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.

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  1. curates_egg

     /  April 23, 2014

    Surely the new qualifying criteria for the new European rugby cup are worth a mention. Even if the places are now effectively decided, it is a new endgame.

    • New qualifying system came too late to affect this seasons competition. Only Connacht had a realistic shout of breaking the top six, they were even in a shout after the Scarlets game but shot themselves in the foot vs Munster at home. Will be the 3 provinces, Ospreys, Scarlets, Glasgow and Treviso qualifying.

      Next years competition should be far more close come end of season

      • curates_egg

         /  April 23, 2014

        Yup. Pity it is all sewn up but it might make for a more interesting April next year.

  2. Unfortunately, I can’t see Ulster making the playoffs, unless at least Afoa and Ferris come back from their injuries/knocks. We missed a bit of grunt in the backrow against Glasgow that Diack usually provides, and I don’t think Sean Doyle cuts it, and Ulster have lacked a decent backup at 7 for a while now. They’re also suffering a mini-Ireland-TH-crisis now that Deccie Fitz has been sadly hospitalised (hopefully he makes a full recovery, but does what’s best for him and his body).

    Considering Leinster are in the same position Ulster are (out of Europe, wanting some alternative silverware), and their squad health and depth is so much better than ours, it’s hard to see us scratching a win out in Ravenhill.

    Glasgow are looking seriously dangerous though, and if a Joe Schmidt Leinster struggled against them in the playoffs last season, I can see a MOC-flavoured Leinster falling short (likewise for a Europe-sapped Munster).

  3. I backed Glasgow at the start of the year to win the league (mentally, not with actual money) and would really like to see them succeed. It would be good for the league to break up the Irish-Ospreys monopoly and it would be just reward for a team and coach who have improved hugely in the last few years. It would also show that Scottish rugby is not a complete waste of time, even if at least part of Glasgow’s improvement is down to judicious use of foreign players.

    I also felt from the beginning of the season that this was Ulster’s final shot at some silverware for a few years, even before we knew for sure how many players were departing. It now seems very unlikely that they can challenge for honours next year, and certainly not on two fronts. With all their injuries coming at the wrong time I can’t see it happening this year.

    • Patrick O'Riordan

       /  April 23, 2014

      I agree that having Glasgow there at the business end of the season is good for the competition but I find it slightly strange that Glasgow are so competitive in the Pro12 but total flops in Europe – bottom of their pool in the last 2 years. European success will be needed for anyone outside the Pro12 to pay much attention to them.

    • curates_egg

       /  April 23, 2014

      If I had a tenner for all the imaginary bets I’d won… Good wager though 😉

      If Leinster don’t win, I’d be happy to see either Glasgow or Ulster win for the reasons you state. I just think Leinster will win it though.

      The team will want BOD to go out by winning a trophy in the RDS. Our squad is in pretty OK nick (and O’Brien is back training!). MOC really needs a win to get the critics off his back (if he does and we sign two decent players, he will start next season with a good stock of goodwill – apart from the Madigan camp…unless he starts Madigan in the knock-out games…)

    • It’s been pretty cool to see Glasgow’s progression over the last few seasons, they’ve been steadily growing and on the cusp of winning the league for the first time. I think it’s a bit harsh to put such a big amount of success down to foreign imports (even though they *have* been influential), a lot of their squad are home grown, as opposed to Edinburgh where Solomons seems to just be slowly turning them into the Northern Southern Kings.

      You could be right on Ulster, but I think a lot of it depends on how the front row shakes out, and how well we recruit. I think an extra second row and an openside would be mighty handy, along with maybe another 10 (although my ideal scenario would be to sign Steenson from Exeter once his contract runs out next season) to support/challenge Jackson and allow Pienaar to focus on the job at 9.

      • I wouldn’t say a *big* part of their progress is down to imports, but its a part of the whole. Obviously Maitland is as scottish as they come, but there’s no scottish sh that could have matched what Matawalu gives Glasgow. And maybe they would have found another homegrown top quality backrower but it doesn’t hurt when imports like Strauss step up and become key players. But when you look beyond those players there’s tons of quality from the Scottish players most obviously in the backs but also the likes of Jonny Gray and Robert Harley who will continue to improve in the next few years.

        Recruitment for Ulster could be tricky especially as the world cup starts to loom into view. Connacht have signed a very experienced Super XV prop-hooker while Ulster have signed Ruaridh Murphy. Maybe he is about to bloom into maturity and its a great signing, but its hard to know what he offers right now.

        The fact that Ulster have hung onto Fitz for so long speaks volumes about how hard it is to find good tightheads. He’s two years older than Ferris but has twenty less caps than the latter, who is generally considered to be massively injury prone, and he’s now going to be Ulster’s first choice TH?

        Its amazing that Ulster have gotten by for so long with just one 10. The simplest solution would be to move Olding back to 10/use him as a utility option off the bench. No one likes the utility tag but they’re usually the most important player in the 23. Ulster could also start him at 10 and put Paddy at 12 to boost his opportunities to play/bench for Ireland in the future.

      • Stephen

         /  April 23, 2014

        I don’t buy the notion that Ulster will be definitively weaker going into next season in their key positions.

        LH Prop: Court out, Murphy in. Court has been on the wane for a while, and whilst Murphy is a largely unknown quantity, next season we will have reliable Callum Black, an IQ loosie with Super Rugby experience and Andrew Warwick.
        TH Prop: Afoa out, Herbst in. Afoa has only ever been a big-game player for Ulster, and has not delivered to his potential this season (he has had several very good reasons for that which needn’t be discussed here). As for Herbst – Bismarck du Plessis rates him, and Ulster have never signed a Shark who has let them down. I think the swap of Afoa and Herbst will actually strengthen Ulster going into next season. Meanwhile Lutton and Ryan (Munster academy graduate signed from Zebre) provide depth.
        Lock: Muller is a massive loss, in terms of leadership. However, if he was not captain, he wouldn’t have been the starting 4 for Ulster this season: our second row would rather be Tuohy-Henderson. A replacement Saffer lock is being signed (van der Merwe allegedly), so although it is a big gap to fill, all is not lost.
        Openside: We need one. Henry is excellent, but that excellence has been recognised by Schmidt (oh for provincialism!). We will have a second openside signed to replace Sean Doyle (heading to Brumbies)

        Scrum-half: We need a new, back-up scrum-half. Apparently James Hart of Grenoble has been in talks, but not sure if that’s true.
        Fly-half: iHumph is coming back to cover for Paddy during AIs and 6Ns, and Sean O’Hagan, very talented young fly-half, is joining from Connacht to act as understudy to the two.

        We’re also apparently signing Louis Ludik, a full-back from Agen (a former Shark). Tackles like a back-rower and can play across back 3.

        • A Zebre sub prop, a scrum half who isn’t coming as he’s signed til 2017, Connacht’s 5th choice flyhalf, a ProD2 player, and iHumph, for God’s sakes. Sorry to say it looks (and as a Connacht fan I’ve plenty of previous in this department) like you’re rather clutching at straws there. Hope to be proved wring, but I won’t be betting (even mantally, Exile) on it.

          • Stephen

             /  April 23, 2014

            My point was that I don’t think Ulster will be *weaker*, not significantly, going into next year. All of the players you have (selectively) chosen to highlight, I have accounted for:

            Dave Ryan (“Zebre sub prop”): He will be a replacement for Herbst at Ulster. No-one is saying he will be our starting TH.
            Sean O’Hagan (“Connacht’s 5th choice flyhalf”): A young understudy – note the word understudy – who has been very successful at age-grade, and who will hopefully provide PJ with cover in 2-3 years time.
            Louis Ludik (“a ProD2 player”): A *current* proD2 player who has played all across the back-line for a S15 franchise. With the caveat that highlights videos are not a representative sample of a player’s work, watch this ( Ludik can play across the back three and across the back-line more generally, and is apparently happy to do so at Ulster, without the guarantee of a starting spot. That will do nicely.
            James Hart (“a scrum half who isn’t coming as he’s signed til 2017”): I did say I wasn’t sure if that was true. I will say, however, that *if* a player sincerely wants to leave, the employer retains the option to dissolve a contract early. I repeat, though – I doubt it.
            iHumph (“for God’s sakes”): Fair enough, he couldn’t defend a stiff breeze, but he is the highest standard of IQ fly-half who would happily play second fiddle; we only really need him for the AIs and 6Ns, when we’re playing (generally) lesser opposition; and finally, he is waaaaaaaaaay better than the alternative, James McKinney.

            Now back to my main point: Ulster will not be weaker next year. Herbst for Afoa. Murphy for Court. Van der Merwe for Muller. Where we are losing players, we are signing replacements who, on aggregate, are either adequate or future improvements. I note that you didn’t mention any of those players?

          • There is no way that Herbst will be an improvement on Afoa, and he is in fact a fairly unknown quantity. The fact that he’s come from the Sharks does not mean that he is ineluctably destined to be a success. Steven Sykes came to Leinster from the Sharks. Nor is there any hope that Murphy will be an improvement on Court in anything but the very long term, as anyone who’s seen him scrummage for the Brumbies will attest. Franco Van der Merwe, meanwhile, surely won’t provide either the same level of tangible quality (in terms of all-round play) as Muller, and definitely won’t offer his intangible qualities (in terms of game intelligence and leadership).

            Of the others, Dave Ryan is barely third-choice standard, and he may have to be second-choice if Deccie Fitz’s injury woes continue/he has to call it a day due to his heart problems. He’s a weaker player than the third choice TH at both Munster and Leinster, for example. Sean O’Hagan is a poach for your academy. He didn’t make the Ireland u20s squad for the 6 Nations this year, although he may be at the JRWC, but he’s clearly a long way away from being ready for senior rugby.

            Humphreys is an improvement on McKinney, and Ludik will provide the necessary cover for Payne for when he’s off with Ireland. Those are astute signings and will bolster your squad depth in those two particular areas, but they’re not even at the top of the depth chart, whereas the lads leaving, by and large, are. It’s fantasy stuff to think you won’t be weaker in terms of personnel.

  4. Stephen

     /  April 23, 2014

    thoughtless, I would argue that:

    Herbst will be better than Afoa has been *this* season. I mean that, in the sense that he will play in more games and won’t exactly have to be the best TH in the world to match Afoa’s 2013-14 performances. Being a Shark isn’t a guarantee of success, but a Shark following in the footsteps of Pienaar and Muller, and with the recommendation of Bismarck duP: that is as promising as I want them. [On the subject of TH, the pecking order next season will be Herbst-Fitzpatrick/Lutton-Lutton/Fitzpatrick-Ryan, Ryan will be third choice at highest.]

    Murphy will be better than Court has been *this* season. TC is a fantastic servant to Ulster Rugby, and leaves with the good will of everyone, but he has faded badly. I have seen relatively little of Murphy, but along with Black he will cover LH for us.

    “Sean O’Hagan is a poach for your academy” – I know! This is what I have said! “He’s clearly a long way from being ready for senior rugby” – again, read before you write. I suggested O’Hagan as cover for PJ “in 2-3 years time”, with iHumph covering for that period.

    Re van der Merwe – in leadership terms, I agree (and have agreed above, if you care to look) that this exchange represents a loss. However, in playing terms, at this stage, picking 2 from VdM-Henderson-Tuohy is an improvement on Muller-Henderson-Tuohy.

    • Don Alfonso

       /  April 23, 2014

      At the risk or simply repeating Stephen – my thoughts.

      Black is better in the scrum than Court. Markedly so. If Ulster’s scrum has been a serious weapon in a game, chances are Black has been playing. Court is slightly better in the loose, but neither are great, and don’t feature at all as go-to ball carriers. So hopefully Murphy is great, but if not, I’d take him as back-up to Black.

      Afoa hasn’t been great for us for a long time. Jetting off between games to spend stretches at home, not training with the team – long gone are the days of him tackling a player, bouncing to his feet and making off with the ball. If he had played like he did when he first arrived – and maybe put in more than nine appearances – we might not be in this position at the end of the season. If Dave Ryan is poor, he won’t be second choice while Lutton is around, and next season we should see what Bronson Ross has to offer (he had to have serious neck surgery and played a grand total of one game for us this season). Hopefully Fitzpatrick can also make it back.

      iHumph will be very useful for us – miles better than McKinney. And also, Pienaar, who has looked poor at ten for us. The drop-off when we go from Pienaar-Jackson to Marshall-Pienaar has been massive, and costly, in the Rabo. Hopefully that will be remedied. Also, Pienaar might not be with the Springboks next season, which would be great, from a selfish Ulster point of view.

      Muller has not been a great player this season – rather, a fantastic leader. That’s what we need to replace, and I’m pretty concerned about that. Our talisman will be gone. And if Doyle is gone, we need a new back-up seven. We also need a third-choice hooker, given Annett is away, and hopefully some young bucks come through – Shanahan, Donnan, please God some backrowers.

      • abitofshoepie

         /  April 23, 2014

        Agree, Afoa and Muller are on paper massive losses and have been great for Ulster over their tenure, but when you focus in on their actual contribution this season (Afoa always either physically or mentally on a jet plane and Muller not always looking 100% fit) then the drop off might not be as great as initially thought. I see the Muller loss as a great opportunity for Henderson.

        • Don Alfonso

           /  April 23, 2014

          Certainly with Afoa at least, I would compare it to ROG. Did any Munster fan actually think, when he retired, “ach, our out half play will fall off a cliff”? On reputation, there is a monumental difference between ROG and Keatley.

    • Not interested in engaging further on the substance of this, because I think you’re engaged in a big game of rationalisation for the fact that you’re gambling on unproven and young players and we’re not going to agree, but just on the O’Hagan issue, I’m perfectly capable of reading before I write, thanks. You said he would “act as understudy to the two”, which I’m parsing as “third choice out-half”. You doubled down on the understudy description when you were called on the fact that he’s a kid, before then moving the goalposts and saying he’d be cover in 2-3 years time. Either he’s the “understudy” or he’ll be cover in 2-3 years time; he can’t be both. (Hint: he won’t be anywhere near the Ulster 10 jersey next season.) I appreciate your concern for my literacy though.

      As for whether Munster fans lamented the loss of Rog, tbh, I was waiting with bated breath for him to retire. He was awful for nearly all of his last season, with two glorious performances in the HEC knock-outs. and some competent games scattered about the place. I’ve watched Ulster plenty this season, and while Afoa and Court have indeed both tailed off, there is no comparison between their performance levels and Rog’s that year. The same is true of Muller. Fans may think young dynamos are overtaking older players, but when those older players are still selected for HEC pool games and especially quarter finals by their coaches, it’s a solid indicator that they’re better options than their challengers, and when it’s 3 from 8 in your pack… Well. It’s time to be slightly worried.

      A lot of this reminds me of the way some of the more bullish Leinster fans were talking about the loss of Sexton and Nacewa last year, actually.

      • Stephen

         /  April 24, 2014

        OK, to clarify re O’Hagan:

        In my original post, by “understudy”, I meant that O’Hagan will presumably train with Jackson and iHumph and learn from them in that setting, as well as continuing any age-grade and Ravens experience which may come his way. Your assertion that O’Hagan can’t be an understudy now and cover in 2-3 years time is invalid (although, if I didn;t adequately explain what I meant by understudy, I can understand that). What I foresee at Ulster fly-half for the next 5 years say is:

        PJ is number one choice, and will be presumed, for the purposes of squad planning, to be absent for the AIs and 6Ns.
        iHumph is the primary back-up until he retires and/or O’Hagan reaches “fly-half maturity.” (Olding could also provide cover if needed.)
        O’Hagan, in the fullness of time, becomes the primary back-up to Jackson. In 3 years he will be 21? 22? [To put this in context, PJ is 22 now.] And will have had three years of training with PJ/iHumph, age-grade internationals and Ravens games, as well as possibly a little bit of Rabo experience. This is the most thorough introduction an Irish province can really give to a budding fly-half, and should provide a medium to long-term solution to squad depth in the fly-half position.

        I originally honestly thought you hadn’t read all of my posts before responding; if I mis- or inadequately characterised “understudy” and that caused the misunderstanding, apologies. The above should clarify what I mean.

        Re the pack, I agree none of Afoa-Court-Muller have had RoG style meltdown final seasons (indeed, two of them are continuing their careers elsewhere), although Court has already been overtaken by Black as the first-choice LH. However, the Afoa-Court of this season have been replaced by what I believe to be equal performers with the potential to provide a net improvement eventually. Meanwhile Muller is a tremendous loss in terms of leadership, and this WILL hurt the team: however I also feel his leadership was the reason he was chosen ahead of Henderson at lock on several occasions this season.

        There have been several occasions where the teamsheet has been released and, but for the (c) next to Muller’s name, he would not have been on it. I repeat, this is a major loss, and will require a step into the breach from players like Best, Tuohy, Wilson et cetera. However in pure playing terms (although I accept you can’t separate individual levels and team leadership completely), Henderson is as good as Muller currently, and will grow to be a better player.

        We’re miles off topic here, and clearly disagree, which is fine. I move we shut the feck up about this.

      • Don Alfonso

         /  April 24, 2014

        I don’t think there are any Ulster fans who aren’t “slightly worried”.

        You seem to think we should all be wailing hysterically and rending our garments in grief, begging the IRFU to have the branch formally closed down and dissolved. Anyway, yes, let’s let it go for now.

  5. Stephen – I think at the very least you’re seeing the glass as being very, very half-full indeed. Just because Afoa hasn’t had a great season, it doesn’t mean that the team will be strengthened by him being replaced by a total unknown quantity with very little top-level rugby experience.

    iHumph is a decent signing. For all his flaws he has some obvious talent that can be put to use at Pro12 level.

    We’ll blog the topic of Ulster next season in more detail next week.

    • Stephen

       /  April 24, 2014

      Whiff, fair enough. I’ll shut up for a while.

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