Lots done. More to do

At this two-thirds stage of the last-ever HEC (in this form anyway), the Irish provinces are all in a reasonable position, and Ulster are best placed of the lot. That’s not to say they’ll all be feeling happy about the opening four games, and Leinster in particular will be pretty pissed off they lost at home to the No-Pressure-On-Them edition of the Northampton Saints; and that insipid performance in front of both fans in Murrayfield will likely cost Munster a home quarter-final, but with three wins both are expected to qualify.

Leinster would have looked at their trips to the Hairsprays and Franklin’s Gardens as odds-against trips – and the results and performances were excellent. The flip side has been the rubbish home form, which is a particular worry ahead of the Ospreys game. The last-minute concession of their bonus point against the Saints might come back to haunt them, particularly if it ends up consigning them to a trip to Toulon or Clermont.

In Munster, they will be hyping up talking about JJ Hanrahan’s try for a while to come, but it got them out of jail after a pretty average performance and a systemic defensive meltdown at the worst possible moment. But a win is a win, and it feels even better when it’s in France. But because of the aforementioned defeat to Embra, they’ll need to win in Kingsholm to even have a chance of a home quarter. It’s been done four times in the Premiership this season, by such luminaries as Sale Sharks, Wasps and Exeter, and once by Embra, so Munster shouldn’t travel in fear, and really should be able to navigate that trip. A low seeding and a trip to France might beckon, but that’s the stuff tears are made of, so how bad.

Up north, Ulster will bask in the glow of their 100% record over Christmas. Problem is, with Leicester’s win in Montpellier, they’ll probably need a bonus point in Welford Road (while losing by less than six) to get through, something that proved beyond them two seasons ago. If they don’t win the pool, they should still qualify, but by our reckoning they’ll be playing for home advantage in the next round. Incentive to give it a lash for sure, and they are much better than they were two years ago.  However cloudy the future of the competition, Leicester will play every game they face at full throttle, and their last-minute victory was tribute to their never say die attitude. They are a worthy adversary, and have much to admire. Even though they haven’t won the pot in 11 years, they have been eliminated by the eventual winners five times, the runners-up once, and big-game bottlers Clermont twice – if Ulster can win this pool, they are contenders for the trophy.

As for the province we get most-accused of being biased against, Connacht can retire from the HEC happy that they have their memory to dine out on for years to come. They’ve had quite a few oh-so-nears away from home in their few seasons in the elite competition, and its well-deserved. Some of the minnows add nothing (looking at you Zebroni), but Connacht have been consistently competitive and the Sportsground has translated well to games with big teams, and Saracens.

Predictions for qualifier rankings:

  1. Toulouse
  2. Ulster
  3. Toulon
  4. Clermont
  5. Munster
  6. Leinster
  7. Leicester
  8. Globo Gym

Now that that’s all gone, we have to talk about Leinster. A most disappointing and worrying performance – the last-minute withdrawal of Sean O’Brien left them without any effective carriers and the Saints managed to tackle Leinster backwards almost every time. When the Saints ambushed Ulster in similar fashion last year, they produced the physical template that Globo Gym used to administer the knockout blow in the quarters. Leinster better hope that they have O’Brien and Cian Healy fit for any trip to France in the knockouts, or it’s curtains.

Still, they nearly won it right at the end. When Kahn Fotuali’i sacrificed a penalty advantage to drop a goal with over a minute left on the clock, we smelled a mistake. All the Saints needed to do was go through a few more phases, then take the full minute to kick a penalty and the game was won. The decision to nick the drop gave Leinster the final chance they needed and they were incredibly close to punishing Fotuali’i for it. Small things add up at the highest level, and the likes of Leicester, Leinster, Munster, Toulon, Toulouse would never allow their opponents another chance in such situations.

Two More Years. Or Maybe Just One.

Rob Penney’s contract is up for renewal at the end of the season, and it would appear that his getting a new one is far from a done deal.  Shane Horgan and Liam Toland were of the opinion on the recent Second Captains podcast that, ridiculous though it may sound, the double header against Perpignan would go a long way to deciding whether he got one or not.  That seems a bit short-termist to us as it won’t even seal the fate of Munster in the Heineken Cup with the probably pivotal trip to Kingsholm still to come.

It looks to us to be an erroneous decision not to renew his contract, though we’d be interested to get Munster fans’ take on it.  Penney is halfway through a pretty thorough rebuilding job and is trying to establish a new playing identity around which Munster can build a sustainable future.  No longer in possession of a juggernaut pack and corner-dominating fly-half, this Munster vintage’s strengths lie in their strike runners out wide, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and, more fitfully, Felix Jones.  And don’t forget that Peter O’Mahony played on the wing in an AIL final.  Joking aside, the likes of O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell are also best served getting the ball a bit further out from the ruck and Conor Murray has the skills to get them the ball there.  It all signals a group of players best served by moving the point of attack.

Unfortunately it hasn’t always been well implemented and Shane Horgan, a man who knows a thing or two about back play, was particularly scathing of the lateral nature of much of Munster’s attack.  They want to move it wide, but just can’t seem to get forward in doing so.  It’s all side-to-side and no one straightening the line or commiting defenders.  At times, the apparently simple act of passing in front of the player running onto the ball has proved too difficult.

Recruiting quality centres has been an issue for Munster as far back as we can remember and remains one today.  Casey Laulala has a streak of genius in him but Munster haven’t really been able to get on his wavelength.  His unpredictability at times appears to baffle his team-mates as much as opponents.  It’s an indictment of the coaching staff that they haven’t made more of his ability. If he was at Leinster, we’d imagine Sean Cronin and Sean O’Brien would track his lines as if tied to him by invisible ropes.

Lots of teething problems then, but results have been decent (and better than in the previous regime, at least at European level).  Munster went deeper in the Heineken Cup than any other Irish province last season and almost made the final in improbable circumstances.  It’s too easy to buy the narrative that O’Connell and O’Gara took the team in a new (or should that be old?) direction for the rousing performances in the Stoop and Bordeaux, and it’s one we don’t really buy.  The win in the Stoop was Penney-ball as it should be played, and it’s no surprise that it coincided with James Downey having his best match for Munster and team-mates suddenly becoming alive to the possibilities of playing off Laulala.  Some of the performances in the Pro12 were beyond dreadful and a sixth place finish was poor, but this season Munster have turned that around and sit on top of the log.

This year’s Heineken Cup has yet to see Munster hit top gear and the loss to Edinburgh was careless, but it’s far from beyond rescuing.  Gloucester and Perpignan are eminently beatable on the road, and the French seem utterly disinterested in the zombie HEC – this year’s pot is there for the taking.

It’s easy to forget just how shambolic things were when he arrived.  Munster had been left in a curious no-man’s land by McGahan’s half-baked tactics, and Penney had a job in restoring confidence to some players.  The obvious example is Conor Murray, whose early promise had been derailed by McGahan’s intention of deploying him as a fourth backrow.  Under Penney he has been able to get his natural rhythm going again, and has emerged as an elite player.

Penney’s tenure has the looks of a job half-done and it would seem strange to pull the rug from him now.  Did Munster really expect to turn things around more emphatically than this?   And if they do replace him, do they bring in someone to continue in a similar direction, or someone to start again?  Penney spoke in his first few months about how when you change approach you can find yourself ‘un the put’, but when you emerge from the put you find yourself in a better place than you ever were before.  Another change of direction now and Munster may find themselves struggling to ever emerge from the put.

He came on board with a reputation from the Crusaders of bringing younger players through the academy into Super Rugby (including the new world POTY), and in his time Munster havebrought through to the first team the likes of James Cronin, Paddy Butler, Tommy O’Donnell and JJ Hanrahan. The likes of Sherry, Archer, O’Mahony, Zebo and Murray have improved under his charge as well.

Munster fans seem mostly, if a little begrudgingly, on board with Project Penney – the pack just isn’t there to play the type of 10-man dross Frankie and co. want to see. On the other hand, Simon Mannix doesn’t seem to be having much impact – perhaps a shake-up of the coaching ticket, bringing in a backs coach of some repute, is the way forward. Don’t suppose Eddie has tired of blogging and wants to get that tracksuit back on?

Joking aside (for now), is finance a factor? Penney came with a big reputation and was unlikely to be cheap, and Munster are bleeding money like an Irish bank – do they just need to save a bit of cash? It would seem like a false economy, but who knows. A big name to replace Laulala for next season is unlikely, and more development from within is surely the way to go – Penney is the man for that in our eyes. If we are worried about tying him down with the HEC on the chopping block, give him one more year – he deserves it.

Bonanza!

If indeed the Heineken Cup is to be recast as a tin-pot version next season, we’ll miss weekends like this one.  An absolute bonanza for Irish rugby, topped off by the most remarkable result in Connacht’s history.  Leinster were entitled to think the Monday headlines would be given over to them, but they were upstaged.  It goes down as arguably the biggest shock in Heineken Cup history.  While Toulouse are not the force of yore, they’re still pretty good.  They beat Saracens away in the previous round and are second in the Top Quatorze.  Connacht had been in the midst of a horrendous streak and are below Zebre in the Pro12 log.  Where the hell did they pull this from?  Connacht-watchers might have expected them to use the away game as a mission in damage control, before dialling up the intensity in the Sportsground.  But Connacht cleary had other ideas.  They’ve taken everyone, perhaps even themselves, by surprise.

To put some context in that result, it’s only about two generations of Irish rugby since celebrity Munster fan Mick Galwey stood under the posts in Toulouse imploring the lads to keep it to 50. Back then, at the dawn of professionalism (and the HEC), Munster were about as good as it got in Ireland, and they couldn’t keep the score below 50. Now, Ireland’s weakest province (please don’t be offended) can go there and win. That is incredible.

The question – as always – is whether they can back this up.  Asking them to beat Toulouse a second time in a row might be a bit much to ask, but it should at least give them the belief to get some wins in the Pro12 and work their way off the basement place in the league.  Their star turn appears to be scrum half Kieran Marmion, their busy scrum-half who was unlucky to miss out on a debut cap this autumn.  He could come into consideration in the Six Nations but those who watched Leinster on saturday will have noted that Eoin Reddan looked like a sort of rugby genius.

Which brings us to Leinster, who were superb.  It’s worth rewinding to October, when we put up a couple of posts expressing concerns over the direction in which Matt O’Connor was bringing Leinster.  Thankfully, we left room for an optimistic scenario:

“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.”

Well, thank heavens for small mercies, because it looks to have come to pass.  The rugby played by Leinster against Northampton looked suspiciously like Schmidt-ball, with an emphasis on gainline passing, varied attacking patterns with inside-ball and wide passing mixed to devastating effect, as well as an almost feral approach to clear-out with those arriving at the ruck driving beyond the ball.  Throw in exemplary ball presentation and it was a near-perfect performance.  It all combined to serve up Eoin Reddan with silver-platter-ball, with which the flaws in his game vanish into the ether and he appears world class.  His speed of thought and deed were too much for the bewildered Saints. Mind you, we’ve said before that these Saints are no-one’s barometer of manliness – this is the third successive occasion at the Gardens where an Irish province has left with 5 points.

What’s remarkable is how in the space of a couple of weeks all half-empty glasses are suddenly brimming over.  After the Australia game all was miserable in the heart of Irish rugby.  Now, options appear everywhere.  Rhys Ruddock looks like yet another – another! – option in the backrow, playing as if to the manor born.  Rob Kearney is looking like his old self.  Gordon D’arcy has gone from a bust to a boom.  Luke Fitzgerald is back!  Keith Earls is back among the tries.  Some excitable fans were even calling for Sean Cronin to start ahead of Rory Best.

Up in Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks like a proper outhalf – his development since his harrowing Ireland experiences in March has been excellent, and he now takes on more of the game management from Ruan Pienaar. And, speaking of Ulster, when a 7-try romp over a team that has given Ulster problems in the past becomes a footnote, something must be going right, even allowing for the relegation of Ulster in Irish rugby minds (should we call this the “Cave Factor” going forward?).

PS. While getting annoyed about celebrity Globo Gym fan Stephen Jones is about as futile as it gets, we must take issue with his latest.  We won’t even go into the laughably uncharitable tone of his Northampton-Leinster write up, but his assertion that refereeing outside England is ‘terrifyingly bad’, with reference to Nigel Owens, who refereed this game, was so far wide of the mark as to be abhorrent.  For a start, the example he cited was just plain wrong.  He claimed Owens didn’t see the miles-forward pass by Cronin, but Owens could clearly be heard saying ‘we’ll go back and check it’ as Luke Fitzgerald was jogging over the line.  And as if it needs saying, Nigel Owens is widely, and rightly, regarded as the best official in world rugby (not best-looking mind, there are some things Steve Walsh just won’t lose).  Still, though, perhaps it’s reassuring: with Jones no longer able to claim a natural superiority for the English clubs over the Irish provinces, he has now turned trained his wobbly aim on the Pro12 referees.  Deary me, what an unedifying sight it is.

Y’know, Rugby Matches and That

What’s all this, then?  Actual rugby matches between provincial and club sides throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Italy and France?  Sounds like an intriguing prospect.  This lark might even catch on.  Northampton vs. Leinster?  Perpignan vs. Munster?!  This sounds bloody fantastic.  We want MORE of this sort of thing.  Certainly not less of it anyway.  Or some diluted version involving the Portuguese team (‘Except you Julian Bardy, the only player anyone has heard of, you have to play for Clermont’) making up the numbers.

It’ll be a merciful relief to get back to the reliably invigorating business of the Heineken Cup.  The preliminary rounds seem so long ago at this stage, with the November series and the endless wranglings in the interim, it almost requires an effort to remember exactly how it’s all poised.  Did Munster really lose in Edinburgh?  Good Lord, they did!  And what a result from Ulster to sack Montpellier on their own turf.  Leinster find themselves two-from-two and Connacht have a win over Zebre and ran Saracens to the last play in their first game, prompting a hilarious tweet from Stephen Jones trying to convince everyone – including himself, presumably – that it was a comfortable win for Globo Gym against the ‘non-elite’ Connacht.  How quaint all that posturing seems now.

All of which brings us to the glorious double headers, often the highpoint of the calendar.  Is there any fresh way to say they often decide the outcome of the pool?  Probably not, but who cares – they do.  You can cough up a cheap loss in the first two rounds, but only if you atone for it here.  The good people at ERC, or Sky, or wherever these things are decided by tend to orchestrate the schedule so the two big boys in each pool cross paths in the back-to-backs, so winning both legs isn’t always a requirement, and simply coming out on top in match points is often enough.

That’s certainly the case with Leinster, who have had a curious season so far.  Having won in Ospreys, they made heavy weather of Castres at home but the pool qualifier will come from this match-up in any case.  A bonus point on the road will be enough to keep Leinster in the hunt, providing they can win at home.  Northampton can be odd, though.  Last year they surrendered meekly at home to Ulster, apparently sealing their fate, before improbably turning the tables in Ravenhill of all places.  Ben Foden’s injured though, and he provides their creative spark.  Over to you, Courtney Lawes, to inflict the damage.

Munster have a different set of parameters.  They arguably need to win both games, having lost to Edinburgh in a disastrous opening match.  They have the home leg first in what has come to be known as – thanks Gerry – the Sunday mass slot.  It’s often lamented, but we have few memories of them playing particularly badly in it and they should have the goods to beat Perpignan in Thomond Park with a bit to spare.  The acid test will be trying to go down to the Aime Geral and getting a win.  It’s a daunting stadium, but Perpignan themselves don’t intimidate too many teams these days; they currently lie 9th in the Top 14 and Munster are certainly capable of winning there.  Last time they went there nobody fancied them at all, but they were rampant.  Tomas O’Leary was on fire and Donnacha Ryan came off the bench to announce his talent on the big stage. Perpignan have a monstrous pack and a wonderfully creative outhalf, but, of all the French teams in the HEC, they are probably the one you would want.

Ulster have the easier part of their assignment.  They’re in a great position after beating Montpellier, and should be looking for nine points as a minimum return against a Treviso side that hasn’t really picked up where they left off last season. The natty Italians have a habit of making life awkward for Ulster, but got spanked in Ravers earlier this year – Ulster will be pretty confident of snagging 5 points on Saturday, and should have the momentum to grind out a win away. Those 9 points should more or less wrap up a home quarter-final … assuming no flakes like last season’s home loss to the Saints.

And don’t forget Connacht, who play Toulouse, who aren’t quite the – yaswnsville – ‘aristocrats of Europe’ these days, although they did win away to Saracens, which has seen them installed as favourites to win their group.  Connacht will struggle in the away tie, but will certainly be targeting a rousing performance at the Sportsground.  It’ll be Toulouse’s second visit to the dog track, but the hope that the less than salubrious surroundings will put the Toulousains off their stride proved hopelessly wide of the mark on their first, and Connact – enduring a pretty hopeless season and rock bottom of the Pro12 as it stands – will be in need of some sort of miracle to come out with a win.

Dead Parrot Sketch

So, its come to this. The French clubs are back in the fold, helped by a shove from the union, their long-term intentions as unclear as ever – they said the RCC fiasco was a way for them to get what they wanted, but we aren’t sure what they actually want.

  • More money? Seems unlikely – French clubs earn more at home. It would be nice, but hardly a reason to join McCafferty’s revolution. Unless its all about permanently de-stabilizing Europe – that would earn them more money – see option 3 below.
  • Less Rabo teams? Well, the structure sans les Rosbifs is apparently the entire Rabo league, 6 Frenchies and 2 composite whipping boys from Spain and Portugal, with the Amlin Vase gone. Pretty unsuccessful way to make qualification more meritocratic (should that be “meritocratic”? Not sure)
  • Top16? This is what we think. Discredit and destabilize Europe enough that a Top16 becomes a safety line for French clubs. Playing the long game

With the pliant UK media going as overboard as ever (the Grauniad didn’t report on the French clubs leaving on Thursday, then headlined it on Friday with “French U-turn jeopardises European rugby” – yeah, its the French who have done the jeopardising…), PR have air cover for their intransigence, with little public questioning of their strategy and long-term ambitions (bar Martyn Thomas calling for McCafferty’s head on a plate). And little detail  on the minutiae of the BT contract either.

The increasingly woeful utterances by PR are an embarrassment to English rugby:

  • Its us and the French!
  • Its us and the Welsh!
  • Its us and the South Africans!
  • Its us and … er … financial oblivion!

Its basically the Dead Parrot Sketch – this RCC is very much alive sir!

McCafferty’s latest is to insist the English aren’t coming back and is being reduced to saying the Premiership will be better as teams can play all their players instead of saving them for Europe (I thought it was only Rabo clubs that could do this?).  The risk now is the unhappy Welsh regions actually try and force their unions hand and try and join an expanded Premiership – its what they want, and it might actually make them financially viable.

The situation is still pretty fluid – a HEC with 12 Rabo teams and some PIGS seems unlikely to work, and PR aren’t going to go away. PR aren’t completely isolated yet, the RFU are reluctantly yoked to them, and the Welsh clubs are enthusiastic about games against English clubs. Bottom line for Ireland – short of the English coming back to the fold unconditionally, nothing is good news.

Its unclear how European club rugby will look in 5 years, but if there is a Top16 and some Welsh clubs in the Premiership, Irish rugby will struggle massively – Eddie wrote a nice piece on the questionable long-term benefits of Irish provinces dominating the Pro12. The HEC has been a stunning success in the last decade, but, paradoxically, that has alerted the English and French to the market for more and higher-quality rugby. If you can’t beat the Irish provinces on the pitch, why not remove their lifeline to top-class rugby and tempt the players to join your clubs?

The parallels with soccer in the 1990s are increasing – the governing bodies never directly conceded to a European super league, but the clubs pushed the envelope so far on Champions League expansion, they got one by proxy. The RFU and WRU can’t ignore the next tier of rugby in England and Wales – the Great Schism of nearly 120 years ago is still hard-wired into rugby union administration (recall professionalism was conceded to avoid loss of control 100 years after the first schism) and splits will be avoided at all costs.

This isn’t really about the HEC, its about power and money – the bell might have been rung on the HEC, and, as Eddie would say, you can’t un-ring it. The prospect of expanded French and Anglo-Welsh competitions might have moved a little closer – lets hope the Irish don’t end up relying on the Scots, Italians and the rest of Europe for games. We’re no closer to a long-term resolution, but the danger signals for Ireland remain at DEFCON 1.

Doing Business the Modern Way

Now that the November internationals are over, the IRFU are turning (with the turning circle of the Titanic) their hands to the delicate matter of our nearly-out-of-contract superstars.

This is a matter worth tracking, and ticking off the names as they agree to stay (or otherwise) – post-Sexton, the vultures will be circling, and there is a major risk we will lose more front-line internationals to the Top14.

In no particular order, here is who doesn’t know where they will be playing come September (note: not a complete list, for example some of Frankie’s clients are also free agents, but we are concentrating on frontline internationals):

  • Paul O’Connell Imagine he ended up at Clermont, partnering Jamie Cudmore. Ain’t gonna happen though, he’s national captain, they’ll keep him here. Plus hard to see a French club paying up for someone so injury-prone and light
  • Jamie Heaslip Completely anonymous in green, apart from when he isn’t, which is most of the time. Refreshingly injury-free for the last ages, lets not test it by allowing Jacky Lorenzetti to play him for 50 games in a season
  • Conor Murray Best scrum-half in Ireland by a mile, young and good-looking hence marketable, and known to be unhappy about previous contract negotiations. With Ruan Pienaar shunning French money, he’ll be in demand. Lets tie him down
  • Sean O’Brien Heavily linked with RM92, O’Brien is the one remaining world class player based in Ireland – re-signing him would be something of a coup for the IRFU and would send a good message out
  • Rory Best Everyone’s favourite Nordie farmer – hard to see him anywhere but Ulster to be honest, and Humph has become pretty good at the whole negotiations thing. He’ll probably stay
  • Donnacha Ryan The rumours about Ryan going to France refuse to go away, and are annoyingly consistent, admittedly not helped by Ryan pitching up at the Aime Giral. He’d probably benefit from the phyiscality and intensity out there, but that doesn’t mean we’d be happy to see it
  • Keith Earls Key man in Munster’s backline – like Best, its hard to see him anywhere else. Big boshers in the three-quarter line are in vogue in the Top Quatorze – Earls doesn’t fit the bill there

Johnny Sexton was known to be unhappy about the late start and disengaged vibe to contract negotiations, let us all hope its handled better this time. Whatever about the wisdom of having half the national team out of contract at the same time (if you factor out BOD and assume all 7 above will start – not necessarily completely ridiculous – that’s exactly half the team), the sheer workload for the Union in having to negotiate woth multiple Mr 15%’s all at once, all of whom are undoubtedly fully transparent about their client’s needs, is a huge challenge. Details of Sexton’s RM92 deal started appearing in the press in mid-January, which is basically six weeks away – time is tight if something similar is to be avoided.

If we were to bet, we’d say Ryan will go and O’Brien and Murray will be hard-pressed to turn down what are sure to be mammoth offers. Squeaky-bum time.