Joe Schmidt – the Statistics

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Bullshit – that line came from a politician for whom facts could be inconvenient. Whilst the rugby public are just beginning to recognise how individual statistics can drive team success in this post-Moneyball era, they generally cherry-pick numbers to back up a previously-held position. [Aside: go see Andy McGeady if you think statistics are irrelevances of interest to out-of-touch boffins only.]

However, team statistics are harder to argue with – they tell the story about a teams success at a higher level. In the Joe Schmidt era, Leinster’s success was frankly incredible, and probably impossible to match. When you look at the raw numbers generated by the Milky Bar Kid and his goys, its kind of staggering. Here are a few choice gems from the Joe Schmidt era at Leinster:

0: Heineken Cup games lost to teams who aren’t Clermont Auvergne

2: teams who beat Leinster more than twice in Joe Schmidt’s reign, Clermont (3) and Ospreys (5)  

4:  both the number of trophies won in three years, and the number of games under Schmidt it took for George Hook to claim he had “lost the dressing room” – this was on September 24th, 2010

6: finals reached in three seasons

59: Net winning margin in HEC knockout games not involving Cardiff, average of 11.8 ppg

85.4%: success rate in Heineken Cup. 24 matches played: 20 won, 1 draw, 3 lost

90: Net winning margin in 6 HEC knockout matches (all won), average of 15 ppg

240: Number of starts made for Ireland by Leinster players during Schmidt’s reign, 48.5% of all starts  (Mun 145 Uls 100 Conn 7 Other 3)

Leinster have had a remarkably successful three seasons under Schmidt and have done so playing skillful and intelligent rugger – they have parked themselves at the top table of European rugby, and only Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have come close to their level in this time. Now Schmidty moves on to Ireland, and Matt O’Connor comes from Leicester to take the Impossible Job – if Schmidt’s methods transfer to Carton House, expect the kind of success (and attacking play) that we all think we have the players for.

Samoa, Oz and BNZ is a tough series to start, and the baying paying public will expect two wins. Its been a while since we have achieved our goal in a series (RWC11 pool stages probably), and the sky-high expectations Schmidty has created for himself mean he will probably want three. This ride could be fun, you know.

Postscript: the original plan was for Les Kiss to take the tour to the USA and Canada, but it appears Schmidty will be elbowing the inventor of the choke tackle aside after Houston and taking charge himself. Hands on.

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Judgement Call

We are struggling to think of anything as unbelievable (in this sense of not being believable) as Dylan Hartley being sent off in a Premiership final for calling Wayne Barnes a “f*cking cheat”. Its just so crazy. Consider this:

  • He is captain of the Saints
  • It was one of the biggest games of his career
  • He had previously been warned by Barnes for verbals
  • He was due to fly out on a Lions tour in a matter of days
  • Barnes had flagged his desire not to be making high-profile decisions, following some previous controversies in Premiership playoffs (e.g. Chris Ashton getting binned for being lamped by Manu)

As sporting meltdowns go, it takes some topping – Zinedine Zidane and Richie Tennenbaum are about the only ones we can think of.

Hartley will miss the Lions tour, for which Rory “Nice-but-throws-awry” Best has been called up in his stead. Best is the classiest of chaps, as evidenced by his tweet in the aftermath of not being selected initially – he referred to how this paled into insignificance compared to the bigger things in life, such as the Nevin Spence tragedy.

Like injury being Ireland’s best selector, perhaps Hartley’s meltdown has been Gatty’s – there is a recent history of late callups playing key roles in Lions’ series (Paul Wallace, Tom Croft) and Besty, although clearly third choice right now, has a chance to do the same. Having said that, he is clearly third choice by now – unlike Tom Youngs (Premiership Player of the Year) and Richard Hibbert (standout hooker in the Six Nations), and wasn’t selected initially for a good reason – he simply wasn’t playing well enough.

What it also calls into question, however, is Gatty’s judgement – he considered Hartley to have the talent and mental capacity to thrive on a Lions tour – that assessment is in tatters after Saturday, and if the tour starts to go wrong, it will  be used as a stick to beat Gatty with. He’s been rowing back a bit since Saturday, talking about how he agonized afterwards had he made the right decision, and talked about Graham Rowntree’s input, but the buck stops with him, and he picked Hartley.

The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man, and the semi-mythic status of the red jersey reflects that. For example, Gerald Davies was just keeping his shirt warm for Ugo Monye, and he’ll pass it on to George North, and so on.

Without getting too teary about it, any discussion of the Lions is incomplete without a reference to “character” – is Player X a Lion, they’ll say, which has a greater implication than his ability – it talks to more earthy qualities, like smiling through midweek games with NSW Country and being a “good tourist”.  Hartley always struck us as an odd selection, even leaving aside our Besty-love – he routinely cracks under pressure, and has accumulated multiple bans. Gatty’s faith in him has been shredded in spectacular fashion – let’s hope he gets more calls right than wrong from here on.

The Last 2%

So Leinster saw off Schmidty, Johnny Sex-bomb and Isa Nacewa with a much-coveted Pro12 title – while Ulster were the better team over the year, Leinster were better on the day. They out-scored their hosts/visitors two tries to none, and looked a little more composed all day.

Their experience of bigger days certainly told, and they had ice in their veins at key moments. Ulster came out a tad over-exuberant and struggled to come to terms with Lacey’s refereeing, giving away 4 penalties in 8 minutes, while Leinster eschewed three points from an early penalty and went for the corner, resulting in their first try. Hurting your opponent at key times is something Leinster excel at – think early in the second half in Bordeaux last year.

Ulster had a similar situation with an hour gone – they had momentum and had turned Leinster over a few times, then earned a penalty in the corner at 12-19. Egg remarked to his companion that this was the time to go for the corner and try to really turn the screw on Leinster, but as he talked, the entire Ulster team walked backwards and prepared for Pienaar to take a shot. There was no discussion of going to the corner at all, which surprised us. What would Leinster have done? What would Munster have done – the theatrical conversation between O’Connell and O’Gara preceding the inevitable kick down the line is well known at this stage. We’re just not sure three points was what the doctor ordered at that stage in the game.

In the final analysis, Leinster were able to eke out tries and Ulster weren’t – or conversely, Leinster were able to keep Ulster out, while Ulster couldn’t do likewise – Leinster had key interventions to prevent tries – Boss after PJ’s chargedown, Sexton holding up Diack, the scrum just about holding up from 20-25 minutes.

Those little extra things, and the nous that comes from multiple finals (this was their sixth in three years under Joe Schmidt) told for Leinster – and Ulster will be back, hopefully with lessons learned. They have had another good season,  but the next step is going to be learning how to win these big games. It isn’t a given that a team will make that final step from contender either. Some teams climbed the mountain step by painful step (Munster), some went virtually straight to the top (Leinster), some seem to be forever bridesmaids, but do get the occasional fulfillment (Clermont) and some simply never do it (Northampton Saints).

Ulster’s homework this summer is to figure out what they need to add to their game, and plan accordingly. They seem to have most of the starting XV personnel in place (caveat, Fez is a massive loss) but just need to work out the next step – be it better execution, more ambition in the gameplan, a better use of the bench, whatever. Oddly, the one impact sub in the backline they had, Paul Marshall, was unused – having a Plan B would certainly be a start if Plan A wasn’t really working. Still, they can feel satisifed with their efforts in this years Rabo, and rest easy that they did the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence proud. As for Leinster, all you can say is Matt O’Connor has one hell of a tough job living up to this.

Postscript: John Lacey did not have a good game. Leaving aside his obvious frustration at the early penalties, Anscombe made an excellent point after the game – shouldn’t the best referee available be in charge for the final? Of the Celtic refs, Owens would have been that man – was there a reason he wasn’t there? Was it that we wanted an Irish ref? If so, it couldn’t have been Rolland, so the only other alternative was *gulp* Clancy. Last year, though, it was Poite, but presumably the best French refs were busy at the Top14 semi-finals. Getting to the nub of the issue then – if the Pro12 wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start awarding finals to referees with the kind of stature the league aspires to – Superstar Steve Walsh, opportunity knocks!

End of an Era

As if to have one last laugh at his ability to become the story, the news that Ronan O’Gara had announced his retirement from playing and his move into coaching on the night Leinster won the Amlin Vase was deliciously ironic. For ever since the apple-cheeked young Corkman came onto the scene, he has resolutely been able to bend the narrative to his will.

The triumvirate that guided Ireland to the new dawn of Triple Crown success and then the Grand Slam was Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rog. BOD and POC were captains of country and province respectively and, in that capacity, their public utterances were largely banalities for our VBFs in the print media. Rog, on the other hand, felt no constraints to stay on-message – his confident, chippy and proud communiques were always newsworthy, and you got the impression that better represented the feelings inside the Munster and Ireland camps.  It has helped to make him the most divisive sportsman in Ireland since Roy Keane (another chippy Corkman).  While the likes of O’Connell, O’Driscoll and The Bull are easy for the public to love for their bravery and charm, O’Gara will never have the same unanimous adoration; he gets people’s goat up, and probably doesn’t care that much about it.

When Rog went on Sky the week before a crucial HEC game in Leicester and announced he “would not accept” that English players were better than Irish ones, it was a call to arms – and one he backed up on the pitch with a 50 metre penalty in pouring rain to win the game. We always felt this very modern Irish desire to break free of the “gave it 100%” brigade and measure success in medals was something O’Gara elucidated very well, and his contribution to the noughties Silver Generation was as important as the two big leaders. The fact that the willowy fly-half spent large portions of his international career pursueing an ongoing vendetta with one the toughest teams in world rugby – Argentina – was indicative of his bloody-mindedness.

Rog’s Ireland career was book-ended by back-and-forth rivalries for the 10 shirt – with David Humphreys from 00-03, then with Johnny Sexton from 09-12. What was notable about both was that O’Gara refused to accept being second best – while Humph looked a better suited player to the backline Ireland possessed, it was Rog who went to Eddie and simply demanded to always play, and Humphreys who retired from international rugby in frustration at collecting splinters.

Then when Sexton broke through, it was O’Gara who doggedly refused to go away quietly into the night, gaining oxygen from the rivalry and feeding off his coaches lingering doubts over Sexton to elbow his way to the 10 shirt for the RWC11 quarter-final.  Getting selected for that game was the winning of the battle, but the game itself was the losing of the war.  Wales ruthlessly exposed his by now limited game, and ROG never started another game for Ireland.

While his status in Ireland and at Heineken level is assured, there is no point pretending Rog didn’t have a great record on the highest stages of all – he went on three Lions tours but never started a Test, and his role in the second Springbok test in 2009 was rather ignomininious, even if being boshed by Jacque Fourie is excused by having sustained a big hit shortly before. At World Cup level, it never quite happened either – even aside from the horrendous experience that was 2007, the 2003 and 2011 were not without their moments, but both ended with a whimper, having been selected over his rivals on both occasions.

His best days, though, were saved for the Munster jersey, and it was in that shirt that he almost seemed most comfortable.  When he endured difficult times with Ireland, it was back with Munster where he was put back together.  This ws most after the World Cup in 2007; O’Gara had given his worst ever performances for an abject Ireland, but returned to form quickly at Munster and won the Heineken Cup.  It was a remarkable transformation. It happened again this year; ROG looked like a pub player for Ireland, ultimately forcing Kidney to turn to rookies instead of him.  He seemed finished, but managed to deliver two outstanding performances for Munster in the subsequent Heineken Cup knockouts.

For all the extreme views that O’Gara seemed to inspire in people, there is little doubt he maximised his talents through hard work and no little skill. He had his limitations, notably his weak defending and lack of running threat and pace.  But what made him a great was his ability to make big games bend to his will in spite of those limitations.  In a clutch situation, there were few better.  His record speak for himself, and, as someone who has met the man outside rugby on a couple of occasions, his public persona bears little resemblence to the well-spoken, thoughtful and intelligent person that he is. We think that not only will he ensure he succeeds as a coach, but his meeja utterances will reflect those personality traits of honesty and incisiveness, making him a relative rarity in Irish rugger circles.

He has given us a finale that nobody saw coming – disappearing into the Parisian sunset arm in arm with Jonny Sexton.  It’s tempting to see only the funny side, and imagine Jonny Sexton rolling his eyes and cursing that he will simply never get out of the shadow of the chippy Corkman.  One can picture Jonny opening the curtains in his Parisian apartment only to reveal Ronan O’Gara waiting for him with his kicking tee.  But in fact it’s almost certainly an outstanding coup by Racing Metro.  They have a great fly-half on their books, and another in their coaching team.  By all accounts, Sexton and O’Gara get on well, and have a productive relationship.  They’re ultimately not that dissimilar; both are cranky, have collosal self-belief and are serial winners.

The Pro12: Its a Wrap

We rarely have good things to say about the Pro12 – don’t get us wrong, we love the games, and think its underrated as a development tool (ask Mike Cheika if Leinster would have won the HEC in 2009 without winning the then-Magners the previous year), but it is a bit dowdy. Trips to an empty Murrayfield, the presence of the zebra-bunnies, the Irish interpros with 2.5th teams and the lamentable organisation of the Welsh regions do not exactly compare well to the skill levels and intensity of the Top14 or the glitzy try-fest that is Ooooooooooooooh the Premiership. Plus its boring most of the time to be frank – its generally highly predictable.

It might seem a bit rich to be taking a pop at the Pro12 for not being competitive enough when the other two European pro leagues have had the same 10 teams in the playoffs for the past two seasons, but its true – the Pro12 has been pretty dull for much of its history. Leinster, Munster and the Ospreys have dominated, and the odd challenge by someone else is noticeable by its rarity.

Its easy for McCafferty and the like to point fingers at the lack of relegation, but its hard to see how that has benefitted, say, the Dragons or Connacht. Relegation, and the creative destruction it sometimes wreaks, can sometimes be a positive force – just ask the juvenated Saints.

But the cartel may be changing – its been a positive season on the depth front. For a start, Ulster might win it this year. Before the play-offs started, we would have picked Leinster, but after struggling past Glasgow, and post-Amlin, they look a little beaten up – Ulster’s stroll in the park past a lamentable Scarlets effort has set them up well, and the drive that  comes from honouring the tragic Nevin Spence could well be too much for Leinster. To be truthful, we’re split down the middle (naturally), but since Egg holds the pen right now, he’s going to pick Ulster by a nose.

Getting back to the Scarlets, we get that the regions are not in a good place right now, and that the structures of Welsh professional rugby are somewhat teetering, but none of that excuses the lack of effort from the Scarlets’ two Lions (one more than Ulster, don’t forget) in their semi-final – Johnny Davies looked panicked and passed poorly all day, and George North’s statuesque defending would have embarrassed Lesley Vainikolo.

That aside, the Scarlets were there for their season-long consistency, and most of them will be back next year (though not North unfortunately). Ulster won’t just be back, they’ll expect to win it. What then of Glasgae, the third cartel-buster in the playoffs?

Unlike this season, when Glasgow had a summer of flux, having to manage the loss of key players such as Richie Grey and Kelly Brown ,and a long-serving coach in Sean Lineen, they will be able to build on top of this season’s excellent effort. Last years recruits (Matawalu, Maitland and Strauss – an excellent summer of work) will have had this season under their belts, and they’ll be even better for it.

The most interesting challenge next season may well come from Treviso – the Italians have always had that ‘plucky underdog’ look about them, where they can win at home, albeit narrowly, but struggle away. This season, they started winning away, and handing out some hurt to teams as well (notably Munster and the Scarlets) – their wretched winter ruined their chances of finishing even further up the league than seventh,

So next season, as well as the old firm of Leinster, Munster and the Ospreys sniffing around the playoffs (Ospreys and, particularly, Munster will want to improve on this seasons showing – Munster, like Ulster last year, gave up after the HEC quarter-final), you’ll have Ulster, Glasgow, the Scarlets, Treviso, and possibly even Cardiff if they get their ass together. As well as seven competitive teams, you have teams from all four constituent countries will harbour playoff ambitions for the first time – and that’s a good thing, particularly as Sky begin the process of glamming it up.

As for Saturday, lets enjoy it – thankfully the Ulster-Leinster rivalry is still a friendly one, and its going to be a sunny, beery, relaxing day out! Plus we’re certain the home team will win.

The Mental

Were Clermont the better team in Saturday’s HEC final? Yes, no doubt – they dominated possession, territory and scoring chances. Did they deserve to win the game? Hmmmm, not so sure about that one.

Watching the game on Saturday, we’ve never been as deflated as we were at the full-time whistle – like most neutrals, we were cheering heartily for the Auvergnats. Clermont are a most likeable bunch – led by fine upstanding men like Julien Bonnaire and Aurelien Rougerie, and guided by the little genius Morgan Parra. And their fans are the best in Europe, bar none. But, and there is a massive but, they showed zero mental resolve when it counted, and crumbled visibly as the pressure mounted.  There is something almost Shakesperian, or even out of ancient Greek mythology about this Clermont side.  They are European rugby’s Achilles.  An extraordinary team with the ability to crush all-comers, but with a fatal weakness – when it comes to the crunch they don’t know how to win.

Shortly after Jonny Wilkinson’s penalty to bring the game to 15-9, Clermont had a knock-on advantage in their own half. What they did was shuttle the ball back and forth, recycling dirtier and dirtier ball, and panicking as the Toulon line went nowhere. The ball came back to Wes Fofana, who finally broke through (losing the advantage) … but got himself slightly isolated and turned over (in a brilliant piece of play), from which that horrible man ran in an easy turnover try.

On the same weekend in which that master of clutch situations, Ronan O’Gara, announced his retirement, it’s worth asking what would he have done? Welted the ball away to relieve the pressure – or tried a cheeky dink over the top, knowing you’ll get the ball back if it doesn’t work out. Certainly not faffed around and panicked, that’s for sure.

And this was when they were leading. It’s tempting to get bogged down in what-ifs about the Toulon try, but, judging by the pattern of the last 20 minutes, even if Felon Armitage had knocked on Fernandez Lobbe’s pass, Toulon would have manufactured a try from somewhere. And another ice-cool pressure merchant, St Jonny, would have converted for the win.

In fact, Egg found himself in a very strange place with a minute to go – he badly wanted Clermont to win, but he also found himself thinking a team that wobbles this badly during squeaky-bum time simply does not deserve to be champions of Europe. Clermont have played in four massive clutch European games this season – the two versus Leinster, the semi-final against Munster, and the final. In three of those games, they did their utmost to lose – squeezing out a win at home against a patched-up Leinster team, scraping past an inferior Munster team, and finally losing to the disciplined but limited Toulon. Only in the Aviva, when the pressure was largely on Leinster as the home side, did they play freely and with ice in their veins.

The sight of Rougerie, Parra and James on the bench, helpless as the woeful David Skrela repeatedly took the ball into contact, put us in mind of the New Zealand-France game in RWC07 – then it was Carter, Kelleher and Collins sitting ashen-faced as New Zealand managed to lose a game they dominated.  It seemed they knew the game was lost even when it could still be won.  Even Rougerie’s comments after the game – he said that Clermont came within one point of something special – did not sound like those of a serial winner.  Would Ronan O’Gara, or Brian O’Driscoll, or Rory Best say such a thing after a defeat like that?

This is a pattern with Clermont, dating back many years in Europe – the RDS in 2010 when les Jaunards lost a game they all but won was simply the most memorable. Until now anyway. Vern Cotter has ambitions to go back to New Zealand and angle for a Super Rugby job, and eventually the All Black one – but for all his success in Clermont, they are missing a major trait of winners – the mental. His substitutions of the halves were disastrous – how he thought serial loser Skrela (now possessor of 3 HEC silver medals with 3 different teams) was a better option than Brock James, even acknowledging James’ history in Dublin, is beyond us.

The sad truth is that Clermont didn’t show the kind of character that champions do. Which is an awful shame. Toulon (with the exception of that awful individual) did, and that’s why they won the game.

Feel The Glamour

Two finals will take place this week; one between two regional towns from the south of France, and the other between two mighty capital cities, in a glamorous, dazzling and sure to be entertaining affair in the heart of leafy Dublin 4.

Quite frankly, you can take your regional outposts like Leicester, Toulon and Limerick – it’s about time we had a meeting of great metropolises in a European final.  Leave the truffle hunters from the Auvergne to their little scrap with Toulon on saturday, and put truffle oil on your entrees before the Amlin Final instead.

Yes, give us the glitz and glamour of the pink-clad Parisians, led by the magnificently resplendant and wonderfully handsome Sergio Parisse.  These fellows, fresh from the lower reaches of the Top 14, know that all that business of winning silverware and cheating at the breakdown is just poor bloody form, and the really important thing is to look sensational no matter what the result.  In the mighty Amlin Cup, they’ve rightly dispensed with all that beastly Top Quatorze thuggery and simply gone back to the great Parisian style of playing, with terrific dash and verve.

And their opponents are of course, the European champions Leinster, the All Blacks of the Northern Hamisphere whose passing accuracy is second to none and who live to get the ball into the mitts of their three-quarters.  Watch in delight as the great Brian O’Driscoll pops a pass out the back door into the onrushing Blackrock-educated Ian Madigan.  What a match shall ensue!  To the winner the spoils!

Some tips for maximising enjoyment:

Head to Paris Bakery on Moore Street (yes, Moore Street, it’s a bit filthy, but try to gt through it) at lunchtime and dine out on their wonderful array of Parisian style pastries, as well as superb meats, cheeses and breads from their recently opened deli.  Maybe even bring some along to the game.  They’ll go down terribly well if you’re a bit peckish.  Or wet.

Dress appropriately.  The Parisian fans are a stylish brigade and we don’t want to let our side down.  Baggy jeans and hoodies should not be seen anywhere near the ground.  Head to Brown Thomas for a spruce up beforehand if you’re feeling sartorially inferior.  Your Leinster jersey should be fitted, and your scarf knotted just-so.

Forget about pints, go to the Corkscrew on Chatham Street and sneak one of these bad boys into the ground under your shirt, and quaff it down at regular intervals.  Plastic wine glasses are acceptable in this instance, but only because of the logistical difficulty with getting real ones past security.

After the match, go directly to La Maison and order the steak dish for two.  C’est magnefique!  Pichet is also to be recommended, and their pork belly is without match in this city.

A splendid occasion awaits tomorrow night, and we will be there to enjoy it.

Say it is so Joe

The first order of business for Joe Schmidt’s new job as The Messiah is to consult with Les Kiss to pick a squad for the tour of North America. Kiss will be taking the tour, but expect Schmidt’s stamp to be on the squad.  He’ll be without his nine Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions, all of whom would be guaranteed starters in a first-choice Ireland team. Co-incidentally, Ireland toured North America four years ago when the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiions were in South Africa – they took a backline full of Ians, none of whom knew all the four verses of Ireland’s Call that were rolled out in Thunderbird Stadium – the Canadian announcers were mystified, eh, when the small band of travelling support didn’t join in the anthem.

In terms of squad development, the tour was pretty pointless – Micko and Biiiiiiig Bob Casey kept Ryan Caldwell on the bench, and only Darren Cave of the backs is even close to pushing for international selection four years on. Rory Best captained the tour, in which Mike Ross made his debut, but Ross was famously not seen again until all other props were deemed useless.

This time out, we expect St. Joe and Les ‘Last Chance’ Kiss to be a little more progressive than that – Ireland have had conservative selectors for over a decade, and we fully expect greater variety in selection for the next 2.5 years (and more hopefully). There’s also a touring group, described variously as emerging, or developmental, heading to a quadrangular tournament in Georgia (the other competing nations are Uruguay and the Emerging Springboks).  Here are a few thing we want to see from Joseph and his Technicolour Backline Playbook:

Leave Mike Ross at home: Rosser is Ireland’s best prop by a million miles, but he’s also big and has played lots of rugby over the last 24 months, most famously having to prove himself in a gunfight against Fiji in November. Ireland know exactly what Ross brings, and, in the long run, would fare better letting him rest. Stephen Archer, while not even close to the level required for a test prop, should get a chance, and if Declan Fitzpatrick can stand without the aid of a lean-to, he should also tour.  Off to Georgia goes Ricky Lutton, who has impressed in the last few months and see how he swims against the Georgian brutes. On the bench, why not throw one of the Leinster tyros, Martin Mooreadze or Tadgh Furlong.

I’ve seen the future and it’s NWJMB: Iain Henderson will be in this Ireland team for a very very long time. At Ulster, he has been used on the blindside, where they need him, but ultimately he seems destined to be win many test caps as a second row, but his carrying and ball skills look like they could add a new dimension to a line where Ireland have historically looked to (unseen) work horses. Despite Hendo’s inability to get Johann Muller out of the Ulster side, Schmidt should play him in his long-term position and see how he goes.

Rory Best gets a rest: Besty is another who should get the summer off to put his feet up and look after his prize cow.  It’s been a long season for him, and there are no less than three high quality players in the queue who would benefit from the experience: Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin and Mike Sherry.  Heck, there might not even be room for all three in the touring party.

It’s Maddog Time: Refusing to pick Ian Madigan was the last great folly of the previous regime, it’s hard to see Joe Schmidt doing anything other than selecting the Leinster player of the year at 10.  High on confidence and full of running, his graduation to international rugby begins properly here.  Pairing him with Ulster’s Paul Marshall would be exciting and plenty of fun to watch. Paddy Jackon can start the other game – the audition for the role of understudying Sexton starts here.

Ulster centres get their moment.  With D’arcy injured and Luke Marshall being allowed to rest his weary head, it might be worth a look at the Olding-Cave partnership in the centres.  Stuart Olding is barely established, but looks set to start in a final next weekend, and is clearly in it for the long haul.  In the back three, the Munster-via-Leinsters Andrew Conway and Felix Jones have finished the season strongly and are worth bringing alongside semi-established fastmen Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy.  If nothing else, the back three would be lethally quick.

So that’s what a Genuine Openside (TM) looks like.  We’ve heard about them, we’ve seen old black and white pictures of them, now we might be about to see one in the flesh.  Yes, hopefully George Hook will be able to contain hmself, because Ireland should be starting these games with a Genuine Openside.  Neither of the previous two coaches had much interest in a linking player / breakdown specialist in the team, relying on the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip to perform the role between them.  But Tommy O’Donnell was the surprise package of the season, at times sensational for Munster, and his integration to test rugby should begin here.  The last few weeks have shown that Jamie Heaslip still has the ball-carrying ballast when he plays in a more conventionally structured backrow.  Ireland haven’t gotten far with their confusing mix of 6.5s and an 8 playing like a 6.67 (or something), so at least investigating how we can utilise a linking player in the backrow should be top of Joe’s to-do list.  Perhaps this will be the start of something wonderful.

Donnacha Ryan as Tour Captain

With most of the leadership corp on Lions duty, the opportunity is available to give Donnacha Ryan a shot at leading the troops.  By all accounts he’s well regarded by his team-mates and should settle comfortably into the role.

Thoroughbred Racehorse

Were you one of the people questioning why Tom Croft made the Lions selection?  Check the tape of this weekend’s semi-final against Halrequins and you’ll see why.  Dude is as fast as lightning.

Gatland made his fair share of daft selections in his Lions squad, but none of them were in the backrow, where he has stacked his deck perfectly.  The watchword here is ‘variety’, because he has got players tailored to whatever game he wants to play.  Tackle the Aussies to a standstill?  Get Lydiate on the pitch.  Run at their forwards to soften them up.  Sean O’Brien is starting.  The ground is super-hard and dry and we’re going to put some width on it?  Dial +44-YEOMAN and get Tom Croft out there.

Croft tends to take his fair share of flak, and we haven’t always been complimentary of him on these pages.  He can appear to be a luxury player, a showpony who can go large tranches of a match without doing anything, looking to make flashy breaks but unwilling to do the hard, unshowy stuff.  The debate is not that dissimilar to that which rages over our own Peter O’Mahony, a similarly athletic presence who can make big plays in wide channels, but often requires other back row members to do a share of grunt work.  Croft shipped a lot of the blame for an anonymous performance against Wales in this year’s Six Nations, when the Welsh backrow completely dominated both he and Robshaw.

All of which is fair enough, but the point is that there is room in the touring party for a player with Croft’s unique set of skills (remember that he augments his pacy running with outstanding lineout ability) and athleticism.  Besides, the dry Antipodean tracks will suit him far better than the roly-poly sponges that the Six Nations was played upon, and while the rest of the squad are battling fatigue after an exhauting season, Croft is fresh as a daisy and just coming into his best form.  The idea that Tom Wood or Chris Robshaw would be selected ahead of this fellow is simply ridiculous.  In a world of identikit six-and-a-half-wearing-twelve-carries-for-fourteen-metres-gaining workhorse drones, he is a throroughbred racehorse.

Sealing the Deal

Ulster had a great night at the Pro12 gongs at the weekend, hoovering up nice statuettes like they were going out of fashion:

  • Nick Williams, who we outed as a dreadful signing in August, deservedly won Player of the Year – his limitations have been exposed at times in the rarified HEC air, but Williams has thrived in the dowdier Pro12.  He followed this up by being voted IRUPA POTY by his peers, a huge honour. We owe him a mea culpa ^2 for deriding him as a terrible signing on arrival.
  • Bamm-Bamm Marshall won young POTY – the lad basically got into the Ireland team on potential and excellent Pro12 form, and he showed that if you have got it, you have got it – here’s hoping he comes back clear headed and fully fit
  • Matinee Idol Andrew Trimble won try of the year for this effort. Trimble has a reputation as a boshing wing, but he doesn’t half score some spectacular tries,  – the out-Bathing of Bath a few years back when Ulster weren’t great was a stunner, for example.  Trimble has reached double digits in tries this season, outscoring a number of more celebrated players
  • Specsavers Great Chap / Fair Play award – only six yellow cards this season – and we must say, from Rory Best back to Craig Gilroy, they are a likeable team of fine young men, who know how to stay out of trouble and keep their bibs clean.

*APPLAUSE*

All of the above was deserved, and there is no doubt there is a huge amount of goodwill out there towards the Ulstermen, given the circumstances in which the season began for them.  It’s safe to say most neutrals will be willing on Ulster to do it for Nevin from here. But it is imperative that Ulster go on and pick up some silverware if this season is to be a successful one – the HEC was a bit of a let-down, and finishing top of the league brings with it a responsibility to seal the deal (are we right, Leinster?).

Failure to do so last year was very frustrating for Leinster, and it’s unfortunate for Ulster that their rivals are likely to be waiting for them should they get past the Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets in the semi-final – the lads from D4 dearly want this pot to make up for past defeats.

Ulster started off the Pro12 like a train, streaking clear of the field to such an extent that a home semi-final looked assured, but their tailspin in the winter was so dramatic they fell off top spot at one point. That the upturn in form has been driven by the sustained excellence of youngsters Stuart Olding and NWJMB is positive for squad depth, but negative in that neither player has played a Pro12 final, while most of the Leinster squad have played in several.  Last year Ulster made a final, but seemed inhibited by the occasion.  Can they show up properly this time?

It’s a tough ask to go to the Oar Dee Esh and win, but that’s what Ulster are going to have to do – they’ve done it once before this season, and they have the best motivation possible to do it again.