Swapsies

Up in Ravers, the winds of change are in the air – Phase One of Project Humph feels like it is coming to a close. In 2010, Ulster signed Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenbosh and Ruan Pienaar to take a young and unsuccessful team and drag them up by the collar to be competitive in Europe and ultimately scoop up some silverware. BJ Botha was already there, but he was replaced by (the cheaper) John Afoa a year later when he decided he needed some more passion in his life. The coach was the homegrown Brian McLaughlin but the power behind the throne was the local hero Humph, who had seen the Celtic League-winning team of 2006 spectacularly implode after he retired.

The imposition of some Bok beef has done the trick – Ulster are now a bona fide European power, and the careful husbandry of an excellent generation has yielded internationals NWJMB, Wee PJ, Bamm-Bamm and Craig Gilroy; has given new life to the likes of Besty, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble and has enticed Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson to re-join the revolution. McLaughlin was replaced by Mark Anscombe, who in turn appears to have the Sword of Damocles (Thornley101) hanging over him as regards the 2015/16 season, when Neil Doak is available at short odds to be promoted.

However, as of next season, only Pienaar of the big-name foreign brigade will remain – something that will definitely come as a surprise to the casual reader of the Indo, who may be under the impression that Ulster are not only wholly reliant on the foreign contingent, but are the only team to have ever played non-Irish players. Wannenbosh joined Castres the year before last, Muller is going to retire to the ostrich farm (or whatever) and, while acknowledging his unhappiness in Belfast, John Afoa is moving a very small bit closer to New Zealand – Gloucester. Pienaar himself turned down megabucks from Toulon to stay, clearly rating the quality of the Bibles in Belfast more like South Africa than the weather on the Riviera.

Ulster, again not to shock our readers, also have Irish players – and some of them are leaving too: Tom Court is taking his blame lightning rod and pitching up in Samoa London Reading to play with London Samoa Irish Oirish; young guns Niall Annett, Chris Farrell and Adam Macklin are departing for new challenges at Worcester, Grenoble and Rotherham respectively; Paddy McAllister is joining Jeremy Davidson at Aurillac to re-kindle his career; and Average Joes Sean Doyle and James McKinney are off as well.

Ulster’s recruitment to replace these departing names, including no less than four props, has been rather underwhelming, to say the least. Indeed, on hearing the names of the players signed, the most likely reaction for even the most knowledgable of rugby fans is to ask ‘who the heck are these guys?’  Some of the glass-half-full merchants are comvinced that losing a disinterested Afoa and the underrated Court are actually positives, the hope being that Ulster can develop younger (and better) options – but that’s patently not the case. The pack at present looks woefully undermanned and short of beef for challenging on two fronts next year – and we are getting increasingly concerned. Here’s a quick run-through by position:

  • Loose-head prop: replacing Tom Court was never going to be easy – just as he was the easiest man for any Irish coach to ditch, the under-appreciation of our favourite unsung hero continues. Ulster are replacing the 32-times capped Irish international with Ruadhri Murphy from the Brumbies, who has yet to get past the “promising” stage.  Murphy has slipped down the pecking order in Canberra and his previously-stated dream of being shunted all around Eden Park as a Wallaby are now on ice as he looks to fight it out with Callum Black for the Ulster 1 jersey. It’s positive to see a young Irish prop with some potential come on board, but he is 26 now and this will be his 4th club in eight seasons, and he has yet to impress a coaching team enough to make him a key player. It all sounds a bit John Andress-ish.  It seems like Black will start initially.
  • Tight-head prop: continuing in the proud tradition laid down by Botha and Afoa will be .. Dave Ryan, Zebre 3rd choice, and Wiehahn Herbst, who has a rather better dedigree, with 37 Sharks caps in 5 seasons. No South African prop is likely to be anything but technically excellent, but it goes without saying that if he was all that, he’d be going nowhere. Potential for sure, but a serious step down on the previous two incumbents. Because, given Deccie Fitz’ latest health news, it looks like incumbency is where Herbst will be at. He is likely to be Ulster’s new project player when Jared Payne has served his time, so he is here for the medium term. The case of Dave Ryan seems simply a matter of bringing an Irish player home – if Ulster are looking for him to play HEC rugby next year, they’re in trouble.
  • Second row/flank: the retiring captain Muller is, on the face of it, being replaced by a somewhat like-for-like player – Franco van der Merwe of the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions Lions. But while Muller had 30 Springbok caps, van der Merwe has one – so it’s a step down, for sure, but it’s a different ask really. Replacing Muller’s first XV contribution will be put on the goals of one Iain Henderson – van der Merwe’s role is to take Henderson’s role as second row first reserve and occasional flanker and make it his own. It’s a pretty decent hire to be fair, for Ulster lack beefy forwards, and this is a pretty good one – he’s basically a bigger version of Robbie Diack
  • Half-back: steeping into James McKinney’s size 10s is the returning iHumph, who flounced out of Ravers after being dropped for the HEC semi-final against Embra (Embra! In the HEC semi-final!! With Michael Bradley as coach!!!) in 2012. Humphreys pitched up in Samoa London Reading for a couple of seasons, and he is a good signing. He’s nearing the twilight of his career, but Ulster need backup for Wee PJ for the international breaks, and Stuart Olding should be allowed to concentrate on centre (more of which anon). Humphreys might defend like a saloon door, but he’s better than McKinney.  Whatever his flaws, there’s some talent there and at Pro12 level he should be a valuable player.

This season, Ulster’s pack has at times looked in need of an injection of depth – the first team is excellent when everyone is there (Court, Best, Afoa, Muller, Tuohy, Fez, Henry, Wilson) but how often does that happen these days?  Fez is always injured and the backups, NWJMB aside, aren’t top class. Diack, Black and Herring have looked game, but Stevenson is a squad man at best, Williams just doesn’t cut it at the highest level, then there is … er … Mike McComish and Neil McComb. The changes they have made don’t change that, and indeed, Sean Doyle has yet to be replaced. The rumour mill is whirring that yet another Shark, this time Keegan Daniel, could be tempted to jump on board, and it’s sorely needed.

The Ulster squad looks pretty unbalanced for next season – light on numbers up front, but stacked behind. Ulster could play a backline of Pienaar, Jackson, Marshall, Cave, Bowe, Trimble and Payne and have the luxury of leaving at least one of Wallace (assuming he’s still knocking around somewhere) , Olding and Gilroy out of the match-day squad altogether. Admittedly, its not Toulon levels of depth, but this is Ireland. The promising youngsters Mike Allen and Ricky Andrew are capable deputies at Pro12 level, but the pack backups struggle to be that sometimes.

One very interesting rumour doing the rounds is Jared Payne to Leinster – Ulster fans have gone all Connacht on this one (“How DARE they steal our players”) but it might be something to consider if a high enough bounty can be extracted. Leinster would look at Payne as an outside centre, as Joe Schmidt is likely to do, given the dishy face of Bob glowering at high balls and the rather gaping hole at 13, post you-know-who retiring.

Payne is currently second choice at Ulster in that shirt, and it’s a position where Ulster have options , unlike in the Oar Dee Esh (or “Tomond” for that matter).   For Payne to take the 13 shirt he needs Gilroy to step into the 15 jersey and shift Cave – neither of which comes close to being warranted on this season’s evidence. We may have mild concerns over Payne’s defensive abilities in that key position, but given the desire of the Irish hierarchy is for him to be an outside centre and the needs of the other provinces, Ulster might not be able to get a higher trade-in for him again – and it might be time to cash in.

If Humph can use those legendary bargaining skills, and get a prop and some depth in the backrow, this might be something worth considering – let’s say Ulster managed to wrangle Jack McGrath and Dom Ryan out of D4, would that be so bad?

There are several factors at work here – a more pro-active Union with the appointment of David Nucifora, a pushy national coach who has political capital to burn, and something we have discussed before – the surfeit of props and backrows in Leinster versus centres in Ulster. Of course, all are contracted, but if everyone wants this to happen, it might just come to pass. If a nuclear-option trade like this is a win-win for both provinces, and a boon to the green shirt, why not?

Plus it would inject some life into the flagging Ulster (and Leinster – see Kirchner, Z.) recruitment process.

Stickability

Another year, another heartbreaking, soul-stirring semi-final defeat for Munster. They’re making a habit of semi-final defeats; 2009 to Leinster, 2011 to Biarritz, 2013 to Clermont and this year to Toulon. The last time they won one was in 2008, narrowly edging out an obdurate pre-Globo Gym-era Saracens team. They haven’t been helped by having to go away from home on every occasion, but it looks like this is their level for now; going deep into the tournament but not quite having what it takes to win it. That’s not an insult, and there are few teams capable of consistently make it to the last two weekends of the competition.

This was a pulsating, riveting semi-final. We said it would diverge from last year’s Clermont game in that Toulon would pull away in the third quarter. We were half-right at best. Toulon certainly threatened a rout in the third quarter, but when Armitage was deemed not to have scored in the corner, Simon Zebo’s superb cover tackle improbably saving the day, something very similar to the Clermont game happened. Toulon seemingly couldn’t believe their supremacy wasn’t better reflected on the scoreboard and they became error-strewn and jittery. When Munster managed not only to hang on by their fingernails, but suddenly respond with a (dubious) try of their own, Toulon were rattled, and suddenly Munster were right in the match. Indeed, they had a kick to take the lead that fell narrowly wide.  Munster’s stickability has to be commended; plenty of teams would have crumpled in that onslaught.  Indeed, Leinster did crumble in very similar circumstances.

There’ll be plenty of what-ifs and reflections on those moments that got away. Munster conspicuously failed to make the most of their extra-man advantage, conceding a ridiculous penalty immediately after scoring one of their own, and Delon Armitage’s booming long-range kick before half-time looked spirit-crushing.  Plenty of Toulon’s points felt cheaply won, and unnecessary.  Some indiscipline in the first half was costly.

The decision to go for the try from the penalty late in the match will also be poured over. It’s easy to be a Hindsight Harry and say it was wrong because they didn’t score a try, but we questioned it at the time. It was a category one error. Surely the right move was to close the gap to two points? The difference between needing a try to win in the final five minutes and needing a drop goal or penalty is vast. It completely changes the complexion of how the defending team approaches things. If they can’t give away a penalty, they won’t dare contest at the ruck, and a steady supply of quick ball can be generated. Teams looking for a try late in matches rarely score them, unless they’re New Zealand, because they have fewer cards to play in attack. Grubber-kicks and chips over the backline are generally taken out of the equation. Play the percentages and take the points!

In truth, Munster can’t have too many complaints about Wayne Barnes, much as they (and Gerry) would love to. They got plenty of breaks.  Sure, the scrum was a lottery but it pretty much balanced out in the end. Lobbe’s carding looked absurdly harsh. He wasn’t behaving recklessly, and sometimes extremities come together; this looked a case of that and no more. As for Zebo’s try, it seemed extraordinary that it was awarded without recourse to the TMO. The touchjudge persuaded Barnes that the try was legitimate, but it seemed from looking at the angles on telly that he didn’t even have a clear view of the only moment where it could have been grounded.

Nonetheless, Munster bow out of the Heineken Cup with great honour and the future looks good. Ian Keatley will never be Ronan O’Gara, but he has blossomed this season. James Coughlan remains a granite-hard rock on which the pack is founded. Robin Copeland arrives next season, but he will need a crowbar to get Coughlan out of the team.  Conor Murray is among the global elite, a piece of absolute class. Simon Zebo is showing he has the workrate to merit a recall to test level. The bedrock is there and it will be up to Axel Foley to keep improving the squad – with centre a flashing red light in spite of the efforts of Oooooooooooooohhh and Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.

There’s still silverware to be played for in the season, and Munster would do well to try and switch focus quickly. In the past, they’ve tended to shut up shop once they fall out of the Heineken Cup (excepting 2011 where the timing and nature of their exit ensured it couldn’t happen). Last year their season petered out to nothing after Clermont. An away semi-final in Scotstoun is likely and they have a pishun-stirring game against Ulster to come. Turn up to either looking bored and distracted and the sense of a great season with huge improvements in performances will start to dissipate. Rob Penney should make sure minds are as focussed as they can be on the sending him off with some silverware.

Turning briefly to the other semi-final, as much as it sticks in the craw to acknowledge it, Saracens were simply brilliant against Clermont – the penalty try decision looked pretty harsh to say the least, but it was in the first 10 minutes. Saracens turned the screw in a pretty impressive manner, and handing Clermont a 40-burger is mighty admirable – we haven’t been bothered to dig out the statistics yet, but it is surely a HEC knockout stage record and a clumping you’d never expect from Clermont, in spite of their mental frailties.

We’ll still be able to say Saracens are a soulless (tick) bunch of foreign (tick) money-grabbing (tick) easy-to-despise (see Ashton, C.) proto-franchise, but we cannot any longer say they play up-the-jumper bosh-heavy rugger or that they are flat-track bullies who can easily humiliate the likes of Zebre and Connacht but lie down before the big boys. They fully deserve their place in the final, even if regrets are multiplying for Ulster fans after seeing Clermont in the flesh. The likes of Gerry and Ryle Nugent have been taking great delight in equating Saracens and Toulon, but the differences are legion – Toulon have many more supporters and a much deeper club infrastructure and history, are richer, and have much better players; and in style terms, its Saracens who play the better football.

Epic Odyssey

Once again, into the breach – our brave, faithful, honest and passionate warriors once more hitch planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, segways, scooters and all and every mode of transport possible to get to the south of France, where they will walk over molten lava to the ground to pay homage to their heroes, through the misty air stoked by too much pate and too many Kronenburg’s in De Danu the night before.

As much fun as it is to make fun of the Munster stereotype, Munster in Europe is a great story, and the gift that never stops giving. Somehow they always make the HEC about themselves, the selfish bar stewards!

For the second year in succession, it’s Munster who are the lone Irish standard-bearers at this stage of the competition – and again it’s a tough trip to France to play for a place in the final. Munster might have been faced with a feeble Toulouse challenge in the quarters, but it’s easy to get dragged down the their level – just ask Sarries – and Munster did what they needed to do and more, swatting them aside with consumate ease, and running in bucketloads of tries in the process.

We have a huge amount of time for this Munster team – a young pack executing a technically excellent and accurate game with emphasis on set-piece and maul dominance, Europe’s best scrum-half (did you know he played 10 for Garryowen once?) and slippery and creative outside backs who may or may not celebrate too much when they score tries. Great fun to watch and easy to get behind – the cobwebs of the directionless and indisciplined dog days of the McGahan era, with its belly-tickling European knockout performances, have long been swept away.

But while this Munster team had just three representatives on Joe Schmidt’s Championship-winning Ireland team, and are facing a star-studded Toulon operation that slammed a Leinster side festooned with Irish players into the turf and held them down for 80 minutes, don’t think that a hammering is in order. This is the type of occasion Munster live for – just look at last season when they were mighty close to mugging Clermont – and they will be out like dervishes, without any kind of semblence of respect for Toulon’s big names, who will have to go out and win the game.

There is a bit of history there too – the last time the teams played, the dying sting of the Liginds was devoid of any potency and the team played without shape or discipline; they were tonked. But for Saturday that can be ignored – an almost entirely new Munster side (with Earls, Varley, POC and Cawlin possibly the only survivors) will line out, and Jonny Wilkinson and JM Fernandez Lobbe (swoon) may be the only Toulon players who played in that game.  What, no Paul Sackey?

But let’s be honest – Toulon look just too strong for them – a backrow of Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith is World XV stuff, and adding Matthieu Bastaread to the breakdown and Wayne Barnes to the middle only ensures a game that will be played on Toulon’s terms, with no prospect of quick ruck ball and moving the point of the attack. Expect Munster to put up a hell of a fight, but it’s tough to see how they can win without Peter O’Mahony and a viable 10-12 axis. The congregation in the parish of St Axel’s have been raving about CJ Stander for a while now, and he had an excellent game against Toulouse, but this is a different level altogether – if he can impact this match as much as he did that, then maybe the hype is justified. And it’s simply impossible to visualise a universe where Ian Keatley and Oooooooooooooooooooooohh James Downey have the game to take on Wilko and Gits.

And we must take this opportunity to once again implore the media not to try and turn this match into a ridiculous galacticos-against-the-parish narrative.  There’s no room for slackers in Toulon’s hiring policy – the so-called galacticos are in fact men of iron who would die with their boots on whoever they were playing for – and the fans and players have a bond no different to that of the Irish provinces in what is a rugby-mad town.

Add in that Toulon’s only loss in their last eight games was in Clermont, and that they have effectively secured a bye in le barrage – they only need to avoid defeat at home to Stade in their last game – and Toulon’s focus will be four-square on defending their HEC trophy (and keeping it forever?). Munster will arrive in Marseille confident and in no mood to lay down, but this Toulon team will eventually overcome them – when you can bring on the likes of Castro and Bryan Habana to face down Stephen Archer and Johne Murphy off the Munster bench, it’s unlikely to end in defeat.  We expect it to be a sort-of-reverse of the Clermont fixture last year.  In that game Clermont stormed out of the traps and threatened to destroy Munster in the first 40 minutes.  But Munster held on by their fingernails and gradually got a grip of the game.  Toulon tenfd to start slower and ratchet up the intensity in increments, so it could be neck-and-neck after 50 to 60 minutes.

Still, Toulon by 8-12 after a mighty first hour.

In the other semi, we fancied Saracens on the basis of home advantage and Clermont’s renowned ability to lose to inferior teams in pressure moments, but we are beginning to waver. On Sunday, Barnesy effortlessly catalogued Sarries ability to lose at home to French teams in recent years, and the memory of their ineptitude in Ravers won’t fade – but for Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola, they would have lost to a 14-man team missing Rory Best and with Ruan Pienaar flying on one wing. Perhaps Clermont will expose Saracens for what they are – pretenders on the biggest stage. Maybe they need to go off and set up their own tournament or something.

Vuelta a Rabodirect

British road cyclist Charlie Wegelius in his autobiog Domestique described the Vuelta a Espana, being the final grand tour of the year, as being like a pirate ship, full of riders either totally unmotivated to be there or desperate to salvage their season. So it is with the Pro12 this season; the likes of Scarlets and Cardiff are waiting for the final whistle to blow, while Leinster and Ulster are desperate to atone for recent events in the Heineken Cup. Only Munster are still thinking about their Tour de France, but for how long?

The heat is on as five teams jockey for four final spots. Five into four won’t go and one of Ulster and Ospreys looks set to miss out on the semi-finals, while Munster and Glasgow look to be fighting for home advantage to face one another.  Glasgow are finishing the season with a bolt and Munster will have little desire to face them in Scotstoun, where they beat Ulster comprehensively at the weekend, particularly after they wiped Munster out in a sort-of Toulouse hangover game.

Ulster find themselves in a bit of a pickle; indeed they may not qualify at all. On paper they’re third but have a look at the fixture list and it becomes clear they’re in a squeeze. They’re staring at a horrendous injury list and an unkind fixture list for the run-in. They face Leinster at home and Munster away; two eminently losable matches, especially given the players they have to make do without. They’ll be targeting the home game against Leinster in a big way, because they know they’re unlikely to win in Thomond Park.

One point behind them are Glasgow, but the Warriors have an extra game to play, and they’re on a roll. Not only that, but they’ve a benign run-in, at home to Edinburgh and Zebre and away to Treviso, until recently a hard place to win, but they’re phoning it in this year. Glasgow could very feasibly get a return of 15 points from the three games.

Ospreys are five points behind Ulster, but they have two winnable games in the run-in; away to Zebre and home to Connacht. Ten points are very gettable, which would put them on 70. That would require Ulster to get five from their two matches; they’d have to beat Leinster and get a bonus point from one of their two games to tie on points with Ospreys. The tie-breaker in such an event is matches won, which would work in Ulster’s favour. But can they beat Leinster – who have a good record in Ravenhill – with such an injury-afflicted squad?

Leinster are sitting relatively pretty, six points clear of the brave and faithful at the top, though they still have a bit to do. They have Edinburgh in their final game; a probable five-pointer given the Scottish side were last seen losing to Zebre. A single point from the Ulster game on top of that would be enough to secure top spot; very valuable indeed going into the knockout games.

That leaves Munster, who also play Edinburgh, but away, and face Ulster at home. Second place may be beyond them. Even if they secure 10 points from those two games (a tall order) Glasgow would overhaul them if they can take all 15 points from their three remaining games.

A semi-final line-up of Leinster v Ospreys and Glasgow v Munster looks the most likely outcome, but don’t discount Ulster’s sleeves-rolled-up attitude too readily. Their game against Leinster looks set to be a pivotal fixture, and will help to build on the increasingly keen rivalry between the two provinces. Both sides tend to regard Munster as their greatest foe, but there’s no reason why they can’t fight tooth and nail against each other either, especially with so much at stake.

Ulster are facing into a season of pack-rebuilding, and the opportunity to send off Court, Afoa and Muller with a pot looks like a tough proposition, entailing, as it likely will, having to beat Leinster twice and then win at least one other away game. As for Glasgae, they will keenly recall how fortunate Leinster were to beat them in last years playoffs, and will be thinking about doing an Ospreys in the Oar Dee Esh in May.  Having won in Thomond Park and beaten Ulster in their last two games, they’ll fear nobody.  A well coached side with game-breakers in their superb backrow Joshua Strauss and fit-again wing Sean Maitland, they could well go on to win the pot.

Bronze Generation?

David Nucifora will be confirmed today as the new IRFU Performance Director – and not before time – after a few years of instutional stagnation, it has taken the personality of Joe Schmidt to begin the sweeping-out process. Ireland have successfully negotiated the first couple of stages of the professional era by fluke initially, then well, with the help of some excellent players:

  • Early Days (95-99) – the Union were woefully unprepared for the game going open and took some time to come around to the reality that players, once the lackeys of the blazers, were now their employees. The players responded rationally – by going somewhere they would be paid – England. When it reached the stage where the coach wanted the international team to train in England as all the players were there, the Union sparked into life and began to adjust. Signing up players to play at home was that step – Lens is commonly acknowledged as a low point, but Ireland had turned the corner by then and were about to climb the mountain
  • Golden Generation (00-08) – backboned by the Ligindary Munster team, the so-called Golden Generation made silverware de rigeur for Ireland fans, winning Triple Crowns in 2004, 06 & 07. That they never took the final step to a Championship was down to some ill-luck and an annual swoon against an excellent French team. The shambolic RWC07 tournament spelled the end for Dagger, and chunks of the team as well
  • Silver Generation (09+) – sure weren’t we lucky we had a new generation coming through at all? The provincial academies began producing high-quality young players, leading to Irish dominance in Europe and a new batch of international class players, who are now nearing their 30s, such as Fez, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Bob and Tommy Bowe. Deccie’s first season produced a Grand Slam, but an inability to retire older Golden players and assimilate Leinster players unused to his hands-off method spelled doom. Joe Schmidt came in and got the knack right away, winning the championship in his first season.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Ireland’s win this year was the number of players involved who will have no memory of RWC95 in South Africa – whe Ireland were caught in the headlights of a new era and it wasn’t pretty. The likes of McGrath, Moore, Henderson, O’Mahony, Murphy, Jackson and Marshall have only ever known rugby to be professional and well-run – and success comes as an expectation, and with expectations for your working environment. This generation of rugby players have moved Ireland on to a new plane, and the structures that have delivered us from the nadir of 1998 to the trophy-laden current era might need to be tweaked slightly to ensure success going forward.

Here are some things on Nucifora’s desk:

  1. Sure isn’t it great we have any props at all? Definitely, but the four best props in Ireland being in one province is not. Next season you will have a situation were Ireland’s starters and backups are in D4, while Ulster re-built a new front row using raw materials like .. er, Calum Black, Ricky Lutton, Adam Macklin, Ruadhri Murphy and Dave Ryan. This isn’t a sustainable situation, or a desirable one. Better spread of talent among the provinces is needed if we are to make the most of the current crop.  Marty Moore is likely to become first choice sooner rather than later, but Jack McGrath is in a tight spot – too good to be a reseve, not quite good enough (because almost nobody in the world is) to unseat Cian Healy. And this situation can be extrapolated to other positions as well – Ulster are stacked with centres, Leinster also at backrow. How do we divvy these out to the provinces?
  2. But which provinces? This leads us on to… Connacht. The Westerners have occasionally lived a parlous existence in the professional era, and it seems that, once again, the Union again have the province’s future in their eyes – are they going to be fully-resourced, told they can keep Robbie Henshaw, and given the tools to qualify for the ERCC? Or are they going to be denuded of their stars, and turned into a Chiefs old-boys/Ireland young-boys club that gives European experience to talented youngster who are at the back of the queue in their home provinces? It might seem tough, and unwarranted given the success of the last couple of years, but money talks.
  3. What about player management? This has been a strong suit of the IRFU’s and a pull-factor in keeping players in the country, but in the new world where qualification for Europe hinges on Pro12 performance, the league could become more of a hard slog, and the likes of Matt O’Connor and Axel Foley are likelier to want greater access to the players.  It’s not in the IRFU’s interests for any of The Big Three to miss out on the Heineken Cup.  Maintaining the right balance is crucial.  If the Welsh regions can get their act together – they can’t be this bad forever, right? – things could get sticky.
  4. Penny-wise, pound-stupid. Refusing to make Johnny Sexton an initial offer to keep him in Ireland this year may have cost Ireland a win againt BNZ and a Grand Slam. We need to be in a position where we can value the contribution, in monetary terms, home-based players make to Irish rugby – in the ERCC era, this likely means pay increases to keep them here – a broader strategy would help too – the year after losing Sexton, we had 10+ internationals with their contracts ending – is this a good idea?  All that said, the IRFU appeared to do a good job in re-signing a number of high profile players this year in the wake of significant French interest, but this side of the job will only get more difficult, especially if the English clubs get to a similar position in terms of wealth to their French counterparts. Already they should be formulating a plan for bringing their most important player – Sexton – back to Leinster when his contract is up next year.  This process should start before the 2014 November internationals – a significant bugbear of the players, and one that seems pointless.
  5. Coaches. In Ireland, we have a Kiwi coaching the national side, and an Aussie, two Kiwis and one Irishman at the provinces. Acknowledging that there are Irishmen being lined up at the next level, Neil Doak for example, are we happy that Conor O’Shea, Mark McCall, Birch and RADGE are learning their trade abroad? Will they come home, or won’t they? Ideally they would be here, or abroad for a defined time to learn and bring home new methods of coaching.

Nucifora’s role will involve an element of diplomacy – he will need to straddle the occasional* conflicts between the requirements of the provinces and the national team, and if necessary, crack the whip. Matt O’Connor has been more vocal about his straitjacket than is traditional, and Rob Penney, having nothing to be nice about, has taken to lobbing verbal grenades all around the place. If Anscombe finds himself a similarly lame duck next season and is insisting on playing Nick Williams ahead of Roger Wilson, Nucifora might need to have a conversation. The oft-trotted out line that successful provinces make the national coaches job more difficult was merely a smokescreen to excuse underachievement, but there is little doubt that the relationship could be more joined-up.

* may be more often occasional

Stand-In Stand-Off

Peter O’Mahony’s ligindary feats on the wing well documented at this stage, with Triminjus only needing the most obtuse invitation to drop into dinner party conversations that he once played there in an AIL final, but he may have to start looking over his shoulder. When it comes to stand-in feats of extraordinary and unlikely versatility, there is a new sherriff in town. Step forward his Munster colleague Conor Murray in what must be a slow news week in rugby circles.

With JJ Hanrahan injured, Munster have only Ian Keatley available to play 10 in their Heineken Cup semi-final gainst Toulon, and if anything should happen to him, it appears that Murray is the closest thing they have to a backup. His credentials for the role are impeccable. According to The Indo’s Ruaidhri O’Connor he – get ready Triminjus– played there in the AIL for Garryowen (though not in a final, so maybe O’Mahony still wins that Top Trump contest), has been practicing his goal kicking in recent warm-ups, but most significantly of all, he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour. Neil Jenkins! Worked with! Lions Tour! Give the man the 10 jersey and proclaim him the new RADGE!

The alternative being considered by Penney is apparently Johne Murphy, the less said about which the better.

It’s a bit of a peculiar position for Munster to find themselves in, but so long as Ian Keatley can hop on one foot it’s unlikely to amount to anything terribly meaningful. Having three senior fly-halves is a luxury the Irish provinces haven’t had since Jeremy Manning traded his role as third choice at Munster (behind the never-injured ROG and classy utility back Paul Warwick) for Newcastle. It’s worth recalling that in the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, Geordan Murphy was nominally the third-choice 10. Leinster and Ulster were blessed to have the likes of Isa Nacewa and Paddy Wallace (and latterly Stuart Olding) who could perform functionally at 10 if required.

The scrum-half filling in at 10 is more of a French tradition, whereas in Ireland it’s usually the 12 (Wallace, Olding) or the 15 (Murphy, Nacewa, Warwick) who tends to take up the role in emergencies, although Tomas O’Leary once gave a decent 10 minutes against Italy while ROG was in the sin-bin for boldness. Munster’s preference for crash-ball 12s in James Downey and Denis Hurley means that isn’t an option, while Felix Jones doesn’t fit the bill of fly-half at all. Conor Murray, all round footballer that he is, does indeed look the best choice. And did I mention that he once played there in the AIL for Garryowen, and that he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour?

What The Fans Want

So finally, the saga is over. The HEC is gone, and will be replaced by the RCC, with a sop ‘E’ at the start to appease the likes of us who resent giving the moneymen full control of rugger. Qualification will be Mastercard merit-based, with six teams from Le Top Quatorze and the Ooooooooooooooohh Boshiership, seven teams from the Pro12 (including one from each country) then a playoff winner, initially featuring the seventh placed teams in England and France.

More importantly, there is a bigger pot for the clubs in England and France, which is being paid for by … us! Because if you want to watch the ERCC next season, you’ll need a subscription to Sky and BT – excellent news… for them. In the race to pat the backs of the club-owners it seems to have been forgotten that ‘TV money’ doesn’t just fall off a tree, it is paid by TV viewers.

Ultimately, it’s a big win for the English (and to a lesser extent, the French) clubs, who’ve pretty much been given everything they asked for; redistribution of monies, tournament structure and the running of the competition.  Governance is re-vamped, with the commercial side being run by the clubs, and the organisation itself by the unions.  Ultimately, who knows how this carve-up will work?  It’s a big unknown.  The Amlin will become the ERCC2 – the first C stands for Challenge – and will feature the remaining clubs, provinces and regions from the three leagues who don’t qualify.

How about the provinces?  First, the good news, and it’s not all terrible.  For a start, at least there is some European rugby to play, which didn’t always look certain.  And for another, meritocratic qualification from the Pro12 may have been the red herring on which the whole ugly saga was founded, but it is ultimately a positive.  It’s hard to envisage a situation where the Big Three from Ireland won’t qualify, for the next few years at least and it won’t be beyond Connacht to squeeze into the last spot.  If the Welsh regions can get their house in order to be sufficiently competitive, then things might get a little heated around the middle of the table, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Pro12 stands to benefit.

The bad news?  Well, the biggest fear has to be that the tournament is now designed to service the clubs who’ve fought so vehemently, and at times underhandedly, for the changes.  Sure, Munster are needed to provide the showpiece games to draw in the punters (Sky have perfected the Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis tearful Saturday night Thomond Park narrative to such an extent that it has become one of the tournaments signatures), but they’re going to become a bauble that the English use to bump up prime-time telly income.  The English clubs long for the type of power and ability to attract players enjoyed by the Top Quatorze teams, and this at least moves them a step closer.  The IRFU have done a fine job in minimising the flight to France in the wake of a number of high-profile contract renewals this season, but if the English were to join in the bidding wars, it won’t make things any easier. Aside: one wonders, based on the importance of the provinces to the European cup (in terms of rugby and TV – they often occupyprime time), how hard a bargain the IRFU drove.

And, speaking of, the IRFU should have a bit of a re-think on its attitude to both investment in foreign players and its player welfare structures.  Currently, the Pro12 muddles along until the last five or six rounds, before the jostling for places begins in earnest.  Meritocratic qualification would stretch its importance out over the whole season.  If the Pro12 is to be treated as a serious business, with qualification for Europe hinging on it, then the provincial coaches will need access to their better players for more games.  This needn’t be a wholesale revision, rather a slight relaxing of the current rules.  One suggestion would be unlimited access to their full panel for the Christmas interpros, which should be high-profile, attractive matches, but end up being a phony war.  Same goes for NIE players, where the rules are continually being tightened (or so it would appear at least, it’s never all that clear).  If the Irish are to be required to fight on two fronts for the whole season then they will need the squad depth to do so. Unless of course (conspiracy theory alert) there is some dastardly plan to denude Connacht of their good players in return for B&I Cup dirt-trackers of course.

Many of the arguments put forward by the PRL owners UK media are so flimsy as to be paper-thin.  Stephen Jones tells us the club-owners are fine, manly and indeed perfectly upstanding (not to mention really, really good looking) gentlemen, who only have the best interests of their beloved rugby club at heart.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they, because they have a financial stake in them.  What about the broader game, which trickles down to grassroots level?  That’s the concern of the unions, easily painted by a willing media as a bunch of backwards-looking cigar-smoking blazer-wearing foie-gras munchers, but in reality they are the ones with the interests of the game at heart.  Handing over the reigns to the money-men is a dangerous business.

One line being peddled is that the new format will make the competition better and more competitive.  But it won’t, not by itself anyway.  Under the new structure, eight teams qualify from five pools, so now 60% of those finishing runner-up in the pool will qualify, as opposed to 33%.  The great thing about the old format was that you were required to win the pool or be reduced to hoping against hope.  The new format will have one less rubbish Italian team, but qualifying from the pool will be that bit easier and a bit more forgiving.

PRL lackey Kitson in the Grauniad triumphantly called the ERCC “a win for players and fans” – players, sure, if we count success only in pounds and euros; fans, er … no. Clearly Kitson doesn’t pay his own TV subscriptions, or give a hoot about the game for that matter. He even went as far as to call this rugby’s “1992 moment”, and celebrated the fact. Maybe he should talk to the soccer department of his own paper.  1992 was, of course, the year soccer began. Or the first year of the Premier League. Since then, player wages have gone through the roof, ticket prices have gone through the roof, many overreaching clubs have gone bankrupt, fans have become more and more alienated from their clubs, England have many less players to choose from and the best clubs are owned by oligarchs, oil barons, vulture funds and the like.

In the few years prior to 1992, Luton Town, Coventry, Wimbledon and Nottingham Forest won silverware, and Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and Palace were in the shake up for the league title. Since then, its been dominated by the rich, who have got richer. That looks like the future for rugby in Europe, and it’s very worrying, and mighty depressing.

That Empty Feeling

Munster fans are only delighted with themselves, Ulster folk at least have a sense of injustice and great pride to fall back on, but for the RDS faithful, the only feeling is one of emptiness, after their team was deconstructed in Toulon last weekend. Going away to the bigger French teams is never easy, and there’s always a sense that if the home side can get its tails up they can pull away on the scoreboard. It wasn’t wholly dissimilar to the semi-final in Toulouse in Michael Cheika’s final season. Leinster hung on by the skin of their teeth in the first half, but a third-quarter power play took the game away from them. Everyone talks about the French sides blowing tams away from the off, but more often they fool the opposition into thinking they’re in the game before upping the ante.

Where to start? Well, we can begin by paying no attention to the garbled nonsense about which entry the players came in and focus on on-pitch events instead. The scrum and maul were fine, positives even, but the rest were not. Leinster’s attack was feeble, replete with handling errors, a 10 playing miles behind the gainline and toothless running lines. The breakdown was a veritable crime scene, with Armitage and Basteraud perpetrators of one ball theft after another. Leinster were powerless to dislodge them. And then there was the defence. What could explain so many missed first-up-tackles? When watching rugby the brain often goes into a semi-conscious auto-forecasting mode. The eyes see a player running off not-especially-fast ball at another player, and the brain gets ready for another ruck to form. The eyes may even allow themselves to become momentarily distracted. Except the next thing they see is the same player with the ball running in open country. Brain? This is not what you said would happen!

Toulon get routinely derided by the likes of Gerry as a bunch of nouveau riche arrivistes, but the reality is they are a proper club- the players and fans have a real bond, and there is none of the Saracens faux-atmospheric blaring music, only newspapers in the air and loud singing. Wilko has previously warned players seeking only a fat paycheque to look elsewhere (Paris!) and the performances of the likes of Danie Roussouw and Bakkies Botha since they arrived have shown real commitment. The Armitages were seen in the crowd bonding with fans after the game, and anyone who calls Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe a mercenary should be taken out and shot… or worse still made to say it to his face.

And whatever you think about Boudjellal, he isn’t some shadowy Abramovich figure. He is Toulon born-and-bred, a passionate supporter of RCT but a self-made millionaire with a cool business brain – he has increased turnover 6-fold and now reckons the club is self-sustaining, even with the huge wage bills of the squad. He has been the driver behind the success of Toulon, and let’s be clear, no team can win the HEC and get to the Top14 final without being a proper team, not a bunch of individual mercenaries – and when these guys play as one, at home, forget about beating them.

For all that, and if the truth be told, this was the game in which Leinster’s chickens came home to roost. They just haven’t played that well all season. Even their best performance, the all-conquering away win in Northampton, had the gloss taken off it by losing the reverse fixture a week later. Anyone who watched Leinster at home to Ospreys in the last round of the Heineken Cup, away to Munster or at home to Zebre recently will know that this is a side who have spluttered through much of the season.

One person copping a serious amount of flak in the aftermath is Matt O’Connor. In polite society, it’s traditional for a coach in his first year to get something of a free pass, but this was a season-defining match for Leinster. As Alan Quinlan put it in his column in the Irish Times, this was O’Connor’s chance to get the ‘O’Connor era’ up and running. Well he has now, but not in the way he’d have wanted. It’s a tough gig coming in after Joe Schmidt, with some aging stars and a fanbase accustomed to success, but the drop-off in the accuracy of Leinster’s play has been noticeable (while that of Ireland has improved dramatically). It can’t be coincidental. Would any Joe Schmidt side have been so comprehensively dominated at the breakdown like that? No coach can completely gameplan a player as good as Steffon Armitage out of a match, but we’d expect a Schmidt-coached side to have a specific plan to deal with a player of his calibre.

Then there’s Gopperth-gate, and the curious comments from Matt O’Connor since the match, with regard to Ian Madigan. O’Connor has admitted that Gopperth was slightly undercooked going into the game, but then why didn’t he play him against Munster the previous week? Did the IRFU insist on Madigan getting the start? Is this high-octane game not scheduled with exactly that sort of thing in mind? The subsequent criticism of Ian Madigan’s ability to ‘control the front end of the game’ confirm his lack of confidence in a player who performed superbly last season but has yet to really flourish under the current coach. It didn’t paint O’Connor in the best light, showing him to be slightly flummoxed and operating on the back foot. When O’Connor was named as coach, we listed building the team around Madigan and developing the Blackrock man’s game in the same way Schmidt did with Sexton, as one of O’Connor’s principal tasks. It hasn’t worked out that way, not yet at least.

The clamour to declare half the team past it is under way in some quarters, but there isn’t a huge amount of drastic surgery needed. Some players just played badly and there’s not much you can do about that. Toner and D’arcy had off days, but they’ve been among Leinster’s best players this season. Shane Jennings was man-of-the-match the week before, but had a really poor game. Any team would miss Sean O’Brien and he’ll be back next season. Obviously, a 13 will have to be found for next year, and the pain of Eoin O’Malley’s forced retirement has never been more acute. Luke Fitzgerald, surely, should be the first to audition.

All is not yet lost and Leinster find themselves in a good position in the Pro12. Don’t let their placing at the top of the league mask the fact that they haven’t played all that brilliantly, but it does at least give them a good chance of winning the pot, because home advantage for the semi-finals and final, when the intensity ramps up, is invaluable. Winning it is necessary to redeem the season, but with Munster, Ulster and Glasgow for company, Leinster will need to play with a good deal more structure and direction, in order to do so.

Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.