Lions Post #5: He’s a Killer He’s a Flash Boy Oh

With Wazza currently busy deciding which addresses to send his Power of Four Wristbands to in the mail, the weeks are running out to make a good impression on the old boy.  But a handful of players are making a late bolt, and some of them are some right flash geezers.

The question we’re asking this week is this – just how much room does Wazza have in his squad for flash dandies with lopsided haircuts and a bit of a strut about them?  He’ll want a combination of hard-nosed experience and the fearlessness and brashness of youth.  After all, someone has to pose for the cameras in the commemorative DVD (which may or may not contain emotional montages, sepia-tinged clips of a thinner Jeremy Guscutt dropping a goal and a lot of talk about what it means to wear the Lions jersey), and the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Warburton will be far too sensible for that type of carry-on.  Plus the last tour would have been nothing without Donncha O’Callaghan pulling Ian McGeechan’s trousers down.  Yes, the Lions tour needs a bit of pizzazz, and the three players we’re looking at today are the men to provide it.

Simon Zebo couldn’t strictly be described as a bolter, as he’s been progressing very nicely for about two seasons now.  In fact had he not been cruelly struck down by injury in the Six Nations he could be more or less nailed on by now such was his form, but he looks like he’ll be able to overcome that setback.  He looked pretty sharp against Harlequins, with one particular take and offload catching the eye.  A couple more performances of the same ilk in the next couple of weeks and Zebo can add another pair of socks to the list of those he’s worn around his ankles.

In general the wing is the most bolter-friendly position, because it’s the one position where greased-lightning whippersnappers can get into the team, and confidence and pace are the order of the day, rather than grizzled experience.  One can get by on instinct.  With that in mind, Wasps’ fastman Christian Wade must at least come under consideration.  Yes, he’s a rough diamond and probably not the greatest defender in world rugby, but in the modern game, where space is increasingly difficult to find on the pitch, a fellow who can beat his man on the outside is incredibly valuable.  And, yes, dude is pretty flash.  With Chris Ashton playing like a drain for most of the season (he did claw back some credibility in Saracens’ win over Ulster on Saturday), Wade is worth bringing for his gas alone.

One thing Wazza should be doing is ensuring he has variety in his squad.  Were he to bring, say, Cuthbert, North (both nailed on), Bowe and Visser, he’d have four rather similar players; big strong fellows who can run hard and through people.  There should be room for an elusive runner in the party, and Wade and Zebo fit the bill.

One other player alleged to be making a bolt in some excitable quarters is Leinster’s precociously gifted Ian Madigan.  Wazza was there to see his headline-grabbing 28-point haul on Friday night, which added another feather to his cap, albeit in a scattergun match which suited his mentality.  It seems a done deal that Sexton and Farrell will make the cut, but there’s probably room for one more, and with Rhys Priestland injured (and overrated anyway), options are thin on the ground.  Greig Laidlaw as a 9-10 option?  Solid, but unspectacular.  James Hook as a utility man?  Wazza has never seemed to rate him that highly at Wales.  Johnny Wilkinson?  Will be involved in the Top 14 knockouts, more or less ruling him out.  Last time around Geech emphasised that he was looking for players finishing the season strongly, and Wazza is expected to pick up that particular baton.  Madigan would tick that box, and his game would surely prosper on the hard Antipodean grounds.  And, yes, he has a bit of flash about him.  Check out that hair for starters.

All that said, it looks at least a season too early for him.  Whatever about wing bolters, the idea of throwing rookie fly-halves into Lions series sounds like a step too far.  It can be tempting to get very excited about such a prodigious talent, but it’s too easy just to remember his best games and forget about the bad ones.  He was brilliant on Friday, but only a week previous struggled to get the backline working (admittedly a workmanlike backline without D’arcy, who appears to be operating very much on Madigan’s wavelength) against Ulster.  He’s best served playing in the North American tour with Ireland this summer.

It’s all about Munster

Who writes these guys’ scripts? Honestly, this team got their hides whupped by Treviso and Glasgow in their last two away trips, but taught the champions of England a lesson in how to win when it mattered. We have berated some of our good friends in the mainstream media in the past for Munster-obsession, but you can see why they are so addictive – they are an incredible story.

Lulling all of Europe into a false sense of security by playing rubbish wide-wide guff all season, only to then produce a most memorable performance from when it matters – that’s the embodiment of the crazy old tournament that is the Heineken Cup laid bare.  It’s surely the only tournament where you can play poorly for much of the season and still win the biggest prize of all, but only so long as you peak at the right times.  Michael Cheika spoke of almost having to manufacture dips in the season to ensure his team peaked for the Cup matches, and even then it didn’t go very smoothly.  History has written that Leinster won the cup in 2009, but anyone who remembers much of how that season unfolded wil recall they played terribly for vast swathes of it.

Back to Munster’s performance.  And boy was it a performance. They started rather tentatively in the first 30 minutes, but as it became clear Quins had very little to threaten them, Munster stepped on the pedal, controlled territory and bossed the game. Ronan O’Gara had acres of space to play territory and Quins basically had no answer, looking anaemic in attack and walking into choke tackles and a breakdown area dominated by dervishes in red.   Quins couldn’t get anything going, and any time they threatened to, they lost the ball.

We said before the game that to win this game would require Munster’s best performance in Europe yet, but all it required was an aggressive and manic pack, accurate kicking from the halves and Superman Paul O’Connell being Paul O’Connell Superman. O’Connell played himself onto the Lions tour, quite possibly as captain, and some of the Quins players fell down the pecking order.  Peter O’Mahony looked like the player he has threatened to become on occasions, and Tommy O’Donnell – little boy lost this time last year – was a revelation.

No-one saw this one coming, least of all Quins (and, erm, ourselves), and the casual attitude from Conor O’Shea’s men was a bit surprising to say the least – they seemed stunned by an archetypal Munster performance, the best since .. what, Clermont at home a few years ago? Or maybe Quins just aren’t all that – they limped out of last year’s Heineken Cup to an average Toulouse side, losing to Connacht to allow the French side to slip through, although they did win the Premiership through the playoffs (admittedly, beating the Saints along the way, which kind of doesn’t count).

Harlequins have historically under-achieved relative to the big West Country and East Midlands teams – even Bum Face’s crew of the early 1990s haven’t the silverware this bunch have (albeit there were less competitions in the 1990s). There has been much talk of them being ‘fast learners’, and they would apply the painful lessons of last season, but maybe this is just Harlequins’ glass ceiling. They certainly didn’t look like English champions or potential European champions, and had little idea of how to play a cup game in the trenches.

But that’s all by the by.  Full credit to Munster, let’s hope we see many more performances like that, not least in Montpellier in three weeks, for they’ll need at least this to avoid a mashing from the best team in Europe, although the way they continue to defy the odds, perhaps they won’t. One thing is for sure, they have the mental in spades, and Clermont have struggled with Irish sides in the past.  And they’ve one other thing: Paul O’Connell.

Discussion Discussion

Loyal readers,

We would be nothing without the comments and feedback we get – and we appreciate it, we really do.

The comments section of the blog is hugely valued, and is increasingly as much a part of the experience for readers, and us, as the articles themselves.  We get a great standard of debate, people add additional points that we haven’t touched on, and tease out other arguments on the article in question.  Sometimes, believe it or not – I know, it’s crazy – people don’t agree with us and offer counter-points to what we’ve written.  This is all really, really terrific.  The majority of those who use the comment box are highly knowledgable and greaatly enhance the blog and we are hugely grateful to you all.

However, recently, we have got feedback from some of our regulars that the comments board frequently turns off-topic and has often descended into a whiny, trolling tone, even putting some readers off the blog. Again, we appreciate this feedback. We ourselves have noticed an increasing number of spats in the comments section, and people making personal attacks without specific reference to points made in the article.  So we are upping our blog to the next level of WordPress security – that of forcing commentors to include an e-mail address, and each commenter will require our approval. Apologies if it inconveniences anyone, but it’s as much of a hassle for us as it is for you.  Remember that your email address will never be published; only we will see it, not the greater public.

Our email address is and everyone is welcome to talk to us directly.

Oh, and to address some on-going queries:

  • Let’s keep the comments section on-topic and constructive.  Please do not post with wild accusations, with scant reference to the post in question.  We welcome constructive debate, not pot-shots
  • If you don’t like what we write, please let us know why, at the address above, but make it constructive please – we do take it on board.  Let’s keep the comments section for the topic in question.  Comments berating others or including personal abuse will simply be deleted from now on.
  • If you think what we do here is throw abuse at people online, you should perhaps ask yourself why the mainstream media throw this one out at every opportunity, and also why no blogger (that we know of) has yet called the captain of Ireland “an arrogant, ignorant swaggering windbag” and “an absolute knob”, unlike some prominent print hacks
  • Remember, it’s a bit of fun.  We’re passionate about rugby and we know you are too, but before you start hammering the keys violently, take a deep breath and remember we like to keep the tone jovial and irreverent rather than academic and fusty.  Yes, we like to poke fun at the crazy musings of some esteemed chums in the media, but try to take things in the spirit of gentle mockery rather than righteous indignation, which is probably how they were intended.  Unless it’s about Conor Geo…

Thanks as always for reading and let’s keep the rugby debate and discussion going in the comments section in the best possible tone.

Whiff of Cordite

Make Twickenham Forget Last Year

Man, its such a relief when the HEC rolls back round – the all-encompassing juggernaut that is the national team sucks all rational debate from its surroundings like light into a black hole, then disappears over the horizon with fists flying and noise levels rising like a bunch of 2-year olds in a sweet shop. The Heineken Cup just seems nicer, more orderly, and more suitable to sitting down with a beer and having a sensible conversation about rugby. The loud loutish fools who clamber aboard the patriotism wagon are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with an educated and intelligent fanbase.

This even extends to the pundits – in December, Quinny went on Newstalk and dismissed Munster’s chances of beating Saracens in Thomond Park, extending his gimlet eye down the teamsheet and just not seeing enough evidence of the class to win. In March, the same person was nodding in a sanguine fashion as Frankie blamed the Cigarette-Smoking Man for making Deccie drop Rog.

We have ourselves dismissed Munster’s chances this week, so let’s move on to the other province in the Big Gig – Ulster. On paper, the Ulster quarter-final looks the only one that might be close – Clermont are nigh-on unbeatable in the Marcel Michelin, and Montpellier don’t bring the same energy on the road as they do at home, Munster’s last two away games featured implosions against Treviso and Glasgae, and, for all Leicester’s blood, thunder and Tom Croft, they just don’t have the pack or halves to compete with mighty (nouveau riche) Toulon.

That Ulster aren’t at home and favourites is down to their own blundering – a week after tearing the all-talk-and-no-trousers Saints pack a new one, they meekly laid down at home to them. Losing at home is simply unacceptable to the best teams in Europe, and it shows Ulster have a while to go. Toughing out a win in Castres was a good riposte, but this is a whole new level altogether. Their pool was rather weak – the Northampton Saints are no-one’s idea of a barometer of manliness, Castres lay down like the Euro-bunnies they are, and Glasgow showed nothing of their Pro12 form in the HEC.

So it’s a trip to Twickers, just like last year. That went well, didn’t it? Errrr… The hope (and expectation) is that Ulster will have learned from their big day out in May, and the experience of playing there will set them in good stead. But will they be able to win?

The good news for Ulster is that Saracens are utterly woeful at getting to the ball to their talented outside backs – properly-serviced, Tompkins, Strettle, Ashton and Goode should be killing teams out wide, but they rarely see the ball. Ulster have a good record of late against teams that rely heavily on their packs – Munster, Saints and Castres for example. If Ulster can neuter the Saracens forwards, they have the weaponry to do damage – they are adept at getting Gilroy and Trimble in off their wings, and Jared Payne is a rare talent.

Neutralizing the Sarries forwards is about slowing the ball down – with a ponderous scrum-half, a kicking ten, and a boshing twelve, they very much rely on their more dynamic pack members (Vunipola, Brits, Hargreaves, Joubert) spotting gaps then offloading to trailing runners or recycling ball quickly and forcing last-ditch penalties from defenders. That’s a game Ulster will be confident they can deal with.

The three key men are Johann Muller, Darren Cave, and, particularly, Chris Henry. Ulster’s pack in the absence of Muller is notably worse – decision-making suffers and the lineout is much more fallible – expect a tight and controlled aggressive performance with the Springbok in tow. Cave marshalls the defensive line excellently, and Ulster will need to be extremely disciplined in defence as well as scrambling effectively when Saracens do get going. And as for Henry, a contender for player of the pool stages, his job is to slow down ball, frustrate the Saracens forwards, and manufacture a dogfight. If Henry bosses the breakdown, Ulster have half the job done.

Another factor is Ulster’s favour is the presence of Romaine Poite in the middle. Poite is a contrary character, but he rewards a dominant tight five at scrum-time, and doesn’t tend to do what home fans want him to. Saracens backups of Rhys Gill and John Smit are better scrummagers than the starters, and if Saracens are forced to bring them in earlier than they want to, Ulster will be setting the tempo of the match.

Ultimately, Ulster are going to look to keep their line intact and restrict Farrell to 4 to 5 kickable penalties. After that, they will ask themselves: do they have the firepower to score one try and kick a few goals of their own? They would be confident that they do – Saracens are an extremely tough nut, particularly at home, but Ulster won’t fear them, and would probably fancy themselves in a mano-a-mano knock-out tie, especially at a venue where they will have 20,000 supporters and a need to exorcise some ghosts.

Something we haven’t heard too  much of yet is the Mark McCall factor – McCall won the Celtic League in his time at Ravers, but left under a cloud as the squad fractured asunder – the unity and singularity of purpose of Ulster’s squad this season has been admirable, and one can imagine Humph waking up in a cold sweat at the prospect of having to congratulate McCall on knocking his Project out of the HEC. You can bet your bottom dollar this is a match Ulster will bring their A game to.

But will it be enough? Saracens have impressed us every time we have seen them in the Premiership this year, but were rather underwhelming for the HEC group stages. Ulster, on the other hand, have wobbled badly after a dream start to the season. Ulster look a more balanced and complete team, but are still re-integrating after injury (and are missing Fez and Tommy Bowe). Saracens have all the form and the glamour and home advantage. It’s very tight, but Saracens might just squeeze through. We hope we are wrong of course, and Saracens reliance on Owen Farrell’s boot can work both ways. If Ulster cross the line twice, or defend something like they did in Thomond last year, or at the RDS on saturday night they will win. Otherwise, and most improbably, Munster will be the last Irish team in the HEC come the Sunday Mass kickoff in Lahn.

Je Ne Regrette Rien… Except Maybe These

The IRFU pulled the plug on the Declan Kidney era yesterday, announcing that he would not be offered a new contract.  It draws a line under another managerial tenure that has been a distinctly mixed bag.  Kidney’s career as head coach can neatly be split into two bundles, one succesful, one not; the unbeaten claendar year in 2009, and everything since then.  We’ll always have the memories of Ireland’s long overdue Grand Slam, but beyond that, it was a long, slow and often painful slide towards the fiasco that was this year’s Six Nations.  Everyone knew the end was coming, except Deccie himself it seems, and the only surprise was that he didn’t resign and instead made the IRFU effectively sack him.

Sports coaches on the brink, movie stars in decline, those in power falling from grace: they all have a habit of telling you they wouldn’t change a thing in spite of the grisly endgame. We don’t know, but Kidney will probably never publicly admit to having made grievous errors in his tenure as Ireland head coach, but here are five mistakes that, privately at least, he’ll probably rue.

Paris, 2010. Paddy Wallace’s selection on the bench to cover the outside backs

Following Ireland’s stellar 2009 calendar year, the notoriously hard trip to Paris was the biggest obstacle in their bid to repeat the trick with another Grand Slam. The team was largely unchanged, but the bench had an odd look to it with the rapidly emerging Johnny Sexton now in the 22 as reserve fly-half, but Paddy Wallace retained as cover for the back division.

Ireland started brightly, causing the French worries with Gordon D’arcy looking threatening; indeed he was very unlucky not to score following a clean break, when his chip over the full back bounced oddly and out of harm’s way.  But things took a turn for the worse when Rob Kearney went off injured.  With Paddy Wallace the only available cover in reserve, a lot of shuffling around was required.  Earls moved to full-back, Wallace came on at 12 and D’arcy was shifted to the wing, where he was notably less effective.  Ireland’s attack was blunted and the French moved through the gears, eventually running out impressive 33-10 winners.

Symptomatic of wider malaise?  Yes.  In truth, Kidney never really developed the art of using his bench.  As coach of Munster he generally kept changes to a minimum; in the 2008 Heineken Cup final he brought on only two replacements.  As test rugby became increasingly a 22-man (and then 23-man) sport, Kidney struggled to adapt.  The bizarre (non) use of Sean Cronin as reserve hooker exemplified this.

November 2010. Failure to select Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien

Following a ho-hum Six Nations in 2010, and with the World Cup on the radar, the November test series looked like a chance for Kidney to refresh his team, which was now showing signs of rust. The tour of Australia and New Zealand in June was notable for the number of players selected – but most did well, and the team were far more competitive than expected given the injury carnage – four second-half tries while a man down against BNZ, then pushing Australia to the last bell meant the tour seemed like it would be something that could be built upon.

South Africa were Ireland’s first opponents in November, but Kidney elected to remain more or less true to his Grand Slammers of 2009, albeit with Sexton and Reddan selected at half-back.  Over the course of the four matches, Kidney stuck rigidly to his template.  It meant that Sean O’Brien – explosive with ball-in-hand for Leinster in the weeks leading up to the series – was limited to one start, in the Samoa game, and couldn’t even get ahead of an out-of-form Denis Leamy to win a place on the bench for the real matches.

There was also an urgent need to promote new tightheads, given that John Hayes was now in steep decline.  Kidney pinned his hopes on Tony Buckley – occasionally destructive in the loose, but a poor scrummager and with a tendency towards laziness – and when Buckley got injured looked to Tom Court and John Hayes to back him up.  It looked a strange decision not to even consider Leinster’s Mike Ross, now a mainstay of the province’s first team and a technician in the set piece, and so it proved.  Ross saw not one minute of action, but as the season unfolded and Buckley’s lack of technique proved hugely expensive for Munster, Ross found himself first-and-only-choice for the following Six Nations, while O’Brien was also belatedly promoted to the team.  The two players went from outside the match-day squad to lynchpins, more by accident than design.  It showed a lack of foresight, canny management and joined-up thinking.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Too often Kidney seemed unwilling to promote talented players ahead of ‘his boys’, even when it looked obvious to outsiders that the incumbent was woefully inferior.  The debacle repeated itself with O’Callaghan / Ryan in 2012 and ROG / Jackson / Madigan in 2013.

RWC 2011; selection of ROG vs. Wales

In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland stood on the cusp of greatness.  They had memorably seen off Australia and dismantled a poor Italy side with little fuss.  The tournament had opened up for them, with Northern hemisphere teams lying in wait in the quarter- and semi finals.  There was just one slight problem.  Their premier fly-half, Johnny Sexton, had a dose of the wobbles with placed ball.  It led Kidney to dial 021-4-RADGE for the Italy game, and the Munster fly-half performed consummately.

The question was whether to stick with ROG for the quarter-final, against an eye-catchingly in-form Wales.  The Welsh team’s blitz defence and unwavering determination to bully O’Gara had made things difficult for ROG in the recent past.  Many expected Kidney to revert to the team which had beaten Australia, with Reddan and Sexton dictating attack from 9 and 10.  But he stuck with O’Gara and Murray.  Wales read Ireland perfectly, ankle-chopping their marauding flankers and isolating ROG, cutting him off from his backline with a super-fast blitz defence.  The chance of a lifetime was lost, and if Kidney could wind back the clock to have one game again, we suspect it would be this one.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Yes, an inability to pick correct houres for courses.  In all of Deccie’s tenure, we never got the impression he picked teams with specific opposition traits in mind.  His first XV was his first XV no matter what.  ROG was the man to keep a mediocre Italy at arm’s reach, but his selection was exactly what the Welsh team would have wanted to see.  Kidney had to pick Johnny Sexton and hope his kicking woes were behind him (he slotted a touchline conversion at the end of the Italy match, so they may well have been).

Post RWC: failure to replace Gaffney as attack coach

If Ireland’s world cup was anti-climactic, at least it wasn’t an abject failure, and Ireland had done much right, not least in tactically outmanoeuvring the Aussies and their choke-tackle-led defence.  But in the aftermath of the loss against Wales, it was largely agreed upon that Ireland were lacking dynamism when it came to ball-in-hand attack, where Plans A, B and C consisted of getting Ferris and O’Brien to truck the ball up.  Their attack coach, Alan Gaffney, whose sum contribution appeared to be the Randwick Loop, was finishing up in any case and it looked like the perfect opportunity to bring in a new voice, with new ideas and given a remit to get Ireland’s attacking game up to speed.

Instead, management went down the bizarre route of placing a committee in charge of attack, with Kiss, Deccie himself and Mark Tainton, the kicking coach, taking over the role.  If it looked a bit like a patched up non-solution, then that’s exactly what it was.  The result was as you might expect – Ireland continued to look laboured with ball in hand.  The 2012 Six Nations was another failure, finishing off with the Twickenham Debacle.  Brian O’Driscoll was suitably concerned to air his grievances in public, saying the players didn’t really know who was in charge of Ireland’s attack, in what was a rare shot across the bows from the captain.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise? perhaps Kidney’s greatest failing was his failure to deliver a recognisable attacking gameplan for Ireland.  His grand slam was won by strangling the life out of opponents and an aggressive kick and chasing game, but once the breakdown rules (sorry, interpretations) were changed to encourage a more ball-in-hand style of play, he never successfully adapted.  Ireland’s style seemed to vary wildly from match to match, at times making them look uncoached.  Every so often they would appear to click into shape, only to revert to mush in the following match.  Ultimately, Kidney’s Ireland lacked identity, a way of playing the game that they owned.

The Entire 2013 Six Nations

2013’s was the last Six Nations of Deccie’s contract, and in effect he was playing for a new deal.  The superb performance in beating Argentina had set Ireland up nicely, but from first to last the campaign was a shambles in a way that nobody could predict.  Sure, injuries didn’t help, but Kidney and his team had a horrendous championship.  The trouble began with the appointment of a new captain, Jamie Heaslip.  It looked a positive step, designed to cash in on the momentum generated in November, but was dreadfully handled, not least when it emerged how upset BOD was at having been demoted.

Despite a morale-boosting and impressive win against Wales, things quickly unravelled, sparked by injury to Johnny Sexton.  So abysmal was ROG’s performance as reserve that Kidney elected to throw Paddy Jackson into the starting team for the next game, against Scotland.  Trouble is, Jackson hadn’t place-kicked in four weeks and management had made a blunder in not ensuring he got some practice the week before against Zebre.  In the event, Jackson missed three kicks and Ireland lost.

It got to the stage where every press release issued by management led to backtracking the following day.  When ROG was omitted from the squad (justifiably) for the following game, the next 48 hours were spent assuring the nation that he wasn’t being retired, when clearly he was. Sexton was named against Italy, only to be ruled out for a month shortly after the presser had concluded. The entire camp seemed to be imploding.

The final blow came in Rome, where Italy won 22-15 against an Ireland team that looked rudderless and without any sort of gameplan – had Italy been any less nervous, they could have won by 30.  The only player to try and make things happen was Ian Madigan, whom management had studiously ignored for the previous 12 months.  It just about said it all.

Symptomatic of: failure to plan for future when ROG was visibly fading.  Anyone with eyes in their head could see that ROG had been in decline since the 2011 World Cup, but management persisted in putting off the day they break Jackson or Madigan into the squad.  It resulted in Ireland having two fly halves with a single cap between them in the squad for the game against France. Had the re-build been conducted in the 2012 Six Nations, summer tour or November series, Ireland might have developed to the point where they could easily have managed the injuries sustained – postponing it meant blooding debutants left, right and centre.

Munster’s Mission (Virtually) Impossible

April 30th, 2011. Amlin Challenge Cup, semi-final, Munster vs Harlequins, Thomond Park.

Munster had just come through a joyous quarter final in Brive and had juggernaut-esque smoke coming off them. The woeful efforts away to London Irish, the Ospreys and Toulon earlier in the season were forgotten, and the hubris of 2009 was present in the pre-game description of Quins as “a middling side from an average league”.

In the event, Quins battered Munster in the first half, and were unfortunate to go in only 7 points ahead. They withstood the expected onslaught to prevail 20-12. The lineups that day were:

Munster: Jones; Howlett, Mafi, Warwick, Earls; O’Gara, Murray; du Preez, Varley, Buckley; O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll; Leamy, Wallace, Coughlan. Subs: Sherry, Horan, Hayes, O’Connell, Ryan, Stringer, Tuitupou, Murphy

Harlequins: Brown; Camacho, Lowe, Ooooooooooh Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston; Kohn, Robson; Fa’asavalu, Robshaw, Easter. Subs: Cairns, Jones, Lambert, Vallejos, Skinner, Moore, Clegg, Chisholm.

The Munster line-up, and particularly the bench, was ligind-tastic, and Munster had only one defeat in European rugby in Thomond Park at that stage, to an Iain Humphreys’-led Leicester side in 2007, when the Liginds were already-qualified. That renowned Munster-hater/non-homer (delete as appropriate) Romaine Poite in charge in the middle.

The final scoreline was genuinely surprising – no-one thought Quins had the poise at that stage in their development to sack fortress Thomond, despite Munster having started something of a rebuild three months earlier. That they did with ease raised quite a few eyebrows on both sides of the Irish Sea, and was an early harbinger of the fortunes of both sides in the interim.

Since then, Quins have gone on to lift the Amlin Cup (in most fortuitous style, robbing Stade Francais blind in the Cardiff City Stadium), then followed that up with a Premiership win – they started like a train during the World Cup, wobbled a bit, then finished very strongly to beat Leciester in a riveting final. In Europe last year, they bottled it in Galway to leave a not-so-rampant Toulouse to lose limply to Embra in the quarters.This season, they cruised through a weak pool (Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre) to qualify as number one seeds for the quarters.

As for Munster, they lifted that years’ Magners League with a win over a shagged-out Leinster in Thomond Park. The emotional public farewell to Paul Derbyshire that day will not be forgotten by anyone who missed it. The following year, they won all six games in a powdery pool, but were disposed of in their citadel by an Ulster side that tackled everything that moved and took their scores, but were by no means a superpower. It was like Ireland’s defeat in Murrayfield this year, with the scoring sequences reversed.

That they got thrashed by the Ospreys in the Pro12 semi-final merely completed the unhappy end to the unhappy Tony McGahan era. Munster fans were glad to see him go, and this year was hoped to be something of a new dawn. Sadly, Munster look, if anything, even more muddled then they did 12 months ago – the desire to play a more expansive game, with forwards carrying and offloading, clashes with an ideology married to muck and bullets, grinding forward play and trench warfare. The players have got more and more confused as time has gone on this season, and their lamentable effort in their 50-burger against Glasgow the other night was hapless at best.

If one looks at the Munster side today, it’s one that is two years into the transition started after the Toulon defeat, but it doesn’t look much better, not yet anyway. The arrival of BJ Botha and the graduation of Donnacha Ryan to the first team means the tight five is probably stronger now, but the Paul O’Connell shaped-hole at the centre of the pack still needs a (fully fit) Paul O’Connell shaped-solution. The back-row is the area of the biggest change, and specifically the flanks. Peter O’Mahony is a fine and talented player, but as a Heineken Cup-level blindside, even a Denis Leamy in the twilight of his too-short career is still a better option, and David Wallace over Tommy O’Donnell/Niall Ronan is a no-brainer. The lack of brawn in the current Munster edition is probably best-illustrated by the change on the flanks – at least if Leamy and Wallace felt like resorting to rumbling, they had the beef and skills to do it, but O’Mahony and O’Donnell, at this end of their careers, rarely dominate games.

In the halves, Conor Murray has matured from Academy graduate to a fine player, and is now undisputed Ireland starter. He still seems to play a little too much to instruction, carrying a lot last year, and box-kicking too much in this years Six Nations. In time, he will grow the experience and confidence to run a game as he sees it. If Ronan O’Gara regains the 10 shirt, it will be to the groans of many Munster fans – Father Time has finally caught up with him, and, as with Ireland, he is playing himself out of the team rapidly. So Murray/Keatley – promising, but down a level on Murray/O’Gara from 2 years ago.

Further out, Munster are fairly similar – Downey/Laulala is a solid centre partnership with a hint of creativity, rather like Warwick/Mafi was, but with the invention outside instead of in. The back three is almost the same, but given Earls is getting over injuries and has zero form, plus Howlett getting on a bit, they are dying out for Simon Zebo to return.

So Munster are a clear level down on the team that lost two years ago, and still very much a work in progress. What of Harlequins? The team that lined out at Saracens last weekend had 11 of the starters, and the exact same spine of Brown, Turner-Hall, Evans, Care, Easter, Robshaw, Robson, Johnston and Marler. Two years on, the team is familiar with silverware and is now confident and experienced.

If the graphs of the two sides were level at the last meeting (which is generous to the Irish side), they have diverged dramatically since. It will take a massive reversal of form and class for Munster to prevail, and it might even be their best European result of all time. Quins have lost three games on the bounce, but only against Saracens were they at full-strength, and there is no disgrace in that.  Munster’s recent form is particularly alarming, with recent thrashings handed out by Treviso and, most recently, Galsgow.  Up until now, most of the focus has been on Munster’s inability to meet the demands of Penney’s wide-wide attacking game, suddenly they look on the point of giving up, with marshmallow tackling  and atrocious linespeed highly conspicuous.

If it weren’t for the suspicion that Munster simply won’t roll over and die, this game has all the appearances of a turkey-shoot – but surely Munster will actually tackle in this match, and will be awoken from their tailspin by the threat of humiliation. If not, it’s truly time to take out the rosary beads.