New Zealand, but Peter O’Mahony has raw talent – the arrival of CJ Stander will free him to work on improving his game at 6 or 8, and you might see good results if the pressure if kept off. The best openside of the lot is probably Steffon Armitage, the Top14 POTY – a visible HEC campaign and he could make the plane.

Stealing our jobs

The days might have gone when Irish rugby folk looked on in wide-eyes amazement when Aussies came over to tell them it wasn’t the best idea to booze when recovering from injury, but we still are in thrall to the glamourous tanned lads who, in many ways, tell the story of Irish professional rugby as well as any Irish players. John Langford leading the troops through moats of molten lava in the south of France, Stanley Wright barbecuing Fido before the pound got him, and Clinton Shifcofske fumbling Garryowens on a sodden Belfast night are all part of Irish rugby lore, and Isa, Dougie and Ruan have picked up the baton, albeit in a rather more effective fashion.

In the context of the IRFU coming over all Tea Party about immigrants, we though it would be a good time to review the provinces’ cohort of evil women-stealing job-doing welfare-scrounging diversity-bringing native-educating mind-expanding Johnny Foreigners plying their nefarious trade in green Erin.

Recall for this season Ulster, Munster and Leinster are allowed four NIQs (players who can’t play for Ireland) and one “Project Player” (someone who will be eligible for Irish selection after a period of time), and Connacht are allowed “something else” – the technical term for us not actually knowing the formal arrangement.

Munster

NIQs: BJ Botha (tighthead prop), Wian du Preez (loosehead prop), Casey Laulala (centre), Doug Howlett (ligind winger). Project player: CJ Stander (flanker)

After years of grim recruitment abroad (Nick Williams, Sam Tuitupou, Will Chambers et al), Munster have probably surprised even themselves by ending up with a very useful set of foreigners. BJ came down from Ulster last year, reputedly as the best-paid NIQ in the country, and locked the Munster scrum in a way it hadn’t been in years – along with POC, Rog and Keith Earls, he is one of Munster’s irreplacables. On the other side of the scrum Wian du Preez quietly does the business, and is on a longer contract than Botha, so might be around for a while, as he is the only non-Irish loosehead starting for a province. Not much needs to be said about Doug Howlett – if he can teach Simon Zebo 10% of his defensive positioning knowledge, the Corkman is in for a long career.

Casey Laulala is a more curious case – he is exclusively a 13, which is of course the position that Munster’s best back, Irishman Keet Earls, wants to play from now on. It’s unlikely they brought Laulala, a very useful player, in to cover the games when Deccie has Earls wrapped in cotton wool, so you’d imagine someone will play out of position … let’s hope it ain’t Earls. CJ Stander signed last week, and looks a really good fit – a former U-20 Springbok captain, his strength is his ball carrying, a facet of the game in which Munster were notably deficient last season. The Bulls are unhappy to see him go, but we would eat every one of our hats if ever pulled on an Irish jersey – a man who is being lined up for a long Bok career does not walk away for the prospect of playing with Niall Ronan and James Cawlin – he’ll be back on the highveldt in time for RWC15.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 4/5 – a good tighthead prop (the best-paid import in Ireland), the All Blacks all time leading try scorer and a Springbok underage star? Clearly some prominent local celebrity is funding this cadre. Our money is on Pat Shortt.

Ulster

NIQs: John Afoa (tighthead prop), Johann Muller (second row), Ruan Pienaar (scrum half), Not Nick Williams (tackle bag holder). Project Player: Jared Payne (full back)

Ulster’s cohort of fancy Springboks was the envy of certain prominent parochial journalists last year, and with good reason – Ruan Pienaar was the stand-out scrum-half in Europe, Pedrie Wannenburg wowed the galleries with his sumptuous offloads, Stefan Terblanche wellied the ball into orbit and Johann Muller led the team with granite certainty from the second row. Wannenbosh and Terreblanche have moved on, but the others remain. Pienaar is genuinely one of the rugby world’s superstars, and has played for his country in 5 different positions – his game management from the base of the scrum is matched only by Dmitri Yachvili and Will Genia, and his goal-kicking is lethal and reliable. Muller is one of Ulster’s pack leaders, and sometime forwards coach – the hope is he continues to have huge influence on the younger guys coming through – the turnaround in Dan Tuohy from Gloucester reserve to dynamic international lock is at least partly attributable to Muller’s excellence.

John Afoa, despite a hard time in the scrums in the HEC final (kudos to DJ Church), is a destructive and aggressive prop – at times he seems to be everywhere around the park. He’s come into the spotlight recently as the evil genius who stunts Deccie Fitzpatrick’s development, but he will remain first choice at Ulster next year. Which is something Nick Williams will assuredly not be. The ineffective splinter gatherer, formerly of Munster and Aironi, is a laughably bad signing – he can only play 8 and will be behind the returning Roger Wilson (an underrated player and great bit of recruitment). Let us hope he wasn’t Anscombe’s call, because, if he was, its a pretty inauspicious beginning.

Jared Payne has switched from injured NIQ to project player now that Robbie Diack is Irish. He played only 3 times last season then crocked himself – he had a reputation as a daring counter-attacker in Auckland, and that’s something Ulster missed last year – Craig Gilroy apart, the outside backs were rather bosh-tastic.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 3.5/5 Unless Caroline Wozniacki has spent all of Rory’s fortune, there is no good reason he would fund the signing of Nick Williams – Humph has to take the blame for that one

Leinster

NIQs: Isa Nacewa (winger), Heinke van der Merwe (loosehead prop), Quinn Roux (second row), TBA. Project player: Richardt Strauss (hooker)

Isa Nacewa is mentioned in the same breath as Jim Williams and Dr Phil as the most influential foreigner to grace Irish soil, and rightly so – his outlook and professionalism have coloured Leinster’s approach under Joe Schmidt and his awareness of space is a thing of beauty; the try against Leicester in last years’ HEC quarter-final was one of the best we have seen in person. The rest of Leinster’s cohort are in the engine room – Heinke VDM comes on for DJ Church when he gets tired in big games, and mans the Pro12 shift with power and efficiency – he’s basically a prototype Afrikaner prop who can scrummage well and hit rucks hard. Beside him, little Richard Strauss is finalising the words to Ireland’s Call – he’s  qualified in the autumn and will offer some good hands and the support lines of a former flanker.

Leinster had two vacancies following the departures of Nathan White and Mat Berquist, and the first signing is underwhelming to say the least. While Quinn Roux has talent (he was ahead of Eben Etzebeth in the Stormers depth chart before getting injured this year), but it’s an odd signing – it seems he is over here on a gap year and no more – it stinks of penny-pinching, and Leinster are kicking the second row can further down the road – Leo Cullen is no longer top level, and Devin Toner isn’t quite there – this line is a flashing red light for next season. Let’s hope he doesn’t look upon the gap year as an excuse to head to Coppers on a Monday night. We have no insider knowledge of who the TBA is likely to be (or if there will be one), but if the last two guys the IRFU have shelled out for (Williams and Roux) are any guide, a cheap bosher will be making half-time oranges in D4 next year.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 2/5 Bono it ain’t.  The mystery celeb who is funding Leinster’s expansion has been credit-crunched (Johnny Ronan?) – Quinn Roux is a mystifying signing, and the AN Other at this stage of the year is not a good sign

Connacht

NIQs: Ettienne Reynecke (hooker), Rodney Ah You (tighthead prop), George Naoupu (number 8), Dan Parks (outhalf), Fetu’u Vainikolo (bosher). Project Player: Nathan White (tighthead prop), Danie Poolman (winger)

There seems to be a bit more leeway given to imports in the west – Connacht have 5 NIQs and 2 project players. The standout member is former Scotland stand-off Dan Parks – his international career may have ended in ignominy, but he made the most of his opportunities, and was an intelligent and committed international player, who was outstanding in the 2010 Six Nations. Parks will bring poise and experience to a squad thin on guys who have played at the highest level – he will kick goals and will look excellent in green. It could be a precursor of a move into coaching, and this would be Connacht’s gain – he strikes us a classic progressive Aussie coach – Matt Williams with a monster boot if you like.

The (evil) tighthead prop Nathan White has come in from Leinster. He gained positive reviews from his time in D4 but if he ever starts ahead of Ronan Loughney, Deccie will blame him for Ireland’s woes. Rodney Ah You is another one who can be blamed for the Twickers debacle, given he wears 3. The rest of the squad is composed largely of South Sea boshers, and it’s hard to see how this benefits Connacht, or Ireland – its basically dead money that could be invested in young Irish lads.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 1.5/5 Dan Parks aside, the local boy who made it big worldwide (member of Westlife?) is doing this on the cheap – either that or he has a fetish for the bosh – Ooooooooooooooooooooohh!!

Summer Time

Readers, it may be the end of the season in (NH) rugger-land, but there is no rest for the wicked.

We’ll still be posting throughout the summer, albeit at a slower pace. We’ll be talking about Super Rugby now and then, and the Quad-Nations Rugby Championship. Without much in the way of news from up here, we might indulge ourselves a little and post some stuff that we like – hopefully you won’t be disappointed.

In case you need something to do, we have developed the first patented WoC party game – the Barnesy Word Grid. See how many of Barnesy’s favourite words you can find in the grid .. we’ve started you off.