Stuart Hogg to Ulster?

The news that Stuart Hogg will play no part in the biggest game in the Glasgae’s franchise’s (ugh) history is surprising, to say the least – he’s one of the few bona fide world class players in Scotland, and should be a key man for the team.  Dress this weekend’s match up any way you like, but Leinster, for all their attacking lumpen-ness, have an excellent pack and a brilliant defensive system – and they keep winning. If Glasgae are to win, they’ll need everything going, yet they have elected to pick Peter Murchie at 15. Amid the fog and intrigue, one thing is obvious – Stuart Hogg has burned every bridge going at Glasgow.

When asked about it, Bob Kearney said:

“I don’t know him too well, great player, seems like a good lad, but there is something going on there behind the scenes. There is a reason for it and I suppose you lads will find out sooner or later.”

Cryptic, and not exactly satisfactory. Tell us more, Bob!  All kinds of rumours are flying around and that doesn’t help – it would be easy to play a dead bat, but he chose not to – what does it all mean? And not knowing him too well? They toured together for the Lions and play the same position (caveated by Hogg’s outhalf cameos in Oz) – you’d think they would know each other well enough – is there distancing there?  Are we trying to read too much into things?  What the hell is going on?!

Ulster are now being linked with a move for Hogg, and, on the field anyway, it would be a reasonable fit for them. The culture shock will be non-existent; Glasgow, Belfast, it’s the same thing, right? And sure, Ulster are stacked outside, but you can never have too many world-class players, and he would be just the type of player that might help them unlock organised defensive systems – their key weakness. Their red zone strike rate was woeful in key games this year, and Hogg might have made the difference versus Globo Gym and Leinster. There’s no substitute for all out gas and Hogg has that matched with no little skill.  He’s a potentially explosive addition.

Hogg’s arrival might put the noses of Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave out of joint a little, but maybe that can be filed under ‘good problems to have’ rather than something to be overly concerned about.  In the era of 20% injury rates, chances are they won’t miss out on too much top grade rugby in any case.  Although it may be worth asking if wee Hoggy can scrum down at tighthead, because that’s where Ulster’s biggest worries are liekly to occur next season.

Question really is this: given Humph’s experience of Ulster’s player factional implosion after 2006, does he want to bring in a guy, who at 21 has managed to alienate his coaching staff so much they would rather not pick him than maximise their chances of winning in the Oar Dee Esh? And for the IRFU, do they really want to pay to train one of their direct opponents’ best players? There’s no real precedent for this sort of signing, unless you count Simon Danielli, which of course we don’t.  Something we aren’t clear on is whether Hogg an NIQ or not – by definition, yes, but he’s more like a Kolpak player in cricket, and Ulster might reasonably think it shouldn’t impact their ability to sign “real” NIQs i.e. those from the Southern Hemisphere.  Even if he does count, because of his calibre, it’s hardly a waste of an NIQ spot.

Hogg is a gem of a player who Ulster would be very fortunate to fall into their hands, but that isn’t the really pertinent question, which relates to his availability and omission from the Warriors side.  Presumably The Humph is on the case.

Second Five-Eighth

In the Amlin Challenge Final between Northampton and Bath, as the game was running away from Bath they introduced a familiar face from the bench. No, not Peter Stringer; the other one. Gavin Henson. We were all set to have a good old chuckle as Big Gav took the field, but within a couple of minutes something interesting happened; Big Gav gave two gorgeous passes to put runners outside him into space. It was like a momentary glimpse into a parallel universe where Henson was a dedicated professional who had fulfilled his potential.  A tiny kernel of natural tlent remains!

In the past, we’ve often wondered what the point of clubs like Bath signing players like Gavin Henson is; when a player has failed to learn his lessons over and over again, does the time not come when you simply draw a line through his name? But this served as a reminder that some cases, no matter how lost they appear, can be worth a punt [at the time of writing Danny Cipriani has been recalled by England, and show me someone who isn’t absolutely fascinated as to what will happen next].

Big Gav never had the dedication to his trade to make the most of his ability, and it’s a real pity. Henson was never as good as the likes of Stephen Jones claimed he was, but he wasn’t rubbish either.  Yes, he had flaws, and yes he was a real pain, but his distribution, running and kicking game could all be terrific. In the modern era of bosh-‘em-up rugby ‘second five-eighth’-type inside centres who can pass the ball like a 10 are a precious commodity. As if to underline the point, Matt Giteau gave a scrumptious performance as a distributing 12 in the Heineken Cup final the following day. What a sight it is to behold, and what options it gives a team in attack when the 12 can move the ball so effortlessly!

Ireland’s own ‘playmaking 12’ departs the scene this summer, to little fanfare. Underpowered for the modern game and not benefitting from a ‘good face’, Paddy Wallace was fell just short of being a real test player, but for Ulster he was a classy and highly watchable fulcrum in the backline. In the 44-14 defeat to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final he was sublime. Fortunately, he passes on the torch. Stuart Olding has been injured all season, but will hopefully be back next year. He has a job on his hands displacing Luke Marshall (who isn’t a bad distributor either, but is more of a hard-running player in the Gordon D’arcy mould), but is exactly the sort of player Ulster have been lacking this season: think of all those sieges on the Leinster line in the semi-final that came to nothing because they just couldn’t unlock the door. One would have to suspect he’s on Schmidt’s radar too. Given a lack of real pace and huge players, Schmidt made Leinster the best team in Europe based on super-accurate passing of the ball along the gainline. Olding would be a key asset to replicate that at test level.

So there we have it; Stuart Olding, the new Gavin Henson.

The Spirit of the Golden Belltower

Allez Toulon, the third ever back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. If they were deeply fortunate to win the pot last year, helped in no end by a calamitous collapse from specialist chokers Clermont, this time around they did it in style, dispatching Saracens by 23 points to 6. In the end they were strolling, and went close to adding another try on, which would have made it 30-6, which we all know to be a scoreline that signifies a COMPLETE ROUT!

What was most notable was the extraordinary bond the players have with one another, and their fans. Matt Giteau (who just oozes class, by the way) took to Twitter to tell the world he’d won the Cup with his ‘best mates’. Johnny Wilkinson spoke in his usual extraordinarily humble way, hitting every right note as he always does. Heck, he was already thinking about the Top 14 final!

In the game of rugby, the belief has long been held that success is hard to buy, and cannot simply be imported wholesale. In a game in which physicality and espirit de corps are such dominant factors, a team which is suitably motivated to put the hurting on its opponents can overcome limitations such as y’know, skill, or a decent lineout and utilise its physical advantage to win rugby matches.

Having a proud fanbase and a rich tapestry of history is something which rugby teams utilise to drive this fervour and passion, none more so than the Irish provinces. In short, the jersey matters. We all know the backdrop at this stage, and though each of the provinces has their own unique history and identity, in all of them there is a sense that to play for the jersey and for the fans is important and attaches a certain standard below which one dare not fall. For most of the players, they’re playing for their local team, and many of them spent their youths on the terraces as supporters. As Denis Hickie put it ‘I’m a Leinster lad. That’s my team. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ The communities are relatively small and close knit and the players place a huge premium on playing for their province, often literally in the case of signing contracts when greater riches are on offer elsewhere.

We do occasionally need to remind ourselves that the Irish provinces are not unique (Exhibit A: the periodic “Irish can teach French culture and passion” stories from Gerry), and in England and France there exist many great clubs with their own strong senses of identity and rich, glorious histories; Toulouse, Castres, Clermont Auverge, Biarritz, Perpignan, Leicester, Northampton, Bath and so on.

Toulon is a rugby-mad town but the team has been bought in. None of the South African, Argentinian or Australian superstars they have on the books have an innate attachment to Toulon, and presumably none of them are all that au fait with the history of the trench warfare that is French rugby. None of them would say ‘I’m a Toulon lad. That’s my team. I make no apologies for it.’ It only serves to make their accomplishments all the more impressive. You can buy success in rugby it seems, but only if you buy the right people. And this is the crux of it. Toulon have recruited sensationally well. There are leaders, standard-bearers and born winners across the team.

While Racing got the chequebook out for the likes of Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Toulon have no problem bringing in guys who appear miles over the hill, or whose share price has come off a high; Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw and Castrogiovanni anyone? Matt Giteau was unceremoniously dumped by Australia but it now seems incredible that his talents could be overlooked by anoyone. Juan Smith had been forced to retire, but gets re-threaded at Toulon and plugs right into the team ethos. It works, because the likes of Castro, Shawsy and Wilkinson are grizzled pros who know how to get the job done, and have the respect of every other player with whom they come into contact. Wilkinson, as we know, demands of himself the highest of high standards – his mental torture and intensity is such that he barely looks like he enjoys a second of what he does.

Sure, they’re all world class players, so they have an innate advantage, but at the same time they’re all extremely well paid, playing for a team far from home in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean coast. It would be easy for them to simply phone it in; but they don’t. Where does the hunger come from? Key individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are instrumental in ensuring everyone is aware that this is not a club where you can simply pick up a cheque.

The maintenance of this spirit is going to be an exceedingly difficult thing to maintain, especially after the post-RWC15 global player churn – Wilkinson is likely to stick around the club to provide a guiding hand, and it’s hard to see key men like Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau or Bastaread leaving any time soon. What price the corp of 2007 Springboks nearing the end of the road – Bakkies, Smith and Roussouw – get swapped en masse for a chunk of 2015 BNZ-ers who finally feel that they have earned a French payday. What chance Ruchie, Kieran Read, DC and Ma’a Nonu – players who are about as far from the Beaver-in-Bath dialling-it-in Southern Hemisphere player as can be imagined – rocking up in two years as the next generation of Toulonnais?

Bloody Foreigners

These bloody foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs. Especially in rugger. Wasn’t so long ago Ireland had a foreigner as captain (Dion O Cuinneagain) and the NIQs were coming in to teach us how to be good rugger players and explain that recovery from injury didn’t involve going on the lash – who knew?!  John Langford, Shaun Payne, Pippo Contepomi, Rocky Elsom, Johan Muller, etc have all passed through and left deep wells of knowledge.

But now we have largely succeeded in making the provincial playing pools more Irish – NIQs are now limited in scope and number, and the days of big name signings are gone (except in Connacht). Getting the balance right is never esay – the national side won a Six Nations this year, but the provinces are finding it increasingly tough against the French moneybags, possibly soon to be joined by English moneybags.  It’s a constantly shifting target and not easy to hit.

And we are still a little touchy about foreign players – when Joe Schmidt announced his squad this week, he had to defend the selection of Robbie Diack, who has qualified as a project player up at Ulster – here’s what he had to say:

“That’s a question for people over and above me. Players are either available or they are not. I think if Bundee Aki plays well and qualifies in three years, time he will be available to whoever is coaching the Irish team at that time to be selected. If they change the rules he may not be. As it stands at the moment I think there are some very good indigenous players and the vast majority of the squad is made up of those players.”

Now, there is an element of self-interest in some of those questions, as it was in the context of not selecting the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Irish-born, who had been picked during the Six Nations. When it comes to, say, Jared Payne, in November, given we don’t have a plethora of obvious 13 candidates, one doubts this barrier will be thrown up.

This is especially interesting this week – and this is the point we were trying to get to – as Munster formally anounced their coaching ticket for next season. And, intriguingly, it’s an all-Irish one. In spite of the IRFU’s desire to limit the influence of for’dners, Ireland just can’t shake its fondness for Southern hemisphere coaches.  Not long ago there were four Kiwi head coaches across four provinces; the only thing that changed since then is that one went on to manage Ireland and was replaced by… an Australian.  As we know, Munster have chosen not to extend Rob Penney’s contract in spite of two successive HEC semi-finals and the successful transition from the bestest tactical outhalf ivir like to .. Ian Keatley.  The Belvo boy appeared to have inherited a poisoned chalice in taking the torch from RADGE, but all the time knowing that a local boy was waiting to take it off him.  But he has played to levels unforeseen by many commentators (ourselves included).

What Penney has achieved is to instill an adventurous and sometimes coherent style of play from a province perceived as being more comfortable with boot-and-bullock HEAVE type stuff. The aforementioned Keatley, Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy, Conor Murray’s journey to the best scrummie in Europe, the pack’s technical excellence all happened under Penney. Divvying up the credits is never an easy business, but between the players themselves, Axel Foley and Rob Penney, it’s largely been two years of gains.  Rog’s retirement was weathered surprisingly well, Paul O’Connell remains a totem and Stakhanov briefly re-invented himself as a winger. Epic-ish Heineken Cup wins against Globo Gym, Harlequins and Toulouse after four years of limping out of Europe get chalked up in the credit column and the eventual defeats were suitably close to go into the ‘heroic’ column.

And yet – he has never really fit in. Some of the team of the noughties (let’s call them Liginds) have persistently sniped at him for imposing a gameplan that the province are uncomfortable with – to be fair, for vast tracts of Penney’s reign, Munster have looked toothless and often gormless – but they have delivered when it matters, and have improved in every facet of the game since he took over. Very few rugby teams look good every week, in what is an increasingly fragmented rugby season.  Joe Schmidt’s Leinster came closest to consistency in the Pro12, but they were the first team since Leicester to win back to back European Cups, a rare breed indeed.  It’s hard to say that his reign has been anything but a success.

As Matt O’Connor is probably learning, it’s always easiest to blame the out-of-towner, and even Gerry Thornley’s assessment on Second Captains when asked if there was ‘any shame’ in how Munster lost the Pro12 semi-final seemed a little pointed, and alot OTT.  Yes there was, he said, given the manner of how it happened because they ran out of play twice.  Really?  ‘Shame’ in losing by a point away to a team that has become adept at peaking at this time of the season, because they ran into touch twice in the last 10 minutes?  Jamie Heaslip ran out of play twice when Wales beat Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, but you probably didn’t hear as much about it.

This is the backdrop for the appointment of the current coaching team – who have done nothing wrong here, let’s remember. From the outside, it always looked like the province wanted someone to come in, retire a few big beasts, bring through a few youngsters then hand the keys over to Axel – and that’s what has happened. They probably didn’t expect Penney to do as good a job, which will be Axels’ problem as he tries to live up to those standards. Or not, as he should get a decent honeymoon period.

So – to the Irish coaching ticket (all-Munster in fact) – it harks back to Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster with Niall O’Donovan and co – a salt of the earth old-skool club coaching ticket. Jirry has been brought in as scrum coach, Micko as “technical advisor”, Brian Walsh as attack coach and Ian Costello as defence coach. A nice balance between Cork and Limerick, with nary an outsider in sight.  Lunch is sorted, fellas, it’s hang sangwidges and tins of lilt out of the back of Axel’s car, and we can all have a chat about the rubbish road from Cork to Limerick!

Where are they coming from?

  • Axel: currently Rob Penney’s number two, has spent time in the national setup under Deccie and the Milky Bar Kid. Generally gets credit for the packs technical skills, and is generally felt to have done a good job with Ireland too.  Although Penney was also a forward, so the real driver will become clear next year
  • Jirry: coming from joe.ie Arsenal, where he was on the conditioning side. With due respect, Arsenal’s conditioning at key moments of this season wasn’t spectacular – but that can’t be all his fault. This feels like a key personality to get on board, even if it might take time to bed into a coaching role. He has been uncomplementary about Munster’s younger players in the past and appeared to take a dig at Mick Galwey on his way out the gate from his playing days.  Jerry seems like an interesting, forthright individual, but in the same way that Foley is always heralded for his rugby brain, Fla never seemed to be a great rugby strategist; more of an instinctive wild man in fact!
  • Micko: er, he’s, er, played for the Baa-Baa’s. And has apparently “shown promise” in the coaching sphere
  • Brian Walsh: involved in the Academy, but most experience is with Cork Con in the AIL, where he won the league a couple of times
  • Ian Costello: former A team coach and Academy man, sports science/UL background

One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition. We must also say, it’s great to see a progression path for younger Irish coaches.  And while it’s more inward-looking than outward, it’s not that out of step with the way Leinster have gone about appointing coaches.  Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika all arrived as young and unproven, acclaimed for their role as second-in-command but untried as head honchos (at a big team at least).

It’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve for all of the ticket. So how will it pan out? Our guess is it’s unlikely to end with Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing.  And while that’s the case, it is probably wide of the mark to anticipate that the ball won’t go beyond the No.9 either.  While it’s tempting to see Foley as the ultimate old-skool Munsterman, warming-up by keeping the heat on in the car and shovelling in the recovery pints after training, his being “steeped in the Munster culture” has to be weighed against his oft-cited smarts as a player, which are presumed to inform a technically astute coaching brain that will be more than capable of imposing a modern and highly effective gameplan on the province.  So perhaps the ‘return to traditional Munster values’ (TM – the Cork Con meeja) won’t be on the menu just yet.  This is where the real fascination lies.  Everyone has had their suspicions that Foley and Penney have never been entirely ont he same page, and theirs has been an uneasy allicnce.  The direction in which Foley points Munster should give us a nice retrospective angle on whether or not that was the case.

Foley inherits a squad which looks pretty good, and is on an upward curve.  The emergence of Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander in the late season adds real depth to his pack and he will hope to have Donnacha Ryan and Mike Sherry for more of next season than he did this, and a rejuvenated Tommy O’Donnell would be a big help.  Robin Copeland arrives from Cardiff and James Coughlan ain’t done yet.  The likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Archer will be a year older and presumably better.  He has no real issues at half-back or in the back three – unless the outstanding Conor Murray ever gets injured that is, but he’s not the only coach who’s goosed in that eventuality.  If the two largely unknown quantities at centre turn out to be halfway decent, he will have every opportunity to keep Munster competitive.

He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.

El Summer Tour Contra Los Pumas

Joe Schmidt has named his 30-man panel for the two-game series in Argentina – and it’s not in nice places like Buenos Aires and Mendoza, but swampy, tropical Resistencia and rural Tucuman, where Besty might feel at home. Sling another cow on the giant open barbie there, ranch hand!  The wine will be great, sure, but the nightlife might not cut it. We discussed the topic last week, and mooted that the most important bits of business are beginning the process of replacing O’Driscoll and winning the series.

It’s been a long old season and a good few bodies are deemed too tired or injured for the trip. In the past, the mantra from Irish coaches has been ‘these are the games the players are rested for’, but for the likes of Cian Healy, Tommy Bowe and Sean O’Brien, it’s been decided that they’d be better off recovering from whatever niggles they’re carrying. It must have been tempting to bring O’Brien and Bowe, who have relatively little rugby this season and could be reasonably fresh as a result, but discretion is often the better part of valour, and they’ll have the summer off to come back with renewed vigour for next season. There are bigger fish to fry.

Hookers: Rory Best, Damien Varley and Rob Herring

Herring is the beneficiary of a lengthy injury list, with Cronin, Sherry and O’Strauss all injured and he has deputized well for Besty. Best himself has only just returned to fitness, but given the lack of first-rate alternatives, it seems logical to pick him.

Props: Mike Ross, Marty Moore, James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne and Jack McGrath

With Healy being given a free pass for the summer, James Cronin gets to travel. He hasn’t quite shot the lights out since his eye-catching cameo against Leinster last autumn, but there’s no rush and he seems to be made of the right stuff. He’s picked to get exposure to the test squad. Most likely he’ll be holding tackle bags, with McGrath the likely starter and Kilcoyne first reserve. It’s become a position of remarkable depth in the last season. On the tighthead side, Moore is likely to get his first start in a green shirt. Mike Ross tours again – we were incredulous he was brought to the US and Canada last year, although this makes more sense – you don’t want to be relying on Stephen Archer against top rate opposition.

Locks: Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner

Ireland look a bit light with just three. Presumably Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock are providing cover should it be needed. With Donnacha Ryan injured and Dan Tuohy operating at less than 100% options are thin on the ground, although Mike McCarthy might have been one, though his star has waned. The players named are uniformly excellent. Henderson had his best game of the season against Leinster, and just as Devin Toner looked to be running out of puff, he had a fine performance in the same game. O’Connell is captain. It will be interesting to see if Henderson gets a chance to mix it with Patricio Albacete and co.

Backrow: Lots of players NOT FROM MUNSTER

Back in the Six Nations we had the Great Tommy O’Donnell Outrage. But Schmidt was proved entirely correct in his selection of Murphy over O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s form has been nowhere near his 2012-13 level and he has subsequently found himself dropped by Munster, failing to even make the bench in ther last game. Never mind, let’s move on to Sean Dougall Outrage. With O’Brien not selected and O’Mahony injured, Rhys Ruddock is liable to get a first start for Ireland, and the uncapped Robbie Diack may feature at some point, though Jordi Murphy appears to be the most versatile man for the bench. Mr Indestructible, Jamie Heaslip, will almost certainly be relied upon for another 160 minutes of high-grade rugby, and Chris Henry will also ensure some degree of continuity. Diack is probably the most POM-for-POM replacement, but you wouldn’t think he’s at this level. The bigger question is how you re-integrate Sean O’Brien (presumably in November) – someone has got to miss out. Fez is injured again, and surely won’t wear green again – sniff.

Half Backs: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Kieran Marmion, Jonny Sexton and Paddy Jackson

No surprise that Jonny Sexton is picked, especially with O’Driscoll and Dorce missing. He presumably assumes the role of backline leader.  As usual, Ian Madigan’s inclusion/exclusion [delete as appropriate] becomes a talking point. He’s back on everyone’s radar after Saturday’s stunning match-swinging performance, but those whose memories extend back to before then may remember that his form has been in the doldrums since the Six Nations. Paddy Jackson has yet to have that match-dominating performance that elevates him to the level occupied by Sexton and O’Gara before him – the new Toby Flood anyone? – but he has had a solid season (to be fair to Jackson, with Pienaar inside, he’s unlikely to have the opportunity any time soon either). Kieran Marmion’s selection is welcome – Reddan will slow down at some point – like Cronin he is no doubt bought along to learn as much as possible from his seniors.

Centres: Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw

The great one retires and 97-year old Gordon D’arcy gets to put his feet up. It’s a great chance for Luke Marshall to get the jump on him. McFadden presumably provides cover. At outside centre, the new era begins, and whichever centre gets selected to start is probably worth persevering with for both games to give them the best possible chance of settling in. No pressure Mr. New 13, you’ve only got to replace the best player in the world, like, evah! Angry Darren Cave feels like the sensible option to us, but if Anscombe is shuffling him around, it becomes a little muddier – no point in investing gametime in a player who might not start there for his province.

Back three: Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Rob Kearney, Felix Jones

He’s back! The red corner will breathe a sigh of relief that Simon Zebo has returned to the squad. Joe Schmidt needed little prompting to remind the Munster flyer that he has things to work on, but since the Six Nations it’s been hard to fault his attitude. He used the media not to whine about his lot, but to let the public know he was going to work as hard as he could, and to these eyes anyway, appeared to show great desire on the pitch. Notable contributions included a brilliant try-saving tackle against Toulon that kept Munster in the match, and his restart-chase against Toulon resulted in him scoring a try a few phases later.  Surely the very details that Schmidt was looking for him to improve upon?  Ireland are crying out for a bit of stardust in the backline, so hopefully he will get his chance. Keith Earls is back from injury and has looked dangerous without quite cutting loose in recent weeks; the rest pick themselves with Dave Kearney now injured and Tommy Bowe given the summer to rest.

Team to start the first test, maybe, possibly, dependant on all players getting through the Pro12 final, not getting injured in training and not missing the flight: Kearney, Trimble, Cave, Marshall, Earls, Sexton, Murray, McGrath, Best, Moore, O’Connell, Toner, Ruddock, Henry, Heaslip. A nice blend of the established and the younger. NWJMB would be a brave selection alongside POC – he will likely scrum down at tighthead lock when Muller moves on, so it’s the future .. if Toner ever stops improving.

Time To Look In The Mirror

If Ulster fans left the RDS depressed amid the repetition of the same traits that have hamstrung them for much of Mark Anscombe’s reign – an inability to score tries against an organized defence – it would have been made worse by the relief felt by Leinster fans given the balance of the play. That said, Leinster fans will be feeling a little empty on Sunday morning in spite of their win – their sheer ineptitude in the first half was stunning and their mistakes were off the chart. If anything, it was worse than the Embra game.

The first 33 minutes of the game felt like a culmination of a season of Leinster having Joe Schmidt trained out of them – the error count was horrendous, sky high, the likes of Eoin Reddan couldn’t pass the pill, accuracy levels were on the floor. It was the worst Leinster have looked in years. And yet – despite totally controlling the game, Ulster were only 3-0 up, and never really looked likely to break the Leinster defence down to score the try that would surely have led to a comfortable win.

The stabilisation point, ironically, came from yet more poor Leinster play – this time a rank leading elbow from Dorce, which deservedly had him cooling his heels on the sideline (there was quite a bit of niggle going on – much of it involving famously nice chap Andy Trimble for some reason). Suddenly, the psychology of the game switched – the pressure on Leinster to find their A game dissapated and the pressure switched to the Ulstermen to score a few points while he was in the bin. Nearly a quarter of that time was wasted on one scrum, and Ulster didn’t cross before half time. Leinster went in at half-time feeling a bit spritely at being ‘only’ 6-0 down despite playing like drains.

In the second half, Ulster continued to own the football, but Leinster began upping the urgency levels – rucks were contested a little more vigourously and the aggressive defensive line was beginning to force Ulster errors. The turning point came when you-know-who trying to takle NWJMB’s knees – not advisable under the best of circumstances, and especially not when the man-child was in this form. Drico sustained perhaps the last concussion of many in his career and was replaced by Ian Madigan. Shortly after, Wee PJ left the field and was replaced by James McKinney. The net effect was for Leinster to have someone ready to take the game by the scruff of the neck and Ulster went down a notch in the playmaking – and defensive – stakes.  This was the Ian Madigan that has been missing in action all season.  Could it be that with seemingly nothing to lose he was able to just relax and do his thing.  It’s rare in rugby for the man of the match to go to a reserve, but Madigan was indeed the game’s most influential player.

Aided and abetted by some serious beef off the bench, Leinster finally found their feet, and ten minutes of pressure culminated in Madser’s game-winning try. Even in Optimism Central BBC NI, the score was greeted, with nine minutes to go, as the “game-winning try”. The hole Madigan sauntered through was left there by Jared Payne, who, if this was an audition for some-bloke-called-Brian’s shirt, wouldn’t get a call-back. Bamm-Bamm will feel he is the best inside centre in the team and Darren Cave is easily a better fit outside him right now – if Payne really is an outside centre, he has yet to show it.

To say Ulster let Leinster out of jail would be an understatement – they had them in solitary confinement but accidently left the key lying around and Leinster strolled out of the prison whistling a tune. Anscombe will feel a tad uncomfortable this morning, and he should be – Ulster’s failing 12 months ago was an inability to make big plays in big games (Saints, Leinster) and that is still the case.

There have been a number of games this year in which Ulster have had countless visits to the opposition 22, and been made to pay for not converting enough of them into points.  The freak result at home to Glasgow earlier this season was one, and two more were the home games against Leicester and Montpellier in the Heineken Cup, which they won, but which nearly proved costly in terms of bonus points.  As a team they have the set pieces and forward oomph to dominate matches, but their struggles to score from close range have become the equivalent of getting the yips on the putting green.  Anscombe described them as lacking compusure in key situations, and that seems about right – but that’s as much on him as it is on the players. It feels like they force the issue – the missed touch with several penalties trying to eke out every last metre, when there really wasn’t any need to.

Leinster’s Schmidt Generation would have been much more clinical, and likely have been 15 points up and out of sight by half-time in a similar situation. Lofty standards, sure, but that’s what Humph is aspiring towards with Ulster – and rightly so. The rumour mill already abounds that his coach will be replaced by Neil Doak after next season – this may seem harsh, but unless Ulster’s failing in knockout games is rectified, it’s quite easy to argue that Anscombe has taken Ulster as far as he can and a new approach is needed.

As for Leinster, they’ll be glad to still be alive. It must not be forgotten that they provided the majority of the Six Nations team and a handul of their players were on the Lions tour too, so they’re most likely exhausted.  But it still looks as if Matt O’Connor is more Gary Ella than Joe Schmidt, and if anything performances seem to be getting worse by the week.  And yet he may just finish his first season with silverware.  I can think of a couple of provincial coaches who’d love to be in that position.

They will face a Glasgae side who won a great old-fashioned arm wrestle in a seething Scottish stadium (no, really) against Munster on Friday night. Leinster will see the final as a free play, but they’ll need to be a damn sight better than Saturday to deny the Warriors the win they felt they deserved in last years semi at the Oar Dee Esh. After 33 minutes, Leinster’s season seemed in tatters with performances reaching a nadir. Somehow, and again, Ulster let them off the hook – but it’s hard to know who has the bigger long-term worry.

Interesting Irish Interprovincial Game Alert

Spicy – check! Niggle – getting there! Chips on shoulder – well, it’s Ulster, so check! Arrogant latte-sipping Wez graduates – well, it’s Leinster, so check! It must be what is fast becoming the testiest derby in Ireland, winner takes all, part quatre. Unless you work for RTE, you’ll be sure Munster-Leinster has become dull and tiresome, and Ulster-Leinster is becoming pretty compelling.

Two years ago, Ulster went into the HEC final feeling pretty good about themselves, but got Schmidt-ed by a ruthless and powerful Leinster team, perhaps at the peak of their powers. Last year, Ulster gave up home advantage as Ravers was still a building site, and were pipped just short in a cracking game, and two weeks ago, Leinster ruined Johann Muller’s going away party, but all sides got a little heated at times.

Ulster feel they owe Leinster by this stage – the Blue Meanies just won’t forfeit their “top province” (well, top team, as there is only one top province, right Gerry?) ranking, and Ulster are tired of being the ones nipping at the heels of them but going home licking their wounds. They are going to be mighty wound up this time, and one can sense the kind of focus and determination they flagged before going to Welford Road earlier in the season.  Just don’t get too wound up there chaps, or you’ll end up tip-tackling some poor fellow shoulder-first into the ground!  Hopefully the lessons have been learned and focus will be the keyword.  As Brian O’Driscoll was captured saying in the Reaching for Glory docco : ‘This game will be about controlled passion.  Do you possess it?’

As for Leinster, they look, to be frank, there for the taking. Against Embra last week, they were pretty uninspiring, and in the aforementioned Bambi-killing episode in Ravers, they could have lost to 14 men. Their back play has become increasingly amaemic as the season has progressed, and seeing Johnny Sexton guide his Racing Metro team into the Top14 semis won’t have improved moods in D4.

It’s a contest between good old-fashioned Northern flinty determination to knock Leinster off their fucking perch (to coin a phrase) and a limousine steadily running out of gas but putting along just quickly enough. While it’s hard to see a Brian O’Driscoll career end with a lackadaisical home defeat – his genius has dragged many worse teams over the finish line – this feels like a major banana skin for Leinster.  Lose, and Matt O’Connor gets the backlash.  O’Connor’s brand of rubbishy looking rugby has been unpopular since his arrival, but so long as the team keeps winning in the Pro12 and delivers the trophy, there’s only so much mud that can be flung at him.  But lose at home in the semi-finals and the natives will go from restless to irate.

If Ulster can name Besty and Ruan Pienaar in their team, and build on the momentum perversely achieved in defeat to Leinster and an improbable win over Munster, they look to have the focus and hunger to finally get the Leinster monkey off their backs. Today’s news that Glasgae will be forfeiting home advantage should they face Ulster in the final is an extra fillip – what better way to have another go at christening the new Ravers than with a trophy? And won’t somebody think of poor old Tom Court, whose suspension ends after the semi-final.  A win for Ulster, and he gets the chance for his last act in an Ulster shirt not to be a spear tackle.  After last season’s narrow miss, they’ll feel it’s what they deserve and probably feel they’re due a bit of good fortune – and, as at Welford Road, they might just be ready to scale that peak.

What do they have to do to win?  Not shoot themselves in the foot for starters.  Leinster haven’t offered a huge amount in attack this season and Ulster are a good defending team, so it’s hard to see Leinster racking up multiple scores.  Leinster’s lineout is misfiring and Ulster will surely plan to disrupt it.  Yes, the scrum is a concern, and Leinster dominated this element of the game in Ravenhill.  But they didn’t dominate it quite as much as expected.  The first scrum of the day was minced, but after that Ulster just about held up their end.  If they can survive the scrummaging they have the more cohesive looking attack, the better backline and – if Pienaar starts – the halfbacks to control the match.

Jonny Sexton and the Summer Tour

Jonny Sexton’s season in France has gone on at least a week longer than expected.  With Racing Metro securing an improbable win away to Toulouse, largely due to Sexton’s goal kicking as it happens, they’ve made it to the semi-finals of the Top Quatorze.

It only serves to lengthen what’s already been a long, fatiguing season for Sexton, and no doubt Joe Schmidt will be watching closely.  It’s one of the more difficult decisions for Schmidt as to whether or not to bring Sexton on the summer tour to Argentina.  Sexton himself has let it be known he wants to play and it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s no precedent for Ireland to head off on a summer tour with a weakened team.  The only time players were left behind was in 2007 on a tour to – guess where? – Arentina, when O’Sullivan left his 15 Untouchables at home.  But that was the summer directly before the World cup, and this one is still 16 months out from the event, so it’s a very different situation.  These will also be two tough games.  This is a far from vintage Argentina team, but they’ll be using these games to get set for the Rugby Championship, and will most likely have targetted them as their most winnable matches of the season too.  There’s a series to be won first and foremost.

As well as winning, perhaps even more so, the most important piece of business to take care of on this tour is to begin the process of replacing Brian O’Driscoll.  Whether the man Schmidt decided upon is Darren Cave or Robbie Henshaw – it appears it will be one of the two – that player must be given the best possible platform to succeed.  That will most likely mean surrounding the chosen one by as many top-class internationals as possible.

It’s worth casting one’s mind back to how Declan Kidney handled Sexton’s own debut.  The game was against Fiji in the RDS and was sandwiched between two tests against top tier opponents in Australia and South Africa.  Sexton was coming off the back of a career-turning few months; he had steered Leinster to a hugely unexpected Heineken Cup triumph and was now embedded as his province’s first choice fly-half.  He had been in the matchday 23  for the Australia game, but didn’t get on.  As a player he offered huge possibilities to Kidney and Ireland, who until now had been worryingly dependant on Ronan O’Gara.  This was the perfect opportunity to give Sexton his debut.

In a canny bit of management, Kidney surrounded Sexton with the fulcrum of the Leinster team with whom he was so familiar; Heaslip, Reddan, D’arcy and O’Driscoll.  D’arcy and O’Driscoll were in the same boat as O’Gara, in that Ireland were overly reliant upon them and had few alternatives if they were ever injured; unless you counted Paddy Wallace, which most people didn’t.  The game was a perfect opportunity to have a look at alternatives in those positions too.  But Kidney recognised that you can’t do everything at once and the most important thing was to ensure that his gleaming new fly-half was given every opportunity to get his international career off to a good start.  Surrounded by his Leinster colleagues, in the RDS, it would be as if he were playing in blue.  As it happened Sexton played like a dream; so well in fact that Kidney picked him again the week after for the test against South Africa.  In a signature performance, Ireland won 15-11.

Similarly, Schmidt will want to provide his new 13 with as solid a platform as he can, and that surely means playing Sexton inside him.  Madigan, Keatley and Jackson are fine players, but none are as accomplished or as experienced as Sexton, whose threat on the gainline and superb decision making and distribution create space for those outside him.  He is also a leader in the team and will be seen as a key figure for steering an inexperienced player through his first few caps.  Certainly, Ireland will want to develop a couple of options in one or two other positions, but the only position where they face going to the World Cup with an unproven player is at outside-centre.  So if Sexton is named in the touring squad, and the hordes begin baying for ‘development’ of certain players, bear in mind that chances are he’s in the team for precisely that reason.

Summer Summer Summer Time

Are these songs on the playlist in Thomond Park these days?

Are they about to throw the towel in rather fight tooth and nail for silverware? After losing to an exceptionally inexperienced Ulster time, it’s time to be worried. Next week they travelt to Glasgow, the form team in the Pro12 and a team hungry for the cup having repeatedly gone close in recent seasons, for a very tough semi-final.  Time to shape up.

In 2012, with a head coach leaving at the end of the season, Munster threw their hat at the final rounds of the Pro12, culminating in an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Ospreys.  Sounds familiar?  After their exit at the hands of Toulon, we mentioned that they would do well to quickly turn their attention to the prefectly respectable piece of silverware that was available.  The signs so far are mixed.  They put 50 points on Edinburgh, which served to underline that they mean business, but their performance against a junior Ulster team was so poor as to be bizarre.  Even great players like Conor Murray were reduced to throwing aimless passes to nobody.  In front of a barely half-full Thomond Park they didn’t seem very interested.  Sure, there wasn’t much at stake, but Munster would have been better off building momentum for a very difficult semi-final next weekend than throwing in a clanger in front of (a few of) their own supporters.

RTE were at pains to argue that Munster would definitely respond to their dire performance next time out, and that no team can turn an abject performance into a good one a week later than Munster, but they were missing the point.  The Pro12, in its various guises, is not a competition that really switches Munster on – it’s not in their DNA to give it as much respect as the Heineken Cup, and at times they seem to pride themselves on their ability to play as abominably as possible, to make their HEC exploits look even better.  If they were playing, say, Clermont Auvergne next week we wouldn’t doubt they’d respond, but Glasgow?  Hard to see it.

The only time since 2009 that Munster really went full-tilt at the Pro12 was in 2011, but under unusual circumstances.  Munster were out of Europe in the pool stages, so they had time to get over the emotional hump and re-focus.  Back then, Munster ditched the remnants of several aged Liginds and found a spark to their season when they introduced Conor Murray and Felix Jones to the team. They won that year, in memorable style against Leinster  – but it wasn’t typical.

Three years on, the newbies have read the script: the Pro12 is for vain losers like the Hairsprays and Leinster .  Real men only care about The Big One, or friendlies against touring test sides. Now there’s something worth giving your all for!  For Munster, the idea of going to a ground like Scotstoun and considering it worthy of their greatest efforts, is insulting their standing in the game. Glasgow?  What have they ever done in Europe?  This game is Glasgow’s season, but Munster’s ended two weeks ago. They are a better team than Glasgow, but they don’t need this game to prove anything to anyone.

Nor did they need to beat Ulster’s seconds to prove anything – ironically, the sight of some rivals for the green shirts might have got more out of them, but Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray – best in their positions in Europe – do not look at Lewis Stevenson and Michael Heaney and find their hearts pumping. They were sloppy and disinterested, and as we forewarned in our post-Toulon review, if they perform with the same lack of vigour against Glasgow, the sense of a good season in which many gains have been made will start to dissipate.  There’s a trophy on the line guys, look alive!

Will it hurt their chances in green? Maybe, after all, Joe Schmidt is a stickler for detail and Leinster prided themselves on giving every game 100% when he was in charge, but more likely, he’ll understand- the good work the fringe Ireland players like Simon Zebo and Dave Kilcoyne put in against Toulon is far more relevant to international rugby than a workout against the Ulster Ravens at the tail end of the season. This game told us precisely nothing about Ulster’s chances in the Oar Dee Esh, but it told us everything about Munster’s in Glasgow – they’ll lose to the hungrier side.

The Big Name Signing

Irish provinces won’t be signing any more big name foreign players any more. Oh, hang on, they will. Or something. Who knows?

Just when it appeared that the day of the big-name NIE signing had ground to a halt, it appears that Kane Douglas’ imminent arrival to Leinster is all but confirmed and Connacht have signed, of all people, Mils Muliaina! If that signing has a look of the last of the summer wine about it (but is nonetheless thrilling), perhaps the even more ambitious coup is the capture of 24-year old Bundee Aki from Waikato Chiefs. Word on the ground is Munster and Leinster were both sniffing around him, but he chose Connacht. Go Connacht! Pat Lam’s ability to sell the province’s less than tangible qualitites to top players on the other side of the globe borders on the miraculous.

First, though, to Kane Douglas, whose signing is a timely boost to Leinster. He has international pedigree, with 14 caps for the Aussies. He played in the tests against the Lions, but despite this, he may not be completely terrible.

At 123kg and over 200cm, he and Devin Toner will form an imposing, sizeable second row partnership for Leinster next year. And at 24 years old, he’s at a terrific age profile to do well. Leinster have caught him on the way up. It’s the first recruitment since Brad Thorn that will be greeted with a sense of excitement. Leinster’s work in the transfer market has been spotty of late. Jimmy Gopperth has been solid and Zane Kirchner is beginning to spark into life, but the arrival of Mike McCarthy has been underwhelming and as for the likes of Andrew “Brad” Goodman, Michael Bent and Quinn Roux – ho hum.

Douglas rather finishes the picture for Leinster’s pack for next season. McCarthy will provide back-up and Tom Denton brings further depth, while the front and back rows are in good health, with no shortage of competition for places. The supposed reserve front row of McGrath, Cronin and Moore have all had very impressive campaigns and provide a level of impact off the bench that is comparable with even the top French sides.

It’s a different story in the backline, where Leinster have been singularly awful all year. It’s the one real bugbear of the Matt O’Connor era so far, and is trying the patience of fans who have become used to dining out on a diet of high-tempo Schmidtball. There are a few issues to be resolved. Both Reddan and Boss have signed on for next season, and while Reddan has enjoyed one of his best ever seasons, Boss’ form has been patchy indeed. Perhaps it’s time for one of the younger scrum halves on the books – Luke McGrath is the most likely – to start getting more exposure.

Luke Fitzgerald is another concern. He has looked electrifying on the pitch this year, but his injury situation is no better than it’s ever been; seemingly in a state of permanent limbo, going from week to week with a nagging abdomenal complaint, neither ruled out of or in the team until minutes before each game.

But all of these pale in comparison to the two chief bits of business that O’Connor and Leinster must take care of; finding a second-centre from somewhere, and ensuring Jonny Sexton’s return to Leinster in a year’s time. The first problem appears to be a case of identifying another starry name from down under, but those are few and far between, especially in a World Cup year. Look at Munster, who have just signed a journeyman Aussie nobody had ever heard of, and their need is no different to Leinster’s. Answers on a postcard.  There are in-house contenders, namely Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald, but neither convinces for differing reasons.  The Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw kite-flying episodes appear to have been fanciful terrace-talk.

Equally paramount is the situation at fly-half.  Sexton knew that Racing’s first season would be a slog, and the first half was dire, but he must be happier now – they showed signs of improvement over the second half of the season and have at least qualified for Le Barrage, even if an away draw is tantamount to not qualifying at all. And the IRFU must surely now see that they dropped the ball badly. To think that a year ago we were having to defend our opinion that this might not be the best outcome for both Ireland and Leinster.  For all the potential of Madigan, there’s no substitute for game-breaking world-class, and you don’t lose a player of Sexton’s regal stature and expect not to pay for it.  The IRFU must do their utmost to bring him back.

One good bit of news is that Sean O’Brien is back in training, and his return to the team next season will make a huge difference; to the pack, to the backline, to everything. He’s among the best backrows in world rugby and his skillset is irreplaceable. Given his twin armoury of exceptional skill at the breakdown and ability to carry over the gainline and provide front-foot ball for his half-backs, he is capable of cancelling out the deficiencies in both the pack and the backline.  O’Connor needs him.  Badly.

P.S. Please, please, please let’s not make the comments box a referendum on Ian Madigan at 10 – he may be discussed in the context of centre, but the Madigan vs. O’Connor/Jackson/Hanrahan/Keatley debate has been done to death below previous posts over the last month.