2012/13 Season Preview: Ulster

Last Season: Ulster had their best year since 1999, reaching the Heineken Cup final on the back of epic victories over Leicester, Clermont and Munster, and a near-miss in the Marcel Michelin. The beating in the final took a little gloss off the year, but there is a satisfied glow in Belfast this summer.

League form started badly, recovered, then fell off a cliff after Thomond – the 6th place finish was probably a tad unfair on their general play, but they don’t have the depth to compete on both fronts.

In: Mark Anscombe (Auckland, coach), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Roger Wilson (Northampton Saints), Nick Williams (Aironi), Niall O’Connor (Connacht), Rob Herring (Stormers)

Out: Brian McLoughlin (errr … somewhere in Ravenhill that isn’t immediately clear; possibly washing linen), Ian Humphreys & Conor Gaston (London Irish), Pedrie Wannenbosh (Castres), Ian Whitten (Exeter Chiefs), Willie Faloon (Connacht), Simon Danielli & Stefan Terblanche (retired)

Last season will live long in Ulster memories – not only did they get to a HEC final, but they produced two of their best away performances of the professional era en route. Ulster were always seen as a soft touch away from Ravenhill, but their efforts in Clermont and Munster will be remembered for a long time.

On the flip side of that, Ulster started the season appallingly, and their efforts after Thomond Park were not great. The decision to change the fly-half after Humphreys poor performances in March and April did not work on the field (with respect to Paddy Jackson, he did ok, but looked too raw for the highest level), and back-fired spectacularly off it. The vision of having an experienced and competitive out-half nursing young Jackson through his formative years are in ashes after iHumph didn’t feel the love and jumped ship. It clearly still hurts (is there regret?), and must rank as a stunningly poor piece of man-management of an important player by the coaching staff.

Of course, Brian McLaughlin has moved on to be replaced by Mark Anscombe – while there is no doubt he was rather shabbily treated, we think he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and a new voice was needed. That new voice was received rather unenthusiastically after the usual Wayne Smith type speculation, and his record is less impressive than say, Rob Penney’s, but we have to assume Humph knows what he has done. As it stands, the starting 10 is likely to be Jackson, with O’Connor backing up – it’s pretty raw and shallow, and if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, Ulster might struggle – it’s huge pressure at an early age on Jackson, let’s hope he copes with the expectation.

[Aside: this doesn’t imply Penney would have been a better man for the job – the Ulster job entails guiding a relatively young team driven by a core of grizzled leaders to European silverware, its a much more laissez-faire role than Penney’s activist re-shaping in Munster – a different personality and skillset would be needed. Penney would probably have been too hands-on for Ulster at this stage in their development.]

On the playing front, it’s been roughly a break-even summer on the transfer front. Bowe for Danielli is clearly a significant improvement, but O’Connor for iHumph is not, and while Roger Wilson for Wannebosh is not a like-for-like comparison, it’s replacing an older player with a record of good service with a younger one who understands the club mentality. Factor in that fly half and backrow are more important than wing, and perhaps Ulster didn’t do that well..

The loss through injury of Paddy McAllister is significant – not only are Ulster relying on Tom Court, but when Deccie borrows him to make half-time oranges for Cian Healy, they’ll have to play Callum Black. It’s terrible for a young promising player to miss a whole season at this stage of his development – we wish him the best. At tighthead, they have the opposite problem – Deccie will want to see a lot of Deccie Fitz and Adam Macklin, but Ulster haven’t signed John Afoa to make up the numbers. That ranks as a good problem. Expect to see Niall Annett start some Pro12 games when Rory Best is sunning himself in Maynooth – Nigel Brady and Rob Herring are also in the squad, but Annett is the future.

Second-row depth is good – Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy are one of the best starting pairs in the HEC, Lewis Stevenson developed at a rate of knots last year, and Iain Henderson is the coming lock of Irish rugby. Henderson will probably play more at 6 this season, both to get experience and to cover a thin sector, but he’ll be challenging for a starting spot within the next 2-3 years.

The second real problem area for Ulster (the first being loose-head and the third out-half) is the back-row. The starting trio of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson are top class – Fez is incomparable, Henry was the stand-out openside in the Heineken Cup last season and his injury played a large part in Leinster’s ease of victory in the final, while Roger Wilson has been swimming at the top level for three years now. But behind those, it’s a steep drop-off to Mike McComish, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams – ouch! Williams was a mystifying signing – he was poor at Munster, and struggled to get his game at Aironi – why the coaching staff thought he’d be the man to backup the classy Ulster starters when silverware is the aim is unclear. The transfer of Willie Falloon to Connacht has further thinned out the back row – he hasn’t exactly been shooting the lights out, but he could be a useful Pro12 asset.

Ruan Pienaar is likely to be absent until the HEC starts due to his Boks role, so Paul Marshall will have a chance to get some momentum going again – he was brilliant when asked last year, but his opportunities were restricted at the later stages of the HEC. Its worth mentioning that Marshall-Pienaar looks an obvious solution to the outhalf issues, but Pienaar came to Ulster to prove himself a specialist 9, so he will not want to move out on a regular basis.

Ulster’s three-quarter line looks well-stocked and balanced – Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave both had their best professional seasons last year and coming kids Nevin Spence, Luke Marshall and Chris Farrell (Ooooooohh) will provide backup. Tommy Bowe has come home to contest the wing slots with Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy – Trimble is the most prosaic, but his boshes off the wing were a key setup point for Ulster attacks last season, Exhibit A being Gilroy’s try in Thomond – whoever misses out will be an improvement on the departed Ian Whitten in squad terms. Jared Payne is hoping to put an injury-hit first season behind him and, allied to the arrival of Bowe, the ouside backs look much more threatening this season – Terblanche was as safe as houses last year, but wasn’t exactly Isa Nacewa on the counter. Adam D’Arcy provides pace and broken-field expertise combined with an inability to pass off the bench.  Can Ulster develop their Saffer-inspired gameplan to cut them loose?

Ulster have a benign HEC draw this season – all three home games will be won, and the timing of the fixtures means Castres away will be targeted. We think they can pick up that and another win plus enough bonus points to win the pool and earn a home quarter-final – the first knockout HEC game at Ravers since 1999. That would represent progress. After that, its a question of the Lady Luck. If Leinster and Clermont clear one or the other out of the HEC groups, a path could open up for Ulster to go further. But that itself may depend on the fitness of the starting pack and halves – it’s hard to imagine Ulster could survive long stretches while relying on the likes of Black, Diack, Williams and O’Connor.

In the Pro12, Ulster have tended to pick up momentum in the spring due to the lack of front-line internationals in their squad – one of the results of their success and development is that the likes of Deccie Fitz, Tuohy, Henry, Cave and Gilroy may get Deccie-d, and remove the March safety valve from consideration.

Verdict: The lack of depth in key positions is our biggest problem with Ulster. The loss of iHumph has not been adequately addressed, and the backrow unit has not been improved over the summer. The three-quarter line is now stacked, but getting the ball back there in decent shape is the challenge.

The front-liners are strong enough to go far in the HEC, but a win might be beyond them. If they get a bit of fortune, another HEC final is achievable, but a home quarter final should be the target for the season. It’s hard to look beyond that; if they get it, they should have a semi-final in them, then who knows. The under-powered backrow backups are going to be a problem in the Pro12 – Ulster are likely to be without more players in February and March than in previous years, and we can’t see them making the hay like they usually do. We think they will miss out on the play-offs for the second successive season.

2012/13 Season Preview: Leinster

Our third provincial preview, and it’s a look at Leinster.  Can they possibly go one better than last season?

Last Season: to heaven and back. Leinster backed up their first season under Joe Schmidt with a rampaging season in Europe, and became the first team since Leicester to win back-to-back Heineken Cups. They played some fairly rip-roaring rugby in the process, demolishing Bath, swatting aside Cardiff and putting five tries on a gamey Ulster side in the final. On the road they opted for a tougher approach, and it got them through some gnarly old games; squeezing out of Montpellier with a draw, toughing it out against Glasgow, but most famously, delivering a famous victory in Bordeaux against Clermont Auvergne. In the league, Leinster were a model of consistency, topping the log by a distance, but the summer was slightly spoiled by a failure to secure a historic double, with reliable party-poopers Ospreys pinching the Pro12 in the final minutes at the RDS.

Ins: Tom Denton (Leeds), Quinn Roux (Stormers), Andrew Goodman (Tasman Makos)

Outs: Ciaran Ruddock (Neath), Brad Thorn (Fukuoka Sanix Blues), Eamonn Sheridan (Rotherham), Nathan White (Connacht)

The big question is: can Leinster make it three in a row?  They’re the best team in Europe, and the best coached.  The final is in their home from home, the Aviva Stadium.  And they sure won’t give their Cup up without a hell of a fight.  But we reckon they’ll never have it so hard to win the Heineken Cup as this year.  For all sorts of reasons.

For a start, they’ve landed a stinker of a pool draw.  For the fourth season in a row, Leinster will face off against Clermont.  So far, they’ve come off on the right side each time, but can they do it again?  Clermont look the team best equipped to put one over on Leinster, but keep coming up just short.  Last year the difference was a fractionally dropped ball from Wesley Fofana in the dying seconds of the match.  It can’t go on forever.  Elsewhere, Leinster have to deal with a doughty Exeter side and Llanelli Scarlets, who might have the front five this season to cause good teams problems.  They’re strong everywhere else on the pitch.  It’s a hard group.

It goes without saying everyone will be gunning for the back-to-back champions.  It’s hard to gauge just how wide the pool of serious contenders will be this year, but it should be bigger than last season.  Leicester should be resurgent, Saracens will be tough and Northampton will hardly repeat last season’s implosion.  Ulster will have learned from last season’s experience.  Munster are Munster.  Ospreys will target a strong campaign in Europe to back up the Pro12 success.  From France, the aforementioned Clermont and Toulouse should provide a stiff challenge while Toulon, if interested, could be a shark.

Weirdly, though, Leinster’s biggest threat could be a team they’ll never play: Ireland.  Word on the ground is that Team Ireland are set to assert their position as Top Dog like never before.  Kidney will apparently have greater contact with his key men with meetings in camp becoming more frequent.  Preparation time for Heineken Cup games could be compromised.  Leinster, as biggest providers of personnel to the national team, will be the most affected.  Given how, in the last two seasons, one of Schmidt’s biggest challenges has been getting the first team back in the groove after the lengthy Six Nations break, further interruptions will be the last thing he wants – but he’ll just have to suck it up. Ironically, the paucity of Ireland’s recent efforts have helped Schmidt in one sense – the players could not wait to get back to his modern coaching techniques.

Whatever happens, it’ll be fascinating viewing.  Last season Leinster evolved from an offloading team to more of a gainline-passing team.  Schmidt’s vision, declared upon arrival, of turning Leinster into the best passing side in Europe reached its fruition.  With such high quality distribution across the line of attack, there was less requirement to look for the offload out of contact.  Great teams only stay great by evolving, so it’ll be interesting to see what wrinkles Schmidt introduces this year.

In terms of playing personnel there was little change last year.  Rob Kearney returned from injury and effectively swapped in for Shane Horgan (with Nacewa moving to the wing).  This year might require a bit more transition.  Can Gordon D’arcy hang on to the 12 jersey?  It increasingly looks like he can.  He no longer has the line-break threat of old, but in the knockout rounds of the Heineken Cup his strength in contact was a huge asset to Leinster, and launched numerous attacks.  How will Fitzgerald do on his return?  And what of McFadden – can he make the final breakthrough or is he to be the perennial 23rd man.  He is a hardy competitor, as naturally fit as they come, but are his ball skills rounded enough to be first choice 12?  He’s 26 now, so if he doesn’t nail down the role this season, his time may be passing.  And can Schmidt keep the increasingly impressive Ian Madigan happy?  He’s going to demand Heineken Cup minutes if his form gets any better.

Then there’s the second row.  Leinster’s failure to replace Nathan Hines was always liable to hurt them.  Last year they were bailed out by the great Brad Thorn Coup.  That’s unlikely to be repeated this year, so the hope is that between Toner, Denton, Flanagan, Roux and Browne, somebody emerges as a top quality lock.  The best bet looks to be Toner.  He may look awkward, but the improvement in his all-round game last season was immense.  He’s still got time on his side and looks to have finally grown into his unique frame.  Now it’s time to nail down that starting berth once and for all.  Cullen is captain for another season, so Schmidt and co. obviously feel he’s capable of another season as a starter; even if he’s only a 50-minute player.

Anyhow, enough carping.   It should be another cracking season at the RDS.  Sexton will be targeting a test Lions jersey; so too will Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy.   Kevin McLoughlin has emerged as a key player of test quality.  He and Richardt Strauss will have international ambitions.  Then there’s the supporting crew.  Ian Madigan is on the verge of a huge breakthrough and makes cold Thursday nights at the RDS against Treviso in mid-February worth showing up for.   We’re tipping Dom Ryan for a big season (note to Dom: less carrying, more link-play) and we’re hoping for glimpses of Tadgh Furlong’s huge potential.  Season tickets are renewed, bring it on.

Verdict: if three Heineken Cups in a row does prove too good to be true, Leinster will surely console themselves with a league victory.  They should have some silver for the cabinet at the end of the year.

Premiership Preview

We were sitting down over caramel mocha skinny frappoccinos in the Southside yesterday, before heading home to the Northside for deep fried lard-balls and gravy chips, and we pondered the post about how dire the Top14 is – the prospect of writing a preview was not appealing to say the least.

So we started talking about the Pro12, and ended up equally as unenthused – the idea of previewing a league where pretty much all the teams don’t give a sh*t about it ain’t much craic either. This led us to a rather revolutionary idea – writing a Premiership preview! Ooooooooooooooohh!

The Premiership might have been a laughing stock for the last few years, and indeed some of our more mouth-foaming fans maintained Connacht were better than Leicester following their thumping in Ravers last January, but it’s genuinely competitive and more exciting than you might think. Last year there were way more tries than in either other league on average, and Leicester were like the Baabaas in the second half, scoring 6 try bonus point wins in a row.

Bath

The sexiest city in England, the best ground in England, great fans, great tradition, but a rubbish team. There is potential in the squad through the likes of Jack Cuthbert and Tom Heathcote, but it’s mostly packed to the gills with dead wood. Another mid-table mediocrity season beckons – treading water.

Look out for: Heathcote is a sparkling young 20-year old who has no pressure thanks to George Ford and big money signing Beaver – finally a home-grown 10 worthy of Barnesy’s shirt

Oooooooooohh: Converted second row Matt Banahan has the turning circle of the Titanic

Exeter Chiefs

Went from surprise winners of the Championship to surprise Premiership survivors to surprise HEC qualifiers. The upwardly-mobile Chiefs have a strong support and what looks like a cracking little atmospheric ground. They’ll want another HEC qualification, but we think they won’t get it.

Look out for: We wonder when Dean Mumm went to sleep on those Wallaby training camps after a day with Nathan Sharpe did he dream of partnering Tom Hayes?

Oooooooooohh: big-boned Fijian winger Sireli Naqelavuki knows only one thing – running very fast towards an opposing player – bash!

Gloucester

A disappointing season for Glaws last year despite the memorable thumping of boring bosh-merchants Toulouse – the days of topping the regular-season log are long gone. They’ve responded by making quite a few interesting signings like Jimmy Cowan, Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees to add to their youthful zip. A return to the HEC placings looks within their reach.

Look out for: Any of the jet-heeled backs – we’re pretty big fans of Jonny May here – but it’s Freddie Burns who looks the real deal

Oooooooooohh:  Admirably free of bosh in the post-Vainikolo days – if anything they need a couple of crash-ball merchants to set targets.  More Oooooooooooohhh, not less! You heard it here first.

Harlequins

Started last season like a bullet, and, amazingly didn’t end up losing at the hands of one of the nastier boys in the playground i.e. Tigers, Saints or Sarries. Carried home their first Premiership title and were a breath of fresh mostly-English air. Europe will probably be the priority this year – we think a repeat is unlikely, but playoffs probable.

Look out for: Luke Wallace never quite nailed down a starting position last season, but he is a pure groundhog who we will see plenty more of

Oooooooooohh: Jordan Turner-Hall has taken contact and held on in the tackle – again!

Leicester Tigers

Made their 8th final in a row last season, and are English rugby’s bluebloods. Still, no silverware to speak of, and a frightful beating in Belfast to boot. Despite another stinker of a HEC draw, they’ll want to make amends for last season – they’ve a deep squad and will want their English crown back.

Look out for: George Ford is the next big thing – he might be their starter by the end of the season, and Floody could go from being tomorrow’s man to yesterday’s man in one fell swoop

Oooooooooohh: Now that Alesana Tuilagi, Barnesy’s favourite bosh-merchant, has gone, it has to be Thomas “the Tank Engine” Waldrom, famed for going missing when it really counts

London Samoa Irish

Irish appear to have eschewed boshing in favour of something more watchable – the coaching staff is all new, and the inventor of defence, St Shaun of Oop North, is on board. Will be able to concentrate on the Premiership, and the exit of Felon Armitage will ensure less sideshows, and more likeability as well.

Look out for: Iain Humphreys flounced out of Ulster after being dropped for P-Jack for the HEC semi, but on form, he can inspire a backline to high levels of expansiveness

Oooooooooohh: League convert Setaimata Sa is on board – he’s described as a “line-breaking centre or back-row”, which we think means “contact merchant with hands of stone”

London Welsh

Have the be-wigged beaks of the Bailey to thank for being here – after initially being turned down to replace Newcastle, they got their way. Promoted despite finishing a distant 4th in the Championship, they’ll do extremely well to avoid an immediate return there

Look out for: we hate ourselves for saying this, but attention-seeking has-been Gav Henson will dominate headlines. He doesn’t deserve this nth last chance, but he has it, so let’s grudgingly wish him the best

Oooooooooohh: we’re being pretty presumptuous here, having never seen him play, but Hudson Tonga’uiha is a Tongan centre – we imagine he isn’t known for his defence-splitting soft hands

Northampton Saints

The team which expended so much energy getting from the Championship to the HEC final is slowly chipping away – Downey, Wilson and Ashton left this summer. We are pretty down on any team piloted by Ryan Lamb, and we think they are going to miss out on the playoffs this ear.

Look out for: Ben Foden is a damn handsome chap, but a rejuvenated Courtney Lawes is even more crucial if Saints are to prosper this year

Oooooooooohh: He might get Barnesy excited, but So’ane Tonga’uiha isn’t actually all that good

Sale Sharks

Huge amount of excitement this summer at Sale, as two of rugger’s bigger names signed up to Steve Diamond’s “project”. We’re uber-excited to see Cippers back – expect fun either way – and we think he can inspire the Nordies to the playoffs and possibly, maybe, who knows, book himself onto the Lions tour.

Look out for: Corpulent Jerry might think he looks as though he runs through treacle, but to us and most sane people, Richie Gray is one of the best locks in world rugby – his break and step against Ireland this year was laughably good

Oooooooooohh: Munster foreign signing fail Sam Tuitupou is captain (captain!) – look to see space outside eschewed for a crunch into an opposing centre

Saracens

Brand Sarries continue to push upwards – a strong squad was strengthened by the arrival of Chief Dickhead Chris Ashton, and there is a HEC game scheduled for Brussels in October. They only finished two points off the top last season, and will be aiming to get their crown back.

Look out for: Owen Farrell was anointed as England’s saviour, then lamented as a poor man’s Wilko. We would be hoping to see him develop into a more rounded game manager this year

Oooooooooohh: In last years Six Nations, straight-line Brad Barritt made Dr Roberts look like Sonny Bill Williams

Wasps

This time 5 years ago, Wasps were starting the season as European champions, and would go on to lift the Premiership trophy – yet last season they narrowly avoided the drop having lost key players to injury – by contrast it’s hard to imagine Leinster scratching it out with Zebre in 2017. Saved from bankruptcy this summer, Dai Young is in as director of rugby and it’s year zero. They’d take mid-table respectability, and they’ll probably get it.

Look out for: With Danny Care, Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs doing their best not to nail down the England 9 shirt, Joe Simpson will have an eye on regular international recognition

Oooooooooohh: Former Cheetahs back-rower Ashley Johnson has tired of the long queue ahead of him for the Boks, and is taking his contact game to the Premiership – don’t expect many offloads

Worcester Warriors

Worcester were just happy not to be where Newcastle finished – narrowly avoiding a return from whence they came. With Bristol blowing promotion again, Worcester will fancy themselves to stay ahead of London Welsh and continue to hang on by their fingernails.

Look out for: Long touted as the next big thing, Matt Kvesic is a teak-tough all-action 6.5 – think Wally

Oooooooooohh: Neil Best has never been shy of an argument and the muck and crash of the bottom of the Premiership suits him

For once we are actually going to nail our colours to the mast, and not talk in endless possibilities. Here’s how its going to finish up:

Champions: Leicester

Playoffs: Saracens, Harlequins, Sale Sharks

HEC: Gloucester, Northampton

Relegated: London Welsh

The Well Fair Program

The IRFU puts a lot of store in its player welfare programme, whereby its international players are sheltered from potential burnout by a strict regimen limiting the number of games they play per season.  The players seem to feel looked after, and it’s probably helped in keeping a couple of leading lights in the country when they had tempting offers from French clubs.  However, it looks increasingly like the current system is coming under pressure from a couple of sides, and it may be time for a re-think.

Brendan Fanning’s hugely enlightening recent article shone a light on the failings of the current system.  In short, the IRFU has appointed itself as guardians of player fitness but has little credibility in the role, having been without a head of fitness and conditioning for 14 months after Phillip Morrow left (they have finally made the replacement, with South African Dave Clark coming into the role).  Little wonder that the provinces see themselves as in a much better position to determine who is fit to play and when.  For a start, they have access to the players on a weekly basis.  The other factor is Declan Kidney entering the last year of his contract, because it is he, rather than any overseer who has to negotiate with the provinces.  Anyone remember the video Bill Clinton made of himself washing his car to demonstrate how little was achievable in one’s last year of office?  Or the season Alex Ferguson had announced would be his last?  Once everyone knows you’re leaving, it’s hard to maintain the influence you once had.  Kidney may not believe he’s finished yet, but it looks increasingly like he’s on the last lap.

Last week’s noises from the English and French Leagues about merit-based qualification for the Heineken Cup put further pressure on the current system; or at least they will do further down the line.  The Pro12 is the puppy that gets kicked around under today’s regime.  The provinces focus on the Heineken Cup and use the league matches as the rest periods demanded by the IRFU.  The likes of Sexton, Ferris and O’Connell can play as little as five or six of the twenty-two league games.  It relegates the Pro12 to a B-team competition.  But if, as the English and French are demanding, a top six position were required to ensure Heineken Cup rugby the following season, it would force the IRFU to review how it approaches the league.  With European rugby on the line, surely Sexton and co. would be pressed into action a little more often.   Plus this gives grist to the English and French drum-banging about how unfair life is.

It also must be asked just how valuable the player welfare rules are in their current guise in today’s game.  Back in the mid-noughties, when Ireland had a dozen or so test class players and an ingrained Test XV, it made evident sense to ensure the golden-thighed greats were protected from over-exposure with their provinces.  But in today’s world, where rugby is a 22-man game, injuries are frequent and squads are designed to cope, it’s not certain it’s as essential as it once was.  Ireland have a much wider net of players who could play test rugby today.  Forty-six players played for the national team last season.  All the provinces have reasonable squad depth and would be inclined to rotate their players in any case, if left to their own devices a little more.

Furthermore, the awarding of IRFU centralised contracts is increasingly muddy and strange looking.  A cursory glance over the list of players on central contracts (such as it is; the IRFU does not publish one, but annuonces the awarding of new deals) reveals that ageing fringe players like Donncha O’Callaghan, Paddy Wallace and Ronan O’Gara have them, but Sean O’Brien does not.  The unfortunate Denis Leamy managed to get a new one earlier this year despite being on the verge on retirement – who made this decision and why? At times it looks as if central contracts are thank-yous for years of commendable service, rather than attempts to lock down the best players.

It’s resulted in some bizarre situations.  Season before last, Ulster were known to be unhappy with having a strict game-time allotment for Paddy Wallace, only to see him play a handful of minutes in three substitute appearances in the Six Nations.  Last season, O’Gara was similarly coddled under IRFU rules, but featured only off the bench for Ireland in the spring.  When the Heineken Cup quarter-final came around he was ring rusty.  And don’t think that match-time rules are applied only to centrally contracted players.  It appears that the IRFU applies these to those contracted with their province, too.

One of the more incredulous elements of pre-season newsflow is that the IRFU have insisted that Connacht’s four tourists in New Zealand (Loughney, Duffy, Wilkinson and McCarthy) have a delayed pre-season and will not be available for early rounds of fixtures.  Loughney was the only one of the four to get on the pitch, with 20 minutes off the bench in the first test.  None of the four are ever likely to be more than fringe players with Ireland anyway, but Connacht – their squad permanently stretched to breaking point as it is – will have to start without four of their best players because of the tiring demands of the Shotover Jet in Queenstown.  It looks like Team Deccie are flexing their muscles and showing the provinces who’s boss.

For sure, the players need to be looked after, and imposing ceilings on match time makes sense.  But the current rules are just too rigid in their appliction.  Like much else in the national set-up at the moment, it’s a system that’s served Ireland well, but one looking increasingly behind the times.

2012/13 Season Preview: Connacht

Ah, Connacht.  The plucky men from the West.  The dog track.  The lashing rain and howling wind.  Michael Swift.  The defeats plucked from the jaws of victory.  Johnny O’Concrete.  Yes, it’s time to see how Eric Elwood’s mob can do this year.

Last season: their best in some time.  Heineken Cup rugby came to Connacht for the first time, and while the extra workload threatened to derail their season for a while, they came through in the end, securing a famous win and denying Harlequins a place in the last eight as a result.  In the Pro12, they managed a respectable eighth position, securing seven wins.

Players In: Dan Parks (Cardiff), Nathan White (Leinster),Willie Faloon (Ulster), Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol), Danie Poolman (Stormers), Matt Healy, Mata Fafita, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane and Brian Murphy (AIL level)

Players Out: Ray Ofisa, Henry Fa’afila, Dermot Murphy, Dylan Rogers, Jamie Stephens, Brian Tuohy (all released or retired),Niall O’Connor (Ulster)

This is Eric Elwood’s third season in charge and his first two have been characterised by a completely opposing attitude to that of his predecessor Michael Bradley.  Where Bradley appeared to accept Connacht’s lot as the runt of the Irish litter, Elwood has bolshily demanded they get a better deal.  Where Bradley targeted specific games and threw his hat at others, Elwood has sought to make Connacht compete in every match.  Where Bradley was orange, Elwood is a pasty-faced Irishman if ever there was one.

Connacht fans grew tired of Bradley’s defeatist approach, but it hasn’t all been easy for Elwood either.  Last year they embarked on a mid-season 14-match losing streak, through five Heineken Cup and nine Pro12 matches.  It included losses in Aironi and at home to Treviso.  At the same time, Bradley’s Edinburgh were on their way to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, and playing an eye-catching offload-heavy brand of rugger in the process.  Of course, Bradley’s side barely turned up for league games, with the coach’s ‘targeting’ of games reaching new levels of dichotomy.  It did make one wonder if there was something to Bradley’s approach after all.  Connacht’s small squad looked flogged to death by January.

This season, they’ll have another heavy workload to contend with, because them lads from Leinster have once again put them in the Heineken Cup.  The draw’s been kinder this time, pooling Connacht with Zebre, Biarritz and Harlequins.  Three wins is a very realistic target.

Their squad looks better equipped to perform this season.  Last year Connacht had to learn to cope without the loss of their four best players, who decamped to Leinster and Munster, but this year the playing group has been bolstered rather than compromised.  Recruitment has never been Connacht’s strongest suit, but this season’s new arrivals look well thought through and should improve the squad.

Nathan White had a highly productive spell with Leinster, and by all accounts was well regarded within the squad.  He’ll scrummage solidly on the tighthead side of the scrum, and offers a fair bit around the park.  Right now he’s a much better player than Jamie Hagan.  Willie Faloon may never have quite fulfilled his potential at Ulster, but should get a run of games under his belt at Connacht, and we may see the best of him.  He lacks physicality and runs hot and cold, but if he can improve his consistency he could be the new Niall Ronan.

Another shrewd piece of business is bringing young hooker Jason Harris-Wright home from Bristol. The Bray man had some good games at Leinster and a reasonable season in the English Championship.  Stormers winger Danie Poolman is perhaps the highest profile signing they’ve ever made.  He has some Super Rugby experience, and should add a dash of class to Connacht’s back play.  The best of the bunch is getting Dan Parks from Cardiff.  Parks has his critics, but is exactly the sort of high-percentage goal kicker Connacht have lacked.  When a side loses so many tight matches (they won seven losing bonus points last season, the highest number in the league), every fluffed kick counts and Parks should turn a few more clutch situations into wins this year. We suspect he will be brought into the backroom team in some capacity as well – he is intelligent and we think he might buy into Connacht the way Gatty did back in the late 90s – it’s a superb signing in our view.

An intriguing element of the summer’s recruiting is Elwood bolstering the squad with a number of players from AIL level.  Leo Auva’a and especially James Coughlan are two recent success stories in making this transition, and the likes of Galwegians centre Brian Murphy have been brought in to improve the depth chart in positions where it’s needed.  They’re also, presumably, brought in with the British & Irish Cup in mind, in which Connacht are competing for the first time this year.  It should be a good platform for their high-achieving academy players to step up another level.

Of those already there, we’re particular fans of handsome devil Mike McCarthy, Ronan Loughney, Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffen, while Gavin Duffy remains a fine player.  If there was one position where Connacht laboured badly last year it was scrum half, where neither Paul O’Donohue nor Frank Murphy offer the kind of swift service to reliably launch Connacht’s backs.  What chance Ireland U-20 starlet Kieran Marmion being fast tracked to the first team?

Verdict: So, it’s going to be another tough season for the Westies, but when has it ever not been?  With a kinder draw in Europe, we can see Connacht winning home and away to Zebre and winning one other home game.  Harlequins will know what to expect in Galway this time, but Biarritz have been known to underestimate the smaller teams.

In the league, it’ll be hard to improve on eighth.  Last season the gap between them and seventh placed Cardiff was thirteen points.  A target of ten wins would be something to aim at, and if they managed it, would be a tremendous achievement for Elwood.

You have to ask where Connacht’s ceiling is, and we may get some insight this year. When you have the same attendance for games against Aironi in the league and Quins in the H-Cup, you have to suspect that’s your maximum fanbase. The off-season and HEC draw could not really have gone any better.  If they don’t break the glass ceiling beneath the other three provinces, three Welsh teams and one Scottish team now, they might not be able to do it at all.

Toulousers

What has happened to Toulouse? We were watching their opening Top14 game (on the 17th of August! … A whole other debate needed there) and were struck with how … shit … they were.

Toulouse have historically been associated with vibrant rugby, the embodiment of what is good about French rugby – local passion, youth-oriented ambitions, ferocity upfront coupled with inventiveness with ball in hand.

The team they put out consisted of a foreign front row, a backrow and three quarter line with a huge amount of mileage and Pacific bosh merchants off the bench, all piloted by the poor man’s Morné Steyn, Lionel Beauxis. Granted, they won with a late try from Matavanou, but the game itself was an abomination – bad tempered, boring, and essentially boiling down to a penalty contest.

These were/are two of the best four teams in France, and if that is the case, you have got to worry about French rugby. Toulouse won the *puts on Gerry’s French accent* Bouclier de Brennus last season, but the play-off series was woeful – it was a kicking contest which Wilko almost swung for Toulon. The semi-finals and final produced not a single try between them.  By contrast, the Aviva Premiership and the much maligned Pro12 produced thrilling finals. Its hard to imagine any French team earning a try-scoring bonus point 6 games in a row, like Leicester did last year – the Top14 deserves much more Oooooooooohh-ppobrium than the Premiership.

In Europe it’s been no great shakes either.  Toulouse were beaten by Embra in last season’s HEC quarters (after getting hammered by Gloucester and losing at home to Quins), and only Clermont joined them at that stage. The Amlin turned into a Top14 second tier playoff contest, but the final was another mindless boot contest.

Clermont stand alone as an exciting and vibrant side, and are worth watching, but Toulouse are becoming Toulon with a better PR department. You have to be concerned about the future of French rugby when so many of the top level clubs play such a desperate brand of rugby, so far away from the (admittedly self-professed) traditions of the game in France. Even Toulouse, the self-appointed guardians of le rugby, resort to utter dross. And we haven’t even mentioned the winter months when the grounds turn into puddings and the league turns into a Scrum & Drop Goal Competition.  Sigh – perhaps we expect too much!

2012/13 Season Preview: Munster

The new season approacheth!  We’re going to start off by looking at Munster.   An infinitely fascinating season awaits.  New coach, new players and hopefully a new era for the men in red.

Last Season: on the face of it, not bad. Top of their HEC group with 6 from 6 (we think, although we haven’t heard in a while – perhaps one of our Munster friends can confirm) and 3rd in the Pro12. A gut-wrenching defeat to Ulster in the HEC quarters confirmed Munster’s slippage in the pecking order, and a frightful beating from the Ospreys finished what Toulon started last year – the end of Generation Ligind.

Unfortunately, by the standards set by GL, this was a disappointing season, especially due to the nature of the defeats. Also, Leinster and Ulster contesting the HEC final didn’t improve southern moods.

Out: Ludd McGahan (coach – to Wallabies); Tomas O’Leary (London Irish); Leamy, Micko, Fla, Wally (retired), Yellow Card Magnet Lifeimi Mafi (some crowd of boshers in France)

In: Rob Penney (coach – Canterbury); Oooooooooooooooohh James Downey (Northampton); Casey Laulala (Cardiff); CJ Stander (Springbok underage flanker bosh factory), Sean Dougall (Rotherham)

All change at Munster. The embers of Generation Ligind which flickered out in Toulon have been blown away by the Osprey and Ulster winds of change. Since Toulon we’ve seen the exits (mostly to retirement) of Jirry, John Hayes, Micko, Denis Leamy, Wally, Ian Dowling, Barry Murphy and Tomas O’Leary and the exit from top class rugger of Marcus Horan, Strings and Stakhanov. Paul O’Connell is still going strong, but Ronan O’Gara’s form in the second half of the season was the worst he had shown in a red shirt in over a decade. Of the ligindary imports, Mafi has gone and Dougie Howlett turns 34 next month and is returning from a major injury. Add in the uncertainty over Felix Jones’ return to top form and you’ve virtually lost a first choice XV in 18 months.

The boss has gone too – Tony McGahan joining Dingo Deans team at Club Qantas Wallaby. Despite calls for a southern hemisphere big name like Wayne Smith to come in for two years to rebuild the side then hand it to Axel, former Canterbury underage coach Rob Penney will be taking the reins. Penney has a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of guy, and is already ruffling feathers, of golden child Keith Earls in the first instance (more anon).

On the playing field, the recruitment ranges from the bizarre to the intriguing. Looking at the squad from last year, you would have plotted a re-build around a core of Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, POC, Donnacha Ryan, POM, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. The strongest links there are Botha, POC and Keith Earls – with any of these three missing, it’s hard to see Munster getting the necessary wins on the road.

In Earls case, he has stated that he is sick to the back teeth of being moved around the backline, and has staked a claim to the 13 jersey as his ambition. Which makes it all the odder that Munster have recruited, and not for peanuts, former BNZ-er Casey Laulala from Cardiff – Laulala can pretty much only play 13 (though he has some experience at 12 and 11) , and it seems unlikely they have picked him for the bench. Here’s what Rob Penney had to say on that particular issue:

“In my discussions with Keith, we’ve got the ability to manage his needs and the team’s needs. Look, he’s a dedicated, committed team person. He’s made it very clear what his preference is and I respect that immensely. What we’ll endeavour to do is meet a majority of his needs within what the team needs are and hopefully he can just embrace that and get on and play for this team as well as he can so that he can further his international aspirations down the track.”

Riiiight. So Laulala will start at 13 by the looks of things. Then there is CJ Stander – this is a guy who has been earmarked as a future Springbok for a long time, who has now upped sticks to Munster to be their project player. To say it’s odd is an understatement – with all due respect to Ireland, young Afrikaaners do not grow up dreaming of wet Tuesdays with Deccie in Carton House. The likelihood is Munster have thrown a large wad of cash at him, persuaded him to put his Bok career on ice for a few years, and slotted him where they could – into the vacant project player role in this case.

It could go either way. Best case – he gives Munster the kind of go-forward carrier they lacked last season, balances the backrow well with POM and Cawlin while at 7, or Ronan and POM/Cawlin while at 6, frees up Conor Murray to carry less and pass more, and helps bring through some youngsters like Paddy Butler. The impact Pedrie Wannenbosh had at Ulster is a good comparison. Worst case – he marks the clock for two years and goes home at the first opportunity with a fatter wallet. Lets hope it’s the former. We don’t want to sound negative on it, but Stander is inexperienced and a lot is being asked of him – he’s talented and a good fit, but there is some Sykes risk in him.  It’s an unusual signing for a club which has put so much store in foreign recruits buying into what Munster rugby is all about [J. de Villiers (2009)].  There appears little chance of that with Stander.

Coming into Munster’s perennial problem position of inside centre is Oooooooooooohh James Downey, from the Saints. There are high hopes for Downey, but we fear they are too high. Downey is a pretty effective player, but he is essentially a journeyman and a one-trick-pony, and spent large chunks of last season behind Tom May in the Northampton pecking order. Even if he does play like he did in 2010-11, having a crash ball bosh merchant at 12 does not really suit either the kind of game Rob Penney apparently favours, or the galaxy of pretty decent outside backs Munster have – Earls, Zebo, Hurley, Jones and Howlett would be better served with a Paddy Wallace type at 12.  We can only presume he’ll be used in the same way that Saints deployed him, where any attempt to go wide is preceeded by a Downey smash up the middle.

On the plus side, Munster have a settled and powerful front 5, and the aforementioned outside backs. A front row of du Preez, Varley/Sherry, Botha won’t step backwards much and gets around the park a bit. The set-pieces will be solid, especially when you consider the second row combo. There isn’t much depth there, but the starters have class. Frankie has been banging the Dave Kilcoyne drum for a while – hopefully Stephen Archer and him get the chance to accumulate some experience this year in the engine room. Both South African props are technically excellent and the Irish deputies should be spongeing up as much of them as they can.  The importance of O’Connell cannot be overstated.  He’s the lightning rod in the pack, and while he’s increasingly prone to injury, when fit he’s still the best lock in Europe.  Munster need him to be available with greater frequency.

In the back three, Denis Hurley will get a chance to nail down the 15 shirt before Jones returns, and Simon Zebo will look to add more defensive solidity and greater nuance to his explosive attacking game. Howlett is the elder statesman, but he has value to add as the master of on-pitch defensive positioning – he has so much to teach the likes of Zebo and Luke O’Dea, and should be milked dry.

[Aside – our points about the props and Howlett give an insight into what foreign players can bring – add in the influence Wannenbosh had on Chris Henry, and you see it’s not all about on-field matters]

If Conor Murray reverts to his first half of 2011 form and Stander (or Butler) give the backrow a power jolt, the only other question mark is at 10. The incumbent is the mighty Ronan O’Gara, now 35. O’Gara has been the fulcrum of the Munster side for 13 years, but is finally showing signs of ageing – his effectiveness dipped markedly in the second half of last season (admittedly after a very productive first half). A new coach with a new direction would appear to be the perfect time to trial a new man and a new gameplan (in fact, on the face of it, it’s so blindingly obvious as to be the favoured course of action), but the notoriously competitive Rog is unlikely to accept being backup, nor is he likely to be diplomatic about it. Ian Keatley is presently the number 2, but he has yet to convince he has it at the highest level.

How Penney manages the succession in this key position may determine his legacy – O’Gara will probably start the season like a train in his determination to hold on to the Munster jersey until he is 58 38, but Keatley is going to get his chance sooner rather than later. If you see a Munster team line out for a HEC game with O’Gara wearing 22, postpone all other tasks – it will invariably get interesting.

On the youngster front, JJ Hanrahan is the NKOTB – he is an outhalf at present, but was a centre before his under-20 RWC performances, and it will be interesting to see what type of exposure he gets, and where. Munster have not had a settled and solid 12 since Trevor Halstead, and Hanrahan may yet be the solution there. Luke O’Dea will get more exposure on the wing, and in the pack, look out for Next Big Thing Ian Nagle, improving blindside Dave O’Callaghan and still-promising Tommy O’Donnell.

Verdict: Rob Penney looks a shrewd appointment.  His credentials are based on the number of high quality players he successfully delivered to the Canterbury Crusaders from the feeder team, as well as posing good results in the ITM Cup.  He seems to be aware that his role at Munster is to rebuild the team, but knows that it’s a results business and that Munster fans are tired at seeing Leinster win trophies and worried about Ulster stealing a march on them.

Munster are some of the way down the re-building path thanks to Ludd’s last 18 months, but where Ludd took a piecemeal, sticky-plaster approach to squad development, Penney will surely deliver something more cohesive.  But huge challenges remain, particularly at out-half.  Not only will it determine the style of play going forward, but the ease of Penney’s tenure will be largely decided by O’Gara’s attitude to his inevitable easing out.

Developing a coherent gameplan looks like the first port of call for Penney. Munster have gone from a 10-man team to all-cylinders attack to a mushy ineffective hybrid of slow ruck ball, lateral back play and first-man-out rumbles into the tackler. We never quite felt McGahan brought his vision to bear on the Munster team. With what is now a relatively inexperienced group keen to learn and improve, Penney should see his brand of rugby enacted on the field of play.  They need a sense of playing identity back – a style that becomes readily identifiable as Munster.

The fans might settle for a season which shows the groundwork for future success has been well-laid, if green shoots show well. And after the string of painful defeats in McGahan’s last two years (Toulon, Quins, Ulster, Ospreys), Munster fans will want to see their team do themselves justice in the big games.

We think it will be a difficult year, but one looked back on as the foundations of something better in retrospect. We fancy Sarries to top the HEC pool, but not with ironclad confidence – catching them is certainly not beyond Munster, but it’s likely to need O’Gara in vintage form and O’Connell 100% fit.  How they fare on the road is the big question, and the schedule has sent them to Paris in the first week to face Racing.  With Sarries still to come, they may need to return with a win.  We’re tentatively going for an Amlin excursion (but no silverware) and a top half finish (but no playoff) in the Pro12 – the absence of Micko will make it more difficult for the dirt-trackers to scratch out the kind of wins they have been getting in the last three years.  It’s the tough work that pays off in the end, and this season is about tough work for Munster – luckily the fans are on board, and Penney is likely to get an extended honeymoon period. Let’s hope they stay on board if he starts p*ssing of Radge or Keith Earls!

Santa Baby

We’re going to look at the forthcoming season for each of the provinces  in the next couple of weeks, but hot on the heels of our summer series and particularly the conclusions, we thought we’d put together a wish-list of sorts for Ireland – what we would like to see from the national team this year.

The Irish team to find a direction and a purpose

We’ve talked about this a bit already – the Ireland team is fragmented and aimless at present. The relationship with the provinces is fraught and the team suffers from a lack of vision at all levels. Lets hope that next year we see this begin to change. We won’t re-hash our arguments of earlier in the week, but you can read all about it here.

The death of the phrase “honesty of effort”

The idea that trying really really hard is something aspirational for Ireland is something that just refuses to go away. For us, it smacks of the kind of give-it-a-lash-sure-we’ll-drink-them-under-the-table-anyway attitude that prevailed for so long. We hate to state the obvious, but the players who play for Ireland are professional – it’s their job to play rugby. If they find they can’t be bothered, they will lose their jobs. Most are ambitious, and thus doing their best is a starting point.

As it should be. If this Ireland team are to have an ethos, it should be the pursuit of excellence and winning. We want the Irish rugby squad to have an ethos of being the best and asking how they achieve that. The identity and drive should be similar to the All Blacks – the aim should be to be the best. At present, playing skillful, intelligent and heads-up rugby is the way to achieve  that – so let’s do it.

This misty-eyed vision of Irish rugby possessing something special just because we try hard belongs in the amateur era, and should be challenged at all times. In fact, we’re sure the wooden spoon-accumulating teams of the 1990s also tried really hard, but they weren’t successful because they weren’t very good. Let us forget the guff and concentrate, eyes open, on winning.

A decline in inter-provincial bickering

One of the most marked features of the last decade, and particularly the last three years, has been the rise is embittered rants directed between the provinces. Friendly rivalry but collective purpose has taken a back seat to partisan and destructive thoughtlines, which are having a progressively corrosive effect on the national team.

Consider the “Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole” meme which did the rounds among non-Leinster fans for much of last season – the value of Heaslip was seen in his absence in Hamilton, and the purpose of the inital argument was merely to push forward lesser players of other provinces (note this section is being written by Egg, our resident Ulsterman, and should thus be exempt from Leinster-centric criticism). Any kind of objective assessment could conclude nothing but Jamie Heslip is Ireland’s best number 8 by a stretch. If we want to rotate and get other players test experience, great, let’s do it. But let’s do it for that reason, not because Heaslip is personally not your cup of tea.

So besides “think of the children” type hand-wringing, what can be done? Loads actually – and much of it by the IRFU and national setup. One might cringe at the “Team England” setup they have in Twickers, but the English team have an identity – they aren’t merely the best of Leicester, Sarries and Saints (or whoever), unlike Ireland. Why can’t the IRFU make its employees take part in accessible family days? Or rotate the Carton House sessions around the country – bring in Adare Manor, Inchydoney or Galgorm Manor? Bringing the players to the fans might sound corny, but it works. And imagine the reaction to the Sexton/O’Gara debate to see the pair of them posing together for pics with children, and having the craic – its tempers some bitterness already, and makes the Irish setup something more than a vehicle for provincial box-ticking.

Some way of making the Six Nations less Hooray Henry would be good as well – we understand there are bills to be paid, but is there a reason why Six Nations tickets are virtually hereditary? The Irish team are distant from the fans, and thus it’s easy for a provincial identity to dominate. Why can Fan Zones not be set up in (say) Georges Dock, the Titanic Quarter or other public areas to show games on big screens and provide a family-friendly access point?

The IRFU to embrace social media

This is easy, and embarrassingly obvious. Compared to the provinces, the use of modern media by the IRFU is laughably poor. They are virtually never on Twitter and Facebook for example. The Supporters Club is a joke – for your €50 you get a fridge magnet and a drum, then nothing – not even an e-mail to say your membership is ready for renewal. If there are returned tickets, you might get a communication, but you usually don’t. Its pretty easy to communicate events, results (of teams at all levels), messages etc – the fusty image of the IRFU is well-deserved, and moving into the 21st century might dispel some of the cigar smoke.

When we see (and be certain, we will) swathes of empty seats at the November internationals, we should ask why haven’t the IRFU shifted them? Price is a factor, but some of the answer certainly lies in fans not knowing they are there – paying money for a SC subscription and not being told tickets are available is frankly Stone Age. And even if people don’t want to pay to see the Pumas, run competitions for free tickets on social media sites, radio, internet – its a no-brainer. Fill the stadium already!

Caps for Connacht

Consider Fionn Carr (2009-11) or Gavin Duffy and Mike McCarthy this year. What do they have in common? That they haven’t picked up as many caps as their form deserved, and that they played for Connacht.

Now, let’s say you are younger player and are behind an established player in your province. You can expect start 6-8 Pro12 games a year, but are essentially waiting on an injury to stake a claim to the jersey. You are offered the chance to join Connacht – what do you say? Right now you say no. But what if you knew you could go for a pre-defined period (12 or 24 months, not a permanent move) and play 14-16 Pro12 games and 2-4 HEC/Amlin games, and would be in Ireland contention?

You might re-consider. It might benefit the likes of Luke Marshall, Paddy Butler or Jack Cooney to spend some time in Connacht, but it would amount to career suicide at present. If you could earn Ireland call-ups by playing well, then return to your home province as a genuine contender to start, it changes the dynamic – it widens the player pool, gives players experience, and broadens the national teams appeal. Connacht’s current squad is thin, and is padded out by Pacific Islanders in any case – we’re pretty sure they would welcome the cream of other provinces developing youngsters for a season or two.

Luke Fitzgerald

This is a player who peaked three years ago and has been bedevilled by uncertainty and injury ever since. Yet he is also the most naturally talented of his generation. It would be a crying shame if his boundless potential was not completely realised, and he is talented enough to be the recipient of some special project plan – the national setup and Leinster need to work out how best to utilise his ability in the long term, and plan accordingly.

Obviously, Fitzgerald himself needs to be on board too – he has spoken out before about wanting to be a fullback, but he needs to be informed that, at present, he is 3rd choice (at best) and is behind the last two ERC players of the year – a career at full-back is not going to happen. Whether it’s at 12, 13 or 11, the natural talent that he has needs to be nurtured … assuming he comes back from injuries the same player.

National Game Plans, Political Infighting and Corporate Days Out

Well, that just about wraps up our summer series.  Thanks for all the comments and interaction, we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane.  For us anyway, it wasn’t just an exercise in dewy-eyed nostalgia, but an attempt to put in a wider context where Irish rugby has found itself and how it got there.  Because, looking back, Irish rugby is in an entirely new place and experiencing something it’s never had to deal with before.

In 2012, Irish rugby is more fragmented than it’s ever been.   We’ve had spells of woeful inadequacy, but the rugby public suffered as one.  We’ve also had periods of greatness, and the joy was shared in by all.  In 2012, your view of the past season is almost certainly coloured by what province you come from.  Leinster fans had a great time.  They’ll be able to look past the national team’s failures and their memory banks will be dominated by the Heineken Cup win and great rugby their team played.  Ulster fans likewise had a memorable year.  But Munster fans had neither provincial nor international success to celebrate and probably took the national team’s ills harder  because they had little to compensate for it.

The rise of the provinces has been a key ingredient in the success of Irish rugby over the last decade – we hope this came out clearly in the eight game series.  They have pooled talent into an appropriate number of teams to ensure competitiveness, brought new fans into rugby grounds and – most importantly – given us historic days out that won’t be forgotten any time soon.  And they’ve won shedloads of silver.  The IRFU has been rightly praised for getting its structures right in that the provinces exist as entities within their own right, but ultimately feed the national team.  The idea that provincial success is now detrimental to the national team – peddled by certain journalists looking to justify a pre-conveiced opinion – is simply ridiculous.  It is nonsensical to suggest that if Leinster, Ulster and Munster were struggling to get out of their pools that Team Ireland would somehow be better off.  We reject it utterly.

The IRFU and Kidney need to make sure they don’t allow themselves to go down this path.  Indications are that they are already doing so.  It looks as if the provinces have grown to the stage where the IRFU does not know what to do with them.  In the last twelve months we’ve had the new player succession rules, some pretty spotty low-budget recruiting, and from Kidney, sounds about the provinces not generating enough match-time for certain players and how he’d ideally have the players in camp rather than competing in Cup finals.  They need to be very careful here.  French rugby is currently marooned in a club vs. country wasteland.  In the last Six Nations they won two of five games and the Top 14 was unwatchable this year.  If France – with its huge player pool, wonderful history, passionate supporter base and superb youth sports programs – can be brought so low by political in-fighting, what chance does a small country like Ireland have?

So much commentary (including our own) is fixated on Kidney’s selection and tactics, but there is a bigger picture: if Deccie is going to see the provinces as a nuisance to be battled with, then he has no chance of succeeding.  Our understanding is that his relationship with the provincial coaches is close to negligible.  This is a road doomed to failure.  The coach who does succeed will be the one who can harness what the provinces are doing for his own gain.

It is tempting at this point to rush towards Muddy Williams’ touted concept of the ‘national game plan’, apparently the approach taken in New Zealand.  But such notions appear fanciful, in the medium term at least.  The Irish talent pool just isn’t deep enough.  The coaches at Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht each have to cut their cloth according to what’s available.  For example, Ireland has just two top-grade fly-halves, and they play and see the game very differently.  Each is good enough to have the team’s style of play built around their talents.  But it would be bizarre to tell Rob Penney to make Munster play more like Leinster, or to ask Schmidt to get Sexton to kick the corners a bit more.   Their jobs are tough enough as it is.  And who decides what the national game plan is anyway?  Presumably the national team coach.  So, Kidney telling Schmidt how to play rugby?  It sounds like a practical joke.  It just doesn’t seem workable on any level.

There’s no obvious solution, but it’s hard to escape the thought that Kidney could do more to embrace what’s happening in provinces, especially Leinster.  But just as Eddie O’Sullivan was unwilling to follow a Munster-based approach in spite of picking so many of their number, Kidney seems to be trying to get players who clearly so enjoy what they do at provincial level to play a very different way.  Throw in his mantra-like repetition of the venerated status of test rugby, and you’re looking at a coach that’s increasingly stubborn and embattled.  It’s no platform for success.  Kidney needs help from the IRFU here, too.  It would help if the provinces didn’t feel they were being dictated to in terms of who they can play and when.  All that said, both Joe Schmidt is on record as having welcomed the ‘increased dialogue’ between national and provincial coaches last week, while Rob Penney enjoyed a ‘robust talk’ with Kidney on arriving at Munster.  Maybe the tide is turning, slowly.

Secondly, the players, Kidney and the IRFU need to make an investment to win back an increasingly disillusioned support base.  If the IRFU is wondering why the provinces have such pulling power, they might just take a look at the product they provide: cheap, accessible tickets to tightly packed grounds, family-friendly set-ups, a strong bond with the players, away trips to the South of France and great rugby towns like Bath and Northampton.  Little wonder that the more corporate, expensive and often dull Six Nations is not terribly attractive.  Casting one’s mind back over the last few years, you have to go back to 2007 to recall the last genuinely thrilling Six Nations.  Sure, the 2009 Grand Slam was incredible, but looking at it objectively, it wasn’t a classic series by any means.

Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days.  Tom Fox wrote in a recent piece for Setanta that nobody really ‘owns’ the national team.  Fans will never allow their provincial team to be slagged by another team’s mob (go onto any of the fans’ forums for proof), but everyone is happy to dump on the national team.  There are easy scapegoats for all.  Leinster and Ulster fans blame the coach no matter what, while Munster fans see a Leinster-dominated team and blame the players.  It’s tiresome.  Some effort needs to be made to bring a bit of fun, a bit of excitement into the national team.

When you watch YouTube videos of Shaggy’s try in Twickenham or BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, there’s a sense that they were more innocent times and that something’s been lost.  It’s a sad day when suporters see the Six Nations, such a great old tournament with such rich history, as something to be got over.  In 2008, after Munster almost beat the Kiwis, ROG said that ‘maybe we need to buy into the green shirt a bit more’.  And maybe the same applies to the fans today.  We could all do with falling in love with the national team again.  But the powers that be have to make it easier for us.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Eight

The Match: Ireland 21 South Africa 23, 6 November 2010

What it Defined: Ireland’s inability to build on the 2009 Grand Slam

The State of Play

Following Ireland’s miracle 2009 – Grand Slam in the locker, plethora of Lions selections, out-muscling of the Springboks, zero defeats – it was inevitable that they wouldn’t maintain that standard.

In the following year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s efforts were considered a failure by the standards they had set for themselves over previous years. In a season when you visit Paris and London, three wins is par, but when one of your defeats is at home to a previously-winless Scotland in a game you were playing to win the Triple Crown, it puts a different spin on things.

There were three notable take-aways from the championship, and the most important was last – in that Scotland game we saw the first glimpse of Ireland throwing the ball laterally across the line for little gain. Going wide at every opportunity now seemed to be in vogue, but Ireland appeared to have little idea of what to do with the ball. In the Scotland game, the Jocks couldn’t believe their luck, and dominated the breakdown. Previous to this, there were commendable efforts to expand the gameplan, and Ireland had no problem scoring tries – 11 in total, and 3 each for Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. However, most of the scores were off first phase set-piece ball, and you got the impression these moves would eventually be found out.

Secondly, the back and forth switching between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton started. ROG started the first two games, then Sexton the next three (after Sexton finished the November internationals as incumbent). This, amazingly, continued for the two years up to and including the World Cup – the lack of clarity in a key position seemed indicative of a drift in purpose.

Thirdly, Ireland’s rock solid discipline from 2009 (apart from the Wales game) was showing signs of breaking down. In Paris, Ireland had somehow withstood a furious start from the French to still be in the game when Jerry Flannery aimed a reckless fly-hack at Alexis Pallison – he somehow avoided a red card, but Ireland conceded two tries with him in the bin, where he joined Cian Healy who had already seen yellow for a shameless and lazy tug on Morgan Parra.

In their home games against Wales and Scotland, Ireland repeatedly gave away penalties. It took until very late to put Wales away as Stephen Jones hoovered up three-point opportunities, then, in the Scotland game, Dan Parks punished repeated offending to kick Scotland to victory – the mindless boos surrounding his winning kick encapsulated a frustrating campaign.

That June, Ireland went to the Southern Hemisphere to play New Zealand, NZ Maori and Oz. They lost all three games, but it wasn’t a tour wasted. A horrendous sequence of injuries meant a raft of young and up-and-coming players got gametime – and most did well for themselves – even Ed O’Donoghue.  Okay, maybe not Ed O’Donoghue, but the point stands.

In the New Zealand test, Ireland were reduced to 14 men after 10 minutes and were 31 points down at half-time. Yet, in a contrast to this years Hamilton test, they rallied and ended up scoring 4 tries; only the second time NZ have conceded 4 in their last 50 games (the other being the Bledisloe Cup game in HK last summer). Then Australia had great difficulty in shaking off the tourists in the final game, winning by 7 after trailing for much of the frst half.

Ireland may have gone 0-3, but it looked like they had engineered a good position to build upon after a difficult, but ultimately fruitful, tour.  They also looked to be finding their feet with regard to the ‘new game’.  Kidney and Kiss talked about rugby being a ‘game of keep-ball’ and of defending the ‘two-second ruck’.

Next year, Leinster started the season like Thomas the Tank Engine with three defeats from four (the time Joe Schmidt lost the dressing room according to G. Hook), but were building up to Stephenson’s Rocket by the time the November series rolled up – they had started the HEC in seriously formidable fashion, and Tullow man Sean O’Brien and the finally fit Mike Ross had been hugely impressive. The series would be Ireland’s first in the spanking new Palindrome, but the Old Farts had disastrously misread the rugby public – obscenely expensive packaged tickets put off many punters, and the opening game, against a Springbok side itching for revenge following a series of defeats to Ireland, was far from a sell-out.

The Irish media, meanwhile, were delighted with themselves – there was nary a dissenting voice – Ireland would comfortably dispatch an injury-hit South Africa and be all set for NZ 2 weeks later. Matty Williams has identified this as the point when Irish rugby got into the comfort zone – confidence turned to arrogance, and the need to constantly grow was left behind. At the time, this half of WoC (Egg) felt like Scrooge for doggedly insisting this South Africa team weren’t going to roll over and have their tummies tickled, but was in a small minority.

The Game

The alarm bells began to ring even louder when the Ireland selection was revealed – the message was clear – out with the new and in with the old. The tightheads were Mushy and Tom Court, tyro second rows Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner were ignored for O’Callaghan and Micko, and a woefully out-of-form Denis Leamy got picked on the bench ahead of O’Brien – Deccie was going with what he knew.

The tourists may have been missing the likes of Francois Steyn, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez, but they came out strong and hungry – the Irish barely saw the ball for the first quarter, and when they did, were guilty of simple errors. One such was Eoin Reddan’s telegraphed pass off a line-out, which was snaffled up by the wily-but-not-exactly-Usain-Bolt Juan Smith for an intercept try from halfway.

Fly half Jonny Sexton’s radar wasn’t functioning for Ireland, in stark contrast to the metronomic Morne, and by the time Gio Aplon finished in the corner with 15 to go, Ireland were 23-9 down and looking well-beaten. To their credit, they took advantage of the Springboks taking their foot off the pedal, and substitute Radge inspired two late tries, and almost nailed the difficult conversion for the draw. However, it was too little too late, and a disappointing performance.

The teams:

Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Best, Buckley; O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip

South Africa: Aplon; Basson, Kirchner, de Villiers, Habana; M. Steyn, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis; Botha, Matfield; Stegmann, Smith, Spies

The Aftermath

The game saw Ireland descend into the cycle of inconsistency, indecision and unclear gameplans which culminated in the Hamilton disaster.

The following week, back in the Aviva (someone had to pay for it!), Ireland struggled past Samoa – Sean O’Brien and Devin Toner, calling the lineouts on his debut, came into the side, but Ross sat it out again – John Hayes resuming familiar duty on the tighthead side. New Zealand completed a routine 20 point victory the next week, then Ireland had one of those nasty and mean-spirited Pumas games to round off the series – they won, but it’s difficult to look good when your opponents only want to fight. The series had left Ireland looking tired and devoid of inspiration, with the management seemingly hunkering down with the team as it was for the World Cup.

The 2011 Six Nations campaign started with a flirt with ignominy – Ireland deserved to lose in Rome, but were rescued by Mirco Bargamasco’s unreliable boot and some late poise from ROG. They lose at home to France, beat Scotland in a drudge-fest, then lost to Wales in one of the most mindless performances from Ireland in recent years – the ball was kicked away over 50 times, and they looked entirely devoid of attacking ideas. They conceded a try from a shocking piece of umpiring, but, to be truthful, they didn’t deserve to win. All of which left them needing to win at home to England to even get close to par for the tournament.

This was their best performance since the Springbok win in 2009 – full of poise, aggression and attacking intent. It looked like they had finally turned a corner and were moving forward again The early Mike Ross (now one of Deccie’s untouchables following Mushy’s inability to make it through 80 minutes in a Wolfhounds game) scrum followed by Sexton and Earls attack felt like a keystone moment. Allied to the form of Leinster in Europe, it seemed Ireland were going to approach the World Cup with a confident, heads-up approach.

It was better late than never, but it was hard not to be rueful of a missed opportunity.  Ireland had left it until the last game of the series to get their best team on the pitch and by now frustration with Declan Kidney’s selection policy was in full swing.  The way Ross and O’Brien went from being persona non grata in the Autumn to 80-minute key players spoke of a lack of joined-up thinking on behalf of the management.  It was not as if they had not been on the radar in the Autumn – indeed, there was a loud clamour for both of them to be given proper exposure to test rugby, but it dadn’t happen.  How could they have missed something so obvious – that Ross was vastly superior to Buckley, Court and Hayes in the key position of tighthead prop?

The World Cup turned out to be more of the same, confirming Ireland’s as a team which flatters to deceive, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous in every series of games. From almost losing to Italy to spanking England in that tournament, in the World Cup warm-ups it was a desperate defeat to Scotland (admittedly with a scratch side) followed by nearly winning in Bordeaux.

In the tournament itself, Ireland failed to get a bonus point from the USA, then followed that up with a purposeful and aggressive destruction of Australia, Tri-Nations champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites, in Auckland. Ireland were blessed by good fortune with the conditions and injuries to the Australian pack, but it was a tactical masterclass.  That was followed by yet more chopping and changing at out-half, and a smooth and smart win over Italy. Confidence was high going into the quarter-final against Wales, but Ireland flopped. O’Gara was in, and he had one of his worst days in green. Wales were wise to the ball-carrying of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris and chopped them by the legs on the gain-line, and Ireland sank without trace in the second half.

A curate’s egg, then, no doubt about it – which was the real Ireland? The one who ruthlessly destroyed the Wallaby forwards, or the one swatted aside by (an admittedly top class) Wales? The sense of an opportunity of a lifetime passed up was (and is) strong – Wales went on to lose to an uninspired France side, who then put the heart across New Zealand, whose reponse to pressure was typically frenzied, albeit that they scraped over the line this time.

Perhaps the answers would come in 2012 – the coaching team got a re-jig, with a new three-pronged attack coach (mostly Les Kiss) replacing Gaffney, a new manager and Axel pinched from Munster for the injured Gert Smal. The attack functioned well enough after an inauspicious start, but Mick Kearney managed to alienate officialdom by implying they had no confidence in Wayne Barnes following his binning of Fez in the first game. Axel promised a fresh approach akin to that he had been working on in Munster, but lapsed into moaning about refs (a tiresome and increasingly desperate ploy from the Irish management) almost immediately.

Following a HEC campaign which saw three Irish provinces make the knock-out stages for the first time, confidence was high for the Six Nations. But the same problems remained – almost beating France in the re-fixed Stade game was merely a portend for a craven capitulation in Twickers where the lack of depth at tighthead was cruelly exposed by the English. By now every Kidney team selection was being greeted with howls of derision.  It appeared the coach was ploughing on regardless – of the 19 players selected, all 4 changes were injury-enforced, with no tactical or rotational changes at all. Donncha O’Callaghan, who had fallen to 4th in the Munster lock pecking order, started every game. It was indicative of the lack of direction of the team and an increasingly embattled management team digging their heels further and further into the ground.

No-one will forget what happened after that – two Irish provinces made it to the HEC final, yet the national team performance graph was more volatile than ever, swinging from almost beating New Zealand in the Second Test with a display of calculated power and poise, to losing 60-0 a week later. Meanwhle, the coach cut a desolate figure, resorting to taking pot shots at Ulster over the lack of experience of the reserve tighthead, and hunkering down for his last year.

This is where Ireland are at now – a player group low on confidence, without a discernable medium-term plan and seemingly unimpressed with the coaching ticket. Yet it’s a player group high on skill, high on intelligence and heavy with medals.  Scratching for 8th place in the world is not reflective of its ability.  It’s a similar place to where they were when Deccie took over.

How can Ireland put the type of long-term structures in place to maximise achievement on the international stage? How can they move on from the boom-bust cycle, briefly punctured in 2007 and 2009, that has characterised the team since 2000? How can the governing authorities modernise the sport at national level, where the inaccessiblity and eye-scratching dross of the national team contrast sharply to the provinces, motivated as they are by the ruthlessly commercial and Darwinian HEC scene?

If this sounds like a lament for a lost lover, it should – after Ireland reached their pinnacle in 2009, they have generally flattered to deceive and are a teasing frustration for the fans.  Someone needs to put a bit of sparkle into the national team.