Ireland: The Six Nations Verdict

Twenty-fourteen, eh? It feels a long way from Frankie’s annual “Grand Slam” prediction [Aside: remember Glenn McGrath used to predict a 5-0 Australia victory in every Ashes series? Not sure if Glenn McGrath was ever Steven Smith’s agent, mind] – a chastening series last year saw Ireland lose to Scotland and Italy, and avoid the wooden spoon only on points difference from France. The series was catastrophic, with virtually everything that could go wrong going wrong. For once, expectations seem realistic, with the trophy-laden mid-00’s a distant memory. We can recall in 2010 how a Triple Crown was being sniffed at ahead of our last game against Scotland – which we promptly lost. You never know when it might come back, and we’d gladly take one this year.

Before we go into too much detail about Ireland’s prospects this year, there are a couple of things it is worthwhile to consider:

  • Last year, Ireland finished 5th in the log, and missed out on the wooden spoon only on points difference. But this doesn’t represent Ireland’s real level – they hadn’t finished lower than 3rd since the Five turned Six – and the players remain competitive at HEC level. Last year was a complete bust, the coach was a busted flush who had lost the confidence of swathes of the dressing room, and the campaign was an unmitigated disaster – it’s safe to write it off as a uniquely poor year
  • Joe Schmidt is an excellent coach. In Leinster, he developed a team based on ruthlessness, accuracy and adventure that dominated Europe for three years. The big question is, can that success be transferred to international level where he has less time with his players, higher quality of opponent (sometimes, at least) and no Zebras or Cardiff to fill your boots against. But we will say this with confidence – he has a track record that is superior to Philip Saint-Andre, Stuart Lancaster, Jacques Brunel and Scott Johnson. And in time, he might have one better than Gatty as well

If Gerry’s “guess” at Sunday’s team is correct, and it ususally is – with the glaring exception of RWC11, when Fangio got Uncle Deccie’s exclusives – one thing more than any stands out, that the days of the same XV starting every game are behind us. Competition for places is here, and this week’s beneficiaries are Matinee Idol Andrew Trimble and Luke ‘Bamm-Bamm’ Marshall. The infamous Monday Morning Huddle-Ups will doubtless mean bigger names than Ferg and Dorce will be disappointed over the course of the next six weeks. This is Ireland like we haven’t known them in a long time.

The fixtures are generous to Ireland as well – a gentle beginning at home to Scotland, followed by a date everyone has ringed in the calendar for months – a chance to beat those pesky Welsh. Ireland lost to Scotland last year after a comedy of errors, and, despite last year’s win, probably still feel they owe the Welsh one – particularly after that happened between that listing legend and that taciturn Kiwi in the summer.

Ireland’s major problems have been gameplan, accuracy, consistency and selection. Our attacking has been anaemic for many years now, our error count off the charts [rumble for 1m, rumble for 0.5m, three drifting sideways passes for -2m, rumble – knock on], and injury was our best selector. The new coaching ticket showed signs of creeping accuracy in November, and the days of picking the same XV for every game are in the past. If we can develop that elusive consistency and a coherent attacking strategy, you feel Ireland will go from perennial third-placers (excepting that blip of last year) to something better.

It’s important that Ireland establish a base level of performance on days when they don’t have waves of emotion on which to draw.  They can’t be expected to play as well as against New Zealand, but it’s important the performance level doesn’t falll off a cliff-face as soon as we’re favourite to win a match.

If Ireland do start with two wins, they’ll have the Big Mo, and that can be crucial in this tournament. If they win two, they can win another two – Italy are a gimme, then England look strong but unimaginative and France are a coin toss. With some confidence and coherence, we are surely capable of winning one of them. All of which might just put us in the mix.  But to flip it over: lose to Wales and suddenly Twickenham looks a daunting trip and we’re staring down being one from three and becoming grumpy and despondent.  So much hinges on that Wales game in the second round.  The hell with accuracy, let’s get emotional!  Jamie and BOD: give Wazza hell!

Schmidt has publicly stated that sure aren’t we lucky to have both Rog and Johnny second place is his minimum requirement, and four wins are typically required to get it. We aren’t sure if we are there yet, but we expect to see a tight, accurate and ruthless team by St Patrick’s Day. With a foundation in place for RWC15.


The BOD Question

Having looked at Ireland’s pack yesterday, today we turn attention to the skinnier chaps who will be instructed with passing and running with the ball.  Yesterday’s main theme was that Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis was more or less a thing of the past.  Plenty of commenters were still nervous about the scrum, and with good reason, but at the very least we know we’ve options to get by even if a key player gets injured, which hasn’t been the case for years.

But if one crisis is over, another has sprouted up, and it’s at 13.  Maybe crisis is too strong a word, but this is Brian O’Driscoll’s last season for Ireland and his form is pretty terrible to say the least.  Naturally, you criticise BOD at your peril and there’s every chance he’ll roll back the years and conjure up a couple of big performances.  Unfortunately, it has to be considered that his body may not be capable of doing that.  When Keith Wood was being subjected to ‘you can never write Munster off’ arguments in a 2010 interview on Newstalk, he observed that ‘at some point you will write off this Munster side and you’ll be right, because they can’t go on forever’.  Same, sadly, goes for O’Driscoll.

Even forgetting about 2015 and focusing purely on this Six Nations, if there was an option available one might even think of starting him.  But there isn’t; not really. Darren Cave, whose face doesn’t fit, isn’t really a test class player – he was among the weaker echelons of the Ulster team in their recent win at Welford Road, and Robbie Henshaw was last seen ushering Saracens’ backline in for 11 tries.  The wait for Jared Payne – who has hardly had a chance to play centre anyway this season, with Bowe’s injury requiring him to continue at full-back – to qualify as Irish eligible goes on until next season.  So BOD starts .. until he doesn’t because he’s just too much of a liability.

Who to play alongside him, in perhaps the most closely fought position in the team?  Marshall or D’arcy?  It looks increasingly like Schmidt is going to run with the players who banked so much credit in the infamous New Zealand match.  That would mean D’arcy starting; he was exceptional in that game and has continued his good form for Leinster.  Scotland at home is one game where you’d like to see Marshall given the chance, with an expectation that he would offer a little more in attack in a game where Ireland can expect to win plenty of ball, but perhaps he’ll miss out by dint of Scotland being the first match and may have to wait for later (the Italy game?) to feature.

The half-backs pick themselves.  At this juncture, we all know how good Sexton and Murray are.  The getting-to-know-you phase is over, and what we really want to see is these two world-class performers unleash their inner test-match-animal.  It’s time they brought their influence and personality to bear on the tournament as a whole, and not just in the odd match here and there.  We’d like to see them dominate the series in the way that Mike Phillips does for Wales, or O’Gara – him again – did for Ireland.  Hopefully Eoin Reddan will return to fitness because his form has been electric, and it will be interesting to see if Schmidt uses his reserve halves.  Sexton and Murray are 80 minute men, but Schmidt likes a change-up at 9 in particular.

We’ve covered the issues around the back three in a previous post.  Luke Fitzgerald – assuming he can get over a troublesome abdominal strain – could be about to have a storming campaign, and as the incumbent from the New Zealand game, Dave Kearney looks likely to start on the other wing.  With Fitzgerald doubtful, it has compounded the strangeness of Simon Zebo not being called up, but it seems the Munster flyer is out of favour. The Kildare Lewis Moody is next in line – his international record should not be underestimated, but he isn’t the pin-the-ears-back type.

It looks like an all-Leinster 11-15, which hasn’t exactly sparked with their province this season.  The hope is that Schmidt’s gameplanning and eye for detail will get them to do so – and it’s likely he can, he saw them every day to up 8 months ago – otherwise he’ll be fielding some questions about a certain speedster and why he didn’t pick him.  It may all be immaterial in any case, as storms and floods are set to sweep the country.  It’s looking like a day to shove it up the jumper and grind Scotland down slowly. Bosh!

Crisis? What Crisis?

Remember Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis ™? After John Hayes was put out to pasture after the 2010 November internationals, and Mushy failed to last 40 minutes against England Saxons, Deccie turned to Mike Ross as pretty much the last Irish tighthead left standing. The one-man Scrummaging IMF subsequently gave Ireland’s scrum a solidity not seen in aeons, and even the ability to occasionally use the set piece as an attacking weapon. But behind him, the cupboard was still pretty bare – as Patsy Court will know after his shellacking (literally, from the England front row, and figuratively, from the Irish press) playing out of position in Twickers.

It was two years ago when the IRFU declared foreigners non grata in Irish rugger circles, particularly at tighthead which appeared the only position where there was an issue, in an effort to increase the number of eligible Irish internationals available to Deccie and his successors. Now, and due in no part whatsoever to those rules which hven’t even been applied in the one position they were brought in for, Ireland now have three tightheads who you would be comfortable starting in a big game:

  • Mike Ross might be slowing down, but is still around, and is the incumbent – being flogged around North America in June into the bargain.  The new scrum calls, however, do not appear to have helped his game
  • Deccie Fitz has a start in New Zealand under his belt, and when he is fit, he looks good, but is once again unavailable through injury – he’ll need to be fit for longer now that he’ll be Ulster’s number one next season and the Ulster conditioning team should be working day and night on a plan that gets the most value out of him, because he will be a valuable resource
  • Marty Mooradze has been Leinster’s most impressive prop this season, and has possibly nudged ahead of Ross in the provincial reckoning having started the final pool match in the Heineken Cup

Behind them, we have the Possibles, who are coming up on the rails but would still have us watching through our fingers against a big international scrum:

  • Stephen Archer has improved exponentially since being minced by the Scarlets 12 months ago – however he’s still behind BJ Botha at provincial level
  • Rodney Ah Here might have been shunted around Allianz Park by Mako Vunipola, who himself was shunted around Suncorp by Ben Alexander, but the new rules have (apparently) made him less ineffective and he has been brought into the national setup early. Presumably the Milky Bar Kid has seen something he likes and thinks he will benefit from some targetted coaching
  • Michael Bent … er … he has a hurl you know!
  • Nathan White will be Irish at the end of the year

At Academy level, the cupboard looks ok as well – Tadgh Furlong and Adam Macklin are the next generation in Leinster and Ulster.

Put it like this, it isn’t a crisis any more, and there is competition for places. So who starts? Its tough to make a case for Mike Ross given his decline over the last 18 months, and how Moore has surpassed him at Leinster – it seemed inevitable he would bypass him by year end, and with the process aleready appearing to take place, it puts Ross’ place in green in jeopardy. The smart thing to do, in the short and long term, is to give Moore a series of starts, especially with Scotland as the first test, with Ross on the bench as backup.  If he gets through that test, he may well find himself starting and finishing the series as number one.

So what about the rest of the Irish pack?

DJ Church and Besty will pack down alongside Moore in our fantasy pack, but both will feel hot breath on their necks, and it isn’t just the Irish press corps salivating on them; judging by recent form it is bringing the best out in them both. Jack McGrath has covered manfully for Cian Healy this sesaon and has already made a splash at international level, with Dave Kilcoyne the next man up – as usual Patsy Court is the fall guy. At hooker, the return of Risteard O hOstrais is fantastic news and increases the stiff competition at the level below Besty.  All the rest are curate’s eggs: Sean Cronin is manic around the park but can’t throw, Damien Varley is brilliant in the scrum and (especially) at ruck time, but can’t throw, and Mike Sherry is Jocky Wilson with the darts, but Owen Wilson in the tight (and injured in any case). The improving Rob Herring adds to the depth chart.

More competition at lock is good news – Paul O’Connell is inked in (presuming he is fit) and there are plenty of contenders for the No.4 shirt, even with Donnacha Ryan injured (thouh he may appear before the end of the series). Lighthouse Toner had a great November series and has continued to show incremental progression at Leinster – he is currently favourite. Jostling with him are Mike McCarthy, who has gradually got going this season and provides grunt in the middle of the pack and NWJMB, the coming kid of Irish forward play, who is simply astonishingly good. Toner looks set to start, though it would be a very Joe Schmidt move to bring McCarthy in for the away matches against the beef-heavy English and French packs. NWJMB to reprise his role with Ulster as impact substitute?

Sean O’Brien’s unfortunate injury looks to have opened the door for Chris Henry – Henry has been unlucky with the timing of injuries himself and would assuredly have more caps by now if always fit. As it stands, he’s a Schmidt favourite and his body of work of the last 24 months should be sufficient to see off stiff competition from Tommy O’Donnell. The assumption here is that POM and Jamie Heaslip are inked in at 6 and 8 and the two look part of the ‘core’ that will play all five matches, fitness permitting.

As usual, Ireland are well covered in the backrow.  Robin Copeland and Rhys Ruddock are regularly playing HEC rugby, and Jordi Murphy has forced his way into the reckoning.  Roger Wilson can’t even get in the squad, despite playing his best game (in this stint at Ravers) for Ulster in their epic victory over Leicester. Depending on Schmidt’s preference (and injuries), there is a non-zero possibility of each of them making the matchday 23, but Tommy O’Donnell looks best positioned to cover the backrow on the bench, and has impressed with how quickly he has found form since a lengthy injury lay-off.  He covers 6 and 8 effectively and if Jamie Heaslip were to get injured, which never happens anyway, Peter O’Mahony could move acros to No.8.

All in, the pack looks strong and deep. If we compare to the 2009 Grand Slam pack, the starting and backup props look superior (sorry, Tom), and the depth at second row is much better (sorry, Micko). On the flip side, you don’t have Jirry, Fez, Wally or Paul O’Connell at his peak – but it’s a unit which looks well-able to compete with the other nations. Mind you, our forwards have never really been the problem – inconsistent half-back selection (chopping and changing constantly, and a lack of faith in provincial partnerships) and anaemic attacking play have been far more of an issue in recent years. We’ll look at the backs tomorrow.

Ireland Squad Outrage Episode No.358

Joe Schmidt named his squad for the opening Six Nations match yesterday, and the main talking points were that the make-up of the matchday front row have effectively been named, with Marty Moore now certain to make his debut in some form or other, and the Southern natives getting a little restless that just five of their number have been retained.

There’s no surprise whatsoever in Marty Moore’s selection.  It’s been a rapid rise to prominence for the Castleknock man, but also a reflection on the still-somewhat modest (but far greater than at any time in the last decade) resources Ireland have in the position.  The last round of the Heineken Cup saw him selected ahead of Mike Ross against an Ospreys side with a reputation for hard scrummaging.  It’s not yet clear cut as to whether he is now Leinster’s definitive first choice prop, but that game had a feeling of the baton being passed on.  With Declan Fitzpatrick once again injured, the only other option is Stephen Archer; the Munster prop has improved immeasurably since his nadir of being ground into the mud by the Scarlets’ reserve pack, but he is just simply not in Moore’s class when it comes to technique in the scrum.  Moore could even start against Scotland, and if he comes through that, he may never look back.

As for the weighty numbers of Leinster men in the squad and Munster’s dearth, well, it’s not simply a game of balancing things out among the provinces.  Leinster have been the dominant force in Europe for the last five years and if their star is on the wane a little, the void has yet to be filled.  If anyone looks like doing so, it will most likely be Ulster.

Munster have a great many good players who are just not quite as good as those selected ahead of them and two of their star turns who would undoubtedly be there if fit, Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan, are injured.  Take David Kilcoyne.  He has finally got going after a slow start to the season, but Jack McGrath has been making hay all year, deputising superbly for Cian Healy when called upon, and won man of the match in his first cap against Samoa.  Damien Varley is a doughty fellow, but who in their right mind would select him ahead of Rory Best or Sean Cronin, who offers wild-card potential as an impact reserve.  Same goes for Archer.

One Munster player who can have some legitimate grievances is Simon ‘Sizzle Factor’ Zebo (What the hell was all that ‘sizzle factor’ business about; it’s not even a thing).  Zebo is just back from injury, but looked a real threat against Edinburgh.  With Bowe and Earls injured, we’d have considered him a potential starter.  In the back three, we know Rob Kearney will start and Luke Fitzgerald’s superb form demands inclusion.  Adding Zebo to those two would make for an imbalanced, all-left-footed back three, so we can see the reasons against it.

But on l’autre hand, it leaves Ireland choosing a right winger from Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney, all game, hard-working chaps but not hugely threatening in attack at test level.  The Kildare Lewis Moody is just back from injury himself and has had even less gametime than Zebo (though he is famed for his levels of natural fitness and ability to hit form quickly).  Trimble is having a good season, but he’s a player who has had umpteen chances at test rugby and yet to really make much of an impact.  Dave Kearney is another Mr Solid, and hasn’t really offered much of a spark for Leinster in recent weeks.  It just lacks a little pizazz, or as Gerry would no doubt say, x-factor.  We hate to speculate like this, because it’s not really fair, but it’s a (non-)selection that makes you wonder if something is up between management and Zebo.  The only other wing capable of offering the same explosiveness is Craig Gilroy, but he’s been struggling to get motoring in heavy traffic all season, and remains weak in contact.

The only other area where a picture has emerged is scrum-half.  Isaac Boss can consider himself unlucky having been man of the match in the Wolfhounds game, but it’s impossible to argue with the form of Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan, both superb this season and a near-perfect yin and yang in terms of what they offer on aggregate over 80 minutes.

Taking Care of Bid’ness

Contract negotiations are a tricky thing at the best of times, and in a sense, it’s a thankless task for which you can only be criticised.  Throw contracts out like confetti and you’ll be accused of being wasteful (‘Why was Denis Leamy given a two year contract when he was clearly a crock?’).  Play hardball and you’ll be accused of not taking the players for granted (‘Come on, it’s Sean O’Brien, just pay the man’).

At this juncture it looks like the IRFU have more or less taken care of bid’ness, for this sseason anyway.  With Jamie Heaslip, Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls recently signing on the line that is dotted, pretty much all the red-flagged contract re-signings have been locked down*.  Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien and Conor Murray were among the others that had recently signed on.  It’s a great bit of business in what looked a particularly daunting assignment not that long ago.

This year always looked trickier than those in the recent past.  Two issues loomed especially large on proceedings: the uncertainty (still ongoing) over European rugby’s future and the possible emboldening of the French club owners following Racing’s successful recruitment of Johnny Sexton last year.  In truth, the IRFU must have done pretty well to convince the contracted players that they would have some actual rugby to play next season, because any sort of clarity seems miles off.  In France, they’ll always be assured that no matter what else, the Top 14 will remain a long, competitive grind.  And certainly, given that sheer number of stories circulating in the media, it appears that the French clubs believed they could lure one or two more Irish over to their league.

We all remember Brian O’Driscoll being linked with Biarritz, and the Basque club was seen as an exotic location where only our very best would be considered.  But this season just about every Irish player was linked in some way to some French club.  If you weren’t going on a fact-finding mission to some Top 14 training ground to check out the envy-inspiring facilities (‘We don’t even have to play three games a season in a run down heap of a ground for contractual reasons?!  I’m in’) you were pretty much alone.  Sean O’Brien to Clermont or Toulon, Donnacha Ryan to Perpignan, Jamie Healsip to Toulon, Conor Murray to Racing; they were all at it.

Even Marty Moore, having barely started a senior game of note, was apparently being lured to la sud de France by the megabucks.  Presumably the agents who fed the stories to a media who gleefully lapped it up can consider their mission to be accomplished.  Whatever about the lure of the lifestyle and money in France, but when Keith Earls was linked with Reading Samoa it looked a media story too far.  Why any player highly regarded at his team, where he gets to play Heineken Cup rugby on the doorstep of where he grew up, would give that up to scratch around the lower reaches of the Boshiership is anyone’s guess.

One thing that perhaps worked out in the IRFU’s favour has been the sheer weight of the workload Sexton has been under, which has been widely broadcast.  But at the end of the day, the players want to play for the teams to which they are so attached.  The IRFU hopefully recognise that the pull if playing for one’s native province still has a huge pull for the players.

*Not Tom Court obviously – his face just doesn’t fit

Irish Wolfhounds v England Saxons

Ireland have named their Wolfhounds team to play England Saxons this weekend.  As usual, this means two things: there’s a game of quasi-international rugby on, and we can maybe, possibly try to infer some things about what Schmidt’s thinking and who is likely to make the test team the following week.

All in all, it’s a decent looking team and most of those selected are starters with their province, or in the case of Robin Copeland, Welsh region.  Rhys Ruddock looks a sensible choice as captain as he has experience in the role for Leinster.  There aren’t too many of the experienced older hands in the side – the likes of James Coughlan or Gavin Duffy – though Isaac Boss could fit into that category.  It does seem a shame that Kieran Marmion wasn’t given the start at scrum-half. Most of the team are players on the rise who will see this as a stepping stone.

For the players themselves, no doubt some of them are trying to work out in their heads whether it’s good or bad news to be playing.  Is it a chance to put your hand up for selection against Scotland or proof that you’re still a little bit down the pecking order?  For Tommy O’Donnell it’s probably an indication that Chris Henry is going to start, as has always looked the likely outcome.  But then O’Donnell is still a little short of match-time and is in good enough form to get noticed.

Most selections can be taken at face value.  In the front row David Kilcoyne looks one rung off the test 23, behind Jack McGrath and the indomitable Cian Healy.  Rob Herring will be pleased to get the chance to impress at this level.   The all-Ulster second row will be out for blood.  Toner, O’Connell and McCarthy look like the test picks, but imagine the impact of springing NWJMB with 20 minuts to go?

Those who’ll be seeing the call up as good news will be Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden.  For McFadden it’s likely that Schmidt is giving him match-time because he needs him for the test squd.  The Kildare Lewis Moody may be unfashionable, but his numbers in the green shirt are hard to knock.  And Ian Madigan has fallen behind Paddy Jackson in the race to back up Sexton and will be glad of a chance to remind us of his ability.  Can Schmidt coax the form he showed last season out of him? The news that Johnny Sex-bomb will be milked by Racing Metro on Saturday makes this a little more pertinent – if Sexton is to be rested for one game in the tournament by Schmidt (say, Italy), then there is a shirt up for grabs, for a game anyway.

Darren Cave will assuredly be even angrier after seeing a “12” next to his name – Jamie Heaslip will need to be mindful he doesn’t get blindsided by a tackle bag in training.  He’s now seemingly behind Robbie Henshaw, who is extremely raw at this level. No doubt Cave will feel that years of consistent form are going unrecognised, and he isn’t being given the chance to show what he can do. But with no centre on the bench, expect Cave to get some time at 13 in the second half after Keatley comes in and Madigan gets shifted out.

Possibly the most interesting performance to watch will be that of Marty Moore.  He came through his test against Ospreys impressively, and there is an increasing feeling that he will be capped – who knows, perhaps even starting – against Scotland.  Is this another screen test to see if he’s ready?  There’s still no sign of Declan Fitzpatrick so the matchday 23 is firmly within his grasp now.  He just has to bind on to it and wrestle it into the dirt, which he seems to be awfully good at.

Are Ulster the new Munster?

Ulster fans will not have been surprised to note that the headline of the Irish Times on Monday was not about the best game of the group stages, an epic sack of Welford Road, but about a potential Leinster-Munster semi-final should both prevail against French nouveau riche™ and aristocrats™ respectively.

Nor will they have been surprised to see under-representation on the ERC Player of the Year long list published yesterday – Ulster were the only group winner to have a single nomination, with four others getting two each and Toulon getting three for sleepwalking through a gimme pool. Ulster recorded four wins against quarter-finalists of last years tournament (two away from home) and were left with the same number of nominees as also-rans Northampton Saints. Miles Benjamin got one for Gawd’s sake.

This isn’t to say any of the 15 are obviously undeserving candidates, all had a good pool stages, but did all 15 have a greater influence on the pool stages than, say, Chris Henry?

Further, Ulster were described as “most improved” on Second Captains – where we went to school, “most improved” was a pat on the head for the guy or girl who wasn’t at the races but needed a bit of encouragement to keep the head up.

In truth, Humph probably won’t mind this one bit – Ulster are slowly adjusting to their new status in Irish rugby, a status where Munster and Leinster enjoy the lion’s share of column inches, Ireland caps and profile. It used to be said in the 80s that Ulster players got easy caps (ask Ger Earls, something of a cause celebre in his day) – not any more. This well of bitterness that is building up within the Ulster team and support is something Deccie tapped very effectively when Munster coach – in his first stint, he would refer to Francois Pienaar’s Saracens as “the Man United of rugby” and talk about how Toulouse had no respect for Munster. The pats on the head about passion became condescending enough that Munster decided to do something about it – by hoovering up silverware.

Ulster look like they are heading the same direction – their under-representation (percieved or otherwise) on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team during the Six Nations is likely to be an advantage come April, and the sense of grievance will be a powerful motivator for players and fans as the season goes on.


Ulster did what Egg so emotionally implored them to do, and played the music with vigour on Saturday night – not panicking when 6 points down in the first half, then stepping up the intensity when 10 down in the second – the Ulstermen played with such power and poise that Leicester were simply shut down in a ground in which they hadn’t lost a European game in seven years (we can’t remember who last beat them but it may have involved a heroic 50m kick into driving rain that had Barnesy choking on his Beaujolais), incorporating games against the best in Europe in that period. Chris Henry showed why Joe Schmidt paid such attention to him when Leinster coach, Roger Wilson showed why Darren Cave thinks he is as good as Jamie Heaslip, Ruan Pienaar added the finishing touches and Besty the finesse with the boot.

Every scrap, metre and loose ball was vigorously fought for and the margin of victory was always going to be slim.  Leicester were getting weaker as the game went on, with injuries taking their toll, and Ulster were getting stronger thanks to an impact-stacked bench.  Iain Henderson is arguably among the players of the pool stages without starting a game.  Would 80 minutes be too long for Leicester to hold on or too short for Ulster to get ahead on the scoreboard?

In the end it was long enough for Ulster to manufacture the winning scores and see out the game.  Journeys to greatness are made of such wins – just ask the great Leinster and Munster sides.  Heineken Cups are won not just in the finals themselves but in the heart-stopping landmark away wins that foster belief and togetherness.

It was an epic contest, a classic of the Heineken Cup genre – the first really unforgettable match of this year’s less than vintage tournament.  The Globo Gym-Toulouse game came close but was a bit too boshtastic. In previous years, there have been multiple games like this throughout the pool stages, but the decline in quality of the middle tier has left this years tournament pretty bereft – it took two of the big boys to produce the defining game of the pool stages.

Looking forward from here, Ulster will fancy themselves to beat Globo Gym in front of the new Ravers stands. They won’t be over-represented on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland selections (which will help them keep that store of bitterness going), and have impressive togetherness as a group. The Saracens won’t go away easily though and should not be underestimated, but the idea of shoving Chris Ashton’s swallow dive form last season up his hoop should provide further motivation, as if any were needed.  Sarries aren’t quite the boshers of yore (we’re still calling them Globo Gym though) and have expanded their game this year, recognising that their brand of hoof-and-run was not enough to beat the very best teams.  It’s bringing the best out in them, and in truth they always had players capable of playing a bit: Charlie Hodgson, David Strettle and especially the quicksilver Alex Goode and outside centre Schalk Brits.  He’s an outside centre, right?

[Aside: speaking of Globo Gym, the sight of Rodney Ah Here being mashed by Mako Vunipola, who himself was mashed by Ben Alexander, was rather unedifying to say the least.  His contribution around the park wasn’t too impressive either.  His first two carries saw him shunted backwards and then turned over.  And as one poster on a rugby fan forum said last week ‘he is capable of being equally out of breath after five minutes on both sides of the scrum’. We’d love to know the logic for bringing him into the Ireland squad – maybe his tackle bag holding is even better than Darren Cave’s.]

If the pool stages were a bit humdrum, at least the knockout games are exquisitely poised.  While Gerry is understandably drooling over the prospect of more interprovincial blood-letting a Leinster-Munster semi-final, it’s Toulon who will be happiest with that draw – being home (or in Marseille) in a semi-final is a huge motivator. Leinster will do very well to overcome the absence of the two pillars of their back-to-back HECs, Johnny Sex-bomb and SOB, and Toulon is a very hard place to win. Munster’s pack is possibly the most technically proficient left in the competition, but they are facing a Toulouse side who went to the Globo Gym and faced down a beefy pack – this one will be trench warfare, and it’s even possible Toulouse will try to tackle the marauding Munster forwards, unlike Embra.  It has the makings of a classic match.  Neither side is as good as when they last met in 2008, but both know how to fight to the death.

Likewise, Ulster won’t fear Clermont (or Leicester, in theory) in the Aviva if they negotiate the obstacle course that is the Saracens centre partnership – if that game does come to pass, it will likely come down to Clermont’s mental strength under pressure. It hasn’t been their strongest suit of recent years, and we just can’t pick them to win a big semi-final away from the Michelin.  For all the Clermont-worship that goes on, they still aren’t the world’s greatest team on the road.

So, if we were calling it now, we’d say an Ulster-Toulon final is in prospect, but the knockouts are often like a different tournament – so the usual health warnings apply. In fact, let’s face it, we’re getting miles ahead of ourselves.  The tracks are dry and there is the small matter of a Six Nations in between, so the physical and mental wellbeing of the players can be completely different when April comes around.  Leinster barely scraped out of their group in 2009, but the other side of a Grand Slam they went on to win the Cup.  Let the interprovincial blood-letting battle commence!

Play The Music

Ulster have come a long way in a short period of time – they were rubbish for the four years from 2006-10 and it was terrible – no offence to Connacht (note: Connacht will be offended), but scrapping around for the third Irish HEC place is not where Ulster want to be, or see themselves. Since 2010, they have gradually got their act together, and improved performances have seen some increasingly fun European experiences:

  • In 2010/11, they did the double over Oooooooohh Bath, getting the ‘win on English soil’ monkey off their backs in the process. A last-minute penalty from iHumph in a mudbath in Ravers against Biarritz sealed a quarter-final place for the first time in 12 years. When they got there, they were out-boshed by Courtney Lawes, who looked a world beater, and ground down by the Saints. This was a very different Ulster team from the current one, with half the team (mostly the backs) having been replaced – Adam D’Arcy and Simon Danielli started the Saints game *shudders* as did Nevin Spence .. RIP
  • The next season, they got a stinker of a draw – Clermont Auvergne and Leicester. Missing out on a bonus point in Welford Road looked terminal, but a thumping bonus point win in Ravers turned things around. Other results meant they didn’t need anything from the Auvergne when they went there, but they nearly turned over the bananamen. Last spot in the QF rankings was good enough for a trip to the six-and-oh Brave and Faithful – its one of the pecularities of Irish rugby that Ulster always fancy themselves (and often deliver) against Munster. They won that day on the back of a spectacular Craig Gilroy try, some long-range boots from Ruan Pienaar and iHumph and loads of tackles against a Munster-side in the worst throes of the McGahanBall era. The semi-final was when Wee PJ was dumped in, and Embra were beaten, if not too impressively. In the final, a Leinster team at the zenith of the powers proved too much
  • Last year, the next step was to win a pool – and they got help in the form of a favourable draw involving Glasgae, the Saints and Castres. Win the pool they did, at a canter, but a careless home defeat after smashing Northampton away (sound familiar, Leinster fans?) cost them a home quarter-final. They had to travel to Vicarage Road Allianz Park Wembley Twickenham to face Globo Gym, and got boshed out of it up front – that loveable scamp Chris Ashton swan-dived to score the victory-sealing try on the hour mark (never mind the seven missed tackles, just enjoy the showboating)

Ulster have clearly progressed – they have scraped through as runners-up, then powered through as runners-up, then wobbled through as group winners – and qualifying for the knockouts with a week to spare is a result, particularly given this yer’s pool. And yet, a fourth away quarter final on the spin would feel stagnant – to continue their upward trend, they need to win this pool. And to do that, they need to beat Leicester.  On two occasions in this pool Ulster have shown a lack of ruthlessness, which could have expensive consequences; in allowing Leicester escape from Ravenhill with a losing bonus point, and in failing to score the fourth try in the final 20 minutes against Montpellier.  On both occasions, Ulster were dominant, but made to pay for a lack of killer instinct in the opposition’s 22, with too many visits to the red zone failing to convert into points – a failing they just can’t shake off.

Welford Road is not a place opposing teams win very often, but then again, a Leicester team like this isn’t seen very often either. This isn’t the Leicester of Johnno, Neil Back and Geordan Murphy; nor is it even the Leicester of Castro, Tom Croft and Oooooooooh Alesana Tuilagi – this is the Leicester of Neil Briggs, Sebastian de Chaves and Jamie Gibson. This Ulster team has grown increasingly chippy and together as time has gone on – the Nevin Spence experience brought them close as a group, and the perception within the team that they aren’t getting due reward at international level is driving a bitterness that, if channeled correctly (see Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster for some classic examples of the genre) can bring a team on .. or overload it with negative emotion if handled incorrectly.

After losing two knockout games to English teams in the last three years, it’s high time Ulster delivered in a game like this – they have the team, they have the players, they have the experience, and it’s time to just do it. Munster and Leinster both won classic games in England en route to silverware, and now Ulster have a golden opportunity to follow suit and vault themselves into the real top tier of Europe. Win the match and they finish the pool with six wins and are top seeds in the quarter final draw, staring down a home quarter-final against, erm, probably Leicester.  Let’s finish with an apt quote: “You can play the notes. Someday, you might be able to play the music” – Roger Ebert.

Time for Ulster to start playing the music.

Everyone’s Invited

As usual, while the other five nations announce squads of around 30-32 players, Ireland have once again named a 40+ panel for the upcoming Six Nations and Wolfhounds games.  Everyone’s invited to the party.

It won’t be until the panel for the opening game is announced that we’ll get anything like an insight into who’s in favour and who isn’t.  There were arguably a handful of names who constitute notable absentees and a few new names to get excited about.

Kevin McLaughlin is the most high profile casualty, not least because he was a key performer in the New Zealand match, stepping off the plinth to noticeable impact.  But his form has been quiet since then, not helped by injury it would appear and he was way, way off the pace in Castres on sunday.  His spot is effectively taken by the increasingly prominent Rhys Ruddock.

Paul Marshall’s chances of playing for Ireland are receding.  Kieran Marmion gets the call-up and Marshall misses out.  He can be a livewire, but he doesn’t appear to have brought his best form to this season, and rarely looks all that good starting matches for Ulster.

James Coughlan takes a backward step.  He’s always a likely candidate to captain the Wolfhounds, but he doesn’t appear able to conjure up the energy of a couple of seasons ago, as he’s now pushing on a bit.  It makes sense to give Robin Copeland a chance for the second stringers instead.  He’s a bruising ball-carrier in a similar vein and will probably be Coughlan’s replacement at Munster next year.

The Is-Tom-Court-In-Or-Out-Of-Favour-Swing-O-Meter has moved again!  What a sensitive thing it is.  The Ulster prop is on his way to London Irish and while you can never write the chap off, he has surely played for Ireland for the last time.  David Kilcoyne has had a quiet-ish season, but he gave a timely reminder of his qualities at the breakdown against Gloucester and is worth bringing back into the fold after missing out in November.  The two Leinster looseheads are comfortably at the top of the tree for now.

There were some excitable calls for JJ Hanrahan to get a taste of the action, but it makes sense for now to let him get gametime with Munster with Jackson and Madigan much more established and able to provide cover for Sexton.

Players getting good news include Marty Moor(adz)e, Rob Herring, Jordi Murphy and somewhat improbably, Rodney Ah You, the naturalised Connacht prop who was on the way to becoming the latest southern hemisphere propping joke, before the change in scrum calls saved his professional career.  Herring and Mooradze (and Ah You, it must be said) are understudies to well established players at the moment, and winning good reviews for their efforts. Mooradze in particular seems to be on a fast-track to being the new sherriff in town sooner rather than later.  Don’t be too surprised if he finds himself capped in the summer, or even this series because Declan Fitzpatrick is not named in the squad, but will presumably be added if he proves his fitness.

Jordi Murphy continues his impressive rise, and Sean O’Brien’s absence has created a tank-sized hole at 7.  Murphy has the look of Wolfhounds openside; the game against Castres showed him where his breakdown work needs to get to to further press his claims.  O’Donnell and Henry will fight it out for the 7 shirt in the Six Nations, with Henry the likely starter.

And finally, it appears to be finally curtains for Donncha – he’s out of the squad for good now. You don’t get 90+ Ireland caps and tour with the Lions twice without being a pretty able player, but, equally as relevant, he has been a big personality in the squad for over a decade and his absence will surely impact the dynamic. Time for a new joker – don’t suppose Ah You knows any classic party tricks?