Good Week, Bad Week

We feel like Gerry when discussing the Ireland side – is there ever a dull weekend in the HEC? This weekend’s action was unmissable from first to last – from the new Willie John McBride, Iain Henderson, to the two Sunday games in la sud de France, it never stopped. What do we think?

McCafferty Gets it Wrong

Quelle surprise, one might say. McCafferty’s argument that the uncompetitive nature of the Pro12 allows the Celts to target the HEC games,which (naturally) disadvantages the English was hilariously undermined by his own clients. Saracens absolutely thrashed last years semi-finalists Embra on their own turf, while the Saints came back from what looked like the dead to beat Glasgow, also with a bonus point. Quins overcame the loss of Nuck Ivans to get their own 5-pointer against boring bosh-merchants Biarritz, putting them firmly in control of their pool (and it’s only Round One!). Even Sale, winless domestically, managed to win a game.  But the Premiership performance of the weekend was arguably Exeter Chiefs, who went to the RDS and did everything but beat double champions Leinster – they were desperately unlucky to come away empty-handed.

Over Before It Begins?

This weekend saw the flattest pair of Leinster and Munster displays in Europe in a very long time. And now both are up against the wall, facing must-win games next week. If Leinster lose to the Scarlets and get a bonus point, they will have 5 points. With the maximum realistic achievable points tally against Clermont another 5, that would leave them needing 10 from their last two games to give themselves a shot at qualification – a tall order even if they are back at their best. But that assumes Clermont will win in Exeter, and that won’t be easy.  We said it already; Round Two in this pool is going to be defining.

In Munster’s case, not only did they let Racing back into the game – twice – but Saracens full tally in Embra means Munster simply cannot lose when the Scots come to town.

Leinster badly need some oomph, a bit of wallop.  They’re not an especially big team and nor are they especially quick.  They don’t have a Nick Williams type figure that they can repeatedly go to for big carries.  Nor do they have a Timbo Visser they can work the ball to in wide channels to wreak havoc.  They’re all about accuracy – both at the breakdown and in their passing.  When they get it right, they reach a pace and skill level that no team can live with, but when they’re off their game they don’t have much else to fall back on.  They just have to keep trying.  On this occasion, their performance was reminiscent of the last season under Cheika, and eerily similar to the defeat to London Irish, and almost had a similar outcome.

Allez Les Big French Trois

Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont.  Les grandes French teams cest up and running.  Clermont and Toulon got themselves le bonus point wins at home, while Toulouse, without being particularly brilliant, ground Leicester into the dirt in manky conditions.  They lack the flair of past vintages, but they remain a credible force.  And they’ve an 18 year old kiddo (Gael Fickou) at centre who announced himself emphatically with a memorable try.  All three are going to be big threats.  As pour le reste, Castres et Montpellier offered up their usual resistance, but Racing Metro somehow sneaked a win.  We’ve always suspected Olly Barkley was a better player than he’s given credit for, and he was the coolest man in the ground, and the matchwinner, if not quite playing in the style to which he has become known.

Ulster on the march… just about

They did their best not to deliver a bonus point, but ultimately, Castres let Ulster have one with one of the silliest pieces of play we’ve ever seen.  Those who can remember back as far as the 2007/08 season might recall a fairly frazzled Leinster doing precisely the same thing against Toulouse.  All that said, it wasn’t a bad effort considering they had a stitched together back row, with only Chris Henry close to being a first team regular.  The match was notable for a couple of performances.  Paul Marshall is an absolute livewire.  Can they leave him out?  And Iain Henderson had a Heineken Cup debut to remember.  Big carries, big hits, bags of pace and all while out of position and at just 20 years old.  We don’t want to overhype him, but… dude is going to be some player.

It’s Open

Last year Clermont were the only credible challengers to Leinster.  Too many others were out of sorts, bedevilled by injury or in a ‘transitional period’.  Not this season.  For a start, Leinster look a notch below last season’s level, but there are plenty of sides who could go on to win it.  We’ll know a bit more next week, but right now Harlequins, Saracens, Ulster, Northampton, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont and perhaps Ospreys all look capable of going the distance.  Leicester and Munster won’t rule themselves out despite poor starts.  It could be the best Heineken Cup in years.

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18 Comments

  1. Aird

     /  October 15, 2012

    The questionis not can Ulster leave him out,as they certainly can with Ruane on the bench but can Kidney continue to ignore him. Think what he could bring to the party with a entry from the bench on 60 minutes.
    I know Ruane was only on for 15 mins last Friday night, and had not really had a lot of time to assimilate the new regime under,Mark Anscombe but he exuded pure class as he glided through the game.
    On the point of Mark Ancombe, perhaps the Dublin Press owe a bit of an apology to Messrs Humphrey’s and Logan as their decision to bring in Mark does not lookalike a total disaster after all. I know it could have perhaps handled a bit more sensitively but the press launched the story rather than waiting for an announcement from Ulster.

    • Xyz

       /  October 15, 2012

      Can Kidney leave him out? Hahaha, good one.

    • I’m not sure Anscombe got unfair press – it was a matter of record that his coaching CV was patchy. Most of the comment (including ours) was along the lines of: left-field appointment, not inspiring, lets hope Humph know what he is doing. And as for McLaughlin, there was a recognition that he was treated pretty shabbily, but also that it seemed like a good time to take Ulster to the next level – criticism for Humph and Logan was jusitified in terms of how it broke.

      Fair enough I think.

  2. Xyz

     /  October 15, 2012

    I really enjoyed the Ulster match – as you said, Marhsall was electric but I thought the half back pairing were both firing on all cylinders. My first time seeing Ulster this season so maybe I’m getting excited about old news here, but those guys looked dangerous.

    Leinster were difficult to watch, indeed. (On the plus side I got to listen to Sky’s incrediblly biased commentray. My favourite was at some point in the second half when it was confidently noted that Leinster were really starting to impose themselves on this game as they were clearly doing no such thing.)

    I suppose this is the other side of the “Rabo Advantage” – late season readiness comes at the price of being under cooked early on? Obviously compounded with injury problems for Leinster.

    Missed most of the Munster game but read George Hook’s write up so feel I’m in command of a full set of unbiased insights there….

    • whiffofcordite

       /  October 15, 2012

      Yep, George’s insights will serve you well. ROG’s Irish contract should be extended because he’s the only alternative to Sexton for Ireland apparently. And Stringer too. Top marks George, top marks.

      • Paddy Logan

         /  October 15, 2012

        If you re-read his last paragraph I think you need to delete Ireland and insert Cork in order for it to make any sense. Did he watch the Ulster match. Just because Murray is rubbish (it didn’t take most of us ’til Saturday to work it out) doesn’t mean we don’t have some decent 9s (Reddan, Strings, Marshall, Boss) That said, I have never got so far through one of grumbly George’s articles before I felt an overwhelming urge to smash something.

        Also, thought Paddy Jackson looked very assured. Defence solid as ever but great kicking from hand and tee and some glimpses of good distribution. ROG did what he does best then Keatley undid all of his good work from the start of the season. Munster were shockingly inept – did Penney really encourage them to continue throwing the ball around at half-time when what was required was a couple of trademark rumbles then kick for the corners?

        • Ah now – Murray is very talented, he just isn’t in good form, and looks like he is recovering still from a lack of direction at both provincial and national level last season.

          Penney seemed to repudiate the second half tactics didn’t he? I can’t actually find the interview, but I do recall reading it!

  3. Aird

     /  October 15, 2012

    Slightly mis read my point or perhaps not clear enough on my part, my criticism was of they way the Dublin press had a go at Humphreys and Logan having in fact crated the situation largely themselves, the late but not lamented Indo reporter in particular. The writing was on the wall when McGlock was only given a one year renewal of his coaching role the previous year.
    I am not taking anything away from his achievements just saying that perhaps as things have transpired the decision has been much more effective than the “experts” predicted and forecast. Anscombe was obviously even then a no hoper as he had been entrusted with the Baby Blacks role by the NZRU. I am also aware thatwiththe talent availbale it would have been difficult for MA not to succeed.
    No comment necessary on Rob Penny’s record.

  4. zdm

     /  October 15, 2012

    Last season’s notion that Ulster were a group of plucky young upstarts hauled up by some Saffa grunt never held any water around Ravers.
    For me, the key is that there are very few dirt trackers in the Ulster team. The drop off from the ideal 15 to the back-ups is quite shallow, case in point on the wings, where the drop from Trimble/Bowe to Gilroy is only augmented by experience.

    The experience of getting humped by Leinster in the HC final seems to have done Ulster the world of good – at the time, I’dve sold my left kidney for an Ulster win but Jackson, who was like a frightened school boy during the final, looks ice-cold this season.

    Ulsters target has to be a pro-12 play-off and a HC semi. Key for this season is to show that they are not just a flash in the pan.

    • Bowe Gathers

       /  October 16, 2012

      Totally agree with this – boys like Henderson, Macklin, the Marshalls and even Stevenson are putting hands up. This isn’t a squad of Saffer talent which carries the poor Northen lads, this is a squad of Irish talent augmented by Saffers. Not that any of them are likely to play in green any time soon.

    • The problem is that in key positions (loose-head prop, out-half, openside) the drop-offs are huge.

      I think Ulster’s HEC target should be a semi via a home QF – knockout rugby at Ravers is a step forward I think. The semi draw is too random to predict, but play in the Aviva against anyone and they’ll be confident.

      • LarryMilne

         /  October 17, 2012

        All positions are key positions, most of them just don’t look it until you have an absolute spanner making a hamish of the thing.

        On the depth, you’re maybe forgetting that if we get to a HEC final and Paddy Jackson is injured then Niall O’Connor won’t play ten, Ruan will, and NO’C is third choice (and a good third, he’s done OK this year). Scratch that, Paddy Wallace would even play ahead of NO’C.

        I agree on LHP, it’s a shame McAllister got crocked as he has the makings of a big beast in the one shirt.

        Openside? Chris Henry is the most important player to Ulster right now, and possibly was last year as well. We’re not the same without him – testament both to what comes behind (young Doyle, average McComish – better than what we’ve seen before, rancid McComish, but still) but also to how much improved CH is as a top class rugby player.

  5. LarryMilne

     /  October 16, 2012

    Just a few observations:

    HEC – agree that it’s a very open season, and I am precise agreement with your assessment of potential winners.

    McCafferty – it was never about Premiership Rugby being right, it still isn’t, it’s about them getting what they want. These results will be held up as an example of the strength of the English league, and proof that they need a higher proportion of cup entrants (read: less places for the Celto-Roman countries). The fact that opposite results to the kind seen this weekend were the previous justification for such a move will not matter. Hopefully something sensible emerges from this mess.

    Now, Ulster:

    First, regarding the Anscombe appointment – the way McLaughlin was handled justifiably reflected very poorly on Humphreys, but that is nothing to do with Mark Anascombe and nothing to do with whether he is a good/better coach than Brian McLaughlin. I decided not to pre-judge the new fella (although I had a large wobble on that front when the Nick Williams signing was announced – turns out I *can* be wrong) and, having seen him, it’s so-far-so-good, with extra points for playing style.

    On our players:

    – Paul Marshall should be Ireland’s substitute scrum half. I’m not convinced he’s yet got the management for international rugby (but he’s a learning rugby player – the best kind, also cf. Chris Henry, below). Reddan must start, with Sexton at ten, because Reddan suits Sexton more. We don’t have any blindingly good nines, so let’s pick the one who best suits our one blindingly good ten.

    – Chris Henry is now the second best openside in Ireland, behind O’Brien, without question; he should be a fixture in the full squads and, if SOB isn’t fit, he should wear the seven shirt. I don’t believe that the openside is as specialist a position as some others, and the two players mentioned did not start there, but I think (maybe on my own here) that it is now the position where both of them play their best rugby. O’Brien is one of the finest flankers in the world. Henry isn’t, but he’s a bloody nuisance and I think he’ll still do very well in green. And, as above, he’s a learning player (as is O’Brien – a coach’s delight).

    – Iain Henderson: joy. Joy joy joy joy joy. That was only his fourth match for Ulster, in both starts this year (Cardiff and Castres) he’s made some less than good choices in possession, but my-oh-my he is clearly big time. Thank you, providence, thank you very much.

    – Paddy Jackson is looking more assured in every game. Sexton is our best ten, the best in Europe IMO, and only a couple of places off the number one spot, held by DC (although it’s worth pointing out that he is a LOT better than every other outhalf in the world right now) and, otherwise, we have Rog, Jackson, Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as all men who appear to have international pedigree. We all know what O’Gara can do; I see he’s an injury doubt for the autumn but I wouldn’t pick him anyway. I’d let Jackson and Keatley share the bench duties for the full team (and starting duties for the Wolfhounds during the year).

    Of course, Father Declan will have Paddy W. covering behind Sexton if Ronan can’t make it, on top of all his other tried, tested and failed straetgies, but if I can’t namelessly gas speculative below an anonymous rugby blog, telling the internet how to set the world to rights, then what’s the point of anything?

    • anoonamous

       /  October 17, 2012

      Agree with most of this and am only assuming you forgot about Ian Madigan because to have Keatley ahead of him is lunacy…

      • LarryMilne

         /  October 17, 2012

        Yes, completely forgot about him. Add him to the Jackson/Keatley bracket.

    • Re Henry – I think he’s the best openside playing in Ireland right now – SOB still often looks like a blindside playing out of position

      • LarryMilne

         /  October 17, 2012

        A lot of people say that, but I think O’Brien’s energy and work on the floor are peerless. He outplayed McCaw in the first two tests in NZ in the summer. We’ll forget about the third (when McCaw was moved to eight anyway) for some other reasons which, strangely, don’t want to come to mind right now. The success he has had at six (and eight) with his ball-carrying suffered last year, but (from what he has said in interviews) that seems to be down more to the injury that he played though than anything else. In principle I can see no reason he can’t fuse together the attacking play of 10/11 with his breakdown work in the last year, starting at the World Cup.

      • LarryMilne

         /  October 17, 2012

        *Peerless

        …in Ireland. Peerless in Ireland.

        I’m not mental.

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