The XV Days of Christmas

We’re off to scoff lots of food and drink nice wine – we’ll be back in 2013 with more rugger nerdery. Thanks to all our readers, those who follow and talk to us on twitter and everyone who writes in the comment box and keeps the ever-evolving debate flowing. We hope you enjoyed our efforts this year, and we’ll leave you with our favourite Whiff of Cordite patented Christmas carol:

On the fifteenth day of Christmas, Gatty gave to me:

15 Louth minors

14 flying Dutchmen

13 four-time tourists

12 boshing Samoans

11 giant Welshmen

10 cranky generals

9 loose cannons

8 Dre Beats headphones

7 unsung Ospreys

6 fragile flankers

5 Supermen

4 kilted blondies

3 kinky Afro’s

2 Nordie farmers

and a DJ of the Church variety.

Happy Christmas, and a peaceful New Year!  See you in 2013.

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The Munsters

A thought struck us during the recent HEC action – in their times of greatest need this season, the second half of the Embra game, the must-win home fixture with Saracens and the away-day bosh-up in Lahn, Munster have reverted to the type of rugby the province is most comfortable with – 10 man boot and bollock with rolling mauls, marauding backrow forwards smashing everything that moves and kicking for territory.

Thing is, Rob Penney came on board loudly promising to introduce a more expansive style of play, but it looks like he has tempered those plans.  After the Edinburgh game he talked about how the team being ‘un the put’ where they are having to learn a new way of playing, but when they eventually come out of ‘the put’ they will be so much the better for it.  But if they keep reverting to the old ways, will they ever get out of ‘the put’?

It’s worth thinking back to how the early promise of the Ludd McGahan era (recall the 43-9 beasting of a star-studded Ospreys side) crumbled into a mish-mash of styles as the coach struggled to get his ideas across to a team used to something different. Before you say, ah but McGahan was crap, note how the Wallaby side he is now defence coach for won 3 (vs England, Wales and Italy) and drew 1 (vs BNZ) of their 5 game Northern Hemisphere tour, while conceding just 5 tries despite a lorry-load of injuries – McGahan was a capable coach, but the message didn’t get across.

So is the Penney Revolution struggling to get air? Its obviously way too early to reach a definitive judgment, but there are some issues that he already needs to address:

The Forwards

While the current edition of the Munster pack has its plus points, it’s nothing like the pack of 2008 – only BJ Botha (for John Hayes) and Donnacha Ryan (for Stakhanov) would make the grade. For all their old school endeavour in the Thomond Park Saracens game, the McGahan problem of discipline came back to haunt them, and they essentially only won because Owen Farrell left his kicking boots at the IRB POTY ceremony. 

In the Vicarage Road game, the sight of Munster rumbling into contact and losing metres to a powerful bunch of forwards when they were a man up must have had Rob Penney tearing his hair out – they spent 4 minutes boshing and going backwards which ended in a wobbly drop goal attempt, and it was just the tactic Saracens would have welcomed. Why they didn’t try and use their extra numbers a bit more productively was mystifying.

The traditional Munster game is rather ill-suited to the current squad of forwards they have. And even if Penney gets his guys doing what he wants, do Munster have the ball carriers in the pack – they are fairly lightweight and only Cawlin and JC Stander would strike you as consistent getting-over-the-gainline guys.

The Backs

The Munster outside backs are most exciting, and using them to chase bombs is not really maximising resources – Earls, Zebo, Jones, Howlett and O’Dea look dynamite with ball in hand. It’s playing to your strengths to get them on the ball as much as possible instead of the comfortable, mucky repeated one-out rumbles into contact. At home to Saracens, who themselves have a high class backline, the most dangerous outside back by far looked like Keith Earls – but they never got him on the ball.

The Ireland-style aimless shuttling across the backline against Embra was easily repelled, with nary a dangerous angle or intelligent switch pass in sight. Simon Zebo must have looked at the type of opportunities the Ulster backs got in Northampton (Andrew Trimble running from blindside wing into first receiver and making a try for instance) and wondered would he ever get that chance in a big Thomond Park game.

Its hard to see it as a profitable long-term strategy to have your most dangerous players guarding rucks instead of passing and moving.

The Leader

Ah yes. The elephant in the room. Paul O’Connell is a massive leader, and one of the best captains Munster have ever had – he was perfect as the pack leader in the HEC years, and accepted nothing less than excellence in pursuit of success. Problem is, he actually isn’t that suited to the modern game – his ball-carrying is poor, and he does far too much of it. The Mole wrote about the sight of O’Connell calling one-out ruck ball to himself for Ireland, charging 70cm into contact, and forcing the likes of Fez and Jamie Heaslip to clear out the ruck – defences will take that all day long.

Does O’Connell have the desire to evolve his playing style at this stage of his career? His second row partner of so many red and green occasions is making a decent shift at it, despite not being in the same league as a player – but O’Connell has never been a follower. If he cannot adapt, and Penney prefers other players to execute his gameplan, he’s going to have a problem.

The Outhalf

Barnesy has talked about the flyhalf being the key cog in the machine, around which the spokes of wheel turn – his vision reflected how he played the game – head-up, looking for breaks and creating space – and was the reason why England preferred the more prosaic approach of Rob Andrew. That was the type of game they wanted to play. The illustration shows the problem for Rob Penney rather neatly. For his entire career, the Munster approach has been territorial, based on Ronan O’Gara putting the pack where they want to go. Penney wants to move on, but O’Gara simply does not have the skillset to execute a high tempo, handling based game any more.

Much as some might wish it not to be so, Ronan O’Gara is long past his best, and his on-field decision-making has deteriorated markedly in the last 12 months – he is nothing like the domineering figure of the past decade. Admittedly, his performance in Saracens was excellent out of hand, but in the context of a narrow gameplan and heavily unambitious opponents.

The reality is Penney is going to have to play someone else if he is to realise his vision – maybe Ian Keatley, maybe someone else altogether. The management of this issue, as we have said before, will largely define the success, or otherwise, of this season for Penney and Munster.

Culture

It’s clear how the senior players want to do it, and its getting results – they scored 4 tries in 40 mins against (an admittedly inept) Embra, and beat high-flying English/Saffer bosh overlords Saracens doing it their way. And after the success of the old approach against Saracens (home win and losing bonus point secured) – it’s going to be ever more difficult for Penney to further his case to the already sceptical dressing room bigwaigs now they can point to Munster’s 5 points against the English heavyweights. The mathematics of a defeat then 0 tries scored in 1.5 games of New Munster and 4 tries, then a win, then a losing bonus point in 2.5 games of Old Munster might look compelling, but there is a danger the wrong lesson will be learned. Munster might be well-positioned for a quarter-final slot, but what benefit would that be in the long term if they reverted to a gameplan that doesn’t suit their younger players (and future stars) to get there?

Its fine to say you need to earn the right to go wide, but that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that you must win the set-piece first and only. Sure, its important, but manufacturing mismatches through intelligent running angles and offloading in the tackle to force more defenders into a ruck than attackers, thus creating numbers out wide, is far more relevant. If Munster go down to Toulon or Clermont in a HEC quarter-final with the mindset that they must win up-front before thinking about going wide, they will get mashed into the turf and badly beaten to boot. Leinster have showed in the last 2 seasons that a solid (if unspectacular) scrum and a good defensive lineout is more than enough to play an accurate and ambitious game – maybe the most important difference their is that was something the senior Leinster players not only were comfortable with, but welcomed.

On another point, the importance of the muck and bullets Shannon-type AIL style can be overdone at times – its a playing style from a different era which was succesful, but its highly unsuited to the current crop. And a perceived attachment by Munster fans to a certain style of play is nonsense – recall the reception Craig Gilroy got when playing Fiji – this is a chap who ruined Munster’s season last year, but his exciting and daring brand of rugby went straight to the hearts of the Thomond Park crowd. They swooned over him, and the cheer for him the next week in the Aviva was as warm and loud as the one for any player.

The fans who have got into Munster rugby in the professional era were fine with Craig Gilroy when they saw him play – they aren’t inherently wedded to any style – just a desire to win! Clearly Munster are in a rebuild phase, but the idea that they must play in a particular way, or its not really Munster is just untrue – their challenge is to play in a way which maximises their playing resources. The atmosphere in Thomond Park on a Saturday night will be equally as well-harnessed playing ambitious rugby as it is playing a fenzied forwards-based game.

Marrying a tough, if lightweight, looking pack to exciting and creative backs looks the only way forward for Munster if they want to win again in European rugby – the best teams, like Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester and Ulster, have mean-looking packs who can take you on up front, plus backs to finish it off – scoring in 3s isn’t going to win you the big pots.

One thing is for sure, unless Munster can find an identity they can move forward with, they aren’t going to move forward – the McGahan era petered out into embarrassments against Toulon and Ulster without a united front. Rob Penney has some young talent to work with, but a reversion to a game which works in the short term to the detriment of the long term is not a recipe for sustained success – maybe now is the time to make some painful decisions, which may be unpopular with senior players (and the media) and live up to the hard-ass reputation he has come over with.

Is Stephen Jones The Oddest Man In Rugby?

It started with Stephen Jones supporting Saracens’ decision to play their music over the tannoy to drown out vocal Munster fans this weekend.  And it ended, hilariously, with Sunday Times journalist Stephen Jones calling perfectly decent rugby fans ‘slap heads’ and blocking any number of people who disagreed with him.  Yes, this was truly one bizarre twitter episode.

stephenjones

Michael Corcoran started the whole episode, with a tweet directing Jones to the Saracens’ forum, where a number of their own fans expressed dismay over the ridiculous tannoy constantly blaring out Stand up for Saracens.  He was told to ‘forget about fandom’ and ‘accept [Munster] lost’, despite the fact that Michael Corcoran had in no way attributed Munster’s defeat to the tannoy or indeed, made any such excuses.  In fact he’d been entirely gracious.

When Corcoran had the temerity to suggest to Jones that folk were entitled to their opinions, he should accept them and move on, we re-tweeted and added a ‘well said MC’.  We received a tweet from Jonesy calling us ‘Pompous’ and found ourselves to be blocked shortly after.  We were also involved in a number of other conversations, but not with Jonesy, the general theme of which was that we considered his behaviour on Twitter to be very rude and unnecessary.  Then it all went weird and the bald business kicked off.  At one point he appeared to imply that all Munster fans were bald.  ROFLMAO!

stephenjones2

Frankly, reading Stephen Jones’ twitter account is like entering a bizarro-world.  He dismisses those who don’t agree with him out of hand, often belittling their low followership, and just as often with an offhand ‘who asked your opinion?’ or similar.  He told another tweeter that he was the UK Sports journalist of the year.  It appears that he believes a high public profile is essential to have any sort of opinion, and just can’t handle that some people will disagree with him.  It’s a pretty odd way for an established journalist to behave.  It’s all a bit Alan Partridge.

As the evening wore on, things got weirder and weirder, with Jones managing to insult one person after another, with childish name-calling the order of the day.  At times we were creased over laughing.  The screen-grabs above are from Trevor Murphy, who wasn’t the only one whose baldness became the focal point for Jones.  Unfortuntely, we were blocked by the time it occured to us to start taking screen-shots.

For the record, while we don’t usually agree with Jones’ opinions, we’ve always respected him and what he’s achieved in rugby journalism.  He ploughed a lonely furrow for a long time before the popularity of the game took off, and for that he deserves credit.  He obviously cares deeply about the game, and also coaches an age grade team in England, and frequently tweets his experiences of it.  What a shame, then, to learn that he’s an obnoxious, bullying oaf!  Follow him here to get a glimpse of the comedy (unless you’ve already been blocked, like us).  Bald men need not apply, obviously.  And thanks to Trevor Murphy for letting us use his screen-grabs above.  Give him a follow here and hopefully he will get enough followers for Stephen Jones to grant him an opinion.  Not sure we can do anything about the baldness thing though.

It’s Just A Little Airborne, It’s Still Good, It’s Still Good!

Munster and Leinster aren’t out of the Heineken Cup just yet, but oh me oh my, they’re cutting their chances pretty fine after losing what were, on the face of it, must-win matches this weekend.  Munster sit on 11 points in their pool, and Leinster are on 10.  We wrote previously how the two could be on some sort of collision course, potentially taking one or another out of the tournament.  Well, they sure are now, but it ain’t no two horse race.  It’s time to get out the calculators.

Oh, and it probably makes sense to add a health warning at this point: looking too far ahead in the Heineken Cup can be a fruitless exercise, the most likely outcome of which is making yourself look foolish.

So who’s liable to be scrapping over the two precious runner up spots?  Here’s a guide which should hopefully give Leinster and Munster fans an idea who they should be rooting for over the next two rounds.

Pool 1: Munster are third with 11 points, but are on course for second, as Racing have played hapless Embra twice.  Saracens will probably go to Racing and do the business, although Racing have kept their interest in the pool alive after back-to-back wins over Edinburgh, so it’s by no means guaranteed.  If Sarries slip up, the pool will become a three horse race, with Racing very much in the mix.  The group would probably be settled on bonus points, and it would change the dynamic of their visit to Thomond Park.  Munster have Edinburgh away before they welcome Racing in Week Six.  It’s time to bring out Rob Penney’s attacking ideas in their full glory, because they’ll be looking for 5 points from each.  21 would almost certainly be enough to qualify.

Forecast: Saracens top, Munster second on 21 points.

Pool 2: Leicester and Toulouse meet in round six, and the winner will top the group.  Results this weekend might prove to be helpful. Ospreys’ defeat of Toulouse means it’s hard to see a runner-up breaking 20 points.  Leicester are on 14 and Toulouse are on 13, but they play each other in the final round.  Unless Leicester beat Ospreys with a bonus point, but then contrive to lose to Toulouse by less that seven, or claim an unlikely draw, the runner-up here should be below the 20-point watermark.

Forecast: Leicester top the group, Toulouse second on 19 points

Pool 3: Biarritz are second on 9 points, and still have to face Harlequins.  Quins are runaway winners here and should have eyes on securing the top seeding.  Biarritz can achieve a maximum of 19 points, but that would require they beat Quins with a try-scoring bonus.

Forecast: Harlequins through, with six wins.  Biarritz second with 15 points.

Pool 4: Ulster losing to Northampton this weekend could have significant knock-on effects, and not in a good way.  Had they lost, Northampton were buried, but they’ve been handed a lifeline.  Ulster are still in control here, despite the hiccup and should still come out on top, though the final game in Castres could be nervy.  Northampton have 10 points and with Castres at home and Glasgow away, they, like Munster, will be eyeing up a 10 point haul, that would put them on 20 points.

Forecast: Ulster through, Northampton second, on 19 points, with only one of the two bonus points.

Pool 5: Clermont are home and hosed here.  They’ll beat Exeter at home and crush Scarlets, putting them on six from six.  Leinster have it all to do.  They haven’t had their try-scoring form with them this season, but should be able to manufacture a four-try win over Scarlets.  That would leave them travelling to a doughty Exeter looking for a four-try win to try and get to the magical 20 point mark.  Memories of Bath in 2006 spring to mind, but they’ll need to look considerably sharper than they have done to to do it.  Exeter are no pushovers and could still have the Amlin to play for.

Forecast: Clermont top.  Leinster to get two wins, but only one bonus point: 19 points.

Pool 6: for Leinster fans, if they do get to 20 points, it all looks to hinge on this pool.  Toulon are on 18 points and Montpellier are on 13.  The other two teams in the group are hopeless: Sale and Cardiff.  Toulon will beat Cardiff at home and top the group.  Montpellier should beat Sale, getting themselves to 17 at least.  Montpellier face Toulon at home in the final week.  Toulon should be already qualified when the game takes place.  Montpellier’s need will surely be greater.  A win and they’d launch themselves to 21 points at least.  Leinster fans must hope that Toulon turn up and win in Montpellier, or that Sale manage to recover from their 62-0 beting to somehow beat Montpellier.  Neither is especially likely.

Forecast: Toulon to top the group, but lose in Montpellier.  Montpellier to finish second with 21 points.

Overall forecast: Montpellier and Munster through as best runners-up.

The above of course, would leave our quarter final rankings looking something like:

  1. Harlequins
  2. Clermont
  3. Toulon
  4. Ulster
  5. Saracens
  6. Leicester
  7. Munster/Montpellier
  8. Munster/Montpellier

So the good news for Munster is we think they will not only sneak through, but avoid having to go to Toulon for another mashing. Clermont is equally as intimidating a venue of course, but it’s not the site of Munster’s most significant mental scarring. The Stoop would be a nice venue for a knock-out game – blood capsules all round!

Leinster in Big Game Loss Shocker

So, triple European champions, unbeaten by all comers except Clermont under Joe Schmidt, where did it all go wrong? Granted, Leinster aren’t mathematically out yet, but to get through they will need to score four tries in both remaining fixtures – a number they have not yet reached in the four games to date.

What has been different this year? Why have Leinster, just the second team ever to win the HEC twice in a row, only managed to put away the lamentable Scarlets with anything approaching ease? There are a number of factors, but they essentially boil down to two – the set piece and injuries.

The half-time Hobson’s Choice faced by Joe Schmudt on Saturday – take off Damien Browne for Devin Toner to shore up your lineout, but essentially concede the scrum – encapsulated Leinster’s shortcomings this season. While the scrum ran out of steam, certain chickens came home to roost in the second row – let’s examine each in detail.

When Mike Ross was at Harlequins, he played 62 games in 3 seasons. In his first season back in D4, under Mike Cheika, he played 21 – that’s about 21 a season on average. These game were played in Oooooooooooohh the Premiership, a few HEC games, and mostly Magners League for Leinster – 21 a year is what Ireland’s cosseted centrally contracted players normally do in a year – it’s a manageable number.

Since Schmudt took over in Leinster, Ross has played 77 games in 2.5 seasons – 55 for Leinster (including 22 HEC) and 22 for Ireland – that’s an average of around 30, and at a much higher level. Its been noticeable this season how his energy levels have been notably below those of previous seasons – the sheer workload of two triumphant HEC campaigns, RWC11 and 2 Six Nations have taken it out of him. He has produced thus far when it mattered, against Clermont away, the Pumas and (ahem) the hard-scrummaging Scarlets, but he has begun to look exhausted. It rather puts Declan Kidney’s judgement that Ross needed more gametime this November in harsh light, and the fatigue reached its apogee as the Clermont scrum milked him for penalties (5 in total) prompting Barnes to threaten a binning, at which point he was withdrawn.

Ross has been run into the turf, pretty much out of necessity, and he had no more to give. Leinster signed Jamie Hagan in 2011 to lessen his workload – that didn’t work out – and Michael Bent this autumn, who can hopefully step in for the Pro12 fixtures between now and the next HEC game and give Rosser a much-deserved break.

In the second row, however, Leinster are largely responsible for their own fate. After Nathan Hines left in the summer of 2011, Leinster have resorted to increasingly desperate efforts to recruit a second row of top-class HEC quality. The likes of Ed O’Donohue and Steven Sykes came and went, Devin Toner failed to make a big push for selection, and Leo Cullen all the while has slowed down. Brad Thorn bailed out a tired looking sector last season (its hard to see them having won in Bordeaux without him) and Damo Browne is really a jobbing workhorse who gets found out at this level. Mike McCarthy can’t arrive soon enough – Leinster have the weakest second row of all 4 provinces right now, and it finally cost them in a big game.

On the injury front, Leinster have had something of a perfect storm this season, at some point or another being without Risteard O hOstrais, Sean O’Brien, Dom Ryan, Isaac Boss, Dorce, BOD, Luke Fitzgerald, Bob, Little Bob and Eoin O’Malley.  It’s not so much the count as the concentration; the majority are in the outside back division and under 26 years old – somewhere you’d expect to have a lower attrition rate.

Leinster are neither the biggest nor the fastest team in Europe.  What they rely on is accuracy, in particular in their passing on the gainline and at the breakdown.  They have not been at their best in either facet this season, but looking at the backline on Saturday it’s no surprise.  Of the five backs, only one – Goodman, who does not look tailor made to play Schmidt’s gameplan – was playing in his natural position.  Missing key outside backs like Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney is one thing, but when the first line of reserves (O’Malley, Dave Kearney) is taken out as well, Leinster were left with a pretty weird looking backline – a 10 at 15, a 15 on the wing, a centre on the other wing, and a 12 at 13.  Little wonder they played without cohesion – and it was doubly unfortunate that the likes of Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway had no form at inopportune moments when a more natural-looking back 3 was in order.

That sequence of long stretches without key players was something they managed to avoid for 2010/11 and 2011/12, and that little bit of fortune deserted them this season – there is a reason it’s so hard to win the HEC twice in a row, and you need a little bit of the rub of the green to do it. When you consider the great teams that haven’t done it – Munster, Toulouse, Stade Francais, Wasps, even Oooooooooooooohh Bath in the early days – the magnitude of Leinster’s achievement is more obvious.

So where to now for Leinster? As we said above, they are technically still in the competition, but they are currently ranked 5th of 6 second place sides, and are behind Munster and the Saints as well – progress is unlikely (more on this later this week). Saturday had an odd fin de siecle feel about it – BOD is probably in his last season, Dorce and Leo Cullen are getting on, and the talk is that Joe Schmidt will be going back to New Zealand at the end of next season. Winning the Pro12 (and preferably handing a hammering to those pesky Ospreys), the only trophy yet to be captured by Schmidt,  is likely this season’s new target. Leinster, when fully fit, have huge strength in depth in the backrow and the backline – but a re-tread of some of the tight 5 is necessary.

It says it all that, in 2.5 seasons, only Clermont (3 times from 5) have bested Joe Schmidt’s Leinster, and the teams they have beaten is a veritable who’s who of HEC history – Leicester, Toulouse, Northampton, Ulster and Saracens. They have been the best Irish rugby team we have seen and have opened new and tantalising possibilities for all Irish rugby fans – the idea that a team of Irish players could play with the skill, handling and verve that Leinster have since 2010 would have been so far from the collective rugby conciousness in 2010 as to have been just a dream. That’s what Schimdt’s Leinster have really done – made that dream a reality.

Siege Mentality

Down the years, many a successful coach has driven on his team by creating a siege mentality within the camp.  No less a man than the great Sir Alex Ferguson, before becoming a darling of the media himself, used what he perceived to be a London bias in the English press to motivate his team.  No one likes us, we don’t care, he would say, and the team bought into his vision.

The Irish love a siege mentality and traditionally only ever reach a peak when they’re written off.  Remember beating Australia in Auckland?  Remember the 1991 World Cup?  Great performances from a team dismissed in advance.  At provincial level, the siege mentality has been a huge factor in how Irish rugby lines have been formed.  And it looks like it’s found a new home (incidentally, Connacht permanently have a siege mentality, so let’s leave them out for the moment).

Historically, the chip on the shoulder was always seen as a Munster thing.  It’s what drove them on to being the most successful team of the early professional era.  Munster rugby long held a view that Leinster and Ulster, with their wealthier private-schools-based catchment area and powerful boardroom presence, cocked a snoop at them and national teams reflected a selection bias against them.  Back in the days of selection commitees there was certainly  a sense that the school tie was as important as a player’s ability.  When the Heineken Cup launched and Irish rugby built itself around provincial franchises, Munster used the chip on its collective shoulder to brilliant effect.  They had always dominated the club game, and with Limerick and Cork now aligned in pursuit of a common goal they took the opportunity to show the Nordies and the D4-heads just how good they could be when given a proper chance.  The rest we know – they dominated Europe and national selection for the guts of a decade.

But a siege mentality can only last so long.  Munster became media darlings on a near mythic scale.  Anyone following our twitter feed will know that we don’t entirely buy into the extraordinary levels of mythology that get perpetrated at the very mention of a late Saturday afternoon kick-off in Thomond Park, but there are plenty who do.  Munster, the pride of Irish warriors, stitching the tears of Ginger McLoughlin into the team shirt, was born.  They became the embodiment of everyting great about Irish sport, a brilliant and heroic team.  When everyone loves you, it’s hard to claim that nobody likes you and you don’t care.

So the siege mentality was picked up by Leinster, who were seen as the team opposite to Munster in every way.  In a wonderful article, Matt Williams recently described a speech made in the dressing room by Denis Hickie after Leinster beat Clermont Auvergne in the Stade Marcel Michelin in 2003.  They had little travelling support, no more than a handful of family members who joined the players in the dressing room.  Hickie said that Leinster had no ‘Red Army’ equivalent following them and no support in the media but that none of that mattered.  Everyone important to Leinster Rugby was in that dressing room and that was enough; they had to do it for each other.  When we read it, it made us think about something we’d never considered before: that it’s great saying ‘we’re going to win for the fans who are the best in the world’, but having an army of passionate support is in fact a luxury that plenty of teams don’t have.  Some team simply have to win for themselves.

The culmination was in 2009, when Michael Cheika drove his team to new levels of feral hunger by exposing them to the full scale of the media hubbub, which was at that point in time in full Munster Lovin’ flow.  Niall Kiely’s infamous smugfest was apparently pinned to the wall in the Leinster dressing room that day.

Again, though, circumstances changed.  Joe Schmidt brought a new skills-based emphasis and didn’t require the media to motivate his team.  Besides, once up and running, his slick Leinster team themselves became the most celebrated rugby team in the land.  The image of an exclusive school boys’ club was long removed and Leinster the family-friendly creche-cum rugby-club was a hit with the public.  The siege mentality could be put down.

So it is that Ulster look to be the team in possession.  They have a real chippy look this season.  They look like a bunch of caged beasts (with an appropriate nod to the memory of Nevin Spence, which seems to be driving them on to lay down something great in tribute).  Leinster and Munster still seem to swallow up most of the rugby oxygen, with Ulster a bit of an afterthought.  They’ve had to take Gerry Thornley saying things like ‘Ulster might be the better team, but Munster are the better province’, whatever that means.  They’ve had Hugh Farrelly write that Ulster beating Munster in the quarter-final last year was bad for Irish rugby.  Their players seem to draw the short straw come national selection time, with Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Dan Tuohy, Paddy Jackson and Tom Court all missing out on selection at various times – and all to Munster players.  They might be entitled to feel that none of the Irish media – dominated by Munster and to a lesser extent Leinster – really like them.  And they don’t care.

But where does this leave Munster? Stuck in the middle of the Pro12 and in the most precarious position of the Big Three in terms of Heineken Cup, while Leinster are reigning champs of Europe and Ulster are unbeaten this season, they are right now the third best team in Irish rugby.  Shouldn’t they be the ones trying to foster the spirit of indignation?

For sure, but how?  The memories of Munster’s greatness are still fresh and there’s no real desire to turn the crosshairs on a province which has given so much to Irish rugby in the recent past.  The respect they’ve earned down the years has long-term value.  Even tedious 15-9 wins over a dull Saracens team have the press swooning like its the Beatles and are described as ‘magical nights’, while ROG even at his most ordinary can be described as the ‘perfect 10 giving a tactical masterclass’.

While we are not proclaiming that the entire Irish media are biased towards Munster, we do have a theory on this. The sports media in Ireland is pretty uncritical in general – they reflect a public which proclaims extreme loyalty towards “their” team (whoever it may be) and wants to see that reflected in what they read. In addition, Ireland is a small and parochial country – the sports media are in regular contact with coaches and players and like to keep on good terms with them. Two stories stand out in this regard:

  • Dwarf-gate in Queenstown – while Mike Tindall and various other England players were having photos surrepticiously taken by hacks writing Gotcha! stories, the Ireland team were in the exact same bar … with the Irish rugby press, all drinking together and having great gas
  • Fangio once told a story about how he wrote “Peter Clohessy would be the only man in Limerick whose car could be left unlocked on the street and it would still be there when he got back” – he meant it as a compliment that, in a city with a gritty reputation, the Claw was held in huge esteem. By the standards of (again) the English gutter press, it’s pretty tame stuff – but Clohessy took exception, and went out of his way to point that out to Fanning

So that means lots of positivity – but what has this got to do specifically with Munster? The punditry class in Ireland is dominated by former players, and those from Munster appear to be more reluctant to dole out criticism of their province than those with ties to Leinster or Ulster.

Leinster, in their lengthy fallow period, had to endure the likes of Franno and Jim Glennon sniping from the sidelines, sometimes with some pretty nasty observations (remember the Leinster Ladyboys?).  Ulster have always had a culture of criticism, and tend more naturally to see the glass as half-empty.  Former Ulster players feel a responsibility to hold today’s team up against the standard of their interpro-dominating vintages from the past. But former Munster players appear lothe to criticise the players wearing the shirt.  There’s a culture of blood being thicker than water, for sticking up for the team, buying into the ethos – embedded from their playing days when they had to do exactly the same.

Perhaps it will change once Generation Ligind move into media roles – they knew what it took to achieve greatness, know what professionalism is all about and know the standard required to make Munster great again. In fact, Alan Quinlan looks extremely capable of hard-hitting analysis [aside: when, as a former Munster player, he tipped them to lose at home to Saracens, it was so noteworthy the boys on OTB speculated about “Quinny Slams Munster” headlines], and Jirry Flannery is on record as saying he didn’t really rate the next group of players coming through, and in a remarkable swipe, said he didn’t have much time for ex-players hanging-on to the coat-tails of the current squad.  He’s yet to establish a niche for himself in the media, but could be interesting, and his hair is really fascinating.  And surely, when ROG eventually retires after the 2021 Lions tour and moves into punditry he’ll offer a suitably withering assessment of the shortcomings of his replacement at fly-half.  Now that has to be worth waiting for.

Leinster Sign McCarthy

Mike McCarthy has signed for Leinster for next season, in what’s bound to be a controversial and emotion-stirring move.  On the surface it looks like Ireland’s biggest and most successful province has gone poaching the best player from the weakest and least resourced, which doesn’t look very nice, but it’s worth taking some time to see if that is the whole story.

First of all, it’s necessary to say McCarthy is a terrific signing for Leinster.  He’s exactly what they’ve been looking for to fill the Nathan Hines-shaped void in their second row.  He’s a superb footballer, he’s tough, he’s experienced, he’s in his prime, he’s a tighthead-side scrummager and he’s really, really, ridiculously good looking (in fact, maybe he’s more of a replacement for Trevor Hogan than Nathan Hines).

But is it fair game for Leinster to go and take him off Connacht?  First of all, Mike McCarthy is out of contract at the end of the season, so he is not bound to Connacht, and is entitled to move to any other team that chooses to offer terms – he’s a free agent. Secondly, he is (naturally) entitled to get the best deal for himself and his career.  He’s now an established international player and his stock has never been higher – playing with Leinster represents a chance to compete for silverware and enhance his international credentials.  Connacht are having a good season and are improving, but there is no guarantee they’ll be in the Heineken Cup next year – and, at any rate, Connacht players have not been popular under the present international management – moving to Leinster has something of an international insurance policy about it.

Is it fair to compare McCarthy’s move to the experience of Carr, Hagan and to a lesser extent Cronin since making the move from west to east?  Well, McCarthy will be going to Leinster as a first team player, and an important one at that – the other three came as backup (at best), with an understanding that further development was required.  The media coverage of Carr, Hagan and Cronin’s Leinster careers has at times been bewlidering, painting them as hopeless backups who would have been better staying put. Yet Cronin gets regular match-time and has been a success with Leinster. Admittedly, Carr and Hagan have not – but they have hardly helped themselves by performing so poorly.  Leinster currently have an outside-back injury crisis – had Fionn Carr shown any sort of reliability or try-scoring form he would be starting against Clermont this weekend.  But he hasn’t, so he isn’t.

So it checks out on the player’s side, but what about the big meanies from Dublin 4?  Have they behaved appropriately?  Judging by Connacht’s press release, they appear to think not.

But to answer this, you have to look at the structure of Irish rugby.  The provinces are in active competition with one another, not collaboration.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of this, but that being the playing field, Leinster are perfectly entitled to offer terms to an out-of-contract player.  It appears this is something the IRFU are trying to fix, and according to Peter O’Reilly’s recent scoops, the newly appointed Director of Rugby will be responsible for managing the spread of talent among the provinces and increase the levels of co-operation between them.  This can only be good for Connacht; the IRFU might encourage the likes of Lewis Stevenson or Ian Nagle to travel West were it in place now.

It’s worth going back in time to when Nathan Hines did leave Leinster – Munster at the time had the top 4 Irish second rows in the country, judging by the international pecking order – Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Micko and Donnacha Ryan were the second row forwards selected for the 2010 November internationals. If there was an overarching Pro Rugby Tsar, he would probably have asked Ryan (4th in the Munster pecking order) to move to Leinster to replace Hines. So if Ryan were playing for Leinster now, McCarthy might not be moving!

The IRFU centrally contracts some players, and from what we can gather from this shadowy process, encourages them to locate where they have the best chance of first-team rugby, but McCarthy does not appear to have been offered a central contract.  He’s been offered terms by Leinster rugby, so the IRFU (who Connacht say they tried to recruit to keep the player at Connacht) probably couldn’t do an awful lot.  Unfortunately for Connacht, they probably weren’t that pushed either, and presumably have no qualms about McCarthy playing at the highest level, where he will be a guaranteed starter.  Connacht have always been under-resourced by the IRFU, and Leinster probably know that if they go fishing, they will catch.  That is unfortunate, but it is the system that is in place –for now at least – it’s the IRFU who choose to under-resource Connacht.

So while one does feel for Connacht in losing a player that they have developed and brought to prominence, there is movement in the other direction.  Connacht were the beneficieries of Leinster’s scouting when they signed sturdy tighthead prop Nathan White this summer.  It would be no surprise to see a couple of Leinster’s younger players pitch up in the west next season (Jordi Murphy for example), and perhaps one or two of those signed from Connacht in the last couple of seasons will return there.

We don’t expect Connacht fans to be happy about the news.  Munster fans will probably be even more unhappy, but should probably ask themselves how they’d feel if David MacSharry signed for them tomorrow.  For Leinster fans, the news is massive, going a long way to shore up what looked a significant hole in their squad.

Munster Fly-Half Steers Team To Famous Victory

The good ship Heineken is cruising along nicely, and the hopeless rats are deserting at a cracking pace – after this weekend, the list of realistic quarter finalists stands at a desultory 10 – Ulster and Quins will surely go through alone; and while Toulon, Sarries and Clermont hold the whip hand in their pools, Montpellier, Munster and Leinster are still in touch and have definite best runners-up potential. In the Pool of Death, the Ospreys are virtually gone, leaving Toulouse and Leicester to fight for top spot, and also contest for a best runners-up spot. Racing Metro and Castres are still alive, but they would much prefer to do it in the Top14, and may see HEC progression as counter-productive – the cream is rising to the top.

It was a good weekend for Romanian and Spanish rugby – Bucharest’s win over Agen had echoes of the 80s, when the Mighty Oaks had the Frenchies’ number, and Declan Cusack’s Bizkaia Gernika did what their fellows Basques in Biarritz and Bayonne couldn’t, and won a game – kudos all round. Rather less encouraging was the performance of the representatives from some of European rugby’s more prominent countries – after 3 rounds of the HEC, all the Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides are out of contention for qualification. In a miserable, no win 7 loss weekend for the Pro12 Patsies, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets and Glasgow’s losses at home to English debutants Exeter and French Euro-bunnies Castres were notable low points. For the second year in three, we will have no Welsh quarter-finalists, Embra’s success last year looks increasingly like a flash in the pan and Italy continues its wait for a knock-out representative – this is not a sustainable divvy-up of the spoils.

All week, we had heard the repeated mantra of the Europe-dominating ambition of Saracens – from the cheerleading media in Blighty talking up their chances in Thomond, to the cheerleading media in Tara Street looking to underpin Munster’s underdog credentials. In the event, their lack of ambition on the field was stunning – for a team with such an array of talented backs, they play a horrendous brand of rugby. It’s hard to credit that a backline containing the likes of Hodgson, Farrell, Strettle, Goode and Ashton can score just 9 tries in 10 Premiership games. Do the top brass at Saracens really think that the type of 10 man dross that was in vogue 4 years ago is really a realistic gameplan for HEC success? If they do, their “European ambition” is just like the Northampton pack – all talk and no trousers.

With Ulster odds-on to be among the top 4 seeds going into the HEC quarter-finals, and the ERC stipulation on a minimum 15,000 capacity for knock-out games, the race is on to get Ravers up to capacity by April. Ulster want nothing less than to win their pool in style, only to draw a best runner-up like their modern-day nemesis, Leinster, and have to effectively give up home advantage. Expect Christmas to be cancelled in Belfast – the quid pro quo will be a first HEC knock-out game at Ravers since January 1999 and a serious tilt at bringing the trophy to Ravers for the second time, and to Ireland for a remarkable seventh.

As for Leinster, yesterday’s game was pretty instructive – Leinster were as “there for the taking” as they are going to be, yet Clermont looked a little intimidated – there is no doubt the regular wins for the D4 goys over the Bananamen have got into their heads. If Leinster end up going back to the Marcel Michelin in a quarter-final, they will be confident they have their number. Leinster won’t be happy at the prospect coming out of the pool in second, but they are probable seventh seeds and will fancy their chances away to Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins and Saracens. Only Toulon represent an intimidating journey into the unknown – it’s a fascinating sub-plot to the jostling for quarter-final seeding – third place might be a better place to be than second.

And finally, to Connacht, whose victory over fading heavyweights Biarritz was possibly the highlight of the weekend.  17 of their 22 points came from the boot of Dan Parks, including two sweetly struck drop goals.  In a season when foreign signings have been more under the microscope than ever, he is pound for pound th best bit of business by an Irish province this summer.  He is exactly what Connacht needed at this point in their development and is performing an invaluable job for them, turning the pressure they generate into points on the scoreboard.

The result certainly had an effect on our Munster-Leinster collision course.  It more or less takes Biarritz out of the equation, as they can only achieve a maximum of 20 points.  So, perhaps both Leinster and Munster could qualify as best runners-up?  Perhaps, but it’s looking like we might have been a bit dismissive of Pool 2’s chances of producing a second qualifier.  We thought Ospreys would be a contender in a three-way tussle in that group, but it doesn’t look like panning out that way.  With Ospreys now all but doomed, both Toulouse and Leicester could win there and set about achieving some pretty high points totals.

PS the “think of the fans” argument for not sending off players who commit dangerous tackles is one of the most annoying memes of modern times. After Lloyd Williams was sent off for dumping Benoit Paillauge on his noggin, Ieuan Evans and Paul Wallace moaned about how it was never a red, and the Sky line at full-time was how disappointing it all was for the fans to see a refereeing decision “ruin the game”. It prompted us to imagine this hypothetical conversation between fans:

Fan 1: Oh look, Player A is going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life after being dumped on his head.

Fan 2: Who cares about that, I’m just hoping the referee doesn’t send off Player B – I paid £15 to see this!

Twenty20 Vision

It’s that time of year again – the December Heineken Cup double headers when the Irish get to teach the French culture and passion – the magic in the air (thanks, Gerry) of Irish provincial grounds has those renowned philistines in Biarritz and Bayonne setting down their hatchets and hams and asking could they be more like us.

The December pair of games often decide the fates of teams, either by gaining momentum with two quick wins, or edging an opponent out of the race over two legs. The relatively short break between these rounds, and the January games is an important factor too – teams can maintain form better over a few weeks of holidays than a month-long international break, and, conversely, a pair of disappointing results is hard to come back from.

This season’s competition is no different, and the three big Irish provinces face their biggest pool rivals in the crucial double headers, but from drastically different places. If Ulster manage one win and a losing bonus point, they will be on 14 points at Christmas with two eminently winnable games to come and their fate very much in their own hands – they will then have the pool more or less wrapped up (barring any disasters away to Castres), and will be targeting a home quarter final. They will, of course, be looking to win in Franklin’s Gardens, but these Saints have their moments and a losing bonus point would be no disgrace. Still, Ulster are in charge of their pool and have room for manouevre, unlike Leinster and Munster.

Adding up the numbers, it seems Munster and Leinster should be keeping a closer eye on each other than you might think, because of how the other pools are turning out. In Pool 6, Nouveau Riche Toulon are on the verge of disappearing into the distance – a double header with bluffers Sale Sharks and at least 9 points awaits – and the other teams are so rubbish/uninterested [delete as appropriate] they have no chance of scraping together enough points to push for qualification as a best runner-up. Pool 2 is the precise opposite – Toulouse, Leicester and the Ospreys are going to go down to the wire, meaning probably only one team is likley to get through, particularly with Treviso dangerous at home. Pool 3 is one where we will  see the first of the qualifying runners-up  – Harlequins and Biarritz have doubles with Zebre and Connacht respectively and we expect four wins for the bigger boys and both should be sitting pretty over egg nog with Granny.

So if the second runner-up isn’t going to come from Toulon or Ulster’s groups, or the Group of Death, who does that leave? Right! Its Leinster and Munster’s pools! What fun. Could the two Irish giants be on a collision course of sorts, without actually facing each other.  It looks like it.  We have Clermont and Saracens strong favourites in both pools – Clermont have a 2 point lead  and revenge in their sights, and Saracens are 3 points ahead in a pool with 2 rubbish teams in it. So the famously friendly provinces could be scrapping for the final slot in this years knock-out stages.

So how will it pan out?

Leinster are currently on 8 points after 2 games. They will have as their base case scenario:

  • Clermont (a) – 0 points
  • Clermont (h) – 4 points
  • Hard-scrummaging Scarlets (h) – 4 points
  • Exeter (a) – 4 points

A losing bonus point, to be truthful, is a tough ask in the Marcel Michelin, and is odds against, despite their recent record against les Jaunards. Five wins will give them 20 points, with home to the Scarlets being the obvious target for a bonus point to get to 21.  There’s scope to get up to 23 if they can get something this weekend, and perhaps if Exteter are a little punch-drunk in mid-January.

As for Munster, they have 6 after 2 games – 1 win and 2 bonus points. Here’s what they will look for, as a base case:

  • Saracens (h) – 4 points, tears and tales of Keith Wood and John Langford besting Pienaar and co
  • Saracens (a) – 1 point, tears and emotion from Gerry about famous away performances
  • Embra (a) – 4 points
  • Racing Metro (h) – 5 points from the French bunnies, tears, and triumphant recall of famous days past

That’s 20 as well! Rob Penney and his merry men will target pointless (in all senses) Embra as a potential extra bonus point to get to 21 themselves, but it’s hard to see them getting above this without beating Saracens twice, thereby winning the group and making the calculations irrelevant. Wow – isn’t this fun? Now, if they have the same number of points, it goes to tries scored, and Munster currently lead that metric 6-1, but they have less margin for error. Us? We hope it goes to the wire [well, Egg does; Palla just wants Leinster through and for his heart rate to stay below 180 in the process], and wouldn’t it be ironic if Leinster played their final game against Exeter knowing what they had to do – say, score 4 tries and win by 27 points or something unlikely like that? Imagine how miraculous that would be!

Wednesday Shorts

It’s the middle of the week and there’s plenty to wrap up before moving on to the Heineken Cup, so here’s a little about a lot.

Go and Learn To Beat France

Ireland have been pitted against France in the 2015 World Cup draw, and our history against them, especially in the World Cup itself, is fairly lamentable – the names Emile N’Tamack, Frederick Michalak and Vincent Clerc may ring some pretty painful bells.  Still, at least it gives us three years to work out how to beat them.  Ireland don’t really do ‘building for the World Cup’ in the same way as some other nations target it from far out, but you could be forgiven for thinking the gameplan they had going in to the last World Cup (essentially choke tackle everything in sight plus Give the Ball to Seanie or Fez) was tailored specifically to beating the Aussies.  It was certainly fit for purpose, but when it came to doing away with Wales, it was exposed as too narrow and one-dimensional.  Ireland now have three years to put together a gameplan that will beat France, because beat them we must or the BNZers await in the quarter finals.  Choke tackling probably won’t be as high on the list of priorities this time around.  Who knows, pace and offloading could – and should – come to the fore.  And somehow finding a way to deal with Louis Picamoles.

En-ger-land

Whatever you make of Lancaster’s mob, and whatever the details of the Kiwis’ succumbing to norovirus in the week, that was a performance to stir the soul.  English rugby will do well to keep its feet on the ground, but it’s a win worthy of a little getting carried away.  England’s commitment to the breakdown was especially commendable.  Wood, Launchbury and Youngs were outstanding in that area, repeatedly slowing down the Kiwis’ ball.  Whatever about Ashton’s loathsome swan dive, we were especially happy for two of the good guys in the team: Chris Robshaw for responding so well after his leadership credentials were questioned and Tom Wood for his best performance since being out for so long with injury.  Wood is a class act and had the grace through the adrenalin rush to wish the womens’ team the best of luck in his man of the match interview.

Professionalism Calleth

And so, the IRFU hurtle towards professionalism, with an Elite Performance Director soon to be appointed.  The role appears to involve developing and running the game, appointing coaches and trying to get the national team and provinces to work together rather than driving wedges between one another.  Time is very much of the essence – particularly, we imagine, with Deccie and his coaching team’s contracts up at the end of the year.  The role appears so well suited to Conor O’Shea it’s almost silly.  He has links to both Leinster and Munster and appears to have vision and terrific organisational capabilities.  Plus, he’s a smoothie who’d be highly capable at dealing with the public.  It’s a no brainer.  Could he be prised away from the Harlequins project for what would be a pivotal role in Irish rugby?  As Irish rugby fans, we would certainly hope so.

Filling Spaces

So, we turn our attentions to the Heineken Cup.  We’ll be looking in depth at the significance of the double headers on thursday, but a quick look at selection issues at the provinces is in order.  Ulster had the luxury of auditioning both Gilroy and Trimble for the play on the wing opposite Tommy Bowe, but Munster and Leinster appear not to be so fortunate right now.  In the back five for Munster, and the backline for Leinster, it’s become a case of finding enough good players to fill the spots, such are the injuries they’ve to withstand.  For Munster, O’Connell, Stander, Dougall and possibly Niall Ronan are all out, while Leinster must make do without O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Eoin O’Malley and Luke Fitzgerald.  We expect Munster to line out with O’Callaghan-Ryan-O’Callaghan-O’Mahony-Cawlin from 4 to 8, and Leinster to run with Madigan-Kearney-McFadden-D’arcy-Nacewa from 15-11.  A daunting weekend lies ahead for both.