The Hipster Rugby Player

While we were watching Beauden Barrett on Saturday, we felt special. We had seen bits and pieces of Barrett in the last couple of years, but he wasn’t a player who ever makes the conversation when talking about the best outhalves in the game. He’s not in the league of Cruden, Carter, Sexton or even Shane Geraghty. And it’s pretty much because, in spite of his silky skills and natural talent, he’s just a bit .. wild. Like you couldn’t trust him with a late penalty to win the RWC. Like, say, er … Beaver. Anyway, where were we?

But not any more.  Now, when asked about the world’s second best fly-half, having donned your cap, grown a beard and been seen in that achingly cool spot off Wexford Street, you can respond ‘For me it’s Beauden Barrett’. Move over Aaron Cruden, the latest hipster player is in town.  Obviously, as players go mainstream, and even get written about in glowing terms in the Indo, their hipster credentials wane – and it’s a fast moving market. The best hipster players are those who don’t play every game, and are regularly spotted with shades on, shirt buttoned up to the top, reading Proust and drinking single origin Salvadorean macchiato.  Sometimes the players themselves don’t have to be especially hip, but they can still be the choice of hipsters.  Confused?  Well, nobody said being hip was simple.  Next week the rules could be totally different!

So Hip they stopped hanging out in the East Village around the time Girls came out:

Ian Madigan: The Irish Beauden Barrett.  Mad-dog has the nickname, the quiff, the outsize pass as well as – crucially – the manager who doesn’t rate him as highly as the public.  Uber-hip.

Ulster inside centers. Two years ago, Luke Marshall was the hipster’choice  in Ravers. Now, Marshall himself is not very hip, but it was hip to proclaim him the next best thing.  However, once he started playing well for Ireland and people opined on his offloading skills (or lack thereof), it simply became too difficult to justify fandom. So the cognosienti moved on to Stuart Olding. Now that galloots such as Thornley’s sidekicks have Olding inked into the RWC15 starting XV, the tight jean-wearing fan has moved on to Stuart McCloskey. Let’s hope he stays under the radar for a bit longer

Julien Dupuy: Credentials took a nosedive after gouging Ferris, which isn’t very hip.  But James Haskell once wrote a piece about his new lifestyle in France, and in it described Dupuy’s louche, Gallic diffidence to everything, and how he spent his free time sipping espressi in Paris’ hippest coffee houses.  In general, French back play is a mine of hipsterdom, the general principle being that the forwards beat the tar out of each other, while the backs chew feathers and discuss the latest pop-up gallery in that loft on Avenue Foch.

Mick McGrath: Friday night witnessed the Birth of Cool for Mick McGrath.  His hipster beard and hair certainly help; he has the look of a man who could hold his own in a debate on whether Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the best Pavement album.  Competing with Darragh Fanning for place on Leinster wing, and let’s face it, on cool points it’s a no brainer.

Niall Morris: what do you think of when you see a Leicester Tigers shirt? Muck? A terrifically ugly scrum with steam coming off it? Johnno’s battered face? Certainly not a balletic winger who runs in stylish tries without getting his shirt dirty. Plus he isn’t an assured first XV selection and plays beyond the scope of Irish rugby journalism i.e. outside Leinster and Munster. Let’s hope he doesn’t come back to Leinster.

Richie Gray: hip answer to “best lock in the world” question: Richie Gray. Hip answer to “Who does he play for again?” question: errrr, it’s not still Glasgow right? Some English team? Or is it Perpignan? Not sure. The true hipster is rarely to be found in the popular haunts. Plus he has revolutionary hair and looks like a Renaissance painting.

Formerly Hip, now desperately trying to escape Shoreditch:

Jamie Heaslip: he’s got the hair. He’s got the alternative mates. He’s got the niche eaterie. But he’s getting quite successful and well-known isn’t he? What finally jumped Jamie over the shark was the revelation that BoI are contributing to his salary. A true hipster would have crowdfunded, probably through a (free) app where smartphone users could donate to Jamie’s well-being through tokens for papaya juice.

Cian Healy: hipster credentials were impeccable when Michael Cheika told Deccie that Healy’s favourite pastime was painting, and Deccie thought he meant painting & decorating.  But calling yourself DJ Church without having any particular DJ skills is perhaps a step too far.  Also he’s a prop and it’s hard for props to be hip.  They’re just too big.

So tragically unhip they are still wearing Wranglers:

Munster players: sorry, but the definition of rugby hipsters excludes all salt-of-the-earth in-touch-with-the-fans meat-and-two-veg types. Unfortunately for all Munster players, they get tarred with this brush whether it’s true or not. Even Simon Zebo seems vaguely unhip dressed in a Munster shirt. Munster fans will, of course, whole-heartedly agree and hark back to a time when men were men and trips to Toulouse were the exclusive preserve of 30,000 fans with Credit Union accounts. Stereotype: Frankie.

BOD: BOD’s Twitter account is like a perma-ad for his “partners”, almost exclusively big corporations. Not a micro-financer in sight. Now he’s on Newstalk instead of a pirate. He does fund an (excellent) app, but also a sports management company. Ugh – bet he still drinks flat whites.

Leo Cullen & Devin Toner: just so uncool. So uncool.  Devin Toner’s gf runs a cupcake company, but even that can’t make Devin cool.

The High Priest of Rugby Hipsterdom is of course, one Gervais Thornley. You never know where you will see him next, he wears leather, scarves and stubble. His shades permanently dissect his hair. He imparts cool with one sideways glance. He even has bitter rugby blogs written by chronically unhip underpants-wearers named in his honour. Not that we’d ever reach his levels of hip-ness.


Munster Centres Post #237 [Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V]

It didn’t take us long.  A post on Munster’s woes at centre.  Stop the clock.  Who said had their money on four weeks?  But yes, here we are. Fresh from Munster’s latest setback, losing at home to Ospreys, we can’t help ourselves.  It’s staring us and everyone else in the face, so we can’t avoid it.

For those who didn’t see the game, Denis Hurley and Ivan Dineen played centre as Munster laboured against a far more canny and penetrative Ospreys team.  Munster’s best player on show was South African wing van den Heever, whose quick feet were causing Ospreys trouble any time he got the ball.  Trouble was, the midfield offered nothing by way of go forward or distribution skills.  Dineen and Hurley are hard to differentiate from one another and have deeply un-complimentary skillset.  Dineen has the look of someone who will struggle to get another contract at Munster – mind you, he’s got an extension before on the back of doing very little. This time, judging by certain leaked documents, Frankie will need all his persuasive skills to justify giving Dineen soft MOTM awards, and will really earn his 15% if he keeps him around Thomond.

Hurley, on the other hand, has been a good servant for the province.  His switch to 12 has been long-mooted and is a worthwhile experiment.  He’s a big strong lad and has good offloading skills, which is a good start.  And his time at 15 means he’s got a decent kicking game too.  Sounds good on paper, but he’s effectively a like for like replacement for James Downey when what Munster are crying out for is someone who can pass the ball.

The first man to be replaced was the hapless Dineen, who got the hook for Will Chambers Andrew Smith.  Smith’s most notable contribution was to ignore a juicy looking overlap on the right wing and to take it into contact instead.  A phase later the ball was turned over.  It would leave a coach tearing his hair out.

Now for the important bit.  The bit you’ve all been waiting for.  The bit where we proclaim JJ Hanrahan the best thing since sliced bread.  Okay, maybe not quite, but we’re at least going to say he should be in the team.  In his staggeringly brief cameo (he came on for the last ten minutes) Munster offered more threat than they had done at any stage prior to this, and plenty of the good stuff was coming through JJ.

We’ve been pretty reticent to jump on the Hanrahan bandwagon, but purely due to realism. The same way we haven’t written Stu Olding into the Ireland RWC15 team yet – he’s got buckets of potential, but until he does something, let’s not be too presumptuous. Plus there’s over-the-top BS that almost forces us into the opposing position. Too much feverish hype from the usual quarters – the same ones that told us Danny Barnes was the best thing since etc.  Too much desire to make him fit a narrative as the next Golden-Thighed ROG.  But let’s face it, the kid is pretty talented.  Raw, for sure, but a real footballer.  Not quite Beauden Barrett; but then who is?  He’s a better player than they have in the team at the minute.

Why are Munster persisting with jobbing tradesmen at centre when they could be giving valuable matchtime to a far more talented player, one who could conceivable be the future of the province? He certainly has much much more to add than Dineen and Smith. Why was it left until the last 10 minutes to bring him on, when the game was crying out for him?  Axel Foley declared himself open to the idea of playing both Keatley and Hanrahan in a pre-season interview; so why hasn’t he given him more time on the pitch?  In his defence, Hanrahan was injured for the first two rounds, but saturday was the perfrct opportunity to give the partnership a look; for twenty minutes at least.

Now he finds himself staring down the barrel of Leinster and Danny Cipriani in the ERCC with the choice between persisting with his tried-ant-tested-but-pretty-moderate or chucking everything behind a second-five-eighth gameplan that’s as yet untried.  He’s a rookie coach, and his backroom team are all pretty rookie-ish too – Axel isn’t a guy who you would expect to shirk a decision, but there is a little extra pressure when the buck stops with you.

That said, Axel was trumpeted (not by himself) as heralding a “return to traditional Munster values” – and having rubbish centres is about as traditional Munster as you can get. Sorry, couldn’t help that.

Irving Chernev wrote that ‘chess is not a game for timid souls’ and the same holds true of rugby.  Axel must grasp the nettle.  Just pick the guy already, at 10, 12, 13 or wherever. Get him involved. Somehow.

Please! Can Second Rows Stop Getting Injured!

The latest news on Donnacha Ryan’s injury is not good – the phrase “last resort” has been used, and what we feared at the beginning of the season, a Jirry-esque spiral into perma-injury and ultimately retirement, now appears a distinct possibility. It’s a toe injury, which seemingly prevents him pivoting and leaves him unable to scrummage. What’s new, say the wags among you, but Ryan in 2012/13 was one of the few to enhance in reputation in the dark dog days of Deccie’s ticket. Ireland could do with having a full strength, snarling Ryan back fit and firing, especially for the world cup, but the probablility is receding.

If Ryan falls into the bucket of “not Paul O’Connell but an international calibre second row forward”, he shares that (hopefully huge) bucket with Big Dev, NWJMB (that’s Iain Henderson to newcomers) and Dan Tuohy. If all four were fit and in their best form, the Milky Bar Kid would have a serious selection dilemma and we’d all be talking about what great depth we have. Henderson is likely to be around the longest, and is the most naturally talented, but he’s just starting out in the row, and will get beefier. Toner has made incremental progress for five years now and was one of Ireland’s most consistent players last season. Tuohy is a guy who we feel got a bit of a bum deal from Deccie from 2010/11 to 2012/13 – he was the most dynamic of all the second rows playing in Ireland at the time, but got consistently overlooked for Donncha. Because we know what he can do. Or something.  Tuohy performed ably in the first game of the Six Nations last year but unfortunately got injured.

But now, three of the four lads in the our giant bucket are injured – Henderson had what seems to be elective surgery on his back, with a view to playing in the 6N and being fully fit for the RWC; Tuohy broke his arm after starting the season as one of Ulster’s standout players; and now Ryan’s very career seems to be hanging in the balance. Ireland have been left in the position that their starters from last year, O’Connell and Toner, are still around, but the guys ranked 3, 4 and 5 on the depth chart are out for November.  Sure, the World Cup and Six Nations are the most important upcoming milestones, but November is an important opportunity to test ourselves against two of the world’s best teams.  And Australia.

That effectively means Ireland are one injury away from having to start Mike McCarthy against the Wobblies and the Boks – he’s done well against the Boks before, but that was at the peak of his powers and he hasn’t been quite at that level since.  He doesn’t lack for beef, but we’d question whether he’s quick enough around the paddock to survive Oz. After that, it’s cover your eyes time. Dave Foley is probably next in line (and the bench option in case of injury to one of the incumbents or McCarthy).  He’s started Heineken Cup games at the business end of the tournament for Munster, and done reasonably well. Then it’s probably Mick Kearney, who is more one for the future than the present… and after that the cupboard is bare.  Think – yikes – Billy Holland, Lewis Stevenson or … Stakhanov! At that point, we’ve got past our #7 and #8 lock (Foley and Kearney). Most international sides would struggle.  But it won’t come to that, right?  Right?

An alternate solution to slumping that deep down the chart would be Schmidt saving himself one of his selection dilemmas in the back row and ask Rhys Ruddock to step forward. It wouldn’t be an ideal situation, leaving Ireland a touch underpowered. After all, he’s never played there. But he plays a bit like a second row.  It would be a bit like Ryan Jones filling in there for Wales.  Still, we’ve still to get three injuries for that to happen – and we’re hardly likely to get three second row injuries in a couple of weeks are we?  Are we?

Rationalization: our current Ireland lock depth chart:

  1. Paul O’Connell – Gerry calls him Superman. Level-headed coverage guaranteed. He’s great though
  2. Devin Toner – current incumbent and fair’s fair
  3. Iain Henderson – he’ll be in Ireland’s engine room through RWC23 at least, injury allowing, but he’s only just got Johann Muller’s shirt
  4. Donnacha Ryan – if he gets this toe sorted and returns the same player
  5. Dan Tuohy – great hands, a second row who doesn’t fear the pill – who knew?
  6. Mike McCarthy – heavy, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Against some teams
  7. Dave Foley – bit to go in his development, but played HEC for Munster in the row
  8. Mick Kearney – very far to go in his development, but he is improving. That’s something to cling to.
  9. Else – be afraid, be very afraid.

Thirty Man Squads

Why are the World Cup squads capped at 30 players? It looks like an arbitrary enough number, set at exactly double the number of players on a rugby team. You might think it suggest that it enables a player and a back-up for all the positions on the field. Perfect? What more could you want?

Except that this appears to overlook the position-specificity of rugby, the development of tactical substitutions and also its attritional nature. Not to mention that certain positions in the team have essentially become 50-30 minute roles to be shared by two players, a development that has taken place in the last six or seven years – in the 2007 World Cup final, the victorious Springboks made only 1 permanent change and that for 8 minutes. Admittedly, their opponents, Dad’s Army, emptied the bench and gave luminaries like, er, Peter Richards and Dan Hipkiss runouts, but they were older and were chasing the game.

One other key development that it overlooks is that matchday squads have been extended from 22 to 23 players since the last World Cup. Not only does this mean that an extra body has to be supplied to each match, but it has a significant knock-on effect on the nature of prop forwards. Back when one prop took his place on the pine, the ambi-prop who could fill in capably on both sides of the scrum was a hugely valued commodity. The outstanding filler-inner in global rugby was Toulouse’s behemoth JB Poux. Sure, France had better tightheads than Poux, and better looseheads, but none were so capable at doing both. England had Matt Stevens and David Wilson. Stars of the game and world-class in the set piece? Not a bit of it but valuable filler-in for the 17 jersey. Ireland had Tom Court. The less said about his qualities on the tighthead side the better, but he was there to cover both sides, notionally at least.

But since the advent of 23-man squads the ambi-prop no longer has any value at all, and a specialist tight and loosehead can be – indeed, must be – accommodated on the bench. As soon as the new rules came into play, Tom Court could stop having nightmares about the playing on the tight side and get on with his role as loosehead… or just get dropped from the squad altogether. Matt Stevens could … er… forget about important things like fitness and conditioning but still somehow make the Lions squad.  What was our point again?

Given a lack of requirement to fill in on both sides, props have been left to develop their game on just one side. It means most nations will be looking at bringing nine front row players. The closest thing Ireland have to a prop who can play both sides is Jack McGrath who has filled in at tighthead the odd time, but scarcely for a over a year. Could we rely upon him as emergency cover or will one of Tadgh Furlong and Stephen Archer be required (along with Mike Ross and Marty Moore, who are appear locked down)? Surely it will be the latter.

Along with three props, chances are most squads will need three of that other specialist position, scrum-half. Only France have scrum-halves and fly-halves who are interchangeable; most nations see the roles as pretty disparate. It all means that three positions could take up 12 squad places and leaves room for just 18 players to cover the other 11. It puts a premium on utility players who can cover a handful of positions. It’s good news for these player types:

  1. The athletic second row who can run fast. The second row who is quick enough to play on the blindside has a big value, because he reduces the back-row/lock requirement by one. Donnacha Ryan made the last world cup on this basis. Step forward Iain Henderson for Ireland and Courtney Lawes for England. Wales don’t appear to breed this type of player; despite having an abundance of fine second rows most of their best locks would be an uneasy fit at 6.
  2. The fly-half who can play centre, or vice-versa. Fly-half is a pretty specified role and mighty important. You need three of them in the squad, in case one gets injured, but that leaves precious little room left for backs. So ideally, at least one of these fly-halves has to be able to play elsewhere. Or one of the centres has to be able to cover fly-half. This is why Paddy Wallace was in the last panel and Luke Fitzgerald was left at home. He could cover centre, full-back and fly-half. Those with especially long memories might recall that Geordan Murphy fulfilled the role in 2007 (when Wallace was the actual backup). Stuart Olding and Ian Madigan fit the bill this time around, and at least one of them is bound to travel. For England, Billy Twelvetrees is the man, while Dan Carter has a reasonable amount of experience at 12 for the Kiwis.  James Hook is probably the classic of the genre, but he’s so good Warren Gatland generally prefers to leave him out for vastly inferior players.
  3. The Utility three-quarter – if you can only play on the right wing, you’d better be damn good because if you’re only in contention as a squad man, you’d be better off if you could cover a few jerseys in the back division. Happily, Ireland have a good few of this player type, and all of Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and especially Fergus McFadden have experience in at least two positions across the backline.
  4. The Catch-All Backrow – As with the back division, the flanker who can play a couple of positions has an inherent advantage. Ireland have found themselves with an unhealthy oversupply of blindside men in recent world cups, but Jordi Murphy – assuming he can continue his development from last season – can offer better cover at No.8 and No.7 than we’ve previously had. It also helps that Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien have played in all three positions in the backrow. Luckily for England, all their flankers are interchangeable six-and-a-halfs.  On the flipside, New Zealand, Australia and Wales appear to have the clearest demarcation between blindsides and opensides, with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Pocock, McCaw and Hooper performing the roles of the openside in the classic ‘breakaway’ mould beloved of purists like Leinsterlion.

All this utility nonsense might not be so important if they extended the squad size to 32 players, which appears logical.  Nobody, least of all the coaches wants a 2005-Lions-sized panel with lots of players who won’t see any action loitering in camp, but two extra bodies would probably go down well. Also, forget any notions of Joe Schmidt having a cast of extras in camp so he can draft players into the squad quickly in case of injury. It’ll be hard enough keeping 30 caged animals happy, having a bunch of hangers-on who know they can’t get selected unless some lad goes down hurting is not going to run at all.

RIP Leinstertainment

There was a documentary released a tad over 20 years ago called ‘An Impossible Job’ about Graham Taylor’s inept attempt to qualify England for the soccer World Cup in the USA. Taylor had a couple of fundamental issues that made his job impossible – he took it on right after England had achieved what was (and still is) their best performance in a major tournament not held in England, and the sky high expectations of fans who weren’t of a disposition to accept that Carlton Palmer and Les Ferdinand perhaps weren’t quite as good as Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit.

Its a decent comparison to Matt O’Connor’s lot when taking over from Joe Schmidt at Leinster – two Heineken Cups, a Euro-vase and a Pro12 title (in their third successive final) were won with style and verve and Leinster fans have become a little sated. Following Schmidt out the door were Isa Nacewa (retirement) and Jonny Sexton (Croissants and Coffee) to be replaced by Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle Falcons) and Zane Kirchner (in November).

Schmidt was revered by Leinster fans for his intelligent and accurate rugby and for the feral manner in which his charges hoovered up the best in Europe and spat them out. Eviscerations of opponents in the RDS/Aviva were common and Leinstertainment became a frequently-used truism about the best team Irish provincial rugby has produced. O’Connor came unheralded from Leicester Tigers, an excellent team but associated with a style some Leinster fans consider beneath them – conveniently forgetting both the way Mike Cheika steadied the ship by grinding out wins through Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright, and how the sainted Schmidt’s teams played away from home in Europe, where ruthless pragmatism was the order of the day.

Leinster won the Pro12 in style last year, but limped out of Europe, albeit against a frightening Toulon team – the season was reasonably successful, and, on paper, better than the previous one where Leinster were dumped out of the HEC early and would surely have lost the final had Ulster not had to cede home advantage. That Leinster have lost some of their sheen is in no doubt – the accuracy of the Schmidt era felt like it ebbed away last year and the team often laboured in possession. O’Connor, predictably, got most of the blame, but there are some pretty big mitigating factors.

Leinster’s starting pack contains five current Ireland starters (DJ Church, Rosser, Lighthouse Toner, SOB and Heaslip), one player expected to make a serious push for the XV this year (Rhys Ruddock), and Ireland’s entire backup front row are Leinstermen. This pack anchored the Six Nations champions and has been among the best in Europe for several year now. In contrast, the current roster of backs is arguably the third best in Ireland, with only Bob a guaranteed Ireland starter. O’Connor lost his two most influential backs before he started and Leinster’s best ever player after his first season. They were not adequately replaced, although Kirchner was increasingly finding his feet as his first year went on. It’s pretty easy to see why playing a forward-oriented game suits his personnel.

One of the biggest rods used to beat O’Connor is the Ian Madigan one – we have been Madigan fans from year zilch, and he is an outstanding natural talent. The accepted wisdom among a significant chunk of the Leinster support was that, not only was Mads a sure thing to smoothly step into Jonny’s shoes, but it was actually a good thing that Sexton was forced abroad, as it would save the new coach the headache of how to fit both Madigan and Sexton into the team. We were worried that it wouldn’t be as easy as that – Sexton was the Lions fly-half and a key driver of the team. Sure, Mads looked great off the bench or against mediocre opponents in the Pro12, but it’s a different game with the pressure on.

Last year, O’Connor selected the journeyman (sorry, but it’s true) Gopperth ahead of Madigan for all the big games, and the perception was the Madigan was getting a raw deal . Mads did finish the season very strongly, for province and country, but there is no doubt who MOC saw as his first choice 10. It’s easy, and convenient, to jump on the “MOC ruined Mads” bandwagon but we just aren’t buying it – if Madigan was tearing up trees in training and MOC thought he could execute the game he wanted to play, he’d have been picked. Simples. But he couldn’t get Gopperth out of the team.

Now this season, Leinster have started the year poorly, and #MOCOut was trending on Twitter on Friday. But, again, it’s another over-reaction – it’s not quite in the Hook “Schmidt has lost the dressing room” from September 2010, but it’s just not that simple. For a start, the  first two games kind of went to the script:

  • Glasgow (A) – loss, with bonus point. Glasgow are one of the best sides in the league, and Leinster had humiliated them in their last fixture – they could expect a massive reaction. Glasgae were at home, and Leinster never start well – a losing bonus point was what most expected going into the fixture
  • Scarlets (H) – win, with bonus point. When you are pissed off and want a game to play yourself back into form, home to the Scarlets is about as good as it gets. Tackling is optional and set pieces are easy. Sweet – five points and all is well.
  • Connacht (A) – loss, with bonus point. Now, the performance was poor, and a team with 11 internationals should do better. But its a perennial bogey fixture for Leinster, and they were playing  a Connacht team with momentum and chips on their shoulder big enough to earn Axel’s respect. A setback, but not an absolute disaster.

Leinster need to get their season going, but not only is it early days, the fixture list from here to Christmas is packed with winnable fixtures – indeed, it’s entirely feasible they won’t lose again until Stephen’s Day, when passion and honesty will be in the brave and faithful air in Limerick. Have a look:

  • September: home to Cardiff is essentially a banker. Nothing to see here
  • October: the Big Match in the Palindrome against Munster – normally an awful spectacle, but Leinster will be favourites and aren’t likely to fall flat here. Then it’s Zebre away and Wasps at the RDS – two wins surely. Next up is a trip to Castres to face the HEC’s favourite bunnies – assuming they don’t try a jot in the ERCC as well, Leinster’s pack should make this one winnable. Last up, Embra at home – five points please.
  • November: it will be the reserves, but then Leinster’s are better than most. Treviso away and the Hairsprays at home – both eminently winnable, although Ospreys typically make life difficult for Leinster.
  • December: first up, the double-header with Quins. Quins are slowly sagging backwards from the Premiership-winning season three years ago, and were tonked 39-0 by Globo Gym at the Stoop a few weeks ago. Again, Leinster will see this as an achievable two wins, but one win might be enough in any case so long as they come out ahead on match points over the two legs. Then, before the trip to Thomond, it’s Connacht at home, where there will be a whiff of you-know-what in the air.

Sure, Leinster have started slowly, but let’s keep things in perspective. The strength of the pack means Leinster will contend in every game, and cause celebre Madigan has started the season well. This year is going to be more pragmatic rugby, but rather than ruing O’Connor not being Joe Schmidt, merely winning games is still… winning games. And Leinster’s pack is brilliant. It wasn’t always this way.

Jonny, Jump on the Jet, we’re off to Cayman

The news that Jonny Sexton’s return to Leinster is being funded by private (i.e. non-Union) money was confirmed this week, and also clarifies how they managed to stave off Toulon’s interest in Jamie Heaslip last January. Leinster’s main sponsor, Bank of Ireland, made Heaslip a “brand ambassador” and gave him a chunk of cash, and Denis O’Brien has bankrolled part of Sexton’s wage packet. Newstalk, owned by O’Brien’s Communicorp, was, completely coincidentally, the platform for an exclusive Sexton interview on why he is coming home.

The professional model up to this point has been founded on increasing commercial, ticket and TV revenue (largely from the national team), with the proceeds invested back in the game – part of which is player contracts. The Union (largely) controlled this process in Ireland, but in France it was the clubs. Rugby has become hugely popular and the players are success stories and icons of the modern age; they also have a job which could end any given day if they are unlucky, and they naturally want to be compensated for that risk. And of course they want to be paid the market rate, which is high for multi-HEC winning, Six Nations champions and Lions tour winners.

So this is the new dawn – we’ve been through the emotional “let’s build it together” of the initial bringing the players home and contracting them centrally, and since then player salaries have increased sharply, to the point where, from the Union’s perspective, they have reached a ceiling, for the very elite players at least. Hence the need for top-ups from private sources. The bumper wages on offer from France (and likely England in the future) cannot be matched by the Union, so in order to keep the players here, big business (and Bank of Ireland) have been contracted to help full the gap. It’s a model that was common in Australian rugby in the early 90s, where players were given cushy well-paid numbers with national team sponsors with the blessing of the ARU, but it’s a big step for Ireland, where the Union has been among the most conservative when it came to embracing professionalism.

The financial reality is that it’s this or doubling ticket prices – and the ticketing fiasco that greeted the launch of Fortress Palindrome, among other factors, would have made the second approach seem less desirable.

We can’t be too precious about it.  In an ideal world, the IRFU would be entirely self-sufficient and this sort of private funding wouldn’t be required, but the goalposts have shifted in the last couple of years, probably for ever.  The Top14, where the clubs are entirely funded by private funds, is awash with cash and the players can earn enormous sums of money.  Irish players have long been coveted by the top French clubs, and while Jonny Sexton has been the only one to take up the offer, numerous other players have gone close.  Without being too presumptuous, it appears that the general line from the players in contract negotiations is ‘<Insert French club> have offered me €X to play for them next season.  Now I don’t expect you to pay me the same, but you have to offer me something not a million miles away from it.’  As the all-important €X becomes higher, so too will the amount the IRFU has to pay.  This is the age in which we now live, the age that drove us to the Rugby Champions Cup and the fallout that went with it.  We have grown used to stadia and the team jerseys being sponsored and Leinster received private funds to build their state-of-the-art training facilities.  The next step it seems is the players themselves.

If the likes of Denis O’Brien and Bank of Ireland are offering to ‘save the day’ by making up the difference between what the IRFU can pay and what the player is demanding, it stands to reason they would find it very difficult to say no.  Imagine the outcry if Sexton had stayed in France, only for the story to emerge that the IRFU flatly turned down the hard-earned readies that would have kept him here.

It’s also important not to get ahead of ourselves too much and remember this has happened only in the case of two elite players, and is only likely ever to be relevant for the select group on the highest salaries.  Envisioning a doomsday scenario where every player has his corporate backer, and Charleveille Cheddar fork out an extra €50,000 to keep David Kilcoyne at Munster, or worse still, that Rory McIlroy offers the €300k to keep Peter O’Mahony in Ireland but only if he moves to Ulster, is not especially relevant.  It’s simply never going to happen outside of a handful of special cases.  Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien and maybe Conor Murray are the only other players we can imagine being offered the sort of pay packet in France that would put them outside of the IRFU’s reach. Although, O’Brien’s history of injuries reportedly put off suitors last year.

But it’s not a completely costless strategy. Modern players are very aware of their brand and how to monetize their image, so they aren’t likely to get too upset by having to sit for two hours at a ridiculous corporate event where they get given advice on team selection by half-cut Hooray Henrys. So that’s fine. But, for a start, it’s inherently advantageous to Leinster – there are simply more people and businesses who are likely to have the kind of funds required (appears to be ~€300k annually) and the need for a “brand ambassador” in Dublin than there are in Belfast, Limerick, Cork and Galway.

What if the sponsors start demanding more of the players than was agreed? After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune etc. What if O’Brien rings up Sexton (or rings up Browne who rings up Sexton) to tell him he needs him to come out for some after-dinner-circuit Q&A two nights before a Six Nations match. O’Brien is an important sponsor for the player, the province and the Union – can they tell him to bugger off? Now, based on his experience with the FAI – where he stumped up for Il Trap’s pay packet – he is unlikely to do this – but it’s hardly an impossiblity for other sponsors in the future. Extreme care needs to be taken.

Also, is there some consideration of who the sponsors are? If this model was put in place in, say, 2006, Anglo Irish Bank could have sponsored Dorce. When they became the most evil bank in the history of evilness, this would not have looked like great business, either economically or reputationally. Ireland is far from a well-governed modern country, and the likelihood is that, like in the 80s and the 90s and the 00s, a big Irish company will go from flavour of the business circles to a scandal-ridden shell. To protect its investment, the IRFU needs to exercise due caution when accepting private funds.

Now, back to the rugby, and over to the stadium announcer (who, sponsorship or not, seems unable to pronounce non-Irish player names):  ‘At No.8 and captain it’s Bank of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. Now everyone, let’s stand up for YOUR Bank of Ireland Leinster team.’

The Big Leap

Ah, you rascally Westies, we couldn’t let you down. Even though only about eight of you get to the dog track to see the granite-hard Connacht-men scrap away in the horizontal rain every other week, it seems at least six of the eight get on to the comment box to badger us into writing more stuff about them. Nice lobbying!

Truth be told, we don’t get to see enough of Connacht. In an ideal world, we’d get to see all four provinces in action every week and have detailed colour-coded depth charts in Excel on all of the teams (careful, now), but we have four ankle-biters between us and that sometimes limits the time we have to watch 30 men chasing an oval-shaped bladder around the dirt. Connacht is the one that usually slips through the net. So please, Connacht fans, you can add a lot to this piece with your own opinions below the line. Make hay!

We had a stream of questions on each of Munster, Leinster and Ulster’s upcoming campaigns, but for Connacht this and every season seems to boil down to one perennial question: can Connacht make the leap and break into the top six of the Pro12? If we can agree that The Big Three, Glasgow and Ospreys will always be in the top half, then there’s a place up for grabs between the likes of Cardiff, the Scarlets, Connacht, Embra and Treviso. Scarlets usually take it but they’re a bonkers team who only turn up when they feel like it and often see tackling as an optional extra.  Can Connacht be the ones to grasp the nettle? Last year they finished 10th, with six wins and 16 defeats. The two seasons before that they were eighth, winning eight games in 2012-13 and seven the previous year. To take it to the next level, they would need to target double figures in the games won column.

The good news is they’re off to a flyer. They beat Dragons in the first week and, improbably, turned over Embra in Murrayfield on Friday night. The same Embra, and by the exact same scoreline, that beat Munster in Thomond Park the previous week. It’s the sort of result few Connacht vintages in the past would have pulled off, but as ever with the man from the West, it’s backing up these notable performances that so often proves beyond them. Can they go three from three? If they do, it would leave them almost a third of the way to their target (set for them by us!) of 10 wins for the season, with 19 games left in which to do it. Their next game is an eminently winnable fixture against… Leinster, whom they almost always beat in the Sportsground. It’s a huge opportunity against a team they usually save their best for. If they do so we can expect some frothy talk about Connacht making ‘the leap’.

The Connacht squad is the usual mishmash of local talent, obscure Southern hemisphere men and cast-offs from the big three. Some of the local talent is pretty good; Robbie Henshaw is pencilled in as a possible successor to Brian O’Driscoll, and the great one is himself a fan. We are still not entirely convinced he’s as good as some say, but he is still young and we will watch with interest. And Kieran Marmion played for Ireland in the summer tour, and is a significant upgrade on the multitude of scrum-halves that have passed through the province in recent years. John Muldoon is the captain fantastic, who epitomises the team’s spirit on the pitch.

Some of the cast-offs aren’t bad either. Willie Faloon is a great footballing openside who is just too small to impose himself against the very best sides, but very capable at Pro12 level. Think Niall Ronan with a Nordie accent.  And Nathan White is one of their best signings and a very reliable tighthead, who could be capped for Ireland when he naturalises.

By far the biggest improvement is the calibre of player Pat Lam has been able to attract from the southern hemisphere. Bundee Aki was targeted by more successful teams, but Pat Lam appears to have convinced him to play on a rain-lashed dog track for a couple of years rather than compete for silverware. And if Mils Muliaina has even a spark of greatness left in him, he will be fantastic to watch. A truly world class player at his best, he is a massive coup for the province.

As usual, the depth chart is Connacht’s weakness, and beyond the more recognisable names are a bunch of largely interchangeable journeymen and inexperienced youngsters who could go either way. And Rodney Ah Here, Irish international tighthead prop. [Idea for TV programme: Rodney Ah Here and Michael Bent take a road trip to Donegal, showcasing the local scenery, and stopping off for liquid refreshments in many local hostelries on the way. Hurls should probably feature, but we haven’t figured out how to shoehorn them in yet].

Countdown – T minus 365

After Week One’s crisis, turns out the provinces aren’t do bad after all, going 4-for-4 in the Pro12. Team Milky Bar are gradually leaking the big boys back into the provincial setups, and this week was noticeable for the injection of quality – in the two games we watched anyway (half of us were on the west coast watching Ms Ovale tear it up in the Ras na mBan – no, really). We have criticized the player management system in the past – particularly in 2013 when it seemed like every player Deccie wanted to pick got injured the second he donned provincial colours after what seemed like an age being “managed” – but while it isn’t perfect, there is no denying it has delivered for Ireland, and has enabled the provinces to build depth unimaginable a decade ago.

Breaking the Ireland team into Untouchables, Probables and Possibles can be instructive – here’s a look at how they did this week.

The Untouchables

In Schmidt’s Ireland set up, if DJ Church, Besty, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Bob are fit – they are in. End of story. Jamie Heaslip and Bob made their returns for Leinster this weekend, and it was like seeing a pair of Rolls Royce’s smoothly steam into a boxcar demolition derby – Heaslip was man of the match (well – he was in blue, that’s when he pulls the finger out, right?) and Bob scored a brace of tries. Up north, Besty didn’t have much fun. His very first involvement was to put down a pass for a walk-in try, and the lineout was a disaster, with four throws lost. The Zebras were utterly hopeless, and less errors would have been good.

The Probables

With a fully fit selection, at this point in time you’d expect Joe Schmidt’s wings to be Andy Trimble and Tommy Bowe. Probably. Bowe is the most experiened of all Ireland’s wings, but missed last years campaign due to injury and is effectively battling his way back to the team. Trimble, in turn, was a revelation in 2014 – and coming back into the Ulster team, he was a class apart – strong in defence, and scored a try to boot. In the second row, Devin Toner continued the pattern of the last 5 years and made incremental progress to become an international class lock last year. He’s probably battling NWJMB and Donnacha Ryan for the right to partner Superman at RWC15.  Big Dev has become Really Big Dev, as he looks noticably bulkier this year.  Word is he has gone from a feather-weight 122kg to a rock-solid 127kg.  Alun Wyn Jones made a similar transition from bean-pole to pack enforcer and made the leap from ‘already pretty good’ to world class as a result, captaining the Lions in their final test in Australia.  Can Devin Toner use his new-found bulk to make a similar step forward?

The Possibles

In the summer tour to a wintery Argentina, two of the players who came home with their reputations enhanced were Rhys Ruddock and Robbie Diack. With Fez finally confirming that the dream is over, Peter O’Mahony is battling with Chris Henry for the final slot in Schmidt’s championship backrow, but both the alternatives, Ruddock in particular, are breathing down the two Probables necks. But it was Diack who shone this weekend, looking like the best forward in Ulster’s pack, carrying well and getting through a mountain of work, both seen and unseen. Dan Tuohy also shone in the loose, but in the interests of fairness, needs to take some debit for the dogs dinner of a lineout. Tuohy could be a RWC15 squad member, as he offers something different, but it all depends on how Henderson and Ryan pitch up after spells out through injury.

Speaking of something different, step forward Mr I. Madigan of the Southside – and we aren’t talking about his hair. This time, anyway. Sexton is miles clear of the chasing pack, with Jackson and Madigan locked tight in the battle to back him up.  It looks a classic case of ‘Jackson would start if Sexton was injured, but Madigan offers more as an impact reserve’. In any case it’s likely that both of them will travel t the World Cup, with Madigan’s versatility a bonus.  Recall that Luke Fitzgerald missed out on the last World Cup because Paddy Wallace was needed, in case either ROG or Sexton got injured.

Madigan had a classic Good Ian night, kicking well and scoring a couple of tries – his star is rising again, particularly with Jimmy Gopperth’s difficulties.  But is he a 10 or a 12?  Does it matter?  Being able to play a bit of both will do his prospects no harm.

We’re going to start a RWC15 Player Power Ranking in a couple of weeks and try to quantify some of all this nonsense, but you can bet your bottom dollar all the Irish (and the New Irish like Diack and Jared Payne) are well aware of the ticking clock in Joe Schmidt’s mind which stops in around a year.

Kiss me Quick, Cowboy

It’s a new dawn at Ulster – for the first time since a fresh-faced ruddy-cheeked youngster was studying Law at Oxford and putting the Irish in London Irish, the season starts without Humph at Ravers. After finishing his playing career, he went upstairs and worked with Shane Logan on building Ulster into a proper professional setup – the academy, stadium and on-pitch development stand as testament to the road travelled (not that Humph gets full credit of course, didn’t Rory McIlroy pay for it all anyway?). Now he’s off to Glaws to try and take a talented but flaky looking squad to heights not seen in Kingsholm since the heyday of Lesley Vainikolo.  Last we saw of him he’d appointed Laurie Fisher as head coach and George North was running amok through his team’s defence: “Smithers, I’m beginning to think that Homer Simpson is not the brilliant tactician I thought he was”.

One thing Humph loved in his role as glum-faced box-dwelling long jacket-wearing Ulster capo was a compliant coach to take training while he made the real decisions behind the scene. One of Logan’s first moves with Humph out of the picture was to welcome Anscombe back to work with a shiny P45 and to hell with the consequences. So now Les “Kissy” Kiss is the acting Ulster coach and it ties Ulster right into Joe Schmidt’s setup for the season – for good or ill.

The Ulster players didn’t even bother to play the game and give Anscombe a happy send off, content instead to talk about how great Kissy was and how they were looking forward to working with him. With quasi-forwards coach Johann Muller back home to somewhere – anywhere – warm and sunny, it’s a brand new team in Ravers. Will it be a warm and sunny year? Let’s start to pick holes.

So, Les Kiss then .. didn’t he invent the choke tackle? Kissy originally came into the Ireland setup with Deccie back in 2008 – he started off as defence coach, then became, at one point, defence and attack coach as Deccie’s ticket descended into a dogs dinner. He resumed his specialist defensive duties under Joe Schmidt, and Ireland had an excellent time, conceding just four tries in their victorious Six Nations campaign. Kiss is universally popular with players and is a thoughtful and intelligent coach – he would make a good choice as permanent coach, but the fact remains he isn’t permanent. Joe Schmidt is his boss, and if the choice needs to be made between a selection Schmidt would prefer to see and one that Kiss wants to maximise Ulster’s chances in a particular game, Kiss might be in a bit of a bind.  At best it’s a decent makeshift placeholder.

When will they actually pick a new permanent coach then? We don’t know – the complication comes from the Super Rugby season and the World Cup – if Ulster want Kiss, they’ll need to wait 12 months. If they want an experienced sub-SR level coach from the Southern Hemisphere, they’ll need to wait 12 months. Either way, they might be able to make an appointment this year, but probably not until after Christmas. It’s not ideal, but clearly deemed preferable to another year of Cowboy. Don’t forget – Muller took the forwards in training for a lot of last year, and his input was going to be lost anyway. Ulster have a pretty stable institutional setup by now – they should be able to wear this, and Kissy keeps some continuity for the international brigade – himself, Besty, Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy should be able to share a Mini down to Carton House.

Ok cool – so coaching seems like it might even be a net positive. Speaking of Muller, how have they replaced him? Off the pitch, it will be difficult to replace Muller, but on the pitch, his influence has been in decline in recent years. NWJMB will be earmarked to replace him in the second row with Muller-lite Franco vd Merwe pencilled in to Henderson’s second row-blindside role. At least until Henderson got injured.

A second row injury eh? Sounds familiar.  I know – Ulster have struggled to get their first choice engine room on the pitch in recent years – Dan Tuohy has struggled to stay fit in particular. Their depth in the pack is not great – with Henderson now out, they are one injury away from having to start Lewis Stevenson in the ERCC – not a recipe for success against Bakkies and Ali Williams. If Ulster end the season with Henderson and Tuohy fit and flying, they will be in a good place, but the backups aren’t really there.

Speaking of backups, Ulster bade farewell to both props last year – how are they replacing them? Bang on – John Afoa went home to New Zealand to Glaws with Humph  and Patsy Court managed to get a 3-year contract that Ulster wouldn’t match from Lahn Oirish. They have replaced Afoa with Wiehann Herbst and brough Ruadhri Murphy back from the Brumbies. Perhaps the most important change is Allen Clarke getting the forwards coach job – Clarke is very highly regarded and is credited as a big influence on the Ulster scrum in recent years. Herbst had a good start, admittedly against the Scarlets, but he’ll need to keep it up, for Ulster won’t be going too far if they are relying on Deccie Fitz to stay fit.

Sadly, Fez won’t be around. I know – don’t start the tears. Diack-Henry-Wilson is an acceptable ERCC-level backrow, but (again, depth!) after that you’re looking at Nick Williams. Skittling tiny Wels scrum halves and carrying for 65m against Zebre might all be some harmless Pro12 fun, but he’s not at ERCC level.

Ok – let’s talk about good things – Stuart Olding – what a player. What a player is right – this early in his career, he was right to take a long time to get fit and recover from a serious injury. He sparkled at the tail end of 2012/13 and got into the Ireland team (minus its Lions) for a North America tour – he looked excellent against the Scarlets and a source of some much-needed creativity. Ulster were horrendous in the red zone last year – if they went over three phases in the opposition 22, you could almost guarantee a knock-on or holding on penalty – some clinicality was highly desirable, and Olding could be the guy to provide it. The bigger question is where he will play – PJ has a lock on the 10 jersey so he is competing with Bamm-Bamm, Darren Cave and Jared Payne at centre. An interesting combination Kissy tried in the second half last week was Marshall-Olding – we often wonder if this isn’t the long-term solution for Ulster – Payne’s defence at 13 doesn’t fill us with warmth.

Yeah – the Southern press seem to have him inked at 13 – that is presumably driven by Schmidt. You’d think so alright. The flipside of One More Year is that we have no outside centre with the RWC 12 months away – the Argentina tour wasn’t a massive success in that regard and the shirt is clearly up for grabs. Joe will undoubtedly want Payne to get some game time there, particularly ahead of November, where he likely to see Test action. If Kiss doesn’t see Payne as one of his first choice centres, it might get awkward for him, but then – all the alternatives are Irish-qualified too, so it’s a bit of a lab run anyway.

What’s the target then? Well, Ulster got a stinker of a draw in the ERCC, but they qualified from their pool with an equally stinking draw three seasons ago. They’ve reached four knockout stages in a row, and will be disappointed in they don’t continue that run. The fixtures are ok for Ulster – they will be aiming for 9 match points against the Scarlets in the double header then hope to have their destiny in their own hands for the final pool game at home to the Tigers. Still, anything further than the QFs might be a stretch, unless they get a home draw, which looks very tough. Domestically, they want a pot. Badly. The Pro12 is a legitimate target and the idea of a home final in a white-hot Ravers, preferably against Leinster, will have Ulster fans panting.

Ulster under Cowboy (and Muller) were a tough and obdurate side that were difficult to break down but struggled to score tries in the opposition 22. They also seemed to play by numbers a bit sometimes – it might seem something small, but when was the last time you saw Ulster have a restart strategy – PJ booting it long to the opposition winger then settling for a lineout is Jurassic rugby. The arrival of a new voice, particularly one as imaginative as Kissy, might give Ulster that (hold your nose, here comes Gerry) X-factor they need to beat the best sides in big games. With a bit of luck with injuries in the pack, Ulster have a sniff of silverware this year – how ironic for that to happen in Humph’s first season out.

Matt O’Connor’s Big Season

Earlier this week, we asked a whole pile of questions about Munster’s season. Continuing the theme, we take a look at Leinster today.

Last season was as curious a campaign as the province have ever had. You could count the really good performances on one hand and they flunked out of their biggest game of the season having barely fired a shot, and they even suffered a rare defeat to Munster (!) but they ended up winning the Pro12, which counts for a lot.
What are we to expect this campaign? We don’t really know.

As with Munster, they haven’t started well.  Leinster almost pulled a win out of the bag against Glasgow, but it would have been a richly undeserved one.  Glasgow away is a loseable match, and Leinster have a habit of losing their first game of the season, but as performances go it was straight out of last year’s manual.  Ok, here goes.

Is Matt O’Connor a good head coach? We don’t really know. Following Joe Schmidt was always going to be hard, but O’Connor had a mixed bag as head coach last year. Say what you like about Rob Penney, but at least Munster played to a discernible pattern last year, even if it wasn’t always successful. Under Matt O’Connor, it became difficult to work out what Leinster were trying to do. Defensively, they seemed pretty well organised; was he building a solid defensive platform, and this year will we see him developing a more cohesive style in attack? Or is this simply his preferred way of playing? Most coaches get a 12-month bedding in period and O’Connor has had his. We’re about to find out if he is any good or not.

Who’s going to play 13? Not a clue! Fergus McFadden? Luke Fitzgerald? Zane Kirchner? Gordon D’arcy? Ben Te’o? Some or all of the above? Probably the latter. It seems like Te’o has been earmarked for the role but he doesn’t get here for a while and could have an extended settling-in period. We were initially underwhelmed by his signing, but Leinster have a small backline and some brutishness may not be such a bad option to have.  There’ve been murmurings of Gordon D’arcy trying out for the role, given that he’s more of an outside centre in disguise than a traditional 12, but can he make up for a lack of pace? Fergus McFadden is quick, but does he have the skills? His head down charges are more effective on the wing or at 12. Then there’s Luke Fitzgerald. Who the heck knows what to expect there. Can he finally, finally put his injuries behind him? Does he want to play 13? Is his passing good enough? So many questions! Now, that it’s finally here, Life After BOD looks every bit as hard as we always knew it would be.

Who’s going to play 10? Not sure. Ian Madigan’s fluctuating fortunes became the most discussed topic below the line last year. Some blamed O’Connor for his lack of form, others said he was never any use in the first place; everyone had an opinion. Much like with Simon Zebo, the world’s a happier place when Madigan is on the pitch, and it almost feels like an embracing of one’s limitations when he’s left on the bench. But it’s up to Mad Dog to get himself selected by producing the barnstorming try-scoring, whippy-passing, chip-re-gathering form that almost got him onto the Lions panel – Barnesy was salivating at the prospect, but, alas, Stuart Hogg was better. Improving his loose tactical kicking game would also help. Forget about Jonny Sexton’s return in twelve months; Madigan will be focussed on the here and now. But it’s hard to shake the thought that Gopperth is O’Connor’s preferred 10.

What about 12? Or will Ewan Madeegan find himself press-ganged into a season at 12? Stranger things have happened. Noel Reid suffered what looked like an awful injury in the first minute of the season, which takes away one option. Madigan’s late-season resurgence came at 12 when he came off the bench to perform heroics in both the Pro12 semi-final and final. All the noises from camp are that neither Schmidt nor O’Connor see it as a long-term move for him, but could necessity be the mother of (re-)invention?

Can a new scrum half emerge?  It’s about 100 years since Leinster produced a first rate scrummie.  In the meantime, Eoin Reddan continues to operate at a high level, but Isaac Boss may have crested the hill.  Luke McGrath has plenty of attributes of a good scrum half – all of them in fact, except for a crisp passing game – and seems to be improving.  Can this be a breakthrough year?

Elsewhere things are more settled. There don’t look to be too many issues in the pack, in terms of personnel at least, but it wold be nice to see Leinster’s clearout return to the standards set in the Schmidt era when no ruck was safe from Jamie Heaslip or Nathan Hines smashing players with both accuracy and near-feral appetite for destruction. The lineout will be reasonable, with Cronin’s throwing improved, and the scrum should continue to be solid rather than destructive.  Marty Moore might edge ahead of Mike Ross in the front row, or he might not, and Richardt Strauss will be out to try and get the shirt back off Sean Cronin – but he has a hard task in doing so, because Cronin was outstanding last year. Hopefully, Kevin McLaughlin has had time to recharge the batteries after a season in which he seemed to be playing through injuries. He needs to rediscover his mojo with Rhys Ruddock improving at a steady rate. The annual hand-wringing over the Leinster second-row can be put off for twelve months, as Kane Douglas looks a good signing and Devin Toner has established himself as a test-level rugby player. Mike McCarthy’s presence means there’s even a bit of depth there.

By far the best and most important difference to last year is the return of Sean O’Brien. The Tullow flanker’s combination of explosive ball-carrying and breakdown menace is a game-changer for any coach and should result in every facet of Leinster’s play being that bit better. If the essence of rugby is winning quality ball and breaking the gainline, then Sean O’Brien is that essence distilled into one super-human wrecking ball.

O’Connor and Leinster’s problem is now sky-high expectations – last year they actually did better than the year before, despite losing their most important player to Le Cafe et Le Croissant and their second most important to injury for much of the season. They won the Pro12 in both years, yet won the regular season piece only in 2014 and were far better in the final in 2014 (admittedly with SOB back). In 2013, they went out at the pool stage of the HEC (RIP) but in 2014 they won their pool and lost to the best team in Europe (and eventual champions), arrogant moneybags nouveau riche dilletantes Toulon. Sure, in both years they had limp home defeats in the double header, but in 2013/14 they won the away game with their most complete performance of the season – and don’t forget last year was the year the Saints really proved their metal whereas Clermont are a bunch of chokers.

Despite this improvement in results, there was a quite a bit of grumbling about style of play – which is fine, anything post-Schmidt will be a come-down. But ultimately, this was a pretty successful year for Leinster. And it’s set the bar high for this season – anything less than a third successive Pro12 trophy (does it have a name? Le Bouclier de Brennans?) will be seen as a step back, and given the relatively benign Champions Cup, or whatever it’s called, draw, a home QF should be achievable, which means a semi-final is needed to constitute a successful year. Leinster have now won a trophy for four years in a row, a Tigers-esque run of form. If they finish the year potless, and “only” get to the Champions Cup quarter-finals, and without a more watchable brand of rugby, the knives might be out for O’Connor.

That seems tough, but these are the standards Leinster have set for themselves. As BOD might say to Bakkies Botha – bring it on.