Tipping Point

Egg read Ruchie’s book on a boring journey of late, and he found the post-RWC07 discussions illuminating. Obviously, Ruchie, Graham Henry and everyone connected with NZ rugby was devastated and disappointed with the defeat to France, both the manner of it and when it happened (quarter-finals). New Zealand had a goal of winning the World Cup and failed. So what were the next steps? The NZRU works on cycles based on the World Cup, so the Union set a goal (winning RWC11 at home) then asked how best to achieve that.

The Union then invited applications and pitches for coaches to do that. Robbie Deans applied, as did Graham Henry. Henry, though, applied as a team, with Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, with a 4-year plan (diversify coaching expertise within the team, Grand Slam tour of the NH in 2008, retain Tri-Nations, win RWC11). Deans was a better head coach candidate than Henry, but Henry came with a better plan, and got the job.

The key thing was NZRU had metrics by which to judge performance, and criteria by which to judge applicants. In Ireland, we don’t have that. We used to roll from Six Nations to Six Nations, a state of affairs which only ended when Deccie got the job – he started in the 08/09 season and got yearly, season-based contracts. His latest 2-year extension was signed in summer 2011, just before the RWC.

Ireland had an ok tournament – they beat Australia, but fell at the quarter-finals to Wales. We aren’t sure if Kidney had a target from the Union, but, if he did, you would think it was a semi-final appearance. But we don’t know, and he had a new deal anyway. So now, Kidney has 6 months left on his contract, and this tournament is about whether he will lead Ireland into RWC15 or not. If we win a Grand Slam, or just miss out, like 2007, that’s going to be Deccie. If not, who knows who it will be. Either way, we are 2 years behind everyone else come November.

Last year’s Six Nations was a write-off for Ireland – just two wins, over Scotland and Italy, a creditable draw in Paris and a pair of horrendous defeats to Wales and England, notable for a passive gameplan and a mashed scrum respectively. More importantly, squad development was negligible – Ireland picked just 19 players, with all changes injury-enforced. Stalwarts like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy, who will be long gone by RWC15, played every game, and Ronan O’Gara, who has also played his last RWC game, remained a key squad member.

Since then, development has got better in spite of more horrible results, notably a 60-0 thumping in Hamilton – the likes of Chris Henry, Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have shown they have what it takes for Test level rugby, and the generation of Ryan, Sexton, Heaslip and Kearney have taken ownership of the team. A near-miss in the second test in NZ was unlucky, then a merry thumping of Argentina improved the mood somewhat. But, the fact remains, last years Six Nations was a huge missed opportunity – and its not like playing the same old faces results in a successful tournament.

Now, this isn’t completely Kidney’s fault – we don’t know if his bosses mandate him to concentrate on the Six Nations, or the RWC. Does he have license to use the first Six Nations after the RWC for squad development? You would suspect not, and, even if he did, would he, given his personal goal is to get a new contract in the space of 2 Six Nations and 1 November series? Unlikely. The nature of how the IRFU award contracts mitigates against that – the extension in 2011 was unrelated and uncorrelated to achievement in the RWC, and it doesn’t help the coach plan in a 4 year cycle.

The squad looks deep and talented right now (with 2 exceptions we will discuss below) and well set for a build into England 2015, with a good blend of youth and experience across the team. In the front row, Kidney has the luxury of auditioning candidates for bench roles at loose-head prop and hooker with the knowledge they have some Test experience and will be able to do a job. Cian Healy and Rory Best are incumbents, but there is depth, and occasionally competition.

Tighthead prop is a war zone – Mike Ross was in management cross-hairs in November for not putting the toilet seat up (or something), but the cupboard is bare. Michael Bent started off promisingly against the Boks, but has regressed to such an extent that serially-crocked Deccie Fitz is considered more reliable. After that, it’s the Scarlets’ favourite prop Stephen Archer and backpedalling Jamie Hagan – not good.

In spite of missing Paul O’Connell and Dan Tuohy through injury, Ireland’s second row resources are strong – Ryan and McCarthy had a great November, and willing winger Stakhanov is having his best season since 2009. If more injuries befall this sector, Devin Toner and NWJMB are available – neither are at Test level yet, but it’s not scraping the barrel. Even Ryan Caldwell is an option.

In the back-row, Fez is a long-term injury loss, yet we can still afford to have the likes of Roger Wilson and James Cawlin nowhere near the matchday squad. This unit is a strength, if badly-balanced – the absence of Chris Henry from the starting lineup against Wales is a criminal offence – the man has been just about the best openside in the HEC in the last 12 months, and offers badly-needed groundhog abilities.  It reinforces the feeling that we stumble across our best selections when injury forces the coach’s hand.  An unbalanced back-row has proved our Achilles heel very recently; but has that key learning been absorbed?

The halves pick themselves by now, and Conor Murray has able deputies in the 2 Leinster scrummies and Paul Marshall. Murray’s delivery was excellent against Argentina, and he is having a good season. Outhalf is a weakness on the depth front – Sexton might be the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere, but he killed Bambi we can only hope the Racing business is not a distraction, for we have nothing else. The great Radge is past the stage of relevance at HEC level, never mind Test, and it’s too much to expect him to revert to 2009 form – an outhalf who will be contributing through RWC15 should be given a chance to get some experience, be it Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley.

The centre partnership is still as you were – neither will be around in 2.5 years time, but no-one has yet demanded their shirt, with the possible exception of Luke Marshall, who we feel might have started a game or 2 were he not on the treatment table. Keith Earls has had a solid season at 13 for Munster, but didn’t take his chance in November – he’s still first deputy to You-Know-Who, but still deputy for now. Ferg is another option at centre, as are Dave McSharry and Darren Cave.

Wing is where we have the nicest selection issue – our best and most consistent wing of the Kidney era, Tommy Bowe, is out, but we can still afford to have Luke Fitzgerald and Ferg out of the twenty-three. We think Gilroy and Zebo are uber-exciting, but maybe both a bit too similar – we’d have like to seen Fitzy picked for Wales, but it’s a good problem to have.

With Bob back in the mix, the 15 shirt is nailed down. Simon Zebo provided a creditable alternative in November, and Robbie Henshaw has come right up to the cusp of the squad. Jared Payne will be eligible in 18 months too – this is another position of strength for Ireland.

So how will they do, in the latest make-or-break tournament? The France and England at home schedule is one which served us well in 2007 and 2009 – we always feel we can beat Wales on our day, and Scotland and Italy are bunnies right now. All of which is both a blessing and curse, for anything less than 4 wins isn’t good enough.

It all hinges on the Wales game – win, and we have momentum going into the England game, and should be beginning to whisper about France meaning Grand Slam. Lose, and we’re pretty much cooked – we could end up with just 2 wins and 2 home defeats. The Puma game in November carried hints of a new style, dictated by that new leadership corps, the Sexton, Heaslip, Ryan, Kearney group. It is essential Ireland take that up and go into these games with a coherent plan, for if we don’t, we are snookered. The lack of a definable “Ireland” style has undoubtedly contributed to our inconsistency, where we can go from nearly beating NZ to losing by a record margin in a week.

Another habit we want to break is the slow-starting one – against Wales, New Zealand and South Africa last year, we began series as if in a trance, and never recovered poise. If we lose to Wales, Deccie is basically a lame duck, and who knows how the season is going to pan out. Win, and as we said above, possibilities are endless.

If we can do both of the above (win, with a definable style), we are showing development as a team, and perhaps Kidney is the man to being us through to RWC15. If we do win 4 games with a near-miss on the other one, that’s definite progress, and something to build on. We may be behind the rest in this cycle (except Scotland), but a good tournament will go a long way to changing that.

It’s a pity the first match is the key one – a nice little trip to Embra to start would be perfect, but it’s pretty much win or bust from this Saturday. Regretably, we are leaning towards bust as the more likely outcome – a one-off performance against a disinterested Puma XV does not override the dross which preceded it in 2012. In addition, we have picked a side with no openside flanker to go in against a Welsh team with 2 of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Wales will try and kick the ball long and in-play and force us into a succession of rucks. Given Henry isn’t playing, we will need to go into the game with a clear and executable gameplan in order to win – that seems unlikely to us, based on recent history.

The next game, home to England, is an obvious bounceback opportunity – we have a good record in recent years against the English and owe them one for Court-gate in Twickers last year. The English side is young and exciting, but ours is experienced and occasionally clinical – we think it has the makings of a memorable win. We’ll beat Scotland, but then lose to the French – we’ve a serious mental block against them, and the new-look snazzy bleus will fancy themselves – home loss. A wrap-up win in Rome on Paddy’s weekend will draw the curtain on the memorable but over-long Declan Kidney era, and it’s back to the drawing board for RWC15.

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Ireland Team Announced

Deccie named his team for Ireland’s opening Six Nations game in the Millennium today and it contained few surprises. From the Argentina game in November, the changes are:

  • Fit-again Bob in for the injured Tommy Bowe, with Simon Zebo reverting to wing
  • Fit-again BOD takes back the hallowed 13 shirt from Keith Earls, who didn’t stake a strong claim for it in the Autumn
  • Fit-again Rory Best comes in for injured Richardt Strauss (this change would have happened anyway, in our opinion)
  • Fit-again Sean O’Brien is preferred to Chris Henry, with Peter O’Mahony moving to openside

So, to summarize, 4 of the apostles who were injured are now fit again and come back in. Ireland look more experienced and familiar as a result, and at least its interesting.

Are these the right calls? Not for us.

Wales, like last year, will look to kick long and in-field and contest every breakdown feverishly with twin groundhogs Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton – and we are going in without an openside. Henry, who has been far and away the best 7 in Ireland for the last 2 years with a good November series under his belt, is on the bench. We risk losing the breakdown battle and initiative to a Welsh team with a backline who can punish you – this is a poor selection.

On the wing, we have gone for the young and exciting option – we’ll get plenty of opportunities to see Gilroy and Zebo with ball in hand as they run back Welsh bombs, that’s for sure. But we feel their skillsets are very similar – both are out and out touchline huggers, pacy with an eye for the tryline. Zebo is better at finding space, while Gilroy’s dancing feet and NFL-style pirouettes make him slippery in contact. Neither is adept and coming off their wing looking for that killer line to break through, or even to bosh into contact and set up a move. Bowe is brilliant at this, and Andy Trimble performs this role for Ulster, but we would have picked Luke Fitzgerald, who looks electric on his return from injury, over Gilroy.

But that’s a marginal call – we can see why Gilroy has been selected. The flanker call, on the other hand, is a  clanger – we are giving the Welsh free reign at ruck-time. If we have a gameplan to keep the ball in hand and away from their breakdown-dominating flankers, great, because we’ll need one.

The subs bench contains Declan Fitzpatrick, who has played around 120 minutes this season – there was no other option, as anyone who saw the Wolfhounds scrum accelerating backwards on Friday will understand. Michael Bent needs to spend some time with Leinster and get back on track.

The team in full:

15 Rob Kearney 14 Craig Gilroy 13 Brian O’Driscoll 12 Gordon D’Arcy 11 Simon Zebo 10 Jonathan Sexton 9 Conor Murray 1Cian Healy 2 Rory Best 3 Mike Ross 4 Mike McCarthy 5 Donnacha Ryan 6 Peter O’Mahony 7 Sean O’Brien 8 Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 David Kilcoyne 18 Declan Fitzpatrick 19 Donncha O’Callaghan 20 Chris Henry 21 Eoin Reddan 22 Ronan O’Gara 23 Keith Earls

The Ins and Outs of the Johnny Sexton saga

On Friday afternoon, our Twitter timeline was like a morgue.  It was as if there was a death in the family.  Johnny Sexton, the icon of Leinster rugby, would not be staying with his boyhood province, instead signing a lucrative contract with flash Parisian moneybags Racing Metro.  After being knocked out of Europe the previous weekend, it felt like Armageddon for Leinster fans.

Now that we’ve had the weekend to process the bad news, hopefully we can offer a bit more perspective than on Friday, when Palla was tweeting through the tears… here’s how we see it.

1. It’s bad news for Ireland

Some commentators felt the move might actually be positive for Irish rugby; Sexton will hardly disimprove in Paris, and it elevates Madigan to a probable starting role at Leinster.  More Irish fly-halves will be starting big games.  Such an argument looks like a curious emphasis of quantity over quality.  It is great to have as many Irish 10s playing high level rugby as possible, but surely it is most important that by far the best we have is playing in Ireland?  If you don’t put much stock in the IRFU’s ploy of keeping the players under their central watch, then fine, but the players appear to appreciate their game-time being managed (to an extent) and it has hardly done Sexton’s test career any harm that he plays his club rugby with Dorce outside, as well as the other cabal of Leinster internationals.  The net effect is a negative for Irish rugby in general; we’d be better off with Sexton at Leinster. Plus, as we will discuss in more detail below, this could open the doors to other players leaving – which is definitely bad for Ireland.

2. The IRFU has a case to answer

Without being inside the negotiating rooms, we cannot pinpoint the blame on any one individual or body, but at the very least, the IRFU have a lot to answer for on this one.  How did they let the jewel in their crown get away?  Did they undervalue just how good and marketable a player Sexton is?  Going by Thornley and O’Reilly and his godfather Billy Keane, Sexton’s camp were unhappy that contract negotiations started so late and that the IRFU’s initial offer was no higher than Sexton currently earns.  Although he signed a two-year contract last time around, we understand that those negotiations were fraught, with Sexton unhappy at the IRFU’s offer of less than O’Gara (his reserve at the time) was earning.  An overspill of these bad vibes was probably brought into these negotiations.  The IRFU would not have been required to necessarily match the Racing offer; Sexton wanted parity with the top paid players in the country – a fair evluation of his ability, then –  but the IRFU would not meet him there.

The money men at 4 Lansdowne Road may not be completely displeased that they won’t have to pay big bucks to Sexton but still have him for Ireland, but that’s an extraordinally short-sighted view. Coming as it did in the week when Puma pulled the plug on their current kit deal, we should consider this – Sexton’s image rights are no longer controlled by the union, meaning any kit manufacturer will lower their offer commensurate with the fact that one of Ireland’s most marketable assets cannot promote their gear.

3. The central contracting system has its flaws

The central contracting system has served Ireland well, no question.  But its shortcomings were exposed here.  Leinster were the party with the most to lose, but they could do nothing, while the IRFU negotiated with the player.  Joe Schmidt must be seething; he has lost his best player, the cornerstone of his team, because of the slipshod work of others.  Just imagine.  Something is wrong in a system where interests and ability to act are so misaligned. And, to this point…

4. The IRFU’s relationship with the provinces must be better managed

Six months ago we blogged that the future success of Irish rugby depended on the powers that be’s ability to dovetail the provinces’ requirements with those of the national team.  Instead, what we have is a situation where the mission for the year is very much about ensuring that the national team is seen by all as the top dog.  Would this have entered Johnny Sexton’s thinking?  Probably.  There has been radio silence since the PR disaster that was the announcement of new player succession rules, but assuming they’re still going ahead, how confident could Sexton be that Leinster would be able to recruit the top-class second row they need to be competitive at the sharp end next season?  The IRFU’s determination to ensure the national team is not usurped in the fans’ minds as Numero Uno could end up hurting themselves as much as anyone.

5. The door is open for others

We can’t know yet if Sexton’s departure will be the first of many, but certainly it opens the door.  Cian Healy and Rob Kearney have not yet signed up for next season.  Kearney has been on regional airwaves describing his shock at the news.  Sexton’s move will no doubt lead those players to consider just how much a force Leinster can be without their great fly-half.  Compounding this, French clubs may now become encouraged.  The Irish provinces have yielded slim pickings over the years, with Clermont and Toulouse apparently coveting Sexton, but wary of being used as bargaining tools.  Such powerhouses will surely have found their interest piqued by this week’s transfer news. The aforementioned players are of course from Leinster, where there appeared to be genuine shock at how Luke Fitzgerald was cut from the payroll when injured – careers are short and Pandora’s Box is open.

One man we are genuinely concerned about is Sean O’Brien – amazing as it seems, one of our most important players is not currently on a central contract. His current Leinster deal ends next season, so one can expect the union to start discussions in December – if you were a French club, wouldn’t you make discrete contact in advance? O’Brien has many reasons to stay in Leinster, but you can bet that grá for the Union who haven’t made him an offer he can’t refuse is not one of them – they had betterget this one right.

6. Madigan deserves his chance

There’s already speculation that Leinster will scour the southern hemisphere for a fly-half, but this would be a bad move.  The one positive that comes out of this is the solving of the Madigan Riddle, also known as What Do You Do With a Problem Like Madeegan.  While Madigan still has a way to go to get to Sexton’s consummate level, at the very least his impressive performances in blue over the last two years have earned him the right to at least a season as first choice 10.  At his best he’s a thrilling talent with an eye for the tryline, a breaking threat and a sublime pass, and could prove himself to be the second-best 10 in the country if he can improve his decision-making and kicking from hand.  A Shaun Berne-type signing as back-up seems more appropriate, and it’s a pity that Paul Warwick has just been snapped up by Worcester; he would have been ideal. Now that George Ford is taking his promising talents to Oooooooooooooohh Bath, perhaps a move for Beaver is in order?

7. Sexton should see out the season

There’s a worthwhile argument that Leinster’s future must start today with as much invested in Madigan from now, including any Pro12 or Amlin knock-out games.  But Sexton has earned the right not to be treated as a shop-bought commodity and should remain Leinster’s first-choice 10 for the remainder of his contract.  Plus, respect must be paid to the remaining competitions in which Leinster will compete, which means giving themselves the best possible chance of winning them with the best team on the pitch.  Besides, with the Six Nations starting, Madigan will be afforded plenty of Pro12  starts over the coming months in any case.

8. Leinster must be positive and move on

It’s devastating for the fans and certainly a blow to the team to lose so great a player.  But wallowing in disappointment will achieve little.  Leinster’s squad can take comfort by recalling that their recent success was born out of adversity, and their hardness won through difficult times.  They have overcome worse than losing a key player before.  Furthermore, minds should be cast back to the summer of 2009, when a seemingly irreplacable Aussie backrow made his way back down under.  It seemed like the end of the world, but his loss was barely noticed following the emergence of a certain Tullow native with a penchant for smashing holes all over the pitch.

With this in mind, Proper Church’s tweets of Madigan with the meme ‘Relax. I’ve got this’ were a good start.

9. Bon Chance, Johnnny Sexton

Leinster fans in particular will be disappointed, hurt even, by the decision.  Some will call Sexton a mercenary and that he’s moved for the money.  But really, unless any of those people are Johnny Sexton, or Fintan Drury, or Johnny Sexton’s fiance, it’s impossible to know exactly what his motives are for leaving.  Many players have flirted with France before, most notably Brian O’Driscoll.  But none have been in Sexton’s position, where he has won three Heineken Cup medals with his hometown team.  BO’D stayed at Leinster out of a feeling of unfinished business.  Sexton may feel it’s as good a time as any for a fresh challenge.  To him, we say, bon chance.

Missing Muller

Ulster might have reached the HEC knock-out stages for a third successive year, but there was a rather anti-climactic feel to their qualification due to the lack of a home quarter-final, and the last two underwhelming performances at Ravers will have gone a long way towards it. They looked nailed-on for a home QF after round three, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way after that memorable win in Northampton.

After the disappointing loss in the return fixture with the Saints came the failure to get a bonus point at home to Glasgae. Now that might sound presumptuous, but Ulster should have scored four tries – and failure to do so put them behind Saracens (and Toulon) in the final rankings. The dirty win in Castres was about as good as they were going to get, and winning games in France is a tough habit to get into – so that’s a plus, but the Glasgow game was a disappointment.

They were let down by a curious helter-skelter panicky second quarter when they threw the ball around like confetti in minging conditions instead of sticking it up the jumper and trying to control it better, then a third quarter where they completely switched off. It took a few changes in the pack and the introduction of Paul Marshall to snap them back into gear – and two tries promptly followed.

Although Ulster might be able to replicate some of the lineout work of Johann Muller with a combination of NWJMB and Robbie Diack, they were unable to replace the captaincy skills and leadership qualities Muller brings to the table. There is no way the former Springbok would have allowed Ulster to take the ball out of the tight in the second quarter when in the Glasgae 22.

The absence of Muller was compounded by the ongoing unavailability of Fez and injury to Dan Tuohy – Ulster lost 3 cornerstones of their pack and couldn’t replace their influence. Chris Henry had a good game and was, as usual, the lynchpin of Ulster, but Rory Best and John Afoa were quiet – too quiet. The failure to get a grip on the game until late on was ultimately their undoing – this was an average Glasgae side and, conditions allowing, Ulster needed to slap them down early and then milk tries. And they couldn’t do it.

A comparison of the three games where Muller started and the three he didn’t are revealing:

  • Muller starts: Played 3 (2 away, 1 home), Points difference 14-0, Try difference 9-2
  • Muller doesn’t start: Played 3 (1 away, 2 home), Points difference 9-5, Try difference 3-2

Of course, Ulster had many more injuries than just Muller, but the shaky lineout and general frenzy indicate that Muller was missed more than most.

Thankfully for Ulster, the HEC knock-out stages are somewhat of a new tournament, and one can expect them to have a full selection by then (injuries will be managed with an early-April start in mind) with the exception of Tommy Bowe.

If Saracens switch the game to Wembley or Twickers or some other giant stadium, it will make the task easier, but Ulster have a mountain to climb that they have helped make themselves.

Gallic Shrug

There was an air of inevitability about Munster’s five-try qualifying haul on Sunday.  Not even Munster’s most ardent supporters – heck, not even Frankie Sheahan – would claim there was anything miraculous about it, or hold it up against famous last-round wins against Sale or Gloucester.

Why?  Because we’ve become accustomed to the middle tier French rugby clubs capitulating in the latter rounds of the Cup.  When Racing gave up a generous lead at home to Saracens the week before, Leinster’s goose was more or less cooked.  For some – Leinster fans anyway – it resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory finale to the pool stages.  How much more exciting would it have been if Munster really had it put up to them, as Leinster did in Exeter?  That’s not to discredit Munster.  As discussed in Monday’s post, they had their destiny in their own hands and did what they had to do; they deserve their place in the last eight.

The question is, can anything be done to ensure sides remain competitive to the last?  Not really.  Sure, you could try to impose fines on teams for putting out weakened sides, but in the days of heavy squad rotation, how do you define first and second choice players?  On the face of it, it looks unworkable.

And besides, it’s more a question of attitude than names on a team sheet.  Rugby is a game where bodies are put on the line; if one side’s need is greater, they will generally prevail, even if they possess less quality.  As an example, Toulon put out a strong line-up for Saturday’s do-or-go-through-anyway game against Montpellier, but it was clear from the moment Freddie Michalak gave a Gallic shrug and allowed the Montpellier centre to canter over the line for their first try, that their hearts weren’t in it.  The best that could be achieved would be that if the French are to be given concessions as part of the much-discussed tournament restructure, that they are reminded of their responsibilities to uphold the credibility of the competition.

In defence of the French sides, that they were more consistently competitive this year than in any in recent memory.  Clermont and Toulouse will always treat the tournament with respect and Biarritz – although rubbish these days – have a tradition of giving it a go.  Toulon, with their mega-squad, have no excuse for not being competitive, and took advantage of an easy pool to amble through to a home quarter-final.  It was only Montpellier’s second season in the competition, and while their pool was straightforward, they showed terrific commitment throughout and clearly wanted to make a statement, and qualified deservedly.

The performances of Castres and Racing were also committed for the most part.  Castes are notorious for throwing matches on the road, but they won in Glasgow and kept Northampton tryless in Franklin’s Gardens, a result which effectively took the Saints out of the competition.  Racing also won in Scotland, beat Munster at home and looked suitably gutted at the end of their hard-fought defeat to Saracens.  It was only once they were ruled out that they couldn’t be bothered.

If one thing could be done to improve the tournament, it’s a change to the lopsided seeding system, which counts the previous four years of tournament points to determine each side’s place in the rankings.  Four years is too many, and allows the deadwood to hang around for too long.  Cardiff were a top seed this year, which seems farcical.  They were losing semi-finalists four years ago, when Martyn Williams missed a penalty in a shoot-out against Leicester, but not many of the names that played that day are still on their books.  While there is no points system that can account for a loss of players to other clubs, two years’ ranking points appears more appropriate, and if the ranking coefficient included an element of domestic league performance, then all the better.

Regrets, They’ll Have A Few

The champions are out of Europe at the pool stages.  If that sounds pretty ignominious, then it probably is.  Sure, there were mitigating circumstances in a hefty injury list and a tough pool, but them’s the breaks and they weren’t the only team with injured players or good teams to contend with.  It’ll be especially gut-wrenching that the team to edge them out of the knockouts are their arch rivals, Munster, a team they would believe themselves to be better than.  Harlequins will be happier to be facing Munster than a rejuvenated Leinster that has belatedly sparked into life since getting a proper backline on the pitch.  But, hey, that’s Heineken Cup rugby.

Leinster can at least console themselves that they kept up their half of the bargain by securing the 10 match points they needed in the final two rounds.  That they did so in a swashbuckling style reminiscent of the last two seasons is reason enough to believe that they are not a busted flush yet, and that  their premature exit should not be seen as a serious demise.  But to be entering the final rounds relying on the middle-tier French clubs for favours – especially once their own fates have been sealed – is never going to be a recipe for success.  Leinster have only themselves to blame.

While it’s tempting to look at the possibility that they left a few tries out there against both Scarlets and Exeter, in truth the damage was done in rounds one to four.  Again, many will look to the double-header with Clermont, but given the backline Leinster had out in both games (Goodman at 12, and every other player from 11-15 playing out of their best position) and the nature of Clermont’s sense of unfinished business, it is understandable that they should lose both games.  Just one more point would have left Leinster’s fate in their own hands, and the opening week fiasco, where they sleepwalked to a fortuitous, tryless win over an Exeter which conceded seven tries at home to Clermont the following week was the one that got away.  To look at it more thematically, Leinster will rue that a misfiring lineuot proved expensive right through the pool stages.

No such concerns on the face of it for Ulster, but in having to go away to Saracens, they have made their possible passage to the final more difficult than it should have been.  They, too, will have cause for regret, in particular in taking their eye off the ball against Northampton in round four.  Having slaughtered the Saints in Franklin’s Gardens it looks as if Ulster may have got a bit carried away with themselves in the build-up to the return leg, and paid a heavy price.  Even still, a single extra point would have reversed the quarter-final match venue and as such, the awful third quarter in which they allowed Glasgow to dominate in Pool 5 left them one try short of what would have been a crucial bonus point.

By contrast, Munster will reflect that they are happy to be still in the competition after somehow squeezing out of a pool in which they never really impressed.  They can look back on the ten minute salvage operation against Edinburgh at home as the point that made all the difference to their campaign.  With one try on the board after 70 minutes, it looked set to be a disappointing afternoon at Thomond Park, but Paddy Butler’s introduction provided a spark and they manufactured three tries in the dying minutes, against admittedly hapless opposition.  They’re unlikely to do much in the knock-out stages, where the Anglo-French axis look set to dominte, but how Leinster must envy them.

Kidney’s Positive Step

Kidney’s training squad announcements rarely amount to much of a news day; in general everyone is invited to the party, and while it occasionally gives fans a chance to grumble over a stray omission (Paul Marshall and Fionn Carr in the past) the squad is usually intended to give away as little as possible.

In terms of personnel today’s announcement is little different.  Thirty-nine players are named, and while it’s good to see the likes of Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw included, given the size of the group, it’s impossible to derive anything meaningful from it.

However, the announcement that Jamie Heaslip will captain the Ireland team is a bit of news.  For the first time in almost a decade, Brian O’Driscoll will be on the Ireland team, but not the captain.  He says he’s ‘hugely disappointed’ and that the captaincy meant a lot to him.  Incidentally, the call was suggested by one of our many astute followers in the comment box recently.

It’s a positive move from Kidney for two reasons.  The first is player succession.  Brian O’Driscoll will not be going to the World Cup in 2015, and with a high degree of probability, won’t be around next season.  He’s yet to fully come back from his current injury layoff and is a doubt for the Exeter match this weekend (although likely to play, we understand).  It’s better to try to establish the next captain now than to wait until BO’D isn’t around.  It’s planning for the future, when he won’t be there; something Kidney’s critics – and that includes us – feel he hasn’t done enough of in his tenure.  Besides, having BO’D around to lean on will do Jamie no harm whatsoever as he grows into what is still a new role for him.

The second is continuity.  Sticking with Heaslip for the job signals a determination to carry forward the positive momentum generated in November, especially in the wins over Fiji and Argentina.  Heaslip is not everyone’s cup of mocha frappucino, and his debut as captain against South Africa did not go very well, but Kidney and Schmidt have only ever shown complete trust in him.  He enters the Six Nations in good form with Leinster and is a keystone of the pack.  It sets a positive tone, and one that we hope will be backed up with the remaining selections; in particular that Gilroy, Zebo and the in-form Fitzgerald will be considered for the wing positions, rather than Earls, who is not playing there and has been vocal about why, and – of huge importance – that the style in which Conor Murray played, and created space for Sexton to exploit in the win over Argentina, will be repeated in the Spring.

Renaissance Man

Donncha O’Callaghan is the classic workhorse of a rugger team – for Munster and Ireland, he has consistently tackled himself to a standstill, while taking a back seat to the like of Paul O’Connell (and even Micko) when it comes to leadership and taking the team forward.

For a man who is among the most decorated in Irish history (2 HECs, Grand Slam, 2 Lions tours, 90Ireland caps), the general impression is of a follower, a man who needed the Axels and Paulies of this world to step up on his behalf.

This impression has, ironically, been fed by the man who coached him to his finest moments – master mind-bender Deccie. Deccie never tires of telling us how valuable Donncha is to the cause, how we are lucky – nay, blessed – to have not only Paul O’Connell and Micko, but Donncha as well! And his most famous faint praise of O’Callaghan has become the most notorious – that Donncha is in the team for his “unseen work”. We’re not sure what it is either, but it was used to mask declining tackle counts and effectiveness on the ground.

For his continued selection in Irish XVs for the last two years, Donncha has become something of a bête noire on these pages, mocked as Stakhanov – a reference to the way he is inevitably described by all and sundry – the dedicated pack mule who can take a back seat when it comes to decision making and tactics.

Broader skillsets from the likes of Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy were ignored for the safe option of Donncha, and it became somewhat of a yardstick for conservatism in selection. Recall as well Devin Toner having to call the lineouts on his debut, and the reason for our frustration becomes clearer.

By the end of last season, O’Callaghan looked a busted flush – short of impact, short of physicality and short of the kind of carrying ability modern locks can bring to the game – he had lost his Munster and Ireland jersey to Donnacha Ryan.

But a strange thing has happened – Rob Penney has come in to Munster with a vague idea of playing a different game than the traditional bish bash bosh they are famed for, and he has had his difficulties in implementation. Paul O’Connell has spent long spells injured and Ronan O’Gara has increasingly resorted to playing an old style kick for territory. The third survivor of the 2006 breakthrough, Donncha, has been a most impressive adherent to the new plan.

O’Callaghan derided himself as “Johnny Robot” for slavishly following coaches instructions, but this is remarkable – a man who rarely strayed more than 1 metre from a ruck regularly pops up on the wing and has even attempted a few offloads. In addition, he has actually upped the stakes physically – carry the ball into contact even slightly too upright, and Donncha will engineer a Munster scrum quicker than you can say “over-used phrase to describe forcing the opposition into a maul and getting the put-in to the resultant scrum”.

What’s more, the famed leadership qualities we assumed weren’t present have begun to assert themselves. In the build-up to the Embra game, Donncha was highly visible in the press telling all who would listen that, for all the grumbling about Rob Penney’s tactical revolution, it was the Munster players who weren’t executing, and blaming the boss was the easy way out. He delivered a powerful message to his underperforming colleagues – that the type of performance seen against Cardiff was simply unacceptable, and the onus was on them to deliver.

Munster have never been short of characters to deliver this kind of message – Jirry, POC, Quinny, Axel or Radge for example – but to see O’Callaghan deliver it was still something of a stunner.

So perhaps his bosses down the years have missed something of a trick when it comes to O’Callaghan, and it took a new broom in Munster to eke out hitherto-unseen leadership qualities. Or maybe he feels he needs to show example to some of his forwards. Or maybe he’s just having an Indian summer and Penney told him to do the presser.

Either way, it’s a most interesting and welcome development.  It’s also in stark contrast to the supposed leadership qualities being brought to bear by the other experienced campaigner in the team.  You guessed it: Radge!  Picked in the team for his wealth of experience, quite what he was doing kicking out at second rows we cannot know.  It wasn’t the first time this season ROG’s attitude towards the outcome of a game has looked somewhat feckless.  It might not be the worst thing for Munster if he is banned from the final pool game, or the Six Nations opener for that matter.

Le Johnny Show-Bizz?

Johnny Sexton has reportedly been offered megabucks to join Racing Metro.  By all accounts it’s a serious offer and the club has plans to become a European force over the next two-to-three seasons.  They’ve signed up Castres’ highly-rated coaching ticket for next year, and have identified Johnny as the man they need to conquer Europe.

The IRFU have, apparently, been slow to respond, which on the face of it, is remarkable.  Sexton is now firmly established as the nation’s premier 10, and it appears a fait accomplis that he will be the starting Lions fly-half.  There is a legitimate argument that he is the outstanding player in the country, having surpassed O’Driscoll and O’Connell, both of whose recent impact has been limited by injury.

While nothing has been signed yet, the whole affair does bring to light the glaring flaw in centralised contracting.  The system whereby the top players are centrally controlled by the IRFU has, in general, been a success, with the players’ match time controlled appropriately.  But the other side of the coin is that the provinces’ needs come a distant second.

While the IRFU in general puts a lot of stock in having the players under their control, they might be somewhat agnostic about Sexton leaving for Paris.  For a start, playing in France is no longer the flog-athon it was once perceived as, and the big Top 14 contenders now have large enough squads to rest their better players.  Juan Martin Hernandez and Winiewski are both on Racing’s books, so Johnny 10 can comfortably be rotated out of the team as and when the coaches see fit.  Matching Racing’s offer is presumably out of the question, but even without doing so, the IRFU would seemingly have to offer terms that would establish Sexton as the best paid player in the country in order to keep him in Ireland.  It wouldn’t be undeserved, but perhaps they’re not that keen on the idea.  They’ll still have access to Johnny for internationals, and his standing is such that he’ll continue to be picked wherever he plays.  And his leaving Leinster would pave the way for Ian Madigan – potentially his understudy at test level next season, but possibly a bit of a headache for the IRFU while on the bench at Leinster – to flourish at his home province.  Indeed, Madigan would probably be the biggest beneficiary of all this.

The team with the most to lose by Johnny setting sail are Leinster.  Before Joe Schmidt even signed on at the province, he identified Sexton as the most important player at the club – it was he and Leo Cullen that Schmidt met for a chat to discuss his vision for Leinster rugby, and the Kiwi has built the team around Sexton’s regal attacking game.  But Leinster can only sit idly by while the IRFU crunch the numbers.  They can do nothing tangible to keep him at the club.  It points to a schism in the system.

As Peter O’Reilly discussed so eloquently in the Sunday Times, Sexton is one of the icons of Irish rugby, particularly in his home province.  Among Leinster fans, he has come to embody the new winning culture at the province, with his arrival as a first team player coinciding exactly with the beginning of Leinster’s dominance.  His rise to the top has been especially hard-won; the manner in which he has had to overcome adversity to get to where he is today, and had to claw the Irish 10 shirt off the back of a legend, have made him an especially adored player on the terraces of the RDS.

As for Johnny himself, nobody would begrudge him a couple of seasons on a colossal salary in the splendour of Paris.  He owes Leinster nothing, having steered them to three Heineken Cups.  The timing could probably never be better.  The Lions tour will be out of the way and he could return in time for the World Cup in 2015.  But for those who have watched him develop from a skinny-limbed youngster on his debut in Thomond Park to the world-class leader he is today, it would be difficult to watch him play in another team’s colours.  The IRFU should do what they can to tie down one of their greatest assets.

*The title is a reference to Racing Metro’s 1980s backline, which was famous for its flair and eccentricity, and became known as Le Show-Bizz.  Read more about the club’s colourful history here.

Good Face

In the ever-fascinating world of fans’ perception of players and their abilities, one factor that’s surprisingly important is what the player looks like – both to male and female fans alike.  Male rugby fans may not be considered the most meterosexual bunch, but make no mistake, looks matter.

Demented Mole, under his ‘Hugonaut’ guise on the Leinsterfans’ forum, once wrote that he thought Rory Best to be just as good a player as Jerry Flannery, but that Flannery’s hair and superman posture generally elevated people’s perceptions of him, while Rory Best was bald when he was 23 and looks like a Nordie farmer.  It was a fair point.  I’ve seen Flannery’s hair in person and it really is extraordinary.  Who wouldn’t allow it to colour their opinion slightly?  What a player looks like can have a surprising influence on just how he’s perceived by the public.

Some players undeniably have what Moneyballers refer to as ‘good face’.  Having ‘good face’ needn’t mean being good looking in the conventional sense, though that hardly hurts either.  Sergio Parisse would be a brilliant player no matter what he looked like, but it’s no harm that he looks like a film star while trying to fill all 15 positions for the Azzuri.  And the reliably invigorating sight of David Wallace smashing defenders hither and yon was only improved by his looking so ruggedly handsome in the process.  Few would be ashamed to admit a slight man-crush on either.

The player with the best face in Irish rugby right now is Peter O’Mahony, with Donnacha Ryan in close pursuit.  In fact, they both look rather alike.  Neither are what you’d call conventionally handsome, but they both have amazing features: deep-set eyes and weird bone structure.  They look permanently angry, ready to start a fight at a moment’s notice.  Perfect, then, for the all-out war that is the forward battle on a rugby pitch.

The interesting thing is that O’Mahony’s face has had a misleading effect on how he’s perceived as a player.  Mention O’Mahony’s name and people will tell you he’s a fearsome warrior who won’t take a backward step, as tough as they come.  Have a look at his snarling features and you wouldn’t doubt it.  But watch him in action, and in fact, you’ll probably conclude he’s not really that type of player.  Yes, he has a tendency to look for trouble on the pitch, but the faux-hardman act is really his weakest suit and something he shouldn’t bother with.

In fact, he takes a backward step fairly often.  He slips the odd tackle and, for a blindside, isn’t great at trucking slow ball around the corner of the ruck and over the gainline.  He’s no Joe Worsley.  What he is, however, is a talented footballer; a very skilful handler, brilliant lineout forward, and a slightly willowy flanker who can get up a good gallop when further out from the ruck, where he can use his long-armed hand-off to good effect and is capable of beating defenders in a little bit of space.  His ground and tracking skills are also very useful.  His skillset is really closer to, say, that of Jamie Heaslip’s than many have let on or than you might think – by the look of him anyway.

Another whose appearance can be deceptive – in a different way – is Tom Croft.  He looks every inch the English yeoman, magnificent of physique and with a chiselled face that can only be honed in the finest English public schools.  It’s tempting to believe the hype that he’s the world’s best blindside.  Now, Crofty is not a player without his strengths, and his good moments can be spectacular, but he doesn’t influence a game over 80 minutes.  And no blindside should ever be bundled into touch by Paddy Wallace.  He’s just not quite as good as he looks.

Demented Mole recently wondered aloud why Devin Toner was such a figure of ridicule outside – and sometimes inside – Leinster. The answer might just be the cut of the chap.  Not quite filling out his 210cm frame and with a face that looks almost boyish, he doesn’t quite fit the desired mould of second row hardman.  Regardless of how good he is or isn’t, prehaps he just doen’t have ‘good face’.  Don’t underestimate it.