All The Rugby

“They didn’t play any rugby” Matt O’Connor, of Connacht, who Leinster had just narrowly beaten, 26th October 2013.

Leaving aside the unedifying nature of the Leinster head coach’s remarks about Connacht and turn that on its head. If Connacht didn’t play any rugby, then Leinster played all the rugby on the night, right? Sheesh – if that was all the rugby Leinster will play, they are in trouble. Saturday seemed to herald reality setting in around the Oar Dee Esh – Leinster are really in transition now, both in terms of personnel and gameplan. And grace of the head coach, but that’s another matter.

We have blogged about this recently, but it seems more real now after two successive home games in which Leinster played desperate rugby against two limited teams (apologies to our Western friends and any freaks who follow us in Castres).

The Scooby Doo ending after the Milky Bar Kid swanned off to Lansdowne Road to be biased in favour of Leinster players (© C. George, Cork) was that Matt O’Connor would come in, hand local favourite Ewan “Ian Madigan” Madeegan the keys to the house and continue to play the intelligent and incisive offloading and running game that Schmidty used to conquer Europe. After all, when he was hired, ‘continuity’ was the keyword bandied around by the bigwigs upstairs.  Sure, results might decline a little, but we’ll still get to the HEC/RCC (delete as per status on the financial-oblivion-o-meter) knock-out stages and the Pro12 playoffs, they said.

Now, they might still do that, but it seems they will be doing it the down and dirty way. There was a lot of pointing at Leicester Tigers try-scoring record and the surprising sight of Oooooooooh Manu Tuilagi eschewing running into someone to find actual space  when O’Connor pitched up in D4 – but the Tigers are the masters of the pragmatic and are fundamentally a team of tough forwards. O’Connor’s Leinster will be using route one as their base, and possibly adding baubles when the appropriate time comes.

And this is rankling a bit with the D4tress faithful [Aside: can one be faithful if not from Munster? Maybe faithful but not brave. Or something. JOKE] who have gotten fat on a diet of spellbinding tries and Europe-conquering under Schmidty. Don’t forget, when Cheika came in with a mandate to toughen up the pack who had been eaten up by the Liginds, there was plenty of discontentment about the grim style he adopted, even while it was acknowledged that his job was to start with the forwards. And the 2008 league win would have been a platform for absolutely nothing had they lost to Munster in *that* game in 2009.

They were rank outsiders for that game for a good reason. They had played a huge amount of dross in Europe that year – a limp defeat in Castres and a dire try-less drudge against Embra in their final game. The reason Leinster had to travel to the Stoop for the quarter-final was that they had qualified as the lowest-ranked group winner, in spite of a perfect start where they were on ten points after two tricky games – and then when they got there, the combination of manic defence, Quins butchery and a minor miracle got them through. The Liginds were a far superior team that got ambushed. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The functional league win and Stoop game have become part of the narrative, but it’s easy to forget how unhappy many Leinster fans were with the rugby being played by Cheika.

It’s easy to sympathise with O’Connor – he has an impossible succession job: his best player has left, his best remaining player is being heavily linked with a move to France, and the best player in Leinster’s (and Ireland’s) history has a maximum of twelve-ish games left in blue should he stay fit. Tough gig by anyone’s standards. But no-one at all expected Leinster to end up playing like this so quickly. Hopefully it’s a passing phase (the first this season in blue – lolzers) but it’s funny how quickly a decline can kick in – 21 months after the Munster Rolls-Royce cruised over the Galactico Ospreys side, they were a rabble being beaten senseless in Toulon and looking way, way over the hill. Leinster fans will hope that, if they do plumb the depths of those results, they at least do it while playing decent rugby. Right now, that doesn’t look a good bet.

Schmidt’s Ireland

Joe Schmidt named his first proper squad yesterday and, as usual with these things, it was hard to infer much from the panel, with the big decisions being made closer to the matches themselves.  As always, it was a case of trying to recognise who wasn’t there that might be considered unlucky, and trying to map these to a narrative.

David Kilcoyne – loosehead is more or less locked up by Cian Healy, but the role of first reserve is very much open.  Kilcoyne won rave reviews (slightly overboard in our opinion) last season and forced himself into contention but has had a subdued start this campaign, and was notably lacklustre in the Edinburgh defeat.  His starting place at Munster could even be under threat from the explosive James Cronin.  Jack McGrath is preferred and it’s a form call which is good news, while the Is Tom Court In Or Out Of Favour This Week—o-meter’s dial has once again taken a huge swing, this time to the ‘Yes’ side.

Andrew Trimble – his abysmal showing against Leicester can’t have helped his chances but he improved in Montpellier and scored a try.  Nonetheless, it’s starting to feel that for all Trimble’s obvious qualities he has never really imposed himself at test level in spite of getting plenty of chances.

Luke Fitzgerald & Craig Gilroy – neither are listed as injured, but both are coming back from injuries.  One suspects that these are both on Schimdt’s radar and if they can prove their match-fitness over the coming fortnight they will be brought in.  Ireland could certainly do with them.  With Simon Zebo injured, the back three options lack a little pizazz, and both these two would provide a bit of – Gerry Thornley moment – an X-factor.  Put it another way: Dave Kearney and the Kildare Lewis Moody will not put the frighteners up any of the southern hemisphere sides.  The good news for Schmidt is that Keith Earls is playing like a dervish and has the look of a man making up for lost time after last year’s disastrous campaign.

Kieran Marmion & Paul Marshall – these two constitute the chasing pack trying to oust the older hands Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan.  Those hoping for a progressive selection from Schmidt are entitled to be disappointed that Marmion hasn’t been picked, while Paul Marshall looks set to be one of those players who falls just short of test level despite being a good provincial player.  Besides, Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan are not done yet.  Boss has been in very good form for Leinster this season, and while Kidney never wanted much to do with him, it was always likely that Schmidt would see him as an option.  Eoin Reddan showed his first glimpse of good form since an awful injury at the weekend, and remains the best option to change things up if Murray has an off day.

Donncha O’Callaghan – second row is the area most affected by injury, with Donnacha Ryan and Iain Henderson both out of the series.  It’s a dire loss.  We suspect they’d both have been in the 23, so it leaves a couple of test spots up for grabs.  Mike McCarthy would be the obvious choice, but he looks palpably unfit for Leinster.  Devin Toner is the form option and is having a brilliant season, but isn’t a good dovetail for Paulie.  It leaves Dan Tuohy looking like a possible wildcard.  After some fairly ordinary performances last year, his return to his most abrasive form against Montpellier looks timely indeed.  Given the paucity of outstanding options, Donncha O’Callaghan can count himself unlucky.

Elsewhere there was good news for Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw, who made the cut.  Seen by many as a future 13, he’s most likely in the squad to provide back-up to Rob Kearney, who is the only other full-back selected.  In the backrow Kevin McLaughlin is rewarded for his good form.  He’s another player who Kidney never rated especially highly, but has always been a firm favourite of Joe Schmidt, especially in away games.  Finally, James Coughlin makes the cut in what looks a somewhat curious selection, despite our longstanding admiration for him.  Having been demoted to the bench against Gloucester and had to watch Peter O’Mahony’s man of the match performance, it appears his career may be about to start winding down.  The time to pick him was surely two years ago when he was playing out of his skin.  Roger Wilson – another whose form this campaign bears little relation to last year – would have been a better pick, but it should be immaterial.  Heaslip will start and should anything happen to him – it never does, though – Peter O’Mahony should be the first line of cover.

The way the fixtures lie leaves little room for experimentation.  The Samoa match would be the obvious one to rotate in a few new faces, but because it comes first it’ll probably be treated as a dry run for the following games.  Besides, Samoa these days cannot be treated as a second-grade test.

A test team of Healy, Best, Ross, Tuohy, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, Earls, Marshall, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Rob Kearney looks likely.  The personnel will be familiar, but the acid test will be whether Joe Schmidt can transfer the same sort of gameplan that worked so well at Leinster to test level.  A fan of repetition until moves are ingrained in the muscle memory, his challenge is a lack of time with the players.  Under Kidney, at times it was impossible to work out what they were trying to do, so just getting the team a playing identity will be a starting point.  Schmidt’s Leinster were also notable for looking like they were having fun – all smiles and laughs at try time (except for His Royal Crankiness at 10 of course).  Ireland looked weary and woebegone in Kidney’s latter seasons, so injecting some energy and adventure will be something Schmidt should be well able to do.  Everyone who has worked with him has spoken of learning new things on a daily basis.  The only way is up.

No-one Like Us, And We Don’t Care

There was a time when Ulster were Irish rugby royalty – back in the 1980s they ruled the provincial roost under Jimmy Davidson and routinely accounted for large swathes the Irish XV. Allegations of pro-Ulster bias in selection resounded, and Munster were particularly seen as doing badly out of selection toss-ups.

But the situation has changed, changed utterly. Davidson (deposed in 1990) was the last Northern coach of Ireland, and, since professionalism, the growth in the game in Ireland has been driven by the southern provinces, in particular Munster, who remain the darlings of fans and media alike. And whyever not – much more fun to write about the storied Ligind pack than Clinton Schifcofske and Kieran Campbell. Plus Munster and Leinster were actually good – 1999 aside, Ulster have been muck for most of the professional era.

In recent years, Ulster’s potential for growth (from, er, the “other communities”) and hard academy and structural work has begun to pay off – the young players coming up are of the highest quality and are being managed well. The fact that the only four players (Marty Mooradze is close to becoming a fifth) from the Aviva Opening Game playing regular professional provincial rugby are not only Ulstermen, but Ulstermen challenging for Ireland shirts, says a lot.

But Ulster haven’t seemlessly moved back into the royalty zone – in fact, they get routinely patronised by the Irish media. When they went down to Thomond for the HEC quarter-final in 2012, Gerry said “Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province”. As they say in the parlance of our times, I was like wtf? And this weekend, when they beat Montpellier on their own patch by 17 points, an improvement of 57 points on Clermont’s most result there and 42 on Toulouse’s, the headlines were about Munster’s humdrum win over Gloucester B. ‘Munster Back on Track’ was the Sunday Times front page headline.  Munster were the first team mentioned in the RTE news item, while Ulster got a cursory mention, described as having ‘kept their hopes alive’ with their win.  Kept them alive?!  Bloody hell!  Had either of the southern powerhouses produced such a result, you can guarantee gushing and drooling coverage.

Old habits die hard, and, to be truthful, Ulster won’t really mind for now. Their bloodlines might be blue, but every Northerner has a deep well of bitterness to draw on – they have been the most impressive Irish province in the HEC this season by a mile, and are set well for another long challenge. If they get underestimated by their chums in the southern meeja, great, someone else to prove wrong.

The inevitable next stage in the chip-athon will be in the November internationals.  Ulster fans have grown well used to their players missing out on marginal team selections in recent seasons, and will be getting their sense of outrage ready for the occasion should, say, Gordon D’arcy be preferred to Luke Marshall.  It seems unlikely though, and there’s good news elewhere.  Paddy Jackson has made up significant ground while Madigan’s progress has stalled and although Iain Henderson is being deployed only as an impact substitute, there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t employ him in the same role; his wrecking-ball cameos off the bench have been stirring.  The rampantly in-form Tommy Bowe and Rory Best are certain starters.  The grantite-hard hooker’s throwing may never be better than a C+, but his work rate around the paddock is extraordinary, and against both Leicester and Montpellier he was an immovable object at the breakdown.

Get MADGE on!

Leinster fans are somewhat conflicted after their side’s ho-hum victory over Castres at the RDS on saturday.  The good news is that they are two from two after a tricky pair of opening games.  If they come out the right side of the head-to-head with Northampton they should be in the box seat as far as qualification is concerned.

Churlish though it may appear to be whingeing after back-to-back wins, there is some cause for concern, not least that Leinster have so far played a somewhat reductive brand of rugby.  Without wanting to come over too Leinsterlion – sorry Leinsterlion – Leinster fans have grown used to seeing their team play with a certain panache.  Even when they were a bunch of second raters in Munster’s shadow they could still turn on the style with reasonable regularity.  It’s not a csae of wanting to see style-for-style’s-sake, but rather that it is the approach that best suits the team.

In the aftermath of the Ospreys match nobody noticed much, and those who noticed didn’t mind.  Away games in Europe, even against less than brilliant teams, are hard, and any sort of a win counts as a good day at the office.  Besides, even Joe Schmidt’s heralded purveyors of the all-court-game generally saved the glam for the RDS and were happy to tough it out on the road.  There wasn’t much flair in evidence when Leinster won by seven points in Glasgow, or when they were held tryless but kicked their way to a hard-fought win in Bath.

But in the return home matches they were rampant, setting a tempo their opponents couldn’t handle and racking up multiple tries in the process.  And therein lies the rub.  Having got the show on the road by beating Ospreys, most expected Leinster to dial up the pace a couple of notches and try to run the legs off a Castres side that, although champions of France and worthy of respect because of that, have never shown the greatest inclination to bring their A-game to away Heineken Cup matches.

Instead Leinster played conservatively, kicking much ball away, and rarely looked to put much width on the ball.  There’s nothing wrong with winning ugly per se, but is grinding it out really their best suit?  Midway through the second half it was looking like Leinster’s approach was landing them in a spot of bother.  Had Remi Tales not butchered a crossfield grubber when there were players queuing up to score a try, Castres would have moved in front on the scoreboard and put Leinster in a deeply uncomfortable spot.  French sides can lose interest in away matches for sure, but they can also become interested if they sense a famous result is in the offing, and had Castres taken a lead at that point, their determination levels would have gone up a notch.

Much of the consternation inevitably revolves around the selection at fly-half, where Matt O’Connor has made it clear his preference is for the more controlling 10, Jimmy Gopperth.  Again, the home-away conundrum is at play.  Many fans assumed that while Gopperth was the man for the Ospreys game, Ian Madigan would be the appropriate selection to take on Castres.  But those fans have been living on a diet of Joe Schmidt selections for three seasons.  Schmidt habitually picked a different team for home games to away matches, usually emphasising tempo at home (Reddan, Jennings) and beefing up the set piece for away matches (McLaughlin, van der Merwe), but there are no guarantees O’Connor will see things the same way.  It looks for the moment that Gopperth is first choice.  He’s a fine player, no question, but his strengths are his kicking game and his ability to run with the ball on occasion.  He’s not really a distributor who will bring the best out the backline around him.  Most concerning of all was that when the game was crying out for Madigan, he was almost the last reserve to be let on to the pitch; and when he did come on it was at 12, not 10.

No doubt there’s an element of bias in favour of Madigan on the terraces.  Fans naturally favour their home-grown players over foreign signings, it’s only human.  But there is a growing feeling that Matt O’Connor doesn’t really rate, or trust, Madigan.  Why only let him on so late in the game?  Perhaps the expensive yellow card against Munster has got up his coach’s nose and he has to serve a spell in pergutory.

Leinster’s next two games in the Heineken Cup will be far harder than their first two.  Northampton are still short of being a great team, but they can raise their game to a high level, and the Courtney Lawes Hype Machine is starting to crank up again after three years in mothballs.  If Leinster stick to their tactic of kicking too much ball away, and kicking it too long and not chasing hard enough, they will be made to look foolish against a team with Ben Foden and George North in the back three.

The optimistic scenario is that Leinster are still operating with a patched-up backline and once O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald – who looked very threatening when he came on – are fully restored to the team that there will be more emphasis on attack and putting the ball through the hands.  In the meantime, O’Connor has tightened up a defence that was more than a little creaky last season, and that focus will begin to shift to attacking and Leinster’s fabled gainline-passing.  One hopes Ian Madigan will be trusted to do some of the playmaking – after all, he’s awfully good at it when given the chance.

Parallel Universe

Montpellier and Castres will be in action this weekend against Irish opposition; both at the same time in fact, which is very convenient for those who might have a passing interest in both matches.

Montpellier pose a significant threat to Ulster’s hopes of qualification.  They’re a beastly team with a mean pack of forwards and when they bring their A game they’re as unplayable as the best French sides.  They never quite bring the same energy on the road with them, but hey, plus ca change, plus ca meme chose and all that.  Hey Gerry, get off our typewriter!

The way the French typically set up their back five and operate their lineout is very different to Irish teams.  Their second rows are designed primarily with scrummaging and mauling in mind, with a side order of lifting – yes, lifting, not jumping – in the lineout.  In the winter months, the Top Quatorze turns into a slog, invariably decided by penalties, so having a hefty scrum to milk the opposition for three pointers is seen as de rigeur.  So the French think nothing of picking two of what we would call ‘tighthead locks’, the oversized granite-hewn chaps that add heft to the scrum and maul.  For Ireland think Mike McCarthy or Donncha O’Callaghan, though in France Donners would probably be considered underpowered.  For the French, think classical baby-munchers like Lionel Nallet and Romain Millo-Chluski.  Both top out at 195cm, below the 1.99m mark that is almost considered minimum for the role in Ireland.  Clermont’s gruesome twosome of Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines are old and not particularly tall or athletic in the lineout, but bleedin’ heck, what a lot of grunt they add to the team in the tight.

This weekend Castres will line out (assuming they bring their A-team, which they probably won’t, but anyway) with Richie Gray and Uruguayan behemoth Capo Ortega in the second row.  Gray is a decent lienout jumper, in spite of his size, but don’t expect to see the burly 195cm Ortega get in the air too much.  At the weekend they won five lineouts, but only one of those won by Gray, while Ortega took none.

Same goes for Montpellier, who will have to try and get all 124kg of Jim Hamilton off the ground a few times, but the 134kg Robins Tchale-Watchou will be positively earthbound throughout.

So who catches the ball in the lineout, then?  The chaps in the backrow, that’s who.  Most French teams contain a light, athletic backrow who they can fling in the air with ease, and who runs the lineout.  The model performer in this role has been Julien Bonnaire, who has ruled the skies for eons for both France and Clermont Auvergne.  Toulouse’s unsung hero Jean Bouilhou was their lineout specialist even when Fabian Pelous was around.  Imanol Harinordoquy’s lineout skills are almost unparalleled in world rugby – some of his one-handed takes are to die for.  Montpellier’s main lineout man is the exceptionally athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo.  Though not especially tall, he has an extraordinarily springy leap and at 102kg he can be flung miles into the air.  He’ll pose Ulster massive problems at lineout time this weekend.  Each of the Castres backrow caught a lineout against Northampton and between them they stole two of Northampton’s throws.

For Ireland, picking a second row of, say, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy would be unthinkable; too unbalanced.  Where’s the lineout man?  If Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin were French, they’d probably be the main lineout callers in their teams.  Both are tall, springy and athletic and are great catchers when in the air.  More interestingly, and it’s a point Demented Mole has made before, if Tony Buckley were French he would never have been converted from the second row to prop.  At 196cm and a whopping (according to Wikipedia) 138kg, he could hardly be expected to catch much lineout ball, but that would be no barrier to success if he had the likes of Ouedraogo around him.  Buckley’s decision to convert to front row was no doubt a result of Ireland’s dearth in that area, while locks would have been in abundance.  Had those around him been able to forecast how the scrum dynamics would shift (almost impossible, unfortunately), and how important all-conquering power in the engine room would become, it would probably never have come to pass.  Buckley’s career has been mired by an inability to master the technicalities of scrummaging; in a parallel universe somewhere he’s lording it up, dishing the hurt out with his sheer bulk in the second row.

In a Hole

Three years ago, in this same Heineken Cup weekend, Munster scored a last minute try through Sam Tuitupoooooooooooooooooohh to secure a losing bonus point away to London Oirish. Gerry scoffed at any idea that Oirish had anything to celebrate, saying Munster’s losing bonus point was all that mattered. The more discerning of us worried that Munster had just lost their easiest away game, and with four wins being the minimum required for qualification, they were in a little bit of trouble.

One year ago, Munster lost in Paris to toffs Racing Metro, after a horrible ending in which they contrived to lose a game they had won – the aftermath focused on Conor Murray’s decision-making under pressure and wondered about Munster’s ability to dig out qualification from a tricky pool containing Globo Gym and the previous season’s surprise package Embra.

In the event, the sceptics were right three years ago, as Munster slumped to grim defeats in Ospreys (Adam Jones was man of the match without touching the pill) and Toulon (the lowest point in Munster’s Eurodysseys). Last year, Murray grew from his experience, and Munster scored easy wins over Embra and an epic Saturday night teary classic against a humbled Saracens to qualify for the knockouts, where they managed an even more epic pair of performances.

So which way will Munster go this year? Is this 2010 or 2012? The answer depends quite a bit on their outhalf.

The similarities with three years ago are hard to escape – Embra are an average side (at best), who mugged a complacent Munster, but they will struggle to win another game in this pool. To qualify, Munster will need to win either in Gloucester (easier, but Glaws are tough to knock off in Kingsholm) or Perpignan (like all French teams, a tough nugget on their home turf) – but then again, they have won in both venues in the recent past, albeit with an almost completely different XV. They should have the recovered Peter O’Mahony available – the backrow were swarmed all day, and POM’s aggression and attitude were sorely missed – and also Tommy O’Donnell, for the latter games at least.

Conor Murray looks a different player from 12 months ago – he is the creative heartbeat of this side and a key leader (Aside: why oh why aren’t the IRFU amenable to discussing contracts before the November internationals – this guy should be locked down for many years on whatever money he wants before Toulouse come calling). For Casey Laulala’s try, he ignored his captain, totem-pole behemoth Paulie O’Connell to go for a player in a better position. One of Munster and Ireland’s weaker suits of recent years has been when O’Connell’s rumbles into contact, gaining 70cm, necessitating the likes of O’Mahony and Heaslip (for Ireland; dream on Munster fans) to spend time clearing out rucks. It’s O’Connell’s role to call passes to himself, but it’s the scrum-half’s job to go elsewhere as O’Connell is an average carrier. To correctly ignore a man like O’Connell in a clutch situation shows maturity and impressive game-management.

The problem is outside him. If Ronan O’Gara was playing in that game, Munster would have won. Rog knew what was required to win filthy away games in Europe when your colleagues aren’t playing well (this is also the major input to Leinster’s success with Johnny Sexton that Ian Madigan will struggle to replace) – Ian Keatley isn’t there yet. The natives have been calling for JJ Hanrahan to be given the reins, but Hanrahan’s cameo appearance on Saturday showed how raw he still is at this level.  Given the predicament Munster find themselves in, it’s likely to be the safe option of Keatley used in the latter (crucial) games.

This one will be on Keatley. Does he have the game management skills to win in Gloucester or Perpignan? He will have one of Europe’s best scrum-halves inside him, and a more effective backrow unit, but he will still need to do it himself. One feels this campaign may come close to defining his future with Munster – if he pulls it off from here, he suddenly looks more than just a temporary placeholder for a popular youngster.

If we were made to call it, we think they might have blown it – in 2012, a bonus point defeat was the baseline score for the Racing Metro game. Munster had two games against Embra ahead to fill their boots. This time, they don’t, and that makes it feel more like 2010. Let us hope we are wrong, but we don’t see Keatley being at the level required to pilot his team to wins in Kingsholm or the Aime Giral. But hey – that’s professional sport, and Keatley will have longed for an opportunity like this to prove himself. Over to you, Ian!

Round One Ponderings

Celtalians United

The Heineken Cup has a new dynamic added this year, as a result of all the political shennanigans going on behind closed-ish doors.  It’s best described using a technical term known as hoping-all-the-English-teams-get-hammered.  Once upon a time a game between two likeable teams like Llanelli Scarlets and Harlequins would leave us more or less neutral.  Time to catch one’s breath before the nerve-jangling Leinster match starts.  Not this time.  I was leaping around the room like a Llenelli native.  Of course, the English media have developed a nice habit of having it every which way: if their teams win, it’s proof of their natural superiority (Stephen Jones’ bleating after Saracens held on by their fingernails against Connacht was classic lady-doth-protest stuff) and if they lose it’s only because the Celts get to rest players in the league.  Think of it as not only having your cake and eating it, but having it, eating it and smearing the creme-pat in everyone’s face before having them pay you for the privilege.

Advantage Somebody, or Deuce?

Was Ulster’s 22-16 win over Leicester a good result or not? We aren’t really sure to be honest. Here are some of our thoughts:

  1. A win is a win. In a pool like this, make sure you win your home games, accumulate bonus points when you can, and get one away win. Ulster are on course for what they would have planned out: two wins over Treviso, with a try bonus at home, plus a win and a losing bonus point against Leicester and Montpellier. That will give them 19 points and put them right in the mix
  2. Who will be happier? Two seasons ago, Leicester lost the head-to-head to Ulster 5-4. This was one of the things they would have planned to address this time around. With a losing bonus point, they’ll expect to improve that to 5-5 or even 4-5 (from an Ulster standpoint) come the Welford Road game. Leicester have a poor record in Ulster – this result will have delighted them
  3. Montpellier won with the type of ease at Treviso that has become uncommon of late. They are second in the Top14, and are purring. Ulster need to go down there and come home with a losing bonus point – their performances in their last two European games on French soil have been the type they’ll need to produce again, but it’s going to be really really tough.

Thing is though, when push comes to shove, letting Leicester score that last penalty to get within seven feels terribly important. We fear they’ll regret it.  At least they know what they’ve to work on though.  If they could hold onto the ball they’d have won by 20 points.  Catching practive all week, chaps, and double sessions for Andrew Trimble.

Leinster do a Munster

Playing possum in the Pro12 before cranking up the intensity was supposed to be the preserve of the red team in Ireland, but this week it was Leinster who tore up the form book and produced what was a consummate away performance in what looked a very difficult match.  They were superb, reasserting themselves as one of the tournament favourites.  Relying on emotionally uplifting occasions to bring out the best in the players is a risky business, though, and Leinster fans will be happier if they can start racking up wins and moving up the league table, but this was a first big win for Matt O’Connor and justified an unpopular, but pragmatic and ultimately successful, team selection.  The stars of the show were the backrow, though, who devoured their opponents.  Kevin McLoughlin, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip played as if they were caged up all week, ocasionally thrown scraps of meat and urged to fight over them.  Sure, the cage may have been in Juniors, and the raw meat was fillet steak, but still and all…

Ch-ching

Cost Saving of the Week was on ROG-cam.  The Sky cameraman was able to get ROG and Johnny into the same shot as Johnny lined up a penalty and ROG stood behind him in his waterboy bib.  No need for a separate ROG-cam anymore, these days only one unit is required.  The money saved appears to have been spent on a funny screen-truck/ice-cream van that Will Greenwood uses to ask Sean O’Brien what was going through his mind as he was smashing everyone.

We’ll talk Munster tomorrow.

Exceptional Behaviour

Anyone remember the funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) succession laws the IRFU announced a couple of years ago, which immediately went down as one of their greatest PR gaffes?  The main stipulations were that between the three provinces (Connacht were excluded), they were only allowed one NIQ player per position and that NIQs could not have their contracts renewed.  So, for example, you couldn’t have an NIQ playing tighthead prop at both Ulster and Munster, and if, purely theoretically, Ulster had a world class NIQ No.9 he would have to leave after his current contract expired, allowing the Irish kid below him to step into the role.

All on board then?  Well, obviously not.  Munster re-signed BJ Botha in spite of John Afoa being on the books at Ulster, at tighthead prop and all, which on the face of it, was the only position to which the succession laws were relevant.  Meanwhile, Ulster have been allowed to retain the services of Nick Williams and Ruan Pienaar.  Another to be granted a contract extension before his retirement was Isa Nacewa.  The signing of Zane Kirchner to replace Nacewa also goes against the rules, since an Irishman is supposed to succeed the departing NIQ player.

Not knowing any better, we assumed the rules had been more or less consigned to the dustbin of history.  They never looked well thought through, practical or even enforceable in the first place, and there was even talk that they were legally in murky water.  We wouldn’t expect the IRFU to publically announce anything, but rather they could quietly walk away from the laws without people noticing.  Never being popular in the first place, there would hardly be a public outcry.

Imagine our surprise, then when IRFU man Justin Deegan (@JustinIRFU), who generally acts as a conduit for the party line on social media and boards.ie, tweeted us to tell us the laws were very much still in place and being enforced!  All of the above – Williams, Pienaar, Nacewa and Botha – are merely ‘exceptions’.  He cited an interview given by Eddie Wigglesworth to Gavin Cummiskey in which he said that if a province didn’t, through injury or otherwise have the necessary succession plan in place, then there would be some flexibility within the framework.

Which is fine, but if these are exceptions, it’s hard to see what doesn’t qualify as an exceptional situation.  It’s a throwback to learning Irish in school, where every grammatical rule came accompanied by a list of 43 exceptions. Ruan Pienaar keeps the livewire Paul Marshall on the Ulster bench, and in Roger Wilson, Ulster would have a first-rate ready-to-go, Irish-capped replacement for Nick Williams.  Indeed, they’d also have Robbie Diack to provide depth in the role.  Is this not the very situation the succession rules were brought in to deal with, where a talented Irish player is being held back by a highly paid for’d’ner?  Come to think of it, has the one-contract-and-out law been applied to any player yet? If Pienaar and Williams are deemed exceptional, then by the same yardstick, so too will Casey Laulala, Johann Muller and Zane Kirchner when it comes to renewal time.  It appears that the IRFU will persist with the idea that the rules are still in place, but in continuing to allow for umpteen ‘exceptional cases’, they are effectively meaningless.

In practical terms, this is ultimately A Good Thing, because the laws were ridiculous, but the IRFU would be better off not drawing attention to them than persisting with the notion that they are still in place.

The Last Supper

And so, for possibly the last time ever, we write a preview for a tournament that has expanded the fan base and earning power of Northern Hemipshere rugby like no other. This time next year, we could be scrawling a few half-hearted lines on Pool 3 of the Rugby Champions Cup where “champions” Bath, Exeter, Stade Francais and the Saracns Globo Gym bosh it out for the right to get hockeyed by Toulon B in the Super Sixes stage. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!

Its quite obviously a complete fool’s errand to pick winners this far out, with so many variables between now and April, so we’re going to pick who gets through to the knock-out stages.

Pool 1: Castres, Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys

Very tough pool this for Leinster – they’ll need to win at least one away game to get through, and they have three tough ones. Leinster have started the season sluggishly and are missing Johnny Sexton badly – Ian Madigan has the talent to take the step up, but winning dirty away games in Europe is extremely tough, and this might be a year to chalk to experience. Leinster, Saints and Ospreys will all fancy winning their home games, and it could come down to who nicks what in Castres, and bonus points. Leinster have the advantage  of going to Castres late in the pool, when Castres have traditionally given up – this could end up the decisive factor. We’ll take Leinster to squeak through on their own, to an away quarter final, drawing on all their experience. The lurking Saints, replete with Kahn Fotuali’i and George North should not be underestimated, though they continue to look a top-class 10 away from being a really good team.  Brian O’Driscoll is, again, the key man for Leinster.

Pool 2: Cardiff, Exeter, Glasgow, Toulon

A gimme for the boshtastic champions here – the only game you can envisage sweat breaking is in Scotstoun, where Glasgae are a tough nut to crack. Problem is, the likes of Bakkies will only love stomping on the dreams of the brave Scots. Hard to see Toulon slipping up – they should have a home quarter final with plenty of tries in the bag. If Glasgae give this a lash, and there is no guarantee of that – the Pro12 has been their target in recent years – there is a potential lucky loser berth up for grabs here – Cardiff are dire and hemorrhaging players, and while Exeter are doughty and tough, they don’t have the class of Matawalu or Maitland in their ranks. But probably not. Toulon on their own.

Pool 3: Connacht, Saracens, Toulouse, Zebre

Exhibit A for the mouth-frothing McCafferty types – Connacht in the back door and Zebre permanent residents of the servant’s quarters. In previous seasons, Connacht have punched above their weight, but they are struggling so far this year – this could be less pleasant than previous years. Globo Gym have world dominating ambitions, but play a rank brand of rugby (albeit that in the Premiership they have shown a desire to expand their previously zero-dimensional style). If they didn’t give up home games for wads of cash, they might actually be contenders to win the pot itself – the agony if this lot took home the last ever HEC would be too much to bear. Toulouse are in re-building mode, and have had some moments of complete ineptitude in Europe in the last few years, but this really is an easy pool – Globo Gym and Toulouse to go through.

Pool 4: Clermont, Harlequins, Racing Metro, Scarlets

Four imperfect teams here – Clermont have the class and desire in Europe, but are ageing in Vern Cotter’s last year and are creaking at the seams a little. Quins seem to have hit a glass ceiling and were bitterly disappointing in their loss to Munster last season. Racing Metro can’t buy a try right now, and the Scarlets can’t scrummage. Seems like the Welshies might get beaten up a little here, and it will come down to one of the others getting a big win on the road. Clermont have the experience of this type of assignment, and that usually pays off in this tournament. This will be a fascinating pool – Racing Metro have no HEC pedigree to speak of, but they have outhalves (players and coaches) with five winners medals and immense experience. If Sexton gets the platform he needs, don’t rule out the Parisian toffs, but it’s the serial chokers from Montferrand who are the safer bet. On their own probably.

Pool 5: Leicester, Montpellier, Treviso, Ulster

Stinker of a draw for Ulster here, and very similar to that of two years ago, when they got through on the back of a memorable 41-7 thumping of the Tigers at Ravers. That was Palla’s first taste of the Friday Night Ravers Experience, and he almost turned Ulster as Paddy Wallace dumped Tom Croft on his backside. The difference then was they had Aironi to fill their boots against – here it’s Treviso who stand in their way, a much tougher prospect. Montpellier have the meanest pack in Europe, and look pretty well built for a pool like this – if they give it priority they have the tools to win it. Last year, they gave Europe a lash, but they were in with some Frenchies who they will never lie down against, and two bunnies (Cardiff and Sale) who are worse than all four teams here. This is Ulster’s last year with Afoa on board, but even with him, do they have the ballast up front to get points away from Ravers? The backs are immensely talented, probably the best in the pool, but we think Leicester have the class, the experience in assignments like this, and the memory of two years ago to come through this one. Montpellier are the next best bet, and Ulster are seriously unlucky.

Pool 6: Embra, Gloucester, Munster, Perpignan

This looked like a bye to the quarter final when the draw was made, and it still looks eminently do-able for Munster. A weakling Embra unit, a re-run of that game, and a bunch of flaky Frenchies piloted by James Hook look like easy meat. The flip side of that is that, if Gloucester get parity up front, their electric backs can beat anyone, Perpignan are formidable in their own ground, and Camille Lopez is pushing Hook for the USAP starting 10 berth. Much will depend on two people – Paul O’Connell and Ian Keatley. When O’Connell is available, Munster are 50% better, and if Keatley can manage a passable Rog impression, Munster will be home and hosed, replete with the usual Saturday evening tear-soaked home win. If USAP are interested, they could come through in a lucky losers slot built on two hammerings of Embra.

Our safe quarter-finalists: Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Leinster, Munster, Perpignan, Saracens, Toulon, Toulouse

If we stuck our necks out: Montpellier, Munster, Northampton, Perpignan, Racing Metro, Saracens, Toulon, Toulouse

My TVC15 – Transition

Transition.  “We’re in a transitional phase”.  “This year will be a transitional season”.  And so forth.  It’s one of the more befuddling phrases in modern day sport, because one can never be sure what exactly the entity is transitioning into.  Could it be that they just aren’t as good as they used to be?

Leinster appear to be set for a ‘transitional’ couple of years, where the core of the team that won three Heineken Cups – Sexton, O’Driscoll, D’arcy, Cullen and Jennings – hands over the reins to a new batch of players; expect Ian Madigan, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy to become the leaders of the new Leinster.  But will they ‘transition’ back into a team capable of winning multiple Heineken Cups, or simply muddle along for a while?

Without question, though, rugby is a sport which rewards a certain amount of maturity.  A team stacked with youngbloods will invariably lose more than they win, but if they can come of age together the rewards can be great.  Nowhere has this been more clear in recent years than with the Queensland Reds, who invested hugely in a group of age-grade superstars spearheaded by Will Genia and Quade Cooper.  They suffered some horrible scorelines in their early days, but lessons were learned quickly, and they won the Super XV in 2011 in memorable style.

Are Munster about to come out of their ‘transitional’ phase?  The famous monster pack that dominated Europe from 2006-2009 has all but disappeared; only the evergreen Paul O’Connell remains, while Donncha O’Callaghan is still on the books, but very much in wind-down.  Ronan O’Gara has finally disappeared into the sunset and replacements have been sourced.  The age profile of the front row that held its own against Leinster is very promising, and in James Cronin, there is a player of real potential.  Same goes for the backrow, where the only issue on the horizon is ensuring that the impressive James Coughlan can be smoothly replaced at No.8 over the next 18 months.  Our hope is that Peter O’Mahony can step into the role.  Things are even better at scrum-half, where they have unearthed a player who can be one of the elites in the world in his position for years to come.  In the back division, Earls, Jones and Zebo are all here for the long haul and if the issue of recruiting quality centres is still an ongoing problem, well, was it ever any different?

Since Munster won the Heineken Cup in 2008, the fans have had a painful, frustrating five years.  But if this was to have been the worst of it, things really haven’t been that bad.  For sure, the team looked badly coached and unhappy in their own skin under Tony McGahan, and endured growing pains under Rob Penney last season.  At times it looked like they were a result away from oblivion.  They endured some miserable days, but more often than not, were able to put off doomsday for another week every time it loomed into view.  Munster never lost their habit of pulling a result out of the bag when it was most badly needed.  It’s this remarkable stickability that has kept them competitive against the best teams in Europe even when they didn’t look particularly good on paper, or on the pitch. During the fallow period they made three Heineken Cup semi-finals, only once failing to qualify from their group, and won two league campaigns.  In truth, the hand-wringing was probably more a result of having to witness their rivals match and then surpass their two Heineken Cups.

Munster will probably not ‘transision’ into a Europe-dominating behemoth that can supply 75% of the Irish test side any time soon.  Such things require an exceptional generation of players.  But they find themselves back somewhere around where they were in 2004; a fairly limited, but exceptionally gamey, doughty team that will win plenty of hard games, but probably come up heroically short against the really good teams.  There are worse places to be.