Cultural Learnings from the Pro12

Lucky Generals

Ulster had a neat win over Connacht on Friday night, built largely off their imposing pack – the Westerners scrum was demolished and the breakdown was owned by the Ulstermen. Still, they only scored three tries, and rarely managed to get their silky backs on the ball in the Connacht 22. For all their power, they still lack some fluidity, which is a mild concern when bonus points are so important in the HEC and Castres at home is such a clear candidate for one. Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson both had decent games, but neither grabbed it by the scruff of the neck to really capitalise on their pack’s dominance – Ulster look in need of a general in the halfbacks. Of course, Ruan Pienaar will be back, but he is surely going to be rested for the Castres game, and probably the Glasgae one too. Fez and Chris Henry getting up to full power will help too, with setting targets and linking play respectively. Let’s not worry just yet, but monstrous packs without domineering halves is not a recipe for silverware (see: Clermont, Northampton).

He Did the Mash.  He Did the Monster Mash

As for Nick Williams, the monster-man keeps eating up the yardage.  If he can stay on this level, Ulster have got themselves the signing of the year.  More astute observers than ourselves pointed out we were too dismissive of him in our pre-season analysis.  The only question is: can he sustain it?  We’re not eating humble pie just yet but we’ve the oven at 180 and we’re rolling out the pastry.

HEC Build-up

We’ll be starting our HEC previews this week, but how did the provinces opponents do this week? Exeter will go to the RDS with a pep in their step after a bonus point 42-28 win over Premiership champions Quins. Connacht’s opponents Zebre lost (again), this time at home to the Ospreys – they have yet to win a game in their new incarnation, but there is no doubt they will be targeting Connacht. Result of the week in France was Castres win over Clermont – but the perennial HEC bunnies were at home and playing domestically – lets see how many of that XV line up in Ravers on Friday night. Fellow bosh-merchants, and Ligind hosts Racing Metro lost at home to best-of-the-rest Montpellier on Saturday – they’ll be looking to grind Munster into the dirt up front, and tot up points in 3s.

Referee Rant

We hate to come over all Gerry, but the standard of refereeing the 2 inter-pros left a lot to be desired – first uber-pedant Clancy on Friday night, then some laughable ineptitude from the Aviva officials on Saturday. Two incidents in particular rankled:

  • Just prior to Ulster’s penalty try, Clancy binned Dave Gannon for collapsing a maul. Ulster motored over in the next phase (roughly concurrent to Clancy blowing the whistle, but before Connacht had stopped playing), so had he played advantage they would have scored. The penalty try rule says this: “A penalty try is awarded if a try would probably have been scored but for foul play by the defending team.” – given that the probability of Ulster scoring a try was 100% (they did get over), why didn’t Clancy give one? They (inevitably) got one a few phases later, but that is not the point,
  • Conor Murray sniped round the side of a pile of forwards and dotted down effortlessly right under the nose of the touchjudge. Literally, right under his nose. So why did he need to go upstairs? It’s bad enough when pushover tries don’t get given because the referee abdicates responsibility to a man who simply cannot see a grounding, but sending such obvious incidents upstairs is just incompetent – make the decisions you get paid for, guys.

Note: the Pro12 still operates under the old rules, so the ref could not have gone upstairs for the later Laulala no-try – it would probably the wrong call, but that’s just plain old bad call as opposed to megalomania/incompetence.

[Aside: to the Premiership] Ooooooooooooooooohhh

After the Ulster game on Friday night, we switched to Sky to watch the last 20 minutes of Sale-Leicester. Holy Lord, how bad are the Sharks? And what is Richie Grey doing there? The standard of rugby was terrible, and we saw pretty much every type of unforced error from the Northerners in an embarrassingly short spell. Leicester dealt with them with ease, and will be pleased to have such an easy lead-in to another shocker of a HEC pool.

McFadden and Earls – Ireland’s next centre partnership?

Saturday night’s entertaining derby match was enlivened by two strong performances from Ireland’s in-waiting centre partnership.  McFadden had perhaps his best game for Leinster, looking a more rounded player than ever before.  We all know he’s a dervish in contact and quick once he gets going, but his distribution looked a notch up from its usual fair-to-middling standard.  He’s likely to be shifted to the wing next week, given Leinster’s injury crisis in the outside back division and the impending return of Gordon D’arcy, but this showing at 12 will have been noted by his coaches.

In Paul O’Connell’s absence, Keith Earls has become Munster’s best player.  Always a lethal runner, he has added excellent passing to his reportoire and now looks at home in the 13 channel.  Munster’s best chance of progressing from the pool is to try and get him and Simon Zebo on the ball as often as they can.  To be fair, it looks like that’s how Penney has them set up, albeit with a kicking fly-half.  Which bring us along to…

Penney’s Out Half Conundrum

For the second week in a row, Munster looked more threatening once Rog was replaced by Ian Keatley.  Keatley’s the man in form and looks more geared to play the Penney way, playing as he does, flat on the gainline.  Penney should have started him against Leinster.  If he is to pit Keatley into action from the start in next week’s increasingly significant looking game against Racing Metro, he does so without any previous exposure to high intensity rugby.  This was the ideal opportunity to give him the chance to audition for the shirt.  We expect ROG to line out against Racing, the old head for the sleeves-rolled-up away assignment.  Keatley’s first Heiny Cup start could come the following week, in the more forgiving environs of a home game against Edinburgh.

Transition Time

After Munster’s excellent start to the Pro12, some of our more excitable followers posited that the transition had happened in Rob Penney’s two-week pre-season. Sadly, that has been exposed for the wishful thinking it was. With only Paul O’Connell to return (who is admittedly huge, but not a miracle worker), their pack is looking unfit for the purpose of getting their electric backs on the ball.

Dave Kilcoyne might be able to carry, but in the tight he is a wet blanket. Peter O’Mahony simply does not yet have the ball-carrying skills for an 8, and (as we suggested it would) the hype of last year has done him a disservice – a hard year’s work nailing down a shirt (probably 6) and learning his trade is required. Donnacha Ryan is an able worker, but no sort of replacement for POC – he hasn’t yet got to the stage where he can drag a team on his own will. There is a lot of work to be done, and its a multi-year job.  They’re on the right track for sure, but patience is still the order of the day.

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16 Comments

  1. Peter Gaughan

     /  October 8, 2012

    WOC In the incident that you referred to in the Ulster Connacht game, the try was disallowed because of obstruction by the Ulster player who bound on to the ball carrier in front of the ball.
    I would be more concerned about the actual pen try that he awarded, the scrum was not going forward all that happened was that court had slipped his bind (again) and the probability of a try being scored in that instance was nil, yet he awarded a try.
    It may well have been putting off the inevitable , but in that instance the awarding of a pen try was clearly wrong.

  2. I too am not a fan of focusing on the ref, but Clancy was very poor. Poor for both teams, though, there were a number of incidents where he should have pinged Ulster but didn’t, but it seemed the bigger incidents went in Connacht’s favour when they shouldn’t have.

    But for Clancy Ulster would have had their BP by half time, and they were lucky to have only one YC in the match.

    • We hate ref-baiting as well, and have castigated Gerry for it in the past. But in this instance, we made an exception – Clancy was appalling.

  3. Rava

     /  October 8, 2012

    As usual, good stuff guys. On Ulster I expect Pienaar to be at least on the bench for the Castres game. Not sure he would need a two week break.
    Williams may be struggling to be fit for this weekend but I think there is enough cover in the back row.
    Its worth pointing out that Clermont rested a few players at the weekend and had a couple of injuries.

    • Yup. Clermont in a similar position to Leinster…less injuries but a few older squad players, who will have to be managed if they are to have a proper tilt at either or both trophies. I still feel they are better-placed squad-wise than Leinster right now…but, if Leinster can hang on in the competion until the new year (when they get players back), it will be different.
      Ultimately, the two strongest squads in the competition are Toulouse and Toulon. If the latter doesn’t have eyes only for the boucle, they could go all the way. Worth an each-way bet at 8/1 maybe.

    • Pienaar essentially hasn’t had a rest since he joined Ulster (10/11 – RWC11 – 11/12 – RC) – it may not be the best long-term to pitch him straight back into the team, even acknowledging how well he has been performing. If Ulster are to go very far again, we will need Pienaar at his very sharpest for the business end of the season.

  4. B

     /  October 8, 2012

    Conn fan here was not impressed with Williams tbh, Marmion gobbled him up at least twice when Williams attempted to bring the ball away from the back of the scrum, an 8 of his density should not allow that to happen. Also maybe mcsharry and the rest of the conn backs are just really strong but i thought that for a player of his size he was kept under control fairly effectively.

  5. Anonymous

     /  October 9, 2012

    Don’t think rog should be shifted as first choice for munster for a while yet, but madigan must surely be close to literally passing him out in green. I read les kiss (in an interesting article in the IT at the weekend to do with Barcelona’s tactics) talking about players picking when to pass short and long. It is hard when watching live and you only see it once, but the long pass for o’driscoll’s try looked terrific. It gave bod the room to score and I’m not sure many other players could have pulled it off. I know he was playing from 15 and may have had one or two minor wobbles, but big deal – the good far outweighed the bad and as an audition for Sexton’s understudy it went very well.

    Think your description of ulster lacking “fluidity” is the perfect word. Against munster I thought Jackson showed potential in the way he just kept it simple and built phases. It worked for him then, but it didn’t really flow on Friday. He is developing nicely overall though. RP will give them more fluidity when back (his breadth of skills means he nearly acts as the scrum half and fly half on his own). Take your point about resting him, but not sure I agree. Can they afford to leave him out on the biggest games? There may not be bigger games later if they do now! Anscombe sounds intent on adding that flair judging by the post match interviews. He had a fair old go at both teams!

    You are spot on about their difficulties gettin bonus points. Even when they got one against the tigers last year it was cautious. Ulster were winning and had a penalty with 2, maybe 3 tries on the board. Muller opted to kick at the sticks. To my mates’ amusement I walked out as I couldn’t believe they’d do that when the bp was so crucial. They got the extras later of course so there can be no argument and the joke was on me, but I’m still not sure that mindset is the best way forward in Europe.

    • Ultra Sur

       /  October 9, 2012

      Just to expand on your point re Madigan, I remember Rob Kearney being exceptionally dodgy at 15 early on (he had one season where I was sure he wasn’t going to make it) and let’s not forget he served a long apprenticeship under the Blue Baron.

      Madigan is one of those players with that x factor and it may just be his most useful position to Leinster is 15 or even wing if he can learn he ropes. In defence, the opposition will be kicking to a dangerman rather than a punt merchant and, let’s face it, he’s not going to be worse at last man than Kearney. In attack, he’s a very useful 2nd playmaker, particularly given situations where he takes the ball on at the full back position. He is shit quick, has a nose for the try line and a savage pass. He’s not afraid of the physical stuff. I’d argue Leinster should be getting him on the pitch if at all possible.

      • Ultra Sur

         /  October 9, 2012

        * “In attack, he’s a very useful 2nd playmaker, particularly given situations where he takes the ball on at the full back position” – I mean in the attacking line rather than fielding catches

      • whiffofcordite

         /  October 9, 2012

        I had this very thought at the game on Saturday night. Madigan’s error for the try really reminded of Kearney in the early days when he used to have a tendency to try nd force things a bit. It culminated in a couple of high profile mistakes against Edinburgh (intercept try) and Toulouse (turnover try). But he learned from it and came back better.

      • Considering Madigan’s attributes that you list (pace, passing, second playmaker), should he be given a run at inside centre?

    • I don’t think you can really argue that ROG should retain the 10 shirt at Munster while saying Madigan is passing him in green. If Madigan is moving up to or ahead of O’Gara, the logic would follow that Keatley is too.
      Keatley and Madigan have had a fairly parallel season so far; they’ve both played all 6 games, they’ve both started from 10 and 15, they’ve both scored two tries and, remarkably, they’ve both taken 15 kicks at goal (Keatley has missed only one, Madigan two). The only thing to separate them on paper is Keatley’s two drop-goals against Ulster.
      Considering that Munster are settling into a new way of playing with new coaches, it makes Keatley’s start to the season all the more impressive.

  6. Anonymous

     /  October 10, 2012

    RE the Transition period and the Munster pack, you seem to have left out the arrival of CJ Stander, who will add some much needed ball carrying ability to the pack

    • Fair point. There’s also James Coughlan to return from injury, who’s an important player. There’s a lot of faith (hope?) being put in CJ Stander being the panacea to Munster’s back row worries, though, and we’re lothe to get too excited about a player who hasn’t even pitched up in Limerick yet and is still something of a rookie.

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