Getting The Job Done

Next weekend’s final round of Heineken Cup matches have relatively little at stake.  Most of the groups have been tied up by now, with the favourites comfortably through.  Toulon, Munster, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont Auvergne will top their groups, without doubt.  All are qualified, save for Leinster who need a losing bonus point at home to Ospreys, who are bottom of the pool.  The only pool with something real to be resolved is Ulster’s, where the Nordies face Leicester in a winner takes almost all battle to top the pool.  Ulster, though, can lose and still qualify.

By our reckoning, it’s the third year in a row in which there hasn’t been all that much to get excited about in Round Six.  Time was almost everything was up for grabs in the final round of fixtures.  Sky’s ‘as it stands’ top eight would fluctuate by the minute as the action played out across twelve cities in Europe.  The Leinster half of WoC has happy-ish memories of getting soaked to the skin in the RDS watching Leinster labour to a 12-3 win over Edinburgh, while nervously receiving reports from the south of France where Castres were hanging on to a lead against Wasps, before drying out in Crowe’s watching (Mud-)Bath draw 3-3 with Toulouse on a pudding of a pitch at the Rec.  The other half recalls Biarritz trying to stick it up the jumper to close out the game in Ravers, only to give iHumph a last opportunity to put Ulster through to the knockouts for the first time in 12 years, in the 79th minute of the final pool game – he delivered.

The final shakedown of the pools akways seemed to go down to the wire.  And, while we can’t quite confirm, we have heard rumour that some of Munster’s pools down the years occasionally went into the final round unresolved.

But in this season, and the two before it, most of the major issues have been decided before the final denoument.  Last year, once Saracens beat Racing Metro in the fifth round, the make-up of the eight qualifiers was more or less set in stone, and in the previous year, once Connacht beat Harlequins on the final friday night, the remaining games had little import.

So why the lack of drama this year, and in the last couple of seasons?  It appears that the middle order teams have fallen away from the big boys, for whatever reason. If we think about the consistently competitive teams of the noughties, Wasps and Stade have fallen away (almost for good) as the big boys retired, Biarritz’ and Perpignan’s power game doesn’t quite cut the moutarde any more, Ospreys’ Galacticos have buggered off and the Scarlets team of the early noughties faded away. That’s six tough pool draws who are much easier meat these days … if they are even in the tournament at all. It takes a while to build up the muscle memory to get the HEC knockout stage level, but when you get there, you become good at knowing what it takes to stay there.

This year, none of the new breed of middleweights really put it up to top seeds, at least not in terms of accumulating points across the five rounds.

  • Harlequins were beaten home and away by Clermont, and threw in a careless defeat to Scarlets
  • Saracens talk big but when it came down to it, Toulouse swatted them away at home, and held on for a win away.  They are likely to qualify as runners-up though.
  • Gloucester were easily dealt with by Munster in both ties, and somehow lost at home to Edinburgh
  • Perpignan took a French approach to the tournament.  They almost beat Munster which might have changed things but couldn’t see it out when victory beckoned
  • Northampton had a typically see-sawing campaign, winning admirably in Dublin after a hammering at home.  But losing in Castres sealed their fate
  • Big things were expected of Montpellier, but they were tactically outmanoeuvred by Ulster, and with that they gave up
  • Castres were never likely to accumulate many away wins, but they did put it up to Leinster in the RDS

One team that did man up and perform above their level was Cardiff.  They beat Toulon at home and performed creditably in the away match, a touch unlucky to give up a bonus point to three penalty tries when they had players in the bin.  They also managed a hard-earned win away to Glasgow and if they can finish off with a win at home to Exeter, they could qualify for the Amlin.  But for all that, they were never likely to contend the leadership of the group with Toulon.  Another is Connacht, who won their two games against the mighty Zebre, put it up to Saracens at home and of course, won famously in Toulouse.

This year’s pool winners will all, almost certainly, do so with five wins in the bag.  It looks likely that Munster will finish with a whopping 23 points and yet have to make do with an away quarter-final.  Holy smokes!  Five wins used to almost guarantee a home quarter-final, and four wins and enough bonus points would get you through the pool as winners.

The strange thing about it all is that none of the pool winners have played especially well in spite of the huge match-points totals.  They’ve almost qualified in second gear.  On the face of it, Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Leinster look a pale shadow of former vintages.  Ulster have huffed and uffed through most of their games.  Toulon have squad depth to beat the band, but they happy to rely on their pack’s gargantuan hugeness and take few risks.  Clermont, once again, look like the best team in the tourney, but even they threw in a silly defeat to a hopeless Racing Metro side.

It looks to us as if where the big sides are superior is in managing to do just enough, knowing how to get the job done, ekeing out the win in a clutch game.  Resilience and composure in the white heat of battle count for an awful lot these days.  Munster are masters at it this season, and indeed, pretty much every season.  Indeed, in the match on Saturday, after an hour’s play we tweeted to the effect that Munster had Gloucester’s number, and now just needed to get the necessary scores to put them away.  To the surprise of nobody, within the next ten minutes they did exactly that, putting another 10 points on the board to pull away.  Put simply, they know how to win matches.

Leicester have saved match-points in the dying minutes of two of their away games: a vital losing bonus point in Ravenhill and a last-ditch winning try in Montpellier.  Leinster found themselves in a right old pickle in Castres, but experience counts for a lot and in the end they were able to get themselves back in the match and pull away to win.  Would, say, Northampton or Harlequins – two good teams with aspirations of joining the elite – have had the composure and self-belief to claw their way back in such a position?  Doubtful.

The old cliches about every point being crucial and maximum intensity being required haven’t even applied.  Almost all the pool winners have thrown in one daft defeat to a team vastly inferior to them.  It hasn’t stopped them having their quarter final place wrapped up by week 5.

He ain’t no Rog

Here are two incontrovertible facts about Ian Keatley:

  • He isn’t Ronan O’Gara
  • He isn’t JJ Hanrahan

That is, he isn’t a multiple Heineken Cup-winning mental strength machine, nor is he is greenhorn with loads of potential but virtually no professional experience. What he is is an experienced Pro12 outhalf who is embarking on his first season as a starter with an elite (disclaimer: not elite in McCafferty’s dictionary i.e. Leeds or Worcester, but elite in the real world) team – he has just six Heineken Cup starts and is well behind Sexton, Jackson and Madigan at international level.

And he is stuck in a pretty unenviable situation – he is taking over the jersey of not just a good outhalf, but the best outhalf in Munster history, the winner of the best player in HEC history, do-no-wrong Ligind St Ronan of Cork. Basically, he just isn’t going to cut the mustard in the eyes of some casual fans no matter what he does. Plus he went to loike Belvo loike roysh. To make matters worse, his undertstudy is the angelic and exciting local hero, 21 year old JRWC player of the year nominee JJ Hanrahan. At the slightest sign of Keatley not-being-Rog, the excitable locals are calling for Hanrahan to be brought in. It’s basically a no-win situation.

It’s also typical of Irish rugby, where players from provincial academies get an easier ride from the public than nomadic players who have travelled from one province to another.  There’s a sense that players who migrate between provinces lack a spiritual home , and rarely have a street team in the media who will go to bat for them in the same way as the latset home-grown ‘superstar’ gets instantly championed by an excitable press corps and fanbase only dying to uncover the Next Big Thing.  Eoin Reddan is a classic example; he only had to win two Heineken Cups to win over sceptical Leinster fans.  There are exceptions though, and when Mike Ross’ skills became belatedly fashionable there was almost a sense of delerium that this suddenly invaluable player had been a mere afterthought in his Munster days.

Fifteen months ago, when Rob Penney came in, Keatley hit the ground running at Munster, and looked like he suited Penney’s gameplan. We thought that the new coach, given O’Gara was coming to the end of the line, might identify Keatley as his man and progressively bring him into the lineup. As it happened, O’Gara was first choice by a distance – Keatley getting one HEC start, and only because Radge got himself suspended for some uncharacteristic trickery with a second row. O’Gara then finished off his career with a spectacular rolling-back-the-years performance in the HEC semi-final, reminding everybody why they loved him so much in the first place after a disastrous Six Nations.  Keatley had to serve his time before being given the big gig.

This season, Keatley has been pretty average – he hasn’t been spectacularly awful, nor has he scaled the heights Rog did. Pretty much his usual level, then. He does everything to a reasonable standard, but isn’t a spectacular tactical kicker, doesn’t exhibit brilliant gainline handling and doesn’t lord it over a game. He also has problems with consistency, veering from poor to excellent and back again in jig time.  In recent weeks, he has given two really poor performances – in Perpignan and Ulster – and was under big pressure coming into the Gloucester match. It seemed that JJ was very, very close to getting selected.  Had the match been at home, who knows?

In the event he had his best game for Munster, and was singled out for praise by Rob Penney.  He did pretty much everything asked of him – his place kicking was good, his tactical kicking very good, and he looked much superior to the vaunted Freddy Burns, who increasingly looks like the new Ryan Lamb and not the new Jonny Wilkinson. It was a creditable riposte to the expectations he was under. It was just how you want your fly-half to play in a tricky away match; continually pinning the home side in their own half of the pitch and asking the question of whether they have the smarts to get out of it.  Sure enough, Gloucester didn’t have the answers.  Job done.

And yet – he isn’t Ronan O’Gara. One of his best performances in the Munster shirt and there has been plenty of talk of ill-considered grubber kicks.  The tactic came off pretty well for him, but he went to the well once too often.

With a dead rubber coming up against Embra, there is a school of thought that says Munster have little to lose playing JJ – Munster could probably win with Dave Kilcoyne at outhalf, and it gets JJ’s first HEC start out of the way. The not wholly unreasonable thinking behind it is that Keatley is not a Heineken Cup-winning fly-half and if Munster get to the pointy end of the tournament, the only way to have a chance of beating the really good teams will be to gamble on Hanrahan’s more mercurial talents.  Munster don’t want to find themselves in the situation Ulster did, where PJ made his HEC debut in a semi-final, after a series of catastrophic showings from iHumph left head coach Brian McLoughlin with little option.  So Keatley, in his sixth HEC start, plays as well as he ever has in red, and there is still a question mark over his place in the team? Shows how much of a hiding to nothing he is on.

So in effect it’s a stay of execution for Keatley.  It still feels like he’s a ‘holding place’ solution rather than a long-term one; keeping the jersey warm until the new kid is considered ready.  With every match-saving cameo from JJ Hanrahan’s, the breath on his neck getting hotter.  But even though Rob Penney has a pretty adventurous gameplan, he is a relatively conservative selector – we can’t see him making a change after Keatley answered his critics in such fashion. The Hanrahan era might be the future, but Keatley is a man still learning his trade at this level as well and he isn’t going to give up the shirt that easily.

Tigers on the Horizon

It’s hard to put the finger on why this Ulster fan is so worried about the upcoming HEC rounds, but the pack being shunted all around Ravers by the Brave and the Faithful last Friday night would be a good place to start – Munster got two tries from the maul, and should probably have had a third. Since the slapdown of a potentially difficult (but in the end not so much) Treviso assignment for 10 group points, they’ve struggled past the Zebras, produced a worse-than-usual performance in their habitual Oar Dee Esh defeat, then scraped home against Munster.

Montpellier might come over with a disinterested B team, and will likely be thoroughly unimpressed with the weather in Belfast, but Ulster still will need a result (of some sort, to be decided after this weekend) in Welford Road. Now Leicester’s form is fairly uninspiring – they got fed a 40-burger by Globo Gym and have 1 loss (Quins) and two draws (Saints, Ooooooooh Bath) in Welford Road this year – but if you turn up without a pack that can compete you’ll struggle.

Without Johann Muller, with Gentlemanly Conduct’s Besty just back, John Afoa seemingly still on holiday mode and Fez still out, Ulster are low on the type of prime beef needed for the kind of #unseenwork that bonus points in Leicester are made of. Ulster will undoubtedly be glad to qualify, particularly after the draw they got, but they can’t shake off the Tigers (that last minute bonus point they got in Ravenhill felt crucial at the time) and a knockout game away from Ravers will feel like a disappointment, especially if it’s the last HEC. The stadium deserves a big game, but the team need to deliver, and, right now, you’d fancy Leicester. Until Ulster actually do it, the team with the history of delivering in these games must get the nod.

Meanwhile, Leinster travel to Castres for the sort of game that players and fans simply dread.  Castres are going well in the Top 14 and won’t get out of their pool in the HEC, so one might expect them to shrug a shoulder at this game, but the ‘spirit of the belltower’ (thank you Bernard Jackman) means they will be competitive at home no matter what.  Leinster fans still have nightmares over the defeat there in December 2008, arguably the province’s nadir and the game which prompted Neil Francis to give the team an unmerciful kicking in his column, replete with ‘ladyboys’ jibes and all.  These matches tend to be grind-a-thons and as a supporter you simply hope to come out the right side on the scoreboard.  Leinster must win or risk letting Northampton sneak ahead of them in the pool.

Munster travel to Gloucester in what is no longer a must-win but rather should-win game.  Glaws’ dire home defeat to Edinburgh has let them off the hook, and even if Munster lose here, a victory at home to Embra in their final pool game will almost certainly qualify them.  A win would go some way to boosting their chances of a home quarter-final, and they should be able to manage it.  They are showing an impressive ability to keep on winning even if they have yet to put in a single really impressive performance this season.  Who’d bet against them continuing the trend, and earning Rob Penney a 12-month contract extension – which seems pretty paltry given the job he has done (see above – top of the league, top of HEC pool withoiut really playing well yet – with limited resources).

That leaves Connacht, who should give the Zebras (another) seeing-to. The big game for them is next week when they must travel to Sarries, essentially with a view to keeping the score down.  Don’t say it too loudly, but Sarries have attempted to broaden their game this season and have racked up a bucketload of tries, and Connacht are just the sort of team they will seek to fillet with a blend of sledgehammer power and incisive running.  Their backline – containing the likes of Alex Goode and Chris Ashton – always looked like it could be a threat if let off the leash a little bit, and now it’s starting to happen.  Connacht will presumably have the patronising words of Stephen Jones ringing in their ears as they take the pitch.  Another performance in the vein of the Toulouse game will be required to emerge with a respectable scoreline.

B&I Cup Redux

When we broke up for Christmas (not Palla and I thankfully, you and us), we had reached what seemed like the end of the beginning of the HEC/RCC saga – the old HEC wasn’t coming back but what, if anything, would replace it was unclear. Since then, the already messy scene has tippled over into mayhem with the Welsh regions announcing their intention to stomp their feet up and down if they didn’t get their way opt out of the WRU participation agreement and join with PRL in a 16 team Anglo-Welsh league.

It is often said that Irish rugby is always in a great place even if the team never wins, but Welsh rugby is always in crisis even though they are always winning.  It’s never rung more true.

The WRU responded with a ‘meh’ and swiftly threatened to replace the franchises with, erm, four new, equally makey-uppey ones for the Pro12-Feet-Under – effectively North (never a rugby stronghold), East, West and .. er … Millennium Stadium. Riiiiiiiiight. However, outrage from the clubs and fans (both of them) have resulted in something of a rowback, and the union are working out how to get the genie back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, from what we can piece together, it appears the IRFU and SRU have taken a break from pinching pennies to meet the RFU and WRU for crisis talks – the power grab from PRL and intentional killing of the HEC have resulted in a proposal for a beefed up B&I Cup containing the 12 Premiership and ten Pro-12-Feet-Under sides … to be broadcast by … BT Sport! Heads you lose, tails I win.  We’re not exactly sure what has happened to the Heineken Cup run by the ERC, which all bar the English had apparently agreed to play in, but it appears to once again have fallen apart, presumably because of the Welsh defection.  Or has it?  Eddie O’Sullivan said on the recent Second Captains podcast that they still want to play in the European competition.  Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The PRL (and the Welsh regions) will bugger off on their own if this doesn’t come to pass. A season-long Anglo-Welsh Cup may sound beyond beyond dreadful, and who knows if it is even feasible (what happens when the Dragons get relegated?) but it may be an acceptable position for the English clubs if it is enough to trigger the lovely, lovely money BT Sport will pay them.  They have a powerful card to play to get the RFU to do their bidding – they sort of own the England players and the RFU are hosting the World Cup. If a schism isn’t avoided, England D, led by Luke Narraway, will be humiliated in their home tournament. None of the old farts want that.

[ Aside: unpopular and, on the face of it, pointless competitions might be unappealing for fans and annoying for coaches who have to manage their players’ fitness, but if they bring in money, who cares? Look at the Europa League – fans don’t give a hoot, managers hate the disruption, but TV money means it happens.]

The first thing missing in all of this is the French clubs, who appear to have played a blinder – they’ll probably get what most of them want, a Top16, and the English will get the blame. Mark McCafferty and his army of Stephen Joneses might bemoan the treachery, but he can hardly complain about self-interest when the PRL are interested only in lining their own pockets at the expense of whoever gets in their way.

The second is the Italian sides, and it’s not clear exactly what they’ve done to deserve being isolated like this.  Italy won two matches in the recent Six Nations and its development as a rugby nation should remain a key concern of European rugby. In the 3 seasons they have been in the Pro12, the national side has improved each year – 2 wins and 4th last year tied for their best outcome, and a points difference of -36 was their best ever by far, and shows improving competitiveness.  Besides, if nothing else, their involvement would bring the numbers from an awkward 22 to a more rounded 24.

So how will this impact the provinces? If the Anglo-Welsh contingent break away on their own, it’s terrible news – for everyone.  The Irish will dominate the rump Pro-12-Feet-Under (or should that be Pro8) even more than they currently do, if it even continues to exist. Ireland will correspondingly suffer with their players (those who don’t leave anyway) starved of competitive rugger. It’s a nightmare scenario, no question.  If the compromise B&I Cup happens, they’ll get two home games against reps of Perfidious Albion, which always gets Gerry’s syntax bubbling and fans’ goats up – that’s not as good as a full HEC, but it’s something, and the Pro12 will continue to muddle on.

That’s not to say they should row in behind the tournament on everyone else’s terms, and to date the IRFU have talked a commendable game on the importance of governance of the sport: it’s crucial they continue to uphold this principle.  The Anglo-Welsh fallback position is hardly the best hand to be going up against with issues such as relegation and promotion almost certainly not even given a moment’s thought as yet and for all the English sweet-talking to the Welsh, it’s hard to see what they can really bring to improve the Premiership.  The move looks like it’s designed to decimate the Pro12 more than build anything constructive.

This saga probably has a fair bit of mileage in it yet.  Lucky us.

PS. complaining about Stephen Jones hypocrisy is pointless, but he has really taken the biscuit in this saga. At Lions time, he breaks down in tears at mention of the amateur Corinthian spirit the concept embodies and takes potshots at the likes of Willie John McBride, the greatest Lion of all, for besmirching the idea with nationalism, then morphs into a red in tooth and claw laissez-faire money talks capitalist four-square behind the blood-sucking club owners of PRL. When rugby ends up with odious villains like Vincent Tan or dodgy tyrants like the owners of Manchester City and Chelsea owning the big clubs, we hope he’s happy.

Clear and Obvious

We’re all having to get used to the new TMO calls, and they’ve led to some bewitching moments this season.  Three recent ones involving Irish provinces spring readily to mind: Connacht’s try in Toulouse being ruled out, albeit correctly in the end, for a minor knock on some 70m down the pitch, and both Munster and Leinster’s tries against Scarlets and Connacht being allowed to stand in spite of what looked like a knock on at the base and a forward offload respectively.

As with seemingly every law tweak, change or ‘new interpretation’, the unintended consequences are usually what comes to pass, and so it appears in this case.  Indeed, there’s every chance that the new TMO laws will result in more, not less, forward-pass tries being awarded.  Why is this?  Because when the referee goes to the TMO to check out a pass in the build-up the TMO must spot something ‘clear and obvious’ to prevent the try being awarded.  Therefore, once the ball is dotted down over the try-line and the referee, rather than trusting his instincts, refers the decision upstairs, it’s more likely to be given than not because the burden of proof is all on the side of the infringement.

Was Jimmy Gopperth’s offload to Gordon D’arcy clearly and obviously forward?  No.  But was it, in all likelihood, viewed in realtime, a forward pass?  Yes.  Was David Kilcoyne’s knock-on at the base of the scrum against Scarlets clear and obvious.  No.  But a hand was on the ball and the ball then took a roll forward.  Viewed in real time, and seen by the referee, this would probably have been blown up on the spot.  Had the referees in each case been required to call it there and then, and trust their instinct, it’s highly likely neither try would have been awarded.

Referees will need to have the courage to blow things up as they occur rather than give themselves the safety blanket of the TMO, or they’ll be in danger of turning into robo-refs. The situation can turn even more farcical when touch judges are asked questions like “was he in touch” and can’t decide, recommending the TMO get involved. I mean, what is a touch judge there for, but to see if someone is in touch? Do your job.

Our favourite TMO moment was in the Boks game in Mendoza (we think) when Dreamboat Steve Walsh went upstairs to check something he was unsighted on, only to decide himself what he wanted to give once he saw it on the big screen. When the TMO gave a verdict that differed, he alpha-maled him into thinking again, until he got what he thought was the correct call. Is there anything he can’t do?