Guest Post – HEC Preview

We’re bored of having to talk about the HEC – we’d much prefer to be supping skinny mocha frappuccinos and scoffing rosemary and fennel focaccia bread (Palla) or thumping our Bible and staring suspiciously at strangers while beating Kerry teams (Egg). So we decided we’d ask a few chums of ours to pen a preview of this weeks HEC games involving the provinces – let us know if you think they are any good, and we’ll ask them back.

Leinster vs Scarlets, by Gerry

Expect a whiff of you-know-what at the RDS – Leinster have got their go-to guy back, some guy called Brian. On-field lieutenants Darce and Church will add hard-carrying, and having Luke Fitzgerald no longer hors de combat is assuredly a lip-smacking prospect. Expect speedy service from the base by Eoin Reddan and the usual penetrating angles from Isa and the returning Rob Kearney.

The Scarlets might have gargantuan backs, but they’ll be living off scraps given their weakness in the trenches. If referee and personal bete-noir Jerome Garces cannot resist the temptation to emulate his, eh, countryman Romain Poite, we might have a game on our hands, with some ebb and flow of psychic energy. Otherwise, Leinster by 475.

Edinburgh vs Munster, by Frankie

Huge pressure on Munster going into this game, but then that’s the way they like it. Fingers crossed they don’t get tempted to play too much rugby, and ensure the ball doesn’t get to the inside centre. Putting the pack in the right areas of the pitch is Ronan O’Gara’s speciality and he can further stake his Lions claims with a commanding performance in Murrayfield.  I’m looking to see a real return to core Munster values.  Picking my client Ivan Dineen at inside-centre would be a start.

Edinburgh reached last years semi-finals, and Munster will need to draw on all their reserves of passion, desire, bravery, tears and faith to prevail here. I’d anticipate a victory by 60 points or so, so long as they stick to the traditional Munster way.  O’Gara will keep the scoreboard ticking with a dozen or so penalties, and the bonus point will be secured with a lineout drive from their own 5 metre line after 79 minutes and 59 seconds. Europe’s best player Peter O’Mahony and the awesome Dave Kilcoyne to be joint men of the match – don’t forget who their agent is.

Ulster vs Glasgow, by Statler and Waldorf George and Tom

George: The thing about Ulster is this – without David Humphreys they ..

Tom (interrupts): You mean Ian Humphreys?

George: Yes. The thing about Ulster is this – let me finish – without Ian Humphreys they lack the necessary oomph in the pack. And they need a genuine openside like ..

Tom (interrupts): Like Harrison Brewer?

George: Exactly Tom. If Ulster had the ability to play rugby, they’d easily win this game. As it stands, I can’t see past Italy. Italy by …

Tom (interrupts): Thanks George – we’ll be right back after these.

Harlequins vs Connacht, by Stephen

Connacht, smugly protected from relegation in the feeble Pro12 and a mere branch of their centralised union, will have little chance when they go to real, proper, manly English club like Harlequins, whose great tradition and noble breeding will swipe at the Irishmen’s poorly stitched collars before the game even begins.

The only weakness I can perceive in the glorious English side is the presence of a Kiwi at fly-half.  Expect the wonderfully experienced Nick Easter, to whose chest measurement I can only aspire, to dominate the game from first to last, and the spirited yeoman Jordan Turner-Hall to use all the explosive power in his considerable groin muscles in the 12 channel, enabling the upstanding chaps from the Harlequins Rugby Club to romp to a bonus-point victory.  Now, off to polish my many awards…

Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.

Ancient, Past It and In Demand

A new year!  A new broom!  New excitement!  New Heineken Cup and Pro12 champions, probably!  New players!  Or perhaps not.  For a handful of old timers, 2013 is likely to be just as productive as any other year – well, the first six months of it at least.  Age may be pressing on, but there’s no getting rid of these fine stalwarts.

Donncha ‘Stakhanov’ O’Callaghan

Paul O’Connell is out for the season, and with that news, O’Callaghan’s importance to Munster remains as great as ever – greater perhaps.  The old workhorse was lethargic last season and deservedly lost his place to Donnacha Ryan, but can expect to partner his near-namesake for the remainder of the campaign.  O’Callaghan may not be able to generate the 20-plus tackle counts of his career peak, and has become something of a bete noir on these pages for his continued selection in the Irish team, but he has shown a willingness to adapt to Penney’s fairly radical new tactics, which involves him popping up on the wing with regularity.  For a player who rarely strayed a metre beyond the ruck, that’s a pretty radical change, and he looks energised.  Whether he still has much to contribute to the national team is up for debate, but he’s likely to continue his role as first reserve, so we can expect to see more furious windmilling between minutes 55 and 65 of Ireland’s Six Nations matches.

Ronan ‘RADGE!’ O’Gara

The consistency has waned, the decision-making has become variable and ROG can’t generate much distance kicking from hand these days, but the hard-won self-confidence and metronomic place-kicking remain, and as the recent bonus-point loss in Saracens showed, ROG is still capable of flashes of the old genius.  He’s no longer a contender to start for Ireland, with Sexton now leagues in front, and his place on the bench is under attack from all sides – Leinster (Madigan), Ulster (Jackson) and his own province (Keatley).  But none of the pretenders can quite iron out enough kinks from their game to definitively remove the old ligind from the matchday squad.  Munster need bonus point wins from their next two games, which – coupled with their apalling performance in Musgrave Park this weekend – will put even more pressure than ever on his Munster place, but it would be a brave man to bet on anyone other than the Radge-inator starting both pool matches and a possible quarter-final.  Even if he doesn’t, Kidney would probably still see him as his best reserve, and ROG can expect his mammoth cap count to tick over a little more in the spring. Plus he’s a front-runner for the Lions – no, seriously.

Gordon ‘Dorce’ D’arcy

You don’t know what you got til it’s gone, Joni Mitchell once said, and so it appears with D’arcy.  Dorce no longer possesses the speed he used to, and looks positively undersized in the age where inside centres are bigger than flankers, but his work at gaining yards in contact keeps him in both the Leinster and Ireland team.  His form on friday night for Leinster showed he plans on going nowhere.  Threats are coming up the ranks, but until Leinster’s back-three injury crisis shows signs of abating, Fergus McFadden will be needed elsewhere.  Up at Ulster, Luke Marshall looks like a serious threat and the natural heir to the Ireland 12 jumper, but until he gets another old lag – Paddy Wallace – out of the Ulster team, Kidney is likely to stick with D’arcy.  His days may be numbered, but that number is probably at least 180.

Brian ‘His BODness’ O’Driscoll

The burning question in 2013 is: can BOD rouse himself for a tilt at the Lions.  He dearly wants to bow out with a Lions tour victory – one of the few things he has yet to achieve.  But will his creaking body allow it?  He’s been injured a lot and – truth be told – a bit patchy over the last twelve months, so all eyes will be on what sort of form he pitches up in this month.  With O’Connell out, he’s virtually guaranteed to captain Ireland in the Six Nations.  It’s his audition for the big gig.  If he does tour, it’s likely he’ll do so as captain.  No player deserves to bow out on his own terms more so than this most magnificent of players, and a winning Lions tour would be a fitting send-off.

Leo ‘Laighin King’ Cullen

In a world where Richie Gray and Donnacha Ryan are the new model of loosehead lock, Leo is keeping it defiantly old school.  The opposite of dynamic, and his carrying ability tends to consist of him catching the ball and falling over.  His days as an international – such as they were – are over at this stage, but he remains a cornerstone for Leinster, where his leadership remains hugely important.  As a captain, there are few as adept as he at knowing when to have a polite word with the ref, and when to lay off.

Paddy ‘Bloodied Face’ Wallace

Wallace is a most intriguing player – derided almost universally outside Ulster, the reality is that he is one of the most talented players of his generation and the best passing 12 Ireland have produced in a long time. He is a joy to watch, yet mention his name in the pub and you are almost guaranteed to get spittle in your face from some spluttering eejit who just knows he isn’t as good as James Downey. And what’s more – he’s keeping fresh-faced young tyke Luke Marshall out of the Ulster team – why doesn’t he just go away and let everyone else play! We’re massive Wallace fans, and don’t buy any of the BS surrounding him – Marshall appears to have more right now, but Wallace’s brains and experience (and calming influence on PJ) keep him a touch ahead.

Stepping up to the Plate

Leinster’s season in Europe is hanging by its fingernails.  It’s more than a little reminiscent of Munster’s exit at the group stages in 2010 when they surrendered meekly in Toulon and failed to qualify.  That had an air of ‘end of the pier’ about it, with the great Generation Ligind team finally grinding to a halt.  But though leaving Europe in the pool stages left an indelible scar, Munster’s season wasn’t a total wipeout.  They salvaged dignity by winning the Magners League, and more importantly, went some way to securing their future competitivenes by promoting the likes of Conor Murray, James Cawlin, Donnacha Ryan and Felix Jones above some of the more established names to the first team and recruiting BJ Botha for the following season.

If Leinster do go out of Europe, and it’s likely they will, they too will need to use the remainder of the season to embark on something of a re-build.  The job isn’t quite on the scale of that which is still ongoing in Munster, but certainly a new corps of troops needs to come through.  Two years ago, Leinster looked to have unrivalled squad depth, as a slew of talented academy players made waves in Europe and the league.  But a number of these players’ careers have stalled in the last 24 months.  2013 is going to be a big year in the lives of a number of players, and while the phrase ‘make-or-break’ isn’t one we especially like, and can tend to overdramatise things, in terms of building careers as first team players at Leinster, the next 12 months are going to be significant for these fellows:

Luke Fitzgerald

Grand Slam winner and test Lion, Luke’s talent needs no introduction, but his career has endured something of a crisis in the last 24 months.  At his best he’s a brilliant defender and the best player in Ireland – possibly excepting Craig Gilroy – at changing direction and escaping from heavy traffic.  Given his mid-career troubles, there’s a huge amount of goodwill towards Luke Roysh, and as a nation we produce few players with his natural talent.  But a couple of issues must be overcome: he has to stop overrunning the ball carrier, and must improve his strike rate.  And he must focus on one position – and it might just be outside centre, where he could be the replacement for  BOD that the world is waiting for.  His return from injury is imminent, and feverishly anticipated by a Leinster team in real need of some invention in the backline.

Eoin O’Malley

Diminutive centre, but on song, he’s a natural who makes the game look easy.  Showed his class in each of the last two seasons before being laid low by serious injury at the tail end of last season.  Not a big fellow by any means, there will always be those for whom he is just too small for rugby at the highest level, but is nonetheless a (nother) contender to succeed BOD at outside centre for Leinster, and as such, the next twelve months will be huge in his development.

David Kearney

Made huge strides last season, making the Irish bench for the Six Nations opener against Wales, and has been badly missed through injury this season, with resources stretched in the back three.  Although not exceptionally quick, has a good kicking and chasing game and is a dangerous broken field runner and fine ball-handler.  His defensive game – like that of his brother – needs work.  If he can bring it up to the required level, he can be close to being a regular starter for Leinster.  Should have plenty of chances once fit and firing.

Dom Ryan

Generated significant hype following two-try performance against Saracens in the RDS two years ago, and produced a brilliant cameo against Toulouse in the semi-final.  Since then, has been scarcely spotted, as one injury after another have restricted him to a handful of appearances.  Recent comments from Joe Schmidt contrasting his progress to that of Jordi Murphy suggest management are not entirely happy with him.  On a good day he looks to have it all – physicality, great ball-tracking, and superb groundwork – but he is just as capable of total anonymity.  If he can learn from Shane Jennings to keep himself at the heart of matches, Leinster have a player on their hands, but he must now put a run of games together and remind us what we’ve been missing.

Rhys Ruddock

Capped as a 19 year old, and following an explosive performance in Paris against Racing Metro, Franno declared that his potential was unlimited.  But has done little since then to justify the billing.  He can look decidedly undynamic in the loose, and his too-upright carrying style can have fans watching through their fingers in anticipation of another dreaded turnover.  Has rejected overtures from Munster to stay at Leinster, but appears to be an ambitious individual who has no desire to warm the bench, even at a big club.  It’s time to establish himself and make good on the early promise.

Devin Toner

Now this genuinely is make or break – Leinster’s resources in the second row are the worst in the country, yet the big second row just can’t seem to finally break into the first team, having been on the cusp of it for years: he was the reserve second row in all three of Leinster’s Heineken Cup finals over the last five years.  Mike McCarthy’s imminent arrival isn’t necessarily the bad news it may appear, as the two play on different sides of the scrum; Leo Cullen is his real obstacle to regular first team rugby, and the old boy can’t go on forever (can he?).  Last year Toner looked to have made the necessary progress to finally become a first-pick, but this season he’s been fairly ho-hum.  Are his deficiencies – in part brought on by his unique frame – simply too great for him to be a Heineken Cup regular?  The strange thing is that for all the focus on his lack of oomph in the tight, for a seven-foot-tall fellow, he doesn’t pilfer much opposition lineout ball. We are on the verge of saying that if he can’t make it now, he isn’t going to.

Ian Madigan

Woah! Did they just go there? Isn’t Ian Madigan a great young prospect? Doesn’t he have the best eye for the tryline of any 10 in Ireland, and can’t he look magic with ball in hand? Sure, all of the above boxes are ticked, but there is a problem – Jonny Sexton. Sexton is Leinster’s franchise quarterback, and he ain’t going anywhere, except to Oz as Lions starter and potential captain. Madigan’s career is about to reach a crossroads – stay at Leinster and move position, or move on for regular rugger at 10. If he stays, where does he see himself playing? Fullback? Unlikely, with Bob back in tow. Centre? Possibly, but Leinster have lots of competition there (see above) and he has no experience to speak of in the position. And if he moves on, where will he go? All of the other provinces have no need, neither do any of the big English clubs, so it’s probably to France. The answers to these questions are likely to determine how Madigan’s career unfolds from here.

Bent Cops

One of the more endearing/bizarre (delete as appropriate) stories of last November was the ascension of Michael Bent from the Dublin Airport arrivals hall to the bench to face up to the Springboks in the Palindrome, with the now de rigeur hurley forcd into his hand for a photo-shoot, to show just how Oirish he really is. We, and most commentators, acknowledged at the time that Deccie didn’t have many other options.

The theme of Ireland having a tighthead crisis has been going on for so long as to be a constant source of white noise in any selection debate. John Hayes soldiered manfully for a decade, and delivered a relatively solid set piece as the foundation for piles more silverware than Ireland had ever won before (and not just because the Triple Crown was a metaphorical trophy until recently), but behind him, there wasn’t much. The IRFU plucked Mushy Buckley from the Munster undergrowth in 2008-ish and decreed him the next big thing – the player had many promising moments, but ultimately was a huge let-down – Hayes played far longer than was humane, and the occasional filling-in of Tom Court was just that – filling in.

Once Mushy failed to make half-time in the pre-2011 Six Nations Wolfhounds game, patience finally snapped – he was out of the picture. Luckily for everyone, Mike Ross at Leinster had developed into a fine tighthead under Greg Feek – he could always scrummage, but his all-round game and conditioning improved beyond all recognition. The Ireland scrum became a weapon like never before – the filleting of the England pack in the Aviva in 2011 was as surprising as it was enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Ross is human, and tires occasionally, as we have discussed before.  It’s essential for Ireland to have some credible backup (i.e. not Buckley). The alternatives are:

  • Deccie Fitzpatrick – classic scrummager, good debut on tour, but too injury-prone to rely on
  • Jamie Hagan – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at Pro12 level, never mind the HEC
  • Stephen Archer – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at AIL level, never mind the Pro12
  • Michael Bent – just landed, but comes with a good rep from Tarananki in New Zealand

Bent’s call-up resulted in more than a little frothing at the mouth, with George Hook getting especially apoplectic with rage live on air.  But tempers were clamed – as they so often are – by the sight of the big fella playing and scrummaging well. On his first appearance on this island, in green, he came on for an exhausted Mike Ross against the Springboks and acquitted himself well – the scrum looked solid and his first action was to win a scrum penalty. Two further substitute appearances followed – against a bunny Fiji side mourning the death of a team-mate and not really bothering to turn up, and a tired Puma team who were spectacularly dismantled early on. Neither gleaned much useful information.

Then, after the RWC15 draw, there were the usual flurry of potential Ireland teams named – this is a fool’s errand of course, but it’s a bit of fun and generally an interesting debate. All of them had one thing in common – Bent at tighthead – and why not, since its pretty clear that, akin to the Hayes/Buckley succession plan, that all the national teams eggs are in the Bent basket when it comes to Mike Ross’s long-term replacement. But how realistic is that?

After rounds three and four of the HEC, Ross was given some time off, and Bent got his chance in the December interpros against Ulster and Connacht. He endured a difficult time. Against Ulster, he was milked for scores by the Ulster pack, and his opposite number and international fall-guy Tom Court was man of the match. Then in the RDS against Connacht, he had another shaky outing, and was called ashore shortly after being wheeled by Connacht academy graduate Denis Buckley. Worrying signs, and a curius performance graph.

Of course, Bent isn’t some greenhorn plucked from obscurity and asked to man up – he came through the Taranaki youth system, spent 10 years going up through the grades and eventually made 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes and was Taranaki player of the year for 2012 after a productive ITM Cup campaign. That’s a promising CV – but not a home run one. If Super Rugby is somewhat analogous to the HEC, then the ITM Cup is probably at a level slightly better than the Pro12. We will confess, we haven’t seen much ITM Cup action, but if it’s comparable to the Currie Cup (which you would imagine it is – second level professional rugby), it’s probably of the standard of the better Pro12 games.

So Bent comes across as a decent Pro12 standard 26-year old prop, with a reputation for being able to play both sides, after a handful of SR appearances. By co-incidence, another prop came over to Ireland aged 26, with an ambipropstrous reputation (although considered primarily a tighthead at the time) and a handful of SR appearances – Tom Court, in 2006. Both arrived from relative obscurity and neither were mapped internationally.

Of course, the comparison is somewhat moot – Court only took up rugger a couple of years before coming over, while Bent, as a Kiwi, has presumably been steeped in it since birth – Bent shouldn’t have a learning curve like Court did. But the comparison is valid at one level – you don’t arrive in Ireland from second tier rugby and immediately become international class. Bent has some good qualities, but is very much a work in progress. If he is to lock the Ireland scrum for RWC15, he would want to be Leinster’s first choice HEC tighthead by the beginning of the 2014-15 season – that gives him 1.5 years to gain experience, develop further and get to that level – which isn’t that much time really. Even allowing for Ross’s relatively advanced years, he doesn’t have that much rugby behind him – only six full seasons. The idea that he will fade away and Bent step in may be a little presumtuous.

Now, where were we going with this? Ah yes, Ireland’s tighthead crisis. There is a lot of focus and pressure on Michael Bent for a number of reasons – the unusual nature of his call-up, and Ireland’s traditional lack of resources in his position. But expectations have to be tempered a little as well – if Bent is to be the RWC15 tighthead, he needs to be better than Mike Ross in 1.5 years – is that realistic? Maybe, but let him bed in in a new country and gain experience at provincial level first.

To get back to Court, it is only now (ironically, after Deccie has decided Dave Kilcoyne is better than him), after 6 seasons, that Court is realising his potential – and he has been first choice in Ulster for a long time. It was unfortunate that Bent’s first game was against a man who has matured into quite a wily operator, but the mirror held up by Court is an instructive one – Court’s level (HEC and occasionally international class) should be where we expect Bent to get to – anything more will be a bonus. And if RWC15 comes too soon for Bent, be patient – he will only be 33 when RWC19 comes along. Just because he isn’t ploughing opposition scrums right now doesn’t mean he will be the new Peter Borlase or Clint Newland …. or even the new Tony Buckley for that matter.