Season Proper

As has become habitual, Munster vs. Leinster has been scheduled in the pre-Heineken Cup slot, in what has come to mark the start of the ‘season proper’.  The first few weeks of the season see a gradual cranking up of the intensity as international players are slowly re-absorbed into their teams.  Or in the case of Mike Ross, thrown straight in from the off, for some reason … after a long summer off gruelling tour of North America. Maybe he needed to prove his fitness.

One difference this time is that the fixture takes place in the red bit of the country, which gives Munster a slight advantage, but one that generally means little in this most hotly contested of derbies.  The other big change is that neither of the ‘leading men’ in this drama, who came to embody everything about the great modern rivalry, will be on the pitch or even in the neighbourhood this time.  The two titans of this fixture, who so often decided it, now besties, will presumably be settling down to watch it together in Paris over foie gras terrine and a good bottle of Sancerre.

Having halted Leinster’s five-in-a-row and seemingly got the monkey off their backs a couple of years ago, Munster once again find themselves on a damaging losing streak in this fixture, losing four on the bounce.  After performing badly in the Pro12 last season, this would be as good a time as any for a morale-boosting win that would also send out a message that they mean business in the league this year.  Both teams have endured a patchy enough start to the season, though Munster have largely taken advantage of a soft batch of opening fixtures to put themselves third in the table, but neither side has ever been particularly well known for great September form.  The real thing starts here.

Team selection will be interesting for both sides, with a number of positions being keenly contested.  Munster’s baby front row of James Cronin, Damien Varley and John Ryan scrummaged impressively against the Dragons, though Leinster will represent a far stiffer test.  David Kilcoyne will most likely start at loosehead, but the other two could hold their places.  Varley or Sherry is a classic ‘set piece or loose play’ debate.  Sherry is the best thrower in the country, but Varley is a punchy carrier and his ability to jackal over the ball at the breakdown is matched by few.

At lock, Paul O’Connell has made his return, which is great news for everybody except Dave Kearney his next opponents.  Despite his injury proneness in this late stage of his career, he has a knack not so much for hitting the ground running as exploding on impact.  Donnacha Ryan will probably partner him.  After a stellar 2012, Ryan struggled has struggled this calendar year, and has looked to be playing hurt since the Six Nations.  Has some summer R&R revived his spirits? We hope so – apart from anything else, with Stakhanov surely moving out to the international second row pasture with Brad Thorn, Bakkies, Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey and Ed O’Donoghue, it’s now NWJMB nipping at Ryan’s heels and competition for places in green can only be a good thing. Right Eddie?

The backrow looks hard to call.  Tommy O’Donnell is injured and Peter O’Mahony will start.  Beyond that there’s not much to choose from between CJ Stander, James Coughlan, Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall and Paddy Butler. They provide plenty of options and a good deal of depth, but there’s a shortage of out and out class.  Stander remains an enigma; he could be the new Tom Croft or the new Clinton Huppert.  We’re still waiting for the O’Mahony-at-8 bandwagon to get rolling, but it probably needs Tommy O’Donnell back fit before it can start.  Surely it’s the best position for his rangy wide-channel running and superb ball skills?  Anyway, for Saturday: O’Mahony, Stander, Coughlan, maybe?

Half-back is no different.  Much depends on whether Conor Murray is passed fit; if not, it leaves a choice between the unproven Cathal Sheridan and the proven-to-be-awful Duncan Williams. Selection at 10 is fascinating.  ROG, and RTE’s beloved ROG-cam, have departed, so it’s a straight choice between Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan.  Those with a penchant for romance and excitement – i.e. most of us – want to see Hanrahan picked, but is he ready?  He’s looked good so far, but the opposition have been easy meat.  If he can pilot Munster to a win over Leinster then it’s his time.  But Penney will probably, on balance, go for Ian Keatley.  Either way, what intrigue awaits!  ‘Get RADGE on!’

The back-line is equally hard to call.  James Downey or Ivan Dineen, or even Hanrahan at 12?  Zebo at 11 is certain, but where to put Earls?  Centre, or on the other wing, which would bring Casey Laulala into the equation.  We haven’t joined the queue to write Earls off as a centre yet, despite his struggles last season.  He has plenty to offer there and can still improve.  Conway or Hurley at full-back?  Our guess is Zebo-Downey-Laulala-Earls-Conway, but we wouldn’t be betting the house on it.

No such certainty for the blue half either.  In the front row Cian Healy starts.  Sean Cronin continues to be the most frustrating player in the country – he can run lines like a centre, but his basics remain questionable – so Strauss probably plays.  Mike Ross has looked worryingly uncomfortable with the new scrum calls, and Marty Moore’s reputation is on the up, but it would be a shock to see Ross relegated to the bench this early in the season.

In the second row, Devin Toner has been – whisper it – one of Leinster’s best players so far and the contest between he and O’Connell at restarts will be one of the key battlegrounds of the match.  Mike McCarthy will add the grunt alongside him, just holding off the improving Quinn Roux.

Backrow is as hard to call as Munster’s.  Jamie Heaslip will start, but whether Sean O’Brien is thrown in from the off or held in reserve probably depends on what his coaches reckon he’s ready for.  Jordi Murphy has been the season’s revelation but he appears to be having surgery today so he won’t be involved – a cruel blow after such an auspicious start to the campaign.  Kevin McLoughlin will presumably have some sort of role to play.  The Gonzaga man had a quiet campaign last year but surely fancies his chances of greater international recognition if he can hit his straps this year, so he has every incentive to get motoring quickly.  Rhys Ruddock will push him hard though.  McLoughlin-O’Brien-Heaslip was gernerally Schmidt’spreferred backrow, and O’Connor may well see it as his starting point.

Isaac Boss will start at 9, where Eoin Reddan has yet to really get going, and he’ll probably be partnered by Ian Madigan, who impressed on his return to fly-half on Friday night.  Jimmy Gopperth has had a great start in Leinster colours, but Madigan’s distribution, line-breaking threat and Joe Schmidt pulling rank eligibility for Ireland should swing things in his favour for the crunch games.

The backline looks predictable enough, if D’arcy is fit: he, O’Driscoll, the Brothers Kearndashian and The Kildare Lewis Moody appear likely to form an all-Irish back division.  But if Dorce can’t make it a bit of a re-shuffle will be needed.  Already thin on numbers, and with Luke Fitzgerald still apparently injured and Lote Tuqiri also doubtful, someone like Darragh Fanning could be pressed into action in the biggest game of their career.

These games are rarely the most tactically sophisticated affairs, though last year’s match in the Palindrome was the most open in years, with both sides keen to use the full width of the pitch.  Those with short memories may have forgotten that Keith Earls was superb at outside centre on the night and looked set for a great season in the role.  But more often than not these are attritional ties, and whoever wins the physical contest usually comes away with the win.  Some of the white heat that built up in the aftermath of the Great Changing of the Guard in 2009 seemed to have disappeared from the match-up in the last couple of years but last spring’s … erm, thing, where something happened to someone’s boot or head or something … we can’t remember .. anyway, it certainly sparked the furnace back into full glow.  Let’s hope for a good clean fight.

One other thing to note is that Roman Poite is apparently refereeing.  He has plenty of ‘previous’ with both teams, and has become something of a bête noir for Munster fans in particular.  Certainly his refereeing of the scrum will be important.  Should Munster attempt a repeat of the ridiculous antics of the corresponding fixture two seasons ago when Marcus Horan was allowed to play silly buggers all night, they can expect Bad Romain to come out and penalise them to within an inch of their lives.  Leinster probably look marginally stronger on paper and should shade a tight match.  To the winner the spoils, and the bragging rights, until March anyway.

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38 Comments

  1. Chogan (@Cillian_Hogan)

     /  October 2, 2013

    LeinsterLion, you’re up.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  October 2, 2013

      Brothers Kearndashian? I cant possibly top that. All I can add is, I hope POC leaves his football boots at home for this one.

      • dubya

         /  October 3, 2013

        I hear the eldest Kearney brother – the one that isn’t a international rugby player – was nicknamed Johnny Drama!

  2. Just an aside lads, supposedly Jordi Murphy is out, tweeted last night that he was having ankle surgery today seemingly.

    • Thanks Shane, we missed the news on Jordi Murphy – we’ve edited the post to reflect the new sitch. For those arriving at the edited version, we initially had Jordi Murphy down to start at openside.

      • Jordi Murphy to start, really? He has made great progress and has probably pushed ahead of Rhys Ruddock and Dom Ryan in pecking but Jennings is still a starter or first sub depending on what side they play SOB I reckon.

        Penny was on Newstalk yesterday and said Keatley is his starter which is a good move. JJ has tonnes of potential but he’s not there yet.

        No sign of giving McFadden a shot at 12 even in the warm up games so the management must have their doubts. His hard running style would seem ideal but they likely know what they’re doing.

  3. Bob

     /  October 2, 2013

    Nice work. Sauternes goes with foie gras, not sancerre 😉 And Jordi Murphy is injured.

  4. ‘Kildare Lewis Moody’–love it..

  5. Reblogged this on ItLooksGood,ItIsGood and commented:
    The official start to the season…. #Lions #WhiffOfCordite

  6. Good preview and always appreciate the work. Just a quick note though – it’s *Cathal* Sheridan. I guess that emphasises that he’s unproven…

  7. Mary Hinge

     /  October 2, 2013

    Kildare Lewis Moody??

  8. Marty M

     /  October 2, 2013

    Think you have the relative talents of the Varley v Sherry equation a bit off. You are right that Varley is slightly more physical at the breakdown but that aside Sherry’s game is far superior in every facet and personally I reckon he could give the green jersey a good run this year. You hit the nail on the head about the frustration over Cronin – possibly the best attacking/running front row in Europe but just cant string consistency together in the set-piece. Limerick has a knack for producing hookers apparently; the 3 above, Flannery, Keith Wood (sort of)…..
    This looks like it might be the most evenly contested season between the 2 provinces for a long time. Hopefully Ulster can recover from a somewhat poor start as I think they have the squad to overturn both also, and Connacht will also give it a serious shot. Anything to be said for reviving the inter-pro (even as a nominal shield or something) as an aside to the Rabo?

    • I’d agree with Marty in that although Varley’s breakdown work is slightly ahead of Sherry’s, Sherry is no slouch in that department. They carry in different ways – Varley seems more likely to make ground up the middle, whereas Sherry is a bit more of a subtle runner with the pace to beat defenders in space. The tie-breaker for me, as someone who grew up during the Fla-era, is accuracy and consistency out of touch, where Sherry puts Varley to shame. I think that because Rory Best is such an extraordinary player in all other facets of the game, many of us in Ireland have become more accepting of hookers whose throwing ebbs and flows. In my opinion, even as teams tend towards keeping the ball in play rather than kicking to touch, if you can’t secure consistent possession from your own lineouts it can have devastating consequences, and carrying a hooker who can’t throw consistently is equivalent to carrying a tighthead who can’t scrummage consistently. I saw someone mention somewhere that Aaron Dundon is extremely accurate out of touch – I’ve barely seen him play, but I hope it’s true, because for awhile there it seemed as though Ireland was only producing hookers who couldn’t throw.

      • Jimbob

         /  October 2, 2013

        Dundon is very good from touch but he’s a good old age now (31 I think… too lazy to check). He’s also a good bit behind Strauss and Cronin in the pecking order in Leinster. He’s a great squad player to have but won’t be doing much beyond sub appearances and starting league games against the poorer teams.

        • Ah, I had assumed, given the way the person I read was talking about him, that he was a young fella. Hope sinks…

        • I’d also love it if one of the TV stations had a hooker explain why it’s so hard to throw consistently. It might only appeal to…basically the readership of Whiff of Cordite, but it really needs explaining, a la Emmett Byrne and the insight he gave into the scrum a couple of years ago.

          • Jimbob

             /  October 2, 2013

            I ain’t no lineout expert(I’ve never even been in one being skinny and 5’10”) but there are a number of factors which need to sync up in order for it to work.
            1. Everyone needs to know what the call is, and what it entails. This is often one of the 2nd row’s jobs. They could have a huge number of calls to remember for a game or a set few with variations. Similar to a play in the NFL, everyone needs to know their role and act accordingly.
            2. Timing the set move and the delivery correctly – easier said than done I can imagine.
            3. Throwing the ball at the correct speed to the correct jumper down the line. People often blame the hooker incorrectly for throwing the ball wrong – it could just as easily be parts 1 or 2 that have ruined a lineout. Adrenaline, conditions, yips and just a dip in concentration can cock up your throw though.
            4. Make sure the oppo don’t know your calls/disrupt lineout. Not so simple depending on who you’re playing. Patterns are studied etc.

            If I’ve omitted anything just shout. As I’ve said, I ain’t no lineout expert.

          • Thanks, yeah of course other parts apart from the throw are hugely important. In fact, the red scare rugby blog made a great point last week about why Munster haven’t been able to assert their lineout in the same way as before in recent years. Their point was that Hayes used to be able to lift O’Connell by himself, allowing them to potentially get three players in the air. If you have exceptional lifting, I’m sure it makes things infinitely easier. The reason I focused on throwing though, is because it seems to me, subjectively, that a surprising number of Irish hookers have had trouble throwing the ball straight in recent years. Of course it’s easy to understand how it might happen, the same way that it’s difficult to spiral an American football it must be difficult to do so with a rugby ball. But since this is a primary concern for hookers, it’s still surprising how often it has been going awry.

          • Marty M

             /  October 3, 2013

            In all fairness to the Irish hookers I don’t remember the ball not being thrown straight being the problem too often over the pas few seasons. I sincerely doubt that the rate of ball conceded being deemed ‘not straight’ is any higher than any other country. Irelands line-out went to pieces this year as we had 2 starting jumpers who most definitely cannot be considered line-out specialists and a back-row with only one potentially specialist jumper. In fact throughout all the provinces we do not have any good jumpers. Toner if 6-10 and he is still poor at it. Jumping is about aggression, decisiveness and athleticism……Paul O’Connell’s 3 main aspects to his game-that is why he is so goo (and he’s not exceptionally tall for the position).
            Rory had a near impossible task, especially against Scotland who have 2 excellent jumpers, and to blame him or the yips is not on. As Jimbob pointed out- timing is everything and the timing all stems from the jumpers decisiveness and a quality lift. Even if the hooker under-throws the ball a good jump will often still win by being ahead of the man and faster than the oppo jump. Over-throws are more often than not due to a slow lift.
            I can guarantee that if you lined up all 12 pro hookers in Ireland they would hit a basketball hoop from half way 9/10 times….

          • Interesting points Marty. I don’t have any numbers, it’s entirely subjective – it seemed to me I was seeing more crooked throws, but to know for sure I’d have to go back, which I don’t have time to do. Against Scotland I’d agree, their lineout was exceptional. However, the lineout was a problem throughout the tournament. You’re also right that it’s not fair to blame it all on Best – of course it isn’t – but it is fair enough to point out that he also seemed to throw poorly on the Lions tour. I think at this stage of his career it’s reasonable to say my subjective impression is that his form from touch seems to fluctuate quite dramatically. The lineout is maybe too dynamically changing an organism to judge like that, and you’re right that lifters and jumpers play a big role. I’d be surprised if I was alone though, in thinking that the form of hookers across the country in the lineout has not been stellar for the past several years.

  9. Keith

     /  October 3, 2013

    Grab your sons rugby ball. Go into the back garden. Mark a spot 11 foot in the air on the back wall of your house. Stand 14 yards (42 feet) back from it (to simulate a throw to the back of the lineout). Without a big take back (the oppositiion will be up in the air ahead of your guy otherwise) hit the spot on the wall. Difficult eh? Now imaging that spot 14 yards away is moving forward and back and up and down and you can understand why throwing is so difficult

    • My question wasn’t why it would be hard for me to do it. I have other things to practice, like comment on blogs. My question is why a country with at least twelve (likely several more) professional hookers can only produce two who can throw straight consistently, given how important a part of their job it is. It can’t be dedication, because anyone who watches Rory Best play knows he doesn’t slack in his preparation. Essentially I was idly stating that I’d be interested in hearing from someone who actually knows about the mechanics of it what it is that makes it so difficult. I wasn’t suggesting anyone here would know, that’s why I said it would be good if the media would get on it. I certainly wasn’t asking for a condescending restatement of the idea that it’s difficult, since I had already assumed, given how bad these highly trained professionals are at it, that it wasn’t a walk in the park.

  10. zdm

     /  October 3, 2013

    It always baffles me how they manage to ever throw it straight, never mind consistently!

    Considering that you want the ball to be at the peak of its arc when it reaches your jumper, a hooker has to throw accurately to a distance of over 30 metres to hit a tail jumper! That’s equivalent to standing on half way and throwing a muddy ball in to a wash basket that is 6ft past the 22!

    Ireland have contrived to make their line out dysfunctional through collective ineptness – in the Scotland game, Tom Court, a sub prop who the coach hated, was relaying the call and the lifting was arthritically slow.

    Best had a decent season from the line with Ulster. His throwing ain’t his strong suit but when a man with a grand slam and pro 12 winning hooker who has just played in a HC match at Welford road can’t win his own throws, you gotta look deeper than blaming it on the yips

  11. Yossarian

     /  October 3, 2013

    John Hayes retired, lineout goes to pot!
    Lifter, jumper, thrower, correct call to avoid opposition, timing, so many factors to consider make lineouts a very difficult exercise. Some coaching schools of thought have been preaching this idea that there are only 10/15 lineouts in a game so why devote so much time to practicing them when there can be 100 plus rucks?the problem is without the primary posession you won’t have the ball for a lot of those rucks.
    It really all comes down to practice, the hookers can throw in general it’s often timing catching them out.

  12. zdm

     /  October 3, 2013

    On the topic of Keatley or Hanrahan, why can’t it be both?

    I’d give my right arm for a Keatley-esque predictable-but-dependably-booted 10 up at Ulster to get our noses in front for 40 minutes before brining on Peedjay for a bit of beach rugby (or vice versa)

    • Yossarian

       /  October 4, 2013

      I would love to see JJ at 12. That was his position until Jackson got held back from U20 world cup.Munster’s need of a 10 as seen him moved in there. He could become a world class 10 yet but i reckon he would offer a lot to Munster at 12 ahead of Downey.

    • @zdm – we’re actually quite blunt without Jackson at ten. He’s very important for our attacking game. Compare and contrast with Pienaar’s desperate (and perhaps half-hearted, given nine is his preference, his tackling was entirely awol anyway) efforts last year.

      For all his faults (or rough edges, as I like to think of them…), he’s very important for us.

  13. Both teams announced and should be a good contest. Tough to call. Tuqiri at 13 is a massive unknown (he has played there but is he even fit…and another half-fit player is on the bench in back-up: Fitz). If Munster hit us in the middle, our pillar defense has been very shaky.

    On your post, I would totally disagree that McLaughlin (with an a) had a quiet season last year. He had a barnstorming season: he is just not a flashy player. Long may it continue…also his non-selection for Ireland, which keeps him free for Leinster.

  14. osheaf01

     /  October 4, 2013

    35 comments, and not mention from LeinsterLion on how not one Munster players is fit to lace the boots of his direct Leinster opponent? Falling down on the job, LL…

  15. I don’t see why some old ROG footage, or better yet a live shot of ROG from France, couldn’t be splashed up on the monitors when Munster’s playing at home. For tradition’s sake.

    Also, if Racing Metro wants to get the most out of Sexton, maybe put Coach ROG’s visage up on a monitor every time Sexton has to take a kick. I bet that would have a effect.

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