Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 5

Teams: Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Llanelli Scarlets and Exeter

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: None!  Meritocratic qualifiers all.  Aside from the fact that Leinster and Scarlets will have cigars out in their namby pamby Pro12 while Clermont and Exeter will be locked in trench warfare in seeking to avoid relegation.  Gah!

Verdict:  Leinster.  Meet Clermont.  Ah, you know each other already.  Remarkably, this is the fourth consecutive season these two European heavyweights have crashed into one another.  And in the two seasons prior Clermont ran into a Munster side close to their peak.  Tough break, but it is making for one of the best pan-European rivalries around.  The games between Clermont and Leinster have generally been riveting and this season should be no different.

This is a hard group from top to bottom, though, and not just a two-way shoot-out.  Exeter’s progress from Championship dwellers to European qualifiers has been astounding.  While qualifying from the pool will be beyond them, nobody should take a trip to their atmospheric Sandy Park stadium lightly.

And what of Scarlets, the most enigmatic of Wales’ enigmatic regional teams?  They play with great panache and can score from anywhere, but the great breakthrough we’ve been anticipating has yet to happen.  Last year they found themselves two from two after winning in Northampton – the pool looked there for the taking, but they couldn’t muster a home win against an injury-stricken Munster.  They’ve recruited to bolster the tight five – their achilles heel – but will it be good enough to stay with the big boys?  And what of Rhys Priestland, their mercurial fly-half?  We’ve yet to see enough to convince us he’s any more than a flash in the pan.  We just don’t know how they’ll do.

They start the pool with a trip to the Marcel Michelin, where Clermont will win all their home games, but question marks remain over their away form.  For a European powerhouse, their away record is dismal.  Last year’s deconstruction of Saracens looked to have set the record straight, but it will pale beside a trip to the Palindrome in Decmeber, where Leinster have grown to feel very comfortable.  Their awesome power, great depth and monstrous backs require no further discussion here.

So, to Leinster.  Back-to-back champions, the attacking supremos, looking for a hat-trick in their own back yard, but is this one step too far?  They’re without Sean O’Brien for the first two rounds, their backline is injured and they have failed to plug the gap left by Nathan Hines and then Brad Thorn in the second row.  Without Thorn, can they match the power of Clermont?  Add to this a curiously leaky defence, and it’s time to get edgy.

There’s a growing feeling that this is the season Clermont finally get on top of the champions.  Leinster’s injury list is crippling and just how close Clermont came to winning that semi-final in Bordeaux is fresh in everyone’s memory.  Clermont will be deperate to finally put one over on them.

It’s possible that both wil get out of the pool, but that (and much else) will depend hugely on what happens in week two.  In that round, Leinster travel to Llanelli and Clermont to Exeter.  We’ll see just how much appetite Clermont have for digging out a result in an obscure corner of Europe.  Assuming they beat Llanelli in round one also, a win will put them in the position of aiming to be three from three when Leinster roll into town in December, which would leave them in control of the pool.

To hang on to their coat-tails, Leinster would need to win in Llanelli.  This Scarlets team is primed to pounce on the sort of soft defence Leinster have put up in recent weeks – indeed they have already done so this season.  It’s a very difficult looking fixture for the champions, especially with their injury list.  It’s going to be a case of hanging in there, trying to sneak the win and hoping that they can get their best team out in December.

Verdict: We’re going to say Leinster and Clermont to qualify, but with reservations.  Ordinarily in a pool with two very strong teams, the head-to-head dictates the outcome, but we’re identifying Round Two’s tricky away games as the key week.  If they both get through those, they can split the points on the head-to-head and both should qualify, with bonus points sorting out the order. Leinster probably deserve some trust after the last 2 years, but the absence of a beastly second might just mean Clermont to win the pool, Leinster through as a best runner-up.

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 4

Teams: Castres, Ulster, Northampton and Glasgow

Mark McCafferty Unfairness Rating: totally legit.  All teams finished in the top six in their leagues.  So we can categorise this group as ‘elite’.

Preview:  Elite indeed.  It doesn’t get any more elite than Castres and Glasgow.  Castres have established themselves as consistent top six material in France and are capable of beating good teams on their home ground, but are content to trot out the reserve team in European away games.  They define French ambivalence to the H-Cup.  Nonetheless, they can be a significant factor in that they could beat one of the big boys, but are unlikely to contest the group themselves.

The same applies to Glasgow, who have had a good start to the season.  They’re third in the Pro12.  They lack the sort of hard-bitten pack to get results on the road but could easily win all their home games.

Ultimately though, this looks like a shoot-out between Northampton and Ulster.  Both teams are bubbling just below the established big boys and both are knocking very hard to make that breakthrough.  Indeed, they’ve both been finalists in the last two years, only to be smashed by the Leinster juggernaut.

Northampton imploded last season in the face of a spirit-sapping last-dash defeat in Thomond Park (we think there was a drop goal or something, but we’re not quite sure). We have concerns over their mental fortitude: a stronger side would have recognised that while they lost the game, they were still well set for qualification.  Similarly, the manner in which they lost control of Leinster in the 2011 final and failed to see out a winning position in last year’s Premiership semi-final against Harlequins suggests a team that doesn’t quite have the mental to be winners.  They’ve plenty of strengths but they’re weak at half-back, where Dickson is an arm-waving, slow scrummie who can expect to hear the phrase ‘Use it!’ a lot and neither Myler nor Ryan Lamb are matchwinners.  And with Ben Foden injured, they lack real attacking threat.

It leaves Ulster well positioned.  This will be a tough season for the Ulstermen, who have to try to deal with the tragic loss of one of their number.  However, they look the sort of tight-knit bunch, with a spine of great leaders that will be exceptionally determined to lay down something great in Nevin’s memory.  They also have the heavyweight pack and dominant set piece – the best defensive lineout in the tournament, perhaps – to go toe to toe with Northampton, and boast an impregnable home fortress where they just won’t lose.  Coming out of on top of the head-to-head with Northampton looks to be the key to qualifying.

Verdict: Ulster to qualify.  The fixtures are set up nicely for them, with Castres first and last.  They should chalk up five points at home and if there’s ever a good time to have to visit one of the French middle tier it’s in the final week of the pool stages when they’re already out and minds are distracted by the Top Quatorze.  With the benefit of last season’s experience, they Ulster can edge out Northampton over two legs and possibly even make a home quarter-final.

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 3

Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Very high. Zebre didn’t even exist last season, and Connacht finished 8th in the Pro12 and got in due to Leinster’s heroics. Biarritz also got in the back door by winning the Amlin, so only Quins actually qualified of right.

Preview: Forewarned is forearmed for Quins here – they got mugged in Galway last year and it’s hard to see a repeat. Ditto for Biarritz, who lost in Aironi two years ago – the Zebre squad is largely the same, and the circumstances in which the Basques and Londoners won’t get four wins from the double bunnies are pretty hard to imagine. Biarritz are certainly more vulnerable, but they have oodles of experience in this competition.

Factor in a couple of home bonus points, and both of the big guns will expect to qualify – as well they should. Quins look better able to hoover up try bonus points, particularly away from home, so, if they split the head-to-heads, we would still expect to see the English champions emerge on top.

From a Connacht perspective, this pool presents both opportunities and threats – Zebre should easily be taken at home, but Zebre will see Connacht as their target for a home win as well. Strange as it may sound, if Elwood’s men come out of this with two wins over Zebre, they will feel disappointed.  We think that’s how it going to transpire – their other opponents look a little too streetwise to be beaten. On l’autre hand, if Connacht do beat one of the biggies, it will immediately supercede last year’s Quins results as their best ever European result. So, feast or famine, but them’s the margins at this level!

Verdict: Quins surprised us last season with their fortitude at the business end of the Premiership season, particularly after their meltdown in the Sportsground. That mental strength, allied to the genius of Nuck Ivans and the shrewd hand of Conor O’Shea, should steer them through as group winners and a home quarter final. Biarritz should come through on their coat tails as one of the wild cards. Connacht to do the double over Zebre – but that’s it.

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 2

Teams: Leicester Tigers, Ospreys, Toulouse, Treviso

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Low. Treviso may have finished outside the top 6 of the Pro12, but they are de facto Italian champions, and deserve a place. The other three are either league champions (Ospreys, Toulouse) or runners-up (Leicester).

Preview: The proverbial group of death, containing the best team in Wales, the best team in France, historically the biggest guns in England (and the most successful at this level) and the best team in Italy.

Treviso are the obvious bunnies here, but they are no mugs at home – they spoiled Ospreys’ European season last year and nearly turned over Leicester themselves in the recent past – both will be forewarned, but don’t expect Treviso to lose six games, despite the quality of the opposition.

All three of the other sides are domestic heavyweights, but they will all have their eyes on success in both competitions – you won’t find any Castres types here. Each of them are armed with ferocious packs, and will expect to win their home games. Ospreys have often flattered to deceive at this level, but fear nobody – the binning of the galacticos has barely impacted their effectiveness, and Justin Tipruic is the best openside in the NH at present.

As for Leicester and Toulouse, no-one needs reminding of their pedigree in the competition, but they are both coming off disappointing seasons in Europe. Toulouse scraped into the QFs on the back of Quins’ implosion in the Sportsground, following their own implosion to Gloucesters Road Runners, then limply capitulated to Embra. Leicester endured a fearful beating in Ravers on a classic freezing Belfast night and finished 3rd in a nightmare pool, albeit with wins against Ulster (beaten finalists) and Clermont (beaten semi-finalists) and a team decimated by injury. Both will be hoping for redemption this season.

Verdict: This is a desperately difficult pool to call. Each of the big three will win their home games, and it will come down to who doesn’t slip up in Treviso, and how many bonus points they can glean away from home.

We have a slight leaning towards Leicester by dint of their general toughness, and memories of how disinterested Toulouse looked in their crunch game against Glaws last year – the attritional nature of the Top14 seemed to take more focus than usual for Les Rouges et Noirs. Ospreys are much improved, but are perhaps a year or two away from being able to win a group like this. Either way, expect this one to go down to the last breathless mucky scrum.

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 1

Teams: Edinburgh, Munster, Racing Metro, Saracens

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: High. Embra are here despite finishing second last and barely breaking a sweat in the Pro12 – Mick Bradley’s game-targeting didn’t endear himself to the Anglos, and we don’t blame them really.

Preview: Bish Bash Bosh? Certainly from the Saracens and Racing Metro sides, but lack of grunt up front is Munster’s new Achilles heel, so they will want to keep it lively. Ditto Embra, whose wonderful offloading game took them all the way to the semis last year – Ross Ford was a revelation, and Barnesy quoted some stat at the pre-semis round table about their front row being the top three offloaders in the competition.

This has all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned dogfight. Racing Metro won’t be hugely bothered, but won’t want to lose at home – their gargantuan pack is their only weapon, which should make for uncomfortable viewing for Munster … were it not for the fact the game is in the Stade de France. Rugby’s popularity in Paree is questionable, and if the atmosphere is dead, Racing might be vulnerable. It’s an important game in pool terms, because two away wins look necessary to win this.

Munster should win all three in Thomond, but only Embra look eminently beatable away from home. The surprise factor of the marauding Scots has surely gone, and Sarries and Munster will be targeting doubles – let’s not write them off completely, but a repeat of last season looks highly unlikely.

Sarries are tailor-made for going to Racing and bashing out a narrow win, but moving their home fixture to Brussels means the return fixture is not the banker it should be. However, two wins there, and they will be confident of getting through – it’s likely to come down to Munster and Sarries, and Munster don’t yet have the pack to enable their exciting backs to get enough ball to do damage. Sarries carry more than a whiff of mid-2000s Munster, and that side would have licked their chops at the sight of the lightweight Ligind pack.

Verdict: Unless Paul O’Connell is fully fit and firing on all cylinders, it’s hard to see how Munster will have the heft to pull off two away victories. Sarries’ up the jumper approach looks tailor made for this pool, and we’re predicting them to emerge after a serious dogfight – we don’t think they will get enough points to earn a home QF though.

We aren’t ironclad about this one – Munster have an opportunity here, they have the best backline in the pool by far, and if they manage not to get mashed up front, there will be chances to score.

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.

Chug! Chug! Chug!

In acknowledgement of the first big Munster game in which Rog isn’t nailed on first choice since the days before John Langford and Mick Galwey’s tears could be used as fuel for the journey in the beaten up Peugeot 206 from Limerick to Pau via the Hook of Holland ferry and the Brenner pass for a meaningless HEC defeat, we have compiled a fun drinking game.

The units involved are up to you, be they shots, fingers, pints, hands, whatever – we’ll give you points, you decide how much to imbibe.

Of course, Rob Penney might go with the wily old master for Saturday, in which case we’ll look mildly silly, but if he does, you can merely use this later in the season when Keatley does get the nod – and he will, make no mistake – or for Ireland games when ROG watches while Sexton struggles to employ Kidney’s workaday tactics in green.  Just sub Sexton for Keatley where appropriate.

Here’s the rules:

  • Camera catches Ronan looking glum on the bench – 1 point
  • Camera catches Ronan smiling and laughing on the bench – 2 points
  • Ian Keatley drops a goal – 1 point
  • Ian Keatley drops a goal after 41 extraordinarily permissive phases – 5 points
  • Donal Lenihan says that Keatley is playing in the wrong areas of the pitch in commentary – 2 points
  • Frankie says in the build-up that he hopes Keatley doesn’t try to play too much rugby – 3 points
  • Whiff of Cordite’s troll, foaming at the mouth, points out in a comment in this piece that Keatley went to Belvo and doesn’t even know the fourth verse of Stand Up and Fight – 2 points
  • Keatley re-introduces the 6 arse-bounces technique, inducing spittle and fury from Rog on the bench – 2 points
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 60 minutes – 1 point
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 20 minutes – 2 points
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 1 minute – 3 points
  • Pippo Contepomi and Rodrigo Roncero spotted in the crowd lending support to their old mate Ronan – 10 points
  • George Hook says something positive about the match, Ian Keatley, Leinster, Munster or Johnny Sexton – whatever you’re drinking, do something like this:

All joking aside, it’s potentially a watershed day in Irish rugby – the man who, along with Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll has done more to advance Irish rugby over the last decade than anyone. If this does mark the beginning of the end, note the day in the calendar – it’s the end of a momentous era – our Rog tribute if and when he calls it a day will be gushing.

Exit Stage West

Last night Brendan Fanning broke the news that Eric Elwood is to leave Connacht at the end of the season.  Hugely passionate about the province, managing which must be one of the most thankless jobs in rugby, it appears that the onerous task is taking its toll on him.  Fanning’s article mentioned a tendency to take defeats badly, while Thornley today alluded to him giving almost too much of himself to the role.  The poor fella is exhausted it seems.

Elwood has come to be seen as Mr. Connacht, the personification of modern Connacht rugby, having spent most of the last 16 years either playing for them or on the coaching team in some capacity.  It is in his two-and-a-bit years as head coach, however, that he’s arguably had the biggest impact.  He’s to be commended for his unwillingness to accept the sorry lot with which the IRFU would be happy to lumber the province – the shrewd acquisition of Dan Parks is testimiony to his hard work.  Two years ago such a signing would have been impossible.

He’s also been part of a drive to bring fans through the gates of the Sportsground, presiding over a huge upsurge in season ticket sales, from the low-hundreds to over three thousand.  It’s fine work when you consider the package on offer: watching some fairly stodgy rugby on a dog track, usually in horizontal rain.

On the pitch, he’s improved matters too.  Connacht finished eighth in the league last season and participated in their first Heineken Cup.  They’ve had their ups and downs, and looked to have started this season poorly, but sparked emphatically into life on Friday night with a 34-6 trouncing of Leinster.  Indeed, with Parks expertly piloting the ship and the entire three-quarter line outstanding, it was a highwatermark for Connacht, both in terms of result and the calibre of rugby played.

It’s going to be a tough act to follow.  We generally have little time for those who question whether coaches ‘buy into the [insert region/club/Munster here] ethos’ or understand the [region/club/Munster] zeitgeist’, but in the case of Connacht it is important the incoming coach understands what Connacht rugby is all about, and how steep a challenge it is to coach them.  For certain, nobody had a better grasp of that than Elwood, and an appointment with someone who has or had links with Connacht is likely.

So who are the contenders?

Dan Parks: Connacht is be an ideal role for a young coach to cut his teeth, and the Australian strikes us as the type who might just be interested in kicking off a career here. Whatever you think of Parks 0.5-dimensional play in a Scotland shirt, there is no denying his is a very high class Pro12 player, and has made the most (indeed, far more than anyone expected when he came on to the scene) of his talent. He may just relish the chance, and by going to Connacht in the first place, has already demonstrated his suitability, personality-wise.  Will be on the coaching team in some capacity.

Axel Foley: Foley was widely-tipped to get the Munster job after making such a big impact on the pack last season, but had to settle for a passenger seat in the Penney Revolution. It’s odds-on he will be in the mixer for the head coach job in Munster once Penney departs, but if he would prefer to cut his teeth in a head coaching role somewhere else, then come back, Connacht would be ideal. It’s worth noting, however, that this didn’t work for Mick Bradley, who was overlooked when Deccie went to D4.

Eddie O’Sullivan: One more experienced name that instantly springs to mind is Eddie.  He’s coached there before and presumably has a good knowledge of the province.  For all his baggage, O’Sullivan remains a technically outstanding coach, and it would be a fallacy if his vast knowledge was left to decay outside of Irish rugby. There is no doubt he will have the hunger to repair his reputation after festering/stewing for 4 years. His USA! USA! USA! team didn’t disgrace themselves in RWC11, and indeed, it was felt Eddie scored something of a tactical coup over Deccie when they met Ireland.

Bernard Jackman: Berch is currently coaching at Grenoble in France, and they are making a pretty decent stab at their first Top14 season in a while – sitting pretty in 6th, ahead of such bosh merchants luminaries as Racing Metro, Castres and Perpignan. However, Berch was less than gushing about his time in Connacht in his book, and perhaps some bridges may still be smouldering. If some hugs can be engineered, it’s a possibility.

Deccie Kidney: Deccie will be out of work in June, and will presumably be anxious to renew his relationship with Connacht after studiously ignoring anything Western for the last four years. Perhaps he would welcome a move back to the club game, but we’re fairly certain the facilities at Buccanears don’t measure up to Carton House.

Warren Gatland: What better way to move on to a new challenge after a Lions victory in Oz? Gatty got his coaching start in the West, and has achieved all he can with Wales (and indeed in the Northern Hemisphere) – the combative Kiwi would love to be in a position where potshots at the IRFU are not only smiled upon, but positively encouraged. Let’s hope he doesn’t get too down on Frank Murphy for being unable to measure up to Mike Phillips.

Wayne Smith: Gerry touted Wayne Smith, one of the best coachs in the world, as the ideal candidate to take over at Munster, spend two years keeping the ship afloat, then wrap it up and hand it over to Axel. Presumably he could fulfil the same role as a conduit for John Muldoon, another Elwood-esque personification of Connacht rugby. The question of why a massive name would fly 10,000km to be a caretaker was never addressed before, so let’s not address it here.

Stop Press: Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney Really Important

Is it time to start getting worried about Leinster?  They’re three from five in the Pro12, which doesn’t sound all that bad, but the performance levels have been poor.  Friday night saw them lose five tries in Galway, and truth be told, they made a Connacht team which hasn’t started the season especially well look like world beaters (as only Leinster can).  It’s their second shellacking on the road after an opening day hammering in Llanelli.  In their other away match, with a strong line-up against Treviso, they were decidedly lucky to get out of jail with a late, long range drop goal by Johnny Sexton.

It’s eerily reminiscent of Schmidt’s first season in charge. Leinster have been leaky in defence, losing 18 tries in five matches.  That’s the worst in the league, three more than Zebre.  In attack they’ve played in fits and starts, and have been prone to throwing the ball forward with great regularity and they’ve been powder-puff in contact.

Leinster fans won’t be panicking just yet, because they remember what happened two years ago, when the team seemed to click into gear once the season proper got under way.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll happen the same way again.  In Schmidt’s first season, many were happy to put the upswing in fortunes to a sudden getting-the-hang of what Schmidt wanted them to do.  This was true, but the real reason was that they got their best players back.  Leinster’s season was transformed the moment Sexton and Reddan entered the pitch as substitutes against Munster, instantly picking up the tempo and securing a match-winning try for Brian O’Driscoll.

The concern this year is the lengthy injury list.  Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Dom Ryan and Luke Fitzgerald are all long term casualties and Gordon D’arcy and Rob Kearney left the field of play on Friday, while Richardt Strauss continues to recover from his head injury picked up against Treviso.  Both Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan are also missing.

Leinster’s back three looks particularly stretched, and if any of Kearney, D’arcy and Reddan were to be ruled out this weekend, it could leave Leinster badly exposed in a couple of positions.  Fionn Carr up against Doug Howlett and George North?  No thanks.  Rob Kearney would be an especially grievous loss, as he is the only big back Leinster have and the back-line would be pint-sized without him.  And the rumour mill on Leinsterfans has shifted into gear, and it’s not good news…

Meanwhile, in the red corner, some of the feel-good feeling associated with Rob Penney’s positive start was knocked out of them this weekend.  Once again, Ospreys laid bare full scale of the job in hand.  They bullied Munster out of the game (as an aside, how good is this Jason Tipuric fellow?).  While Munster’s work with the ball is much improved, the game underlined our one overriding concern about them – a lack of heft in the pack.  The sight of their maul being shunted backwards at a rate of knots will have been chastening for fans of a team which has long prided itself as being expert proponents of this attacking weapon.  The scrum was no better and served as an important reminder that anytime you hear a tighthead prop described as being ‘good in the loose’ you should be very suspicious of him (cf. Tony Buckley).  While Archer can truck the ball up for good yardage, it’s all for nought if he cannot stabilise the scrum.

Removing Archer from their team is therefore necessary, but that only compounds another problem – a lack of ball carriers.  With James Coughlan out injured, who is going to make the hard yards?

It was their second beating of the season, and as well as they played for much of the game against Ulster in their other defeat, there was an uncomfortable reality about elements of proceedings: after the first 20 minutes, Munster barely touched the ball (when they did, it was admittedly very incisive). As Gerry is prone to saying, they were living off scraps.

The trip to a bruising (if hardly inspiring) Racing Metro team looks a lot more difficult after saturday, although Racing have problems of their own.  Donnacha Ryan and POM made their comebacks from the bench this weekend, and are fine and important players, but neither have shown themselves capable of bending a match to their will.  It all serves to underline the vast importance of Paul O’Connell.  It’s been obvious for eons to anyone with half a brain that O’Connell is the key man in red, and without him, it’s genuinely difficult to see how they can beat the best teams.

There, we said it – Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney are really, really imoprtant, and will be badly missed if not fit.  It might be obvious, we felt the need to say it anyway.