Five Years of Hurt

That was a tough series for Ireland wasn’t it? And we won it – the first and second test wins in Argentina. Argentina is a tough-ass place to go in June – long journey, different seasons, no-one, no-one, speaks English, plied with Malbec, tough local backrow forwards smelling blood looking to make a name. And all after a seriously intense season – we’ll remember this year for the Championship win in Joe Schmidt’s first season, but when Paul O’Connell comments on the intensity of the Schmidt regime from day one, you can be sure, its physically and mentally demanding. Its ten months since Schmidt first got his hands on these players, and in this, the final action of the season, he has made sure he has got his pound of flesh, with no let-off in the demands – as high as ever.

And rightly so – in the weekend England assured us that they will be RWC contenders (with Chris Ashton’s WINNING try! What? They lost? So why did he do that stupid dive? … never mind .. prick), South Africa showed us the standards we will need to attain, and we don’t have long to get there – no wonder the Milky Bar Kid is in a rush. Fatigue can wait, there are trophies to win – and its not the Guillermo Brown Cup he cares about.

So short-term, results-wise, the tour was a success and Joe Schmidt got more time with the squad. What about the longer term planning for RWC15? Well, we learned four things from this tour:

  1. In the month Fez retired, Rhys Ruddock showed his credentials as an international backrow – with SOB already awaiting re-integration to a high-functioning unit, this is a “good problem” for Schmidt. With injury rates as they are, having Ruddock (and Diack and Murphy) around is useful
  2. Brian O’Driscoll and Dorce’s partnership will be very tough to replace – more of this later
  3. There is room for Zimon Zeebs in a Joe Schmidt technocrat rugby team – we finally got a glimpse of his game-breaking in the second test. Andy Trimble and Little Bob are a little samey if you want to beat the best, Zebo can offer the *groans* X-factor that we might need. Although, we scored plenty of tries in the Six Nations – we aren’t fully bought into the idea that we need flair for flairs sake, but Zebo is a great player and its great to see him involved
  4. Rodney Ah Here. Ah here

Now, to the centres. We said ahead of the tour the biggest to-do was to start the post-BOD process. After a decade of Dorce-and-BOD plenty, we might be realizing how tough its going to be to replace not just the greatest player in our history, but his reliable sidekick as well – any player wearing 13 is already going to be damned by “well, he isn’t Brian” comment, but then any breakdown in communication with their centre partner will be magnified into a “well, where is Dorce” situation.

Darren Cave played well in the first test, but had a bit of a shocker in Tucuman – the Irish midfield was pourous looking all game, and then not having the pace to finish off the try felt terminal for his international ambitions – even for us used to the one-paced Dorce/BOD combo, Cave looked like he was running in clay. Outside him, Ferg was gamey but doesn’t really have the distributive skills for an international 13. Bamm-Bamm was withdrawn early in the first test with (another) possible concussion, and hasn’t quite got a Plan B into his game yet. So we are 0 from 3 when it comes to new centres – and, as we said before the tour, the point of the tour was really to start this process, so its basically been a bit of a fail in that regard, and the games before RWC15 are slipping by.

The next to audition cohort is likely to go be Kiwi attacking talent with dodgy defence Jared Payne, pure-bred rosey cheeked bosh merchant Robbie Henshaw, and creative youngster Stuart Olding, who will all likely get a callup in November, and hopefully gametimes – its getting very late for experimentation, but desperate times etc.

Its very easy to say we need to get behind BOD (and soon to be Dorce’s) successors, but we need to know who they are first – we sucked deeply on the addictive weed that was BOD to get our Championship win, but we are liable to pay now, and time before RWC15 is short. In 2012, we exhorted folk to stand behind Keith Earls, be aware he was likely to make a few defensive clangers, but give him time to grow in the 13 jersey – we did, and he did, but then he was clearly the best option. Now its not as clear.

If we were betting folk, and we wouldn’t ever do something that is so abonimable to God, we think Joe might decide on a Dorce/Keith Earls centre partnership for the RWC and play it in the Six Nations – they are known international quantities and dovetailed well in 2012, and they are the lowest risk to meet a short-term need. If there is a player to play their way into that base scenario, its probably Payne – Olding is likely to be backup fodder until he breaks into the Ulster starting XV, and Henshaw is very raw. Which makes the whole “future” debate essentially about RWC19 – for RWC15, we just need to get something in place, and quickly.

Cnetre-wise, all we can say after Argentina is that Ferg is an emergency option (at best), Cave probably doesn’t have it and Marshall needs to put his health first. Mind you, no-0ne said this was going to be easy.

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End of an Era

No, not the Fez era (that’s coming soon) or the end of the pooh-pooh-ing of concussion (also coming soon), but the Humph era at Ulster. Its been 22 years since Humph was not at Ulster (presumably discounting his time at Oxford and Lahn Oirish) and its reasonable to say no man currently in Irish rugby is as readily identified with his province – Eric Elwood would have been, Axel might if he stays around Munster and Leo Cullen is Leinster’s contender.

Humphreys retired from playing in 2008 and immediately moved upstairs to an operational role, progressing to DoR in 2009 – he was responsible for both the bringing in and the letting go of Brian McLaughlin, the influx of gilded Saffers and the hiring of Mark Anscombe. In terms of on-pitch results, the progression (admittedly from a very low base) has been steady and clear:

  • 2008/09: HEC: 3rd in pool behind Quins, Stade (2 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2009/10: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Stade (4 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2010/11: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Biarritz (5 wins including first in England), QF defeat away to Northampton. Magners: 3rd (out of 12), SF defeat away to Leinster
  • 2011/12: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Clermont ahead of Leicester (4 wins), QF win away to Munster, SF win vs Embra, F defeat to Leinster. Pro12: 6th
  • 2012/13: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Northampton, Castres (5 wins including first in France), QF defeat away to Globo Gym. Pro12: 1st, SF home win vs Scarlets, F defeat to Leinster in RDS
  • 2013/14: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Leicester, Montpellier (6 wins), QF defeat at home to Sarries. Pro12: 4th, SF defeat away to Leinster

So in Europe, first wins on English and French soil, four successive knockout appearances, two pool wins, first home knockout game, and first final – lots of successes. Domestically, going from also-rans to consistent contenders – not as spectacular a progression, but progress all the same. Still, no cigar – Ulster’s aching for silverware has yet to be sated, and that, ultimately, will be seen as a failure – though not all Humph’s, but the buck does stop somewhere, and since he gets lots of the credit for the upturn, he needs to take some responsibility for not getting to where he wanted to be.

Its clear as well that the current stage of Ulster’s progress is ending – big names like John Afoa and Johann Muller have moved on, and they have not been replaced in a like-for-like fashion. Ulster have built around them,bedded in an outstanding generation of youngsters (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy, Olding) and blended them well with developing players who have been around for all of Humph’s tenure (Henry, Cave, Besty, Court, Tuohy), returning Ulstermen (Bowe, Wilson) and some high-class project players.

The next stage will involve the passing on of the baton from foreigners to Ulstermen (and lets not get all Farmer Farrelly on this – Ulster’s home-grown players are at least as influential and have been for a while) while staying competitive. Its not going to be easy, particularly given the state of the front five and the size of the chequebooks being waved around in France. If Humph had ideas of leaving at some point, now might be a good time relative to on-pitch matters.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of the future of the head coach – the Sword of Damocles (© Gerry) appears to be hanging over Anscombe’s head. Ulster currently run a bicameral coaching system with Humph as DoR and Anscombe taking training – would this structure be a disincentive to a big name head coach (if indeed, such an animal would be tempted by Ulster in the first place)? Perhaps Humph’s role would have been diminshed in the near future anyway.

Off-field, Ulster have developed into a commercial juggernaut. Ravenhill is no more, and is instead the Kingspan Stadium (at least they have sold the naming rights to a long-standing supporter of the team), with some extra pounds in the coffers and an increased capacity by 50%, with new, modern facilities. Happily, the atmosphere has not suffered – many observers (even by English ones used to the razor-sharp atmosphere at Allianz Park and Irish ones used to the tears at Thomond) rated the atmosphere for the Saracens game as the best of the season just past. Season ticket sales have ballooned, and their marketing has improved from helping fans to “save time” (actually) to becoming a partner in the Ulster/Kingspan experience – its up to the standard of Leinster and Munster – finally.

Again, Humph presided over these changes, if less directly for the off-field matters – and Ulster are now where they want to be. Seems he received an offer that turned his head from Glaws and he decided he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and the time was right to move on. He certainly wasn’t pushed – that is for sure. As it stands, Ulster and Irish rugby owes a great debt of gratitude to one of its great sons, and we can only hope he’ll be back – he’d certainly make a good fist of David Nucifora’s role, if it turns into what its envisioned to.

Ulster are in an immeasurably better place than when he went upstairs – the new era starts now and the bedrock is firm. As George Harrison said, sunrise doesn’t last all morning. Best of luck, Humph.

EEERRCCCCC Draw 2014/15

If you were confused by the seeding vagaries of the draw for the EERRRRCCCCCC, you weren’t the only ones – we are Maths nerds by profession and all we could understand was that our brains were frying. Luckily, in stepped Murray Kinsella to explain it all in short, easy-to-understand words for us – thanks Murray!

When the ultra-complex draw happened, it produced tougher pools than the legacy tournament, which, as well as having 4 more teams, wasn’t as “elite”. While we had major issues with the money/power grab from the crowing money men of the Boshiership, the case for cutting teams from the HEC structure was pretty strong – and it has turned out that way, looking at the draw, with Pools 1 and 3 (with Munster and Ulster) utterly mouth-watering and the rest largely hard to call.

One pool contains three of last years semi-finalists and two collectively have six of the quarter-finalists – although this says as much about the difficulty of losing a good ranking under the HEC system than it does about the EEEEEEERCCC one. Here’s the full listing:

  1. Globo Gym, Munster, ASM Mental Stength, Sale Sharks
  2. Leinster, Castres, Quins, Wasps
  3. Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets
  4. Glasgow, Montpellier, Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath, Boring Bosh Merchants Toulouse
  5. Northampton, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Treviso

Starting, as ever, with hardy traditionalists Munster, while its a tough draw, their fans are secretly quite pleased – nothing gets the pishun stirring as much as a visit of the arrogant Englishman (© Gerry) or a flaky bunch of Frenchmen. Munster will be confident of 3 home wins, and will target Sale for their away win. Given the fact that 3 out of 5 runners-up will qualify, and looking at how competitive the pools are, 4 wins and 3 bonus points (19 points) might be enough to qualify, and they’ll be aiming for that. Initially anyway.

In pool 2, Leinster have got a bit of a bye – Castres are familiar foes and rarely put 100% effort into Europe. Quins have experience but are a bit short on top quality and Wasps have neither to be frank. Leinster will be thinking of a home quarter-final – for all their attacking struggles this year, their pack and defence retains its excellent rating.

Ulster have paid the price for merely finishing fourth, drawing Toulon and Leicester. While they have made a habit of beating the Tigers in recent times, Leicester surely won’t have as many injuries and Ulster have yet to adequately replace their departing props. Toulon will be really tough, but any team with European pretensions (as Ulster have) should be beating the Scarlets twice. So, then, a simliar target to Munster – 19 points and second place. Third time to edge out the Tigers in four years?

Elsewhere, Northampton and RM92 will be happy with their draw and be confident of reaching the knockouts, and if Glasgae can re-produce their Pro12 form they might be in with a sniff, and that’s a mighty open pool. So much can depend on the timing of the fixtures and how the teams are going at the time, but we feel Leinster will definitely qualify, Munster are slight odds-against, and Ulster third favourites in their pool. Either way, the games look spectacular – worth subscribing to BT Sport though? 🙂

Future Now

So in the longer term, the day of Ireland’s first test win on Argentinian soil will probably be remembered less than Humph leaving Ulster for Gloucester (!) – we’ll get back to that later this week. The game, if it was memorable for anything, will be remembered as 1 CE, the first of the post-BOD era. Given we’re already on RWC15 countdown, its damn important we get someone comfortable in the jersey pronto.

First up was Darren Cave. How did he do? Fine actually – the defensive system looked good, he did the simple things well (except that Rivelino-style banana kick), he brought those around him into play, he threatened the line and he didn’t look out of place in the shirt. There is no point judging him by O’Driscoll standards, or even by Manu or Smuddy standards, as some seem so keen to do – he’s clearly not at that level. What he is is competent and solid – and that’s what he showed. Cave himself doesn’t seem to expect to last beyond this tour in the shirt, but, right now, he’s the best option there – Henshaw is injured and has little experience, Luke Roysh has that worrying perma-injury thing going on that often precedes retirement, the Kildare Lewis Moody hasn’t started a game of note at 13 in years and Jared Payne is both still Kiwi and a rare starter at 13. Keith Earls is the likeliest possible challenger, if he starts there for Munster next year. Time, perhaps, to start dialing down our expectations, begin appreciating what Cave can do, rather that point out who he isn’t.

One of the other winners was Robbie Diack, who, one awful piece of butchery aside, had a good day at the office, and certainly outshone Jordi Murphy – that is significant, as, the 2007 Blindside Army aside, Ireland have taken 5 backrow forwards to the last few tournaments. You would think Heaslip, POM, SOB and Chris Henry are inked in, which leaves 1, and 2 at most, places left. Murphy and Diack are battling it out with Rhys Ruddock for those slots (save for a bolter) – and, given Murphy might struggle for starts in big games next season, Diack might have stolen a march on him.

Aside from that – Simon Zebo looked eager but occasionally naive, Iain Henderson to the manor born, Mike Ross flogged and Johnny Sexton imperious – what’s new. While its great to see Zebo back, other wingers were more prominent – Andy Trimble looked (unsurprisingly) better versed in what Schmidt wingers do, and Miguel Montero simply looked monstrous – Zebo has more work to do to get himself in the RWC15 frame. Hendy was so awesome that Big Dev, possibly Ireland’s find of the season, might find himself back on the bench – his soft hands to set Jack McGrath piling into some Puma forwards at high velocity were gorgeous. The future has arrived.

The jury is split between whether we’ll see wholesale changes or a similar lineup, but assuredly the Milky Bar Kid won’t be impressed with the error count – too many missed tackles and a bit passive at times – end of season mental fatigue maybe. Ho hum, and maybe we’re just trying to read a little too much into these games at the fag end of a wondrous season.

To The Winner Go The Spoils

Leinster are Pro12 champions for 2013-14. In a fittingly absorbing finale, they produced one of their best performances of the season to defeat Glasgow, and eventually gloss the scoreline. It’s their seventh trophy in seven years, and continues a remarkable run of success. This year’s vintage may have paled beside Joe Schmidt’s 2011-12 worldbeaters, but they are the only province to finish with silverware. Winning is a great habit, and Leinster finished top of the league and then saw off two gallant challengers in the knockout stages. What more could you ask for?

At various points in the season, Ulster and Munster were hailed as heroes, teams whose moment had arrived; Leinster for the most part had to deal with brickbats, from their own disgruntled fans as much as anyone else. But for all that, it’s Leinster who finish the season as champions. You can guarantee that everyone associated with Munster and Ulster would trade all the press acclaim for the Pro12 trophy. Who will really remember Leinster’s struggle to put away Zebre and Edinburgh in the RDS when you can gorge your brain on the happy send-off for Leo Cullen and BOD instead?

They say in golf that there’s no room for a picture on the scorecard, and the phrase seems apt here. Leinster huffed and puffed through much of the season, and at times it looked like nothing so uncomplicated as a dropping of standards. Where was the ferocious and accurate clear-out work that provided Schmidt’s blue army with a steady supply of quick ball? It appeared to be missing in action. But look a little less emotionally at the picture and things are not so straightforward. It’s Munster fans who are often accused of being spoiled, but perhaps Leinster’s are now the ‘bold child’ that needs to keep itself in check. To demand both silverware and a certain panache speaks to a little too much self-entitlement, no?

We warned last season when Jonny Sexton went to Paris that replacing him would be no picnic and that it wouldn’t be as simple as throwing Maddog in and expecting everything to take up where it left off. Throw in a new coach, an ageing centre partnership, limited access to Luke Fitzgerald and an injured Sean O’Brien and it’s a lot of issues to absorb in a season. Amid the hallooing, there have been many positives, not least the development of Marty Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, while Sean Cronin turned in his best ever season.  Plus, they’ve won the league.  It gives Matt O’Connor room to breathe, and a solid platform off which to improve performances and mount a more serious challenge in Europe next season.

As for the game itself, well, once again the Pro12 final turned in a terrific match. The league gets its share of stick, but every single final going back to the Leinster-Ospreys game in 2010 has been hugely memorable. For Leinster it was a case of licking Glasgow’s plate clean before starting their own meal. Glasgow threw the kitchen sink at them but the defining moment was the sensational turnover-and-run-it-from-inside-your-own-tryline break which turned the game irrevocably. That was thrillingly old-school Leinster; not Schmidt’s Leinster, but the Leinster of Felipe Contepomi, Denis Hickie and, erm, Cameron Jowitt.

Glasgow and Gregor Townsend may live to rue the decision not to start their gamebreaking Fijians.  Away wins in the RDS, especially in big games, are hen’s-teeth rare, and Glasgow needed to bet the house on their unpredictable, put lethally explosive Fijian 8-9 axis. To do otherwise appeared to err on the side of conservative. Instead we were watching Chris Cusiter try to play the hits from his 2003 back catalogue. There seems to be a thesis that certain players are best unleashed off the bench where they can bring the most ‘impact’. It’s not entirely without logic, but surely the best players should be given the most minutes on the pitch in which to influence the game?

But what really killed Glasgow were Leinster’s first half tries – under Joe Schmidt they specialised in ruthlessly scoring tries when the opponent was on top, and we saw glimpses of that. Zane Kirchner has been peripheral all year, but with decent service and ruthless accuracy back in-scope, he looked lethal. Leinster went in at half-time 14-12 up despite being dominated – difference was they sniped tries with no field position yet Glasgow had loads of visits to Leinster’s 22, but it all went a bit Ulster and they couldn’t score. The catalyst for all this ruthlessness was, whisper it, BOD’s injury and the introduction of Ian Madigan at centre. He’s too small to have a career there, but his sumptuous passing and vision was to the fore on Saturday. The irony of it all, after the season that Leinster and Madigan have had.

And finally, what can be said about Leo Cullen and His BODness that hasn’t already been said? It was an anti-climactic, if weirdly fitting – it was always likely to end with him trudging from the field with an injury, given how he has played all his career – send off for The Great One, and in truth his limbs will probably thank him for not having to go through another 72 minutes of pounding. His body has been creaking badly more or less since the 2011 World Cup, but his genius and commitment never wavered. At the risk of getting all Robo-BOD, future generations will indeed ask if we actually saw BOD play in the flesh. Yes indeed, we’ll say. And Paul O’Connell too? Yes, absolutely. Sometimes even both at the same time. Wow! How come Ireland only won one grand slam in all those years? Err, time for bed now son.